In the interest of honesty, this article is a big ol’ mess. I had to stop writing now or it would just keep going, there is too much about this show to talk about, too many details to analyze. So instead I’ve just rambled on about some ideas and a few favorite moments. Okay, a lot of favorite moments. Good luck, there may be a pattern somewhere in all this chaos.
Fever Ray, If I Had A Heart
It is too easy to write about how good this show has been and too tempting to ramble on about the best moments so far. I may not be able to avoid either but the purpose of this piece is to curl up in this exquisite moment, one month before the final episodes air and pretend like it’s never going to end. This is the small window between an excellent dinner and the arrival of that perfect slice of New York Cheesecake, the one with the right amount of blueberry. We get to meditate on the excellent time we’ve had so far and, thanks to Netflix and Time Warner On Demand, I’m able to go back and rewatch every episode. The primary appeal, like most shows with long story arcs, is the suspense between episodes. What’s going to happen next? How are they going to get out out of this tight spot? What kind of trouble are they going to get in next week? While Breaking Bad excels at this method with pitch perfect acting, pacing, and just plain fantastic storytelling, the real genius becomes apparent upon repeat viewings when that tension and suspense is relieved enough to actually notice all the wonderful details.
Jesse: Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what – 60? He’s just gonna break bad?
Walter: I’m 50.
Jesse: It’s weird is all, okay? It doesn’t compute. Listen, if you’ve gone crazy or something…I mean, if you’ve…if you’ve gone crazy or depressed, I’m just saying…that’s something I need to know about. Okay? I mean, that affects me.
Walter:[long pause] I am awake.
There are few things as satisfying to me as discovering the hidden meanings and messages in a great story. Foreshadowing, allusion, symbolism, when they are used well they can add all kinds of new dynamics to a story. From the giant skull t-shirt Jesse is wearing when he first starts to woo Jane to the persistent judgment of the (creepy) plastic eyeball that survived the Wayfarer midair collision, the show is littered with self aware clues to its deliberate plotting. Personally, I am awful at picking these things up the first time through, at least until I understand the story as a whole. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of how to use all these story elements and after repeat viewings I find I only love the show more. There is a confidence in the narrative and in the way that each episode and season plays out. Most importantly, there is fidelity. This show exists in this universe with its own set of rules. Fate plays a big part in the way the story unfolds and how the characters develop. If there is a message behind the entire story so far, it has to do with action and consequences. Cause and effect. In descriptions of the show, chemistry puns abound, but I’ll make one more; each character interacts with every other and there is a reaction that changes and drives the story along, like chemicals in a solution. Walt is an easy example.
Hank: [looking at Gale’s lab notes] Right here, here at the top, it says, “To W.W. My star, my perfect silence.” W.W. I mean, who do you figure that is, y’know? Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?
Walter: Heh. You got me.
Smarter writers than myself have already pointed out most of the examples I am going to use but I’m going to look a little bit deeper if possible. One of my favorite details has to do with the way Walt makes his sandwiches. Crazy Eight, hardened drug dealer and gang member who is being held hostage, insists that the crusts be cut off his ham and cheese. This is a pretty innocuous detail from the first season until a few seasons later, when he is making lunch for himself, we see that Walt has started to cut the crusts off his own sandwiches. It isn’t clear if he is doing this unconsciously or not, at first it seems like a kind of cold blooded thing to do. Most people, after being forced to murder someone in such an intimate way, would probably not want to be reminded of the act, however Walt seems unaffected. This is the primary example of how the relationships between characters are essentially a chemical reaction. After killing Crazy Eight, he has taken on one of his characteristics. And like a serial killer, he has made it his own, it’s almost a souvenir. This is also evident in season five, after he has killed Gus Fring. At the office of Saul Goodman, while the lawyer is rambling on trying to make sense of things, Walt is watching him with an emotionless, distant stare, that is distinctly reminiscent of Gus: cold, detached, contemplative.
Walter: I told him that I had a daughter and he told me he had one, too. And he said, “Never give up on family.” And I didn’t. I took his advice. My God, the universe is random, it’s chaos. It’s subatomic particles and endless pings, collision – that’s what science teaches us. What does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?
I would argue that Walter White was never really good to begin with. Some of the best moments in the show focus on his contemplation and awareness of his actions but at the same time, he’s just too adept at crime; too efficient at committing violence. And although I do not doubt that he included the welfare of his family in his decisions, his main motivation and the driving force behind every disastrous action after the first season is his pride. Over and over again, Walt’s judgment is guided by an unerring sense of his own pride, which gives way to entitlement and hubris. Combo is murdered by rival drug dealers because he insisted on expanding into their territory. In the fourth season after Gale Boetticher has been murdered and Hank is satisfied that he has found the mysterious Heisenberg, Walt gets drunk and degrades his former assistant’s notes as being imitative and derivative, completely reigniting his brother-in-law obsession with the case simply because he wasn’t being given credit for his own work. And Mike Ehrmentraut’s fate was sealed the second he was done dressing Walt down, calling him out on all his bullshit. The list goes on from here but I’ll return to my original point. His first and most immediate problem was extremely solvable, legally and with the incentive of a high paying job to boot. The original problem was financing his cancer treatment and when the answer is handed to him with a bow wrapped on it in the form of a lucrative job offer by his former colleague at Gray Matter, Walter’s pride rejects this option with open disdain. Manufacturing and selling a highly addictive and illegal drug, endangering his entire family’s lives and well being, and committing murder in order to defend his enterprise was the preferred choice to swallowing his pride and accepting an excellent job from a former friend in his field of study. This decision, more than any other, defuses his argument that he’s ever made his choices solely in the interest of protecting his family. His actions are not those of a good but desperate man; instead Walter White is, in reality, a sociopath cleverly disguised as mild mannered school teacher whose mask has been slowly and steadily slipping away.
Mike: We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch! We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork! You could have shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed! It was perfect! But no! You just had to blow it up! You, and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man! If you’d known your place, we’d all be fine right now!
Here is my first fan theory I’ve ever committed to public record (the internet). I have a pretty solid idea why there are still eight episodes of Breaking Bad left, instead of one, where Hank comes out of the bathroom, handcuffs Walt and the credits roll. After losing all of his witnesses to the coordinated prison massacre, Hank is in a difficult situation with his investigation. If he suddenly arrests his brother-in-law for being the master chemist responsible for the blue meth production it would destroy his career immediately and here’s why: he would look like the absolute worst law enforcement officer in the Western Hemisphere. In the sixth episode of the first season (Crazy Handful of Nothin’) the two families are playing poker together. Walt goes all in against the Hank’s vastly superior hand, bluffing him into folding. Marie turns over the cards (inappropriately) and reveals that Walt had nothing in his hand at all and Hank is completely stunned. He sizes up the chemistry teacher for a moment but then goes back to the game, seemingly considering this successful bluff as a fluke. Unfortunately for Hank, this was his one opportunity to really see through Walt’s facade but he misses it entirely. He will continue to miss it until the eighth episode of the fifth season, while sitting on the toilet.
Juan: I don’t tell you how to fry your chickens, Gustavo. You should really leave matters of my organization’s politics to me.
Gus: Do I not run my own territory?
Juan: Of course you do. And I will advise them to be patient. But I recommend you finish your business with the man quickly. Or you risk losing the good graces of the cartel. That would not be wise. And those boys inside, I cannot guarantee that they will listen. They are…not like you and I.
I read a description somewhere that described Hank as bumbling or clueless but he really is anything but. He’s actually an excellent, natural detective who has discovered Walt’s secret several times but thinks so little of his brother-in-law that he fails time after time to see the obvious truth. The missing equipment from the school chemistry lab known to be used for methamphetamine production was not apparent at first but as further coincidences occurred it becomes a near miracle that Hank has not put two and two together. Stumbling upon Tuco Salamanca while searching for a missing Walt, he was likely too preoccupied with the shooting to make a connection. While surveilling the drug exchange between Badger and the supposed Heisenberg, who bears a shocking resemblance to Mr. White, who shows up and blocks the cameras with his hideous mint colored Pontiac Aztec? When he finally associates Jesse Pinkman with the blue meth production and calls Walt at home (who is, at that very moment, reading a certain Walt Whitman collection of poetry called Leaves of Grass, given to him by a certain someone, foreshadowing an event, oh, two seasons ahead of time, pure brilliance), believing that he used to be his source for marijuana. And even though Jesse is tipped off somehow and immediately destroys the camper, Hank never realizes it. Also, there is Gale’s notebook, emphatically praising the chemical genius of ‘WW’. Or Walter’s sudden and extreme influx of cash from an untraceable and undocumented source. I may have to go back on my initial statement, maybe bumbling and clueless do apply.
Hank: Whoa, whoa, no heavy lifting. I got it.
Walter: No, it’s okay.
Hank: I got it. Jesus, what you got in there – cinder blocks?
Walter: [pause] Half a million in cash.
Hank: [laughing] That’s the spirit.
On second thought, he may not arrest Walt out of pure embarrassment. It is difficult not to love the character. He has some pretty bad luck throughout the series and it doesn’t seem like that is going to end before the show does.
Jesse: Oh well, heil Hitler, bitch! And let me tell you something else. We flipped a coin, okay? You and me. You and me! Coin flip is sacred! Your job is waiting for you in that basement, as per the coin!
Jesse Pinkman was my least favorite character on the show for a very long time. Until he comes into his own in the fourth and fifth season, he is the other half of why they end up in so much trouble all the time. Where Walt is prideful to a fault, Jesse is, well, kind of stupid to a fault. Not even well intentioned, he is the id to Walt’s ego, the Lucy to his Ethel. Another problem I had with the character is that he is so well portrayed by Aaron Paul that he reminds me of every douche bag wannabe druggie gangster I’ve ever had to cross paths with, having never been improved by the experience. As his character evolves over the course of the story, however, he somehow becomes a kind of moral compass to the plot. Although he loses his way and goes to the dark side several times, to the point of attending NA meetings for the purpose of finding new customers to sell to, at the end of everything he is the only one of the principal characters who still feels the gravity everything that they do. In his relapses and drug binges and attempts to escape the business he is actually demonstrating that his humanity is still, somehow, intact; that he still feels the consequences of their actions and, ultimately, holds out some hope of redeeming himself. This accountability is not present in Walt in the later seasons, if it was ever there at all, but through everything Jesse is the one with the heart. In fact, his reasons for doing what they have up until this point are probably closer to Mr. White’s than either of them realize. Having been disowned by his parents, Jesse really does want to be part of a family. He often looks to Walter for approval of his work and tries to spend time with him outside of the meth lab; these moments are quietly heartbreaking when he is rebuffed. As much as he plays up the attitude, affecting a blowfish, he really is just a kid caught up in a pretty scary world of violence, addiction, and greed. In fact, going into the final episodes I’m not sure there are any other characters I’m legitimately worried about more than Jesse, his single mother girlfriend, and her kid.
Walter: Mike, I know you don’t care for me. We’ve had our issues, you and I. But, I would suggest that you leave emotion out of this decision.
Mike: I am. You…are trouble. I’m sorry the kid doesn’t see it, but I sure as hell do. You are a time bomb, tick-tick-ticking. And I have no intention of being around for the boom.
I’m not sure how to end this other than to say that I’m glad Breaking Bad is not over, not yet anyway. I’m glad it has lasted as long as it has. In fact, I’m glad Breaking Bad is going out on its own terms. If it had succeeded on Fox or NBC or wherever else, I’m sure they would have milked this cow for all it was worth, introducing a plucky young female love interest for Jesse, curing and redeeming Walt over and over again, and transporting the whole adventure to somewhere sexier like Miami Beach. Instead, Vince Gilligan is going to bring this story crashing to earth, inexorably and without mercy. Having read a few interviews with the man, I have come to appreciate his sensibilities; he has a desire for justice, for karma. That a man’s actions have consequences and he will be paid back at some point is an axiom that is going to be present in this universe he created. Rooting for Walter White has become more challenging as the years have gone by, his conscience is all but an afterthought. So now the only question that remains, when karma comes to call, who will be collateral damage? That piece of cheesecake is almost here, just a few more weeks. And I’m going to enjoy every second with it, like it’s a death row meal. Because in a way, it will be for someone.