Breaking Bad Breakdown – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Breaking Bad Breakdown: Deserving Denouement Mon, 30 Sep 2013 17:19:32 +0000 What do we want from a finale? Should it be a spectacular episode that serves as the dramatic peak of the series? Should it like any other episode of the series, only more so? Should it be surprising, shocking, or transformative? Or should it offer closure?

For me, the main thing that I’m looking for in any finale is for a series to be true to itself, ending in the way it needs to conclude to deliver consistency, offering the type of ending that its beginning and middle demand. That changes based on the series, obviously, but it’s what makes Six Feet Under’s emphasis on mortality and The Wire’s portrayal of the endless cycle of urban crime and decay so effective, and why Battlestar Galactica’s final act turn toward mysticism (and that goofy robot epilogue) felt like such a betrayal to many fans. And it’s why finales like The Sopranos and Lost divide viewers, as the finales cater to one aspect of each series at the expense of other facets that some fans were much more invested in.

“Felina” delivered the ending that Breaking Bad needed by emphasizing closure over surprise. In many ways, it was predictable, with fans guessing many of the plot developments—read through the suggestions on Linda Holmes’s site for claiming cockamamie theories and you’ll see pretty much everything that happened on “Felina” listed there (alongside many more predictions that did not come to pass). For a series that often thrived on delivering “holy shit” moments of narrative spectacle, the finale was quite straightforward and direct.

The big shocks and surprises were to be found in episodes leading up to this one, especially the brilliant “Ozymandias”; since then, we’ve gotten the denouement to Walt’s story, his last attempt to make his journey mean something. It’s strange to think that an episode that concludes with a robot machine gun taking down half a dozen Nazis feels like a mellow epilogue, but emotionally it was this season’s least tense and intense episode. Instead, Walt returned home a beaten-down man, lacking the emotional intensity that drove him up the criminal ladder, but driven by a plan that he had just enough energy to complete. Given that the series premise was built on the necessity of a character arc building toward finality, and that it began with that character receiving a death sentence, we always knew that closure was likely to come in the form of Walt’s death, and this episode simply showed us how his final moments played out in satisfying fashion.

The opening emphasized how Walt’s journey has always depended on dumb luck to help him on the way. Whether this luck is sheer randomness or the assistance from some outside forces or higher powers is left unclear (at least beyond the higher power of Vince Gilligan)—although we do see Walt pray for help before the keys fall into the palm of his hands, it’s not as if the keys being in the car was some unusual miracle, and thematically it’s irrelevant whether fates or luck are driving him forward. This sign (or happenstance) frees him from his New Hampshire exile, as his return to the Southwest is cued by the cassette tape playing “El Paso,” where the episode title comes from. And with that moody but non-suspenseful opening, we are back in New Mexico.

It is unclear at first whether Walt’s visit to Gretchen and Elliot, set-up by posing as a reporter, takes place before or after the earlier flash forwards to Walt fetching the machine gun and ricin, but once he calmly sneaks into their house it becomes clear that he those weapons are not for these old friends. Instead he uses his preferred weapons of lies and manipulation to persuade them to deliver his nest egg to Flynn. Although I interpreted the end of the last episode that Walt was pulled back home to seek revenge, I bought that he was motivated to return after realizing another avenue to get his money to his family—while Walt has always been driven by pride and vengeance, his New Hampshire exile broke down most of his arrogance and replaced it with the desperate search for his crimes to have meant something in his final hours. And it does take some degree of humility to allow his family to think they are being supported by these old friends whom he now views as embodying the wrongs that lead him down this road to ruin; despite Walt’s insistence that only his money goes to his family, nobody will know this except Elliot and Gretchen themselves, assuming they agree to follow his request.

bb7Of course it is Walter White, so arrogance is always in play. He visits Elliot and Gretchen not to ask for their help or compassion, but to bully and terrorize them into being his accomplice. He enjoys showing off his power, demonstrating that while he failed as their partner in the business world, he thrived in another lucrative game for which they would have been ill-suited. When Elliot tries to stand his ground, Walt channels Mike Ehrmentraut (down to Bryan Cranston aping Jonathan Banks’s delivery) in coldly saying, “Elliot, if we’re going to go that way, you’ll need a bigger knife.” The bluff with the two assassins is just convincing enough to motivate them to carry out his plan (presumably), but not enough to fool viewers, knowing that Walt is far too out-of-the-game to hire actual killers instead of giving goofballs Badger and Skinny Pete one last curtain call.

He also takes this opportunity to inquire about something that must have been gnawing at him throughout his cross-country drive: the resurgence of quality blue meth. Knowing that Jesse is carrying on his business with Todd and Jack reawakens his pride and need for vengeance, so he gets the gun and ricin to destroy those who would dare to market his product without his approval. His ambush of Lydia and Todd demonstrates how her repeated attempts to be careful during these teatime meetings was overridden by her “schedule driven” nature, and Todd and Lydia are way out of their depths in trying to fool the master deceiver. The act-out image of her pouring Stevia into her tea is a bit too obvious in signaling the presence of the ricin, but I think that will play better without so much time between episodes to hypothesize who might be the recipient of the long anticipated poison.

While Walt’s mission to destroy the remnants of his business occupy the bulk of the episode’s plot, its emotional centerpiece is his meeting with Skyler. As always, Cranston and Anna Gunn make the scene crackle, conveying the both the bonds and fissures between the two characters that make their final goodbye neither reconciliation nor retribution. He visits her as one of his more selfless acts we have seen. He has no illusions that he’ll resolve things or get her back on his side; he simply wants to give her two things. First, the coordinates for Hank and Gomie’s grave, offered to provide closure to Marie and others, as well as assuaging Walt’s guilt over this one act of violence he caused but could not stop. Second, the closest he’ll ever come to an apology—after starting like a typical rationalization about “the things I’ve done” that Skyler rightly attacks him as another deceptive rationalization about family, Walt finally admits the truth. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was alive.” This is not easy for Walt to say; it is his most brutal penance, having to admit his own selfishness to both his wife and himself. But in the end, Skyler returns the favor with the gift of a final moment with Holly, the child that Walt used as a bargaining chip the last time they spoke, as she remembers the part of him that still loved his children despite his abusive treatment of them. And Walt takes his own moment to observe Flynn from afar, looking at a child who rightly despises him, but he still loves. When I look back on this finale, this will be the scene I replay in my mind.
Of course the episode and series climax is the final confrontation. I fully believe that Walt intends to kill Jesse alongside the Nazis, as he fully believes that his protege has both betrayed him and stolen his formula—and based on Badger’s testimony, the student has surpassed the teacher. Many fans were speculating that Walt sought to “save Jesse,” but up until he sees his former partner in chained servitude, Jesse is an equal target of his wrath. Yet again, Cranston conveys Walt’s emotional shifts wordlessly, as he devises a plan to spare Jesse from his robo-gun once he sees that Jesse is yet again a victim of men with larger egos and more malice than him. While this final confrontation was a satisfying moment of Walt putting the monsters that he had unleashed back in the box, it was almost entirely suspense free. I never doubted that Walt would successfully kill the Nazis and spare Jesse, that he had poisoned Lydia, and that Jesse would not pull the trigger on Walt. These were the moral necessities of a well-crafted tale; Breaking Bad was done playing games with twists and surprises, but ready to allow Walt to sacrifice himself to put down the monsters he had unleashed. Yet the scene was constructed to create suspense with the potential that Walt might not get the remote control in time, creating a rare moment of failed tension in the series—I awaited and anticipated the emotional confrontation between Walt and Jesse without ever doubting the outcome or tension about what might happen.

The “how it happened” was quite satisfying, however. I saw the robo-gun as an homage to one of my favorite Breaking Bad scenes: in “Four Days Out” when Jesse thinks Walt is building a robot to engineer their rescue. This time he does, and it works in an appropriately macabre and darkly funny payoff: the excessive gunfire mirrors Walt’s frequent insistence to maximize his inventions (as with the overpowered magnets, insistence to capture every last drop of methylamine, etc.), and it keeps firing blanks as Kenny’s body receives an endless massage. Although Jesse is no cold-blooded killer, killing Todd was a line he was happy to cross in payback for months of torture and Todd’s own heartless killings of Drew Sharp and Andrea. However when given a chance to kill Walt, Jesse takes a pass; instead he forces Walt to admit that Jesse killing him is what he wants, and then denies him that pleasure. When Jesse sees that Walt was shot, Jesse thinks leaving him to die alone is what Walt deserves, especially given what happened with Jane.

What Walt deserves matters in Breaking Bad. I’m reminded of an important scene in the penultimate episode of The Wire, when one character wonders why another has plotted to kill him, asking what he’s done to deserve it (keeping names vague if you haven’t seen it). The would-be killer’s reply quotes the film Unforgiven: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” But on Breaking Bad, deserve’s got everything to do with it, as it has always been a tale of morality and consequences. Jesse deserves his freedom, even though he is a broken-down shell of who he was—and while we want to know what’s next for him, I’m content with the openness that allows me to imagine him driving to Alaska and becoming a carpenter, perhaps after rescuing Brock and Lydia’s daughter from orphanhood.

Walt deserves to die, and we deserve to see it. The final musical cue in a series that excelled at their use was Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” another classic like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” that the producers have probably been hanging onto for years. The opening line of the song is as essential as the color-specific romance: “Guess I got what I deserve.” In this final glorious sequence, Walt gets to die in the lab, as the music sings a love song to chemistry—which in this context, serves as an ode to his own talents in perfecting the Baby Blue. His tour around the lab has prompted some debate as to what Walt is doing: is he strategically leaving his bloody fingerprints to claim ownership, a sort-of turf-claiming mark of Heisenberg Was Here? I think not, but rather that Walt is admiring the precision and craft of the lab, both as a testament to his own pedagogical prowess that yielded Jesse’s talents, and as his natural habitat where he “felt alive,” as he told Skyler earlier. To the soundtrack romanticizing Walt’s own greatness, it’s a final moment of pride and arrogance that he seizes to overshadow all the carnage he has caused, an acceptance that more than his family, he did it for the chemistry.

“Felina” is far from Breaking Bad’s best episode, but it is the conclusion that the series and its viewers deserve. I think it will play even better both for viewers bingeing the season in quick succession and upon rewatch without the trappings of anticipation, hype, and suspense. Jesse escapes, Skyler and her family survive, and Walt and his one-time minions die. It all happens with less emotion and drama than what we’ve come to expect from the series, but given the strain of the journey up to this point, we’re as emotionally drained as the characters. So a low-key bloodbath is an appropriate way to exit this wonderful trip.

Random Bullets Fired By a Garage Door Opener:

  • I was disappointed that the highly Walt-centric finale denied Jesse and Marie much time to shine. Marie’s phone call with Skyler was effective in showing that unlike her sister, Marie was starting to rebuild her life and family after tragedy. And Jesse’s woodworking fantasy was yet another reminder of how broken the poor guy has become. But I wanted more of both.


  • The worst moment in the finale for me was the replay of Hank’s first suggestion about the profitable industry of cooking meth at Walt’s 50th birthday party from the series pilot. I understand that Hank’s presence was needed in this final episode, and calling back to the parallel birthday and origin story was a neat way to do it. But the use of the footage seemed forced and out-of-place within the series’s intrinsic norms—not to mention that the footage looked so different next the richer visual palette established from the second season onward. I wish they could have accomplished these goals by actually filming a new scene from the initial moments in the story, much like the opening sequence of “Ozymandias” fills in a narrative gap from the pilot.
  • Directed by Vince Gilligan, the episode was compositionally exquisite, with lovely framings via windows and doorways conveying distance and divides. And the slow pull-in at Skyler’s apartment to reveal Walt was one of my favorite shots in a series full of visual beauty.
  • Todd’s ringtone for the win.
  • One last time, let me thank Taylor Cole Miller for late-night image gathering for these posts and troubleshooting technical issues at a moment’s notice. It’s been fun writing these reviews, but I’m ready for a calmer Monday morning next week!

Paratext of the Week:
So many to choose from! I could go for this great satire of Skyler-hating, or the compilation videos of Walt’s lies or Jesse’s abuse. But instead I’ll opt for the sentimental with this tribute to the people who made the series, and clearly had a great deal of fun telling a pitch black story.


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Breaking Bad Breakdown: Exiling Evil Mon, 23 Sep 2013 14:49:06 +0000 We’ve known that this was coming for quite awhile. Since “Live Free or Die” aired 14 months ago, we’ve known that Mr. Lambert would be leaving New Hampshire to settle some scores. That knowledge has structured our anticipation for everything that has come so far in this extended season 5, with the lingering question of how Walt ends up relocated in New Hampshire framing all of the events in New Mexico. So after last week’s hour of emotional torture, this week focused on connecting the dots from Walt leaving his family and city, to setting up his return from exile. While I wouldn’t call it a low-key episode, it felt downright mellow compared to “Ozymandias.”
Even though we know he will return to Albuquerque, the journey into Walt’s New Hampshire exile is sufficiently agonizing. He is forced to fume in the basement of the vacuum repair store, under the care of the unnamed guy who knows Saul’s guy, played with steely professional perfection by Robert Forster. He tries to bully Saul back into working for him, but Saul takes his ticket to Nebraska and leaves with an anticlimactic, “it’s over.” Forster sets him up in an isolated cabin which is effectively worse than going to jail—permanent solitary confinement with no connection to the outside world, lacking medical care beyond what can be gleaned from a YouTube video, trapped with a barrel full of money but no way to spend it. While pathetically wasting away knowing that his family is suffering for his sins, the best Walt can do is extend his monthly delivery by paying Forster $10,000 for an extra hour of human contact.bb2

“Granite State” was an unusually structured episode—even though it was an extra 15 minutes long, it still felt oddly compressed and limited. We got ample time to be told the limits on Walt’s exiled existence, but no time to really experience what life might be like for him. With a larger episode order, we might have gotten an episode that served as the parallel to “Fly,” with Walt trapped in a wide-open space and no sidekick to spar with—imagine a really dark remake of Castaway. But what I liked best about the structure was how we got to experience the publicity frenzy over the Hunt for Heisenberg solely from Walt’s highly limited perspective of monthly newspaper clippings. Now that Hank is gone, we have no hook into law enforcement’s perspective, so we’re left only with Walt’s disorienting confusion in being unable to play mouse to the DEA’s cats. This meant that we fast forwarded through a few months without much knowledge of Skyler or Marie’s situation, which I missed, but it works well to convey Walt’s lack of knowledge and sense of total helplessness and isolation. It’s all almost enough to make you feel bad for the poor bastard.

Almost. When he finally does get the wherewithal to leave his compound to send his family a package of money, Walt flexes his old manipulative cleverness to call Flynn and arrange the delivery. But in a cathartic scene, Flynn tells his father where to stick his money and puffed up rationalizations about doing it all for the family; this pushback highlights how Saul’s sage advice that turning himself in would have actually been a much better deal for Skyler and the kids, but of course such conventional defeat is unacceptable to Walt. Again, R.J. Mitte gets some meaty action in these final episodes, offering the world’s most justified petulant teenager rant against a parent.

bb1Walt follows this familial rebuke with his first television viewing in months—which coincidentally includes Charlie Rose interviewing his former business partners Elliot and Gretchen. I’ll forgive this contrivance, as I was just so happy to see them return as a reminder of what has long fueled Walt’s quest to build an empire: spite, retribution, and pride. The television presents a string of slights that pick at the scabs of his emotional wounds: his contributions to Gray Matters being presented as “no more and no less” than the company name, Gretchen saying that Walter White is gone and replaced by some monster, and word that Heisenberg Blue is still on the streets and therefore Jesse is probably alive and sullying his reputation. And such whiskey shots of humiliation, served neat, are enough to provoke Heisenberg to return to action, connecting the dots to the flashbacks and setting the endgame in motion for the final episode.

bb6Of course Jesse is alive, but just barely. I was disappointed in Jesse’s storyline this week, where he is being tortured even more by the writers than by his Nazi captors. I will reserve judgment until next week, as it feels like the calamities are piling up to create a glorious payoff of redemption for poor Jesse (please please please!), but pretty much every episode this half-season could be summed up by repeating “poor Jesse” endlessly. Watching Todd gun down Andrea (although it wasn’t personal, he assures her!) as a punishment for his attempted escape was simply the latest and worst way that his sensitive soul was ripped apart for other people to manipulate him. Poor, poor Jesse.

The other main criticism of this season is that too much time has been spent with Todd, Lydia, and Jack’s gang, but I found this episode paid off those arcs remarkably well. Ever since Walt killed Mike and took over sole control of the business, Walt found himself allied with far worse colleagues than Mike, Jesse, Gus, Gale, or maybe even Tuco. When Walt retired from his drug empire, his former colleagues came to embody the worst elements of Heisenberg: Todd is distilled, unremorseful menace in a polite candy coating, while Lydia is pure, uncut greed in high-strung heels, and the two together in the café was just a sociopathic delight. For someone obsessed with chemical purity, Walt always had emotional soft spots that could cloud his judgment and actions; Lydia, Todd, and their band of neo-Nazis are pure in their determination, focus, and actions, emerging as the refined amoral byproduct of Walt’s personal chemical transformation that he fails to control in the final season. Lydia’s quest to continue the business because no amount of money is ever enough is the same logic that led to Walt’s storage locker full of cash. Todd and Jack’s belief in White Supremacy is the legacy of Walter White’s supremacy—they reek havoc on his family through the chilling scene where Todd threatens Holly as a sociopathic extension of Walt’s own use of Holly as a bargaining chip last week, and destroy his extended surrogate family through the torture of Jesse and murder of Andrea. These are the forces that Walt unleashed that he cannot control, at least not without a machine gun.
The introduction of these bigger bads in the final season could be setting up a huge copout, where Walter redeems himself by killing the monsters that he conjured. But I’m hopeful that the series knows how unredeemable Walt is, and refuses the easy path toward a moral realization—and the reemergence of Elliot and Gretchen is a good clue that the scores Walt hopes to settle are not the same that the audience might be rooting for.

I left “Ozymandias” ready for Breaking Bad to end, feeling that two more hours of emotional torture was more than enough. Now with only one episode left, I’m nervous about how this might all wrap-up in a way that justifies the series that I feel I’ve been watching. Of course every one of the program’s season finales thus far has been brilliant (save for the unintended finale of strike-shortened season one), so I have faith that the set-up will be paid off in unexpected but rewarding ways. Yet a little nagging doubt remains, leaving me to stew for a week as I think about who might be the target of Walt’s arsenal of machine gun and ricin, and what fate I hope befalls this horrible man. See you then.

Random Packages of Ensure™:

  • In addition to Elliot and Gretchen’s much appreciated return, which I had half been expecting (although not with Charlie Rose), the surprise curtain call of the episode was Carmen, the Assistant Principal whom Walt awkwardly attempted to kiss back in the third season. While she didn’t get anything to do, it’s always nice to be reminded that regular people still exist in this world.
  • Skyler, as played ferociously by Emmy Winner (!!!) Anna Gunn, had little to do this episode, again confined to the role of reacting to other people’s prompts. With the police, she was stuck with no way out of the numb, disorienting hole that Walt dug for her. In the episode’s most disturbing scene, Todd’s threats to Holly raised her hackles, but she was forced to parrot his demands to back her into even more of a corner. I do hope that the finale offers Skyler one last moment of agency, as she has earned more than perpetual victimhood.
  • Wouldn’t you love to see a scene between (should-have-been Emmy Winner) Jonathan Banks and Forster, two old pros sitting at the bar comparing notes on what a rancid piece of shit that Walter White is?
  • Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium? Two copies.”
  • One of the most pleasurable moments in this season came at the end of the episode, as the musical cue incorporates Breaking Bad’s theme music as the cops search for Walt in the bar. The moment evokes the mood of a full-tilt Western crime caper, but also reflexively calls our attention to the series itself, coming to an end in a climactic moment signaled by the familiar sounds of slide guitar.
  • – Like many viewers, I toggled between Breaking Bad and the Emmys last night. While Banks was robbed and Michelle MacLaren was unduly denied by David Fincher’s big cinematic reputation, Anna Gunn’s win was so deserved as a validation for how much she has suffered as both a character and actress. And the joy of the whole team accepting the long overdue recognition of the series as television’s Best Drama helped buffer the sorrow inflicted by “Granite State.”

Paratext of the Week:
My favorite bit of Breaking Bad criticism this week was Todd VanDerWerff’s piece on the show’s racial politics, articulating what I have long argued: the series is about white male privilege, not simply reiterating it. I’d even take it a step further by emphasizing how the character names (White and Pinkman) highlight their typically unmarked racial identity, and that the result of Walt’s selfishness is fueling white supremacy, but it’s great to see such analysis in a high-profile site like Salon.

And for a more upbeat way to end, Hank lives!


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Breaking Bad Breakdown: Exploding Emotion Mon, 16 Sep 2013 19:04:26 +0000 I’m still a wreck. It’s Monday afternoon, after a late night of obsessing, rewatching, sketchy writing, and furtive sleep. There are few episodes of television that affected me this much—Six Feet Under’s “That’s My Dog” and ER’s “Love’s Labor Lost” are on the short list, but they were both mostly self-contained hours of agony, not the hard-earned payoff of longterm emotional torment on display in “Ozymandias.”

One of the greatest, and truly unique, strengths of serial storytelling is the use of time to build anticipation. This week’s episode harvests so many narrative seeds that were planted years ago, but the emotional fruit that they yield went far beyond my expectations. Thus I spent the entire episode with my hand over my mouth, with my gut in my throat, and with an ever escalating sense of skepticism that things could get any worse. A bit of anecdotal evidence of how much this episode floored me: I buffer everything on my TiVo to fast-forward through ads, but three times in “Ozymandias,” my wife and I sat through the muted commercials just to give us time to recover before the next act began.

I have been waiting for years to see Skyler stand up to Walt (with a knife in hand!), for Flynn (whom I assume outright refuses to be called Walt Jr.) to learn about his father’s crimes, and for Jesse to discover the truth about Jane’s death. I’d played through the dramatic possibilities of these moments in my head, and never came close to the powerful triple punch this episode delivered, with many other unexpected harrowing moments layered on top of them. As I joked on Twitter, this episode felt like encountering a dementor, and I did eat some chocolate to recover.

bb19The first harrowing moment was the most expected: the aftermath of the shootout leaving Hank as a dead man, not-walking. Hank knows his fate, Jack knows his fate, only Walt thinks he can reason, rationalize, and lie his way out of it. But as we have witnessed for six years, Walt makes decisions that he believes will offer short-term expediency, but come bundled with unavoidable consequences. When he first allied with Jack’s White Power army, he let loose a force of pure criminal malevolence, showing no concern for pragmatism or compromise. So when Jack does what Jack does, Walt collapses under the realization that he has been dragged across yet another moral line by directly causing the death of a family member. As he lies there while Heisenberg’s buried treasure is unearthed, he abandons the ruse of rationalizing pseudo-morality that he’s just trying to protect his family, and internally says what Jesse proclaimed back in season 3: “I’m the bad guy.”

This unapologetic craven selfishness manifests itself by topping Jesse’s spit-in-the-face from last episode with an even bigger projectile: “I watched Jane die. I was there and I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her. But I didn’t.” Unlike nearly every other act of evil we’ve watched Walt commit, this confession has no underlying rationalization. It is said simply out of spite: to show Jesse that Walt had betrayed him long before Jesse became a rat, to restore Walt’s upper hand, to make Jesse hurt. In a season (well, really a series) dedicated to Walt topping each evil action with yet another, this is near the peak of Walt’s fuckery, spiteful and petty with no strategic reward.

Jack has enough of a soft-spot for Todd to let Walt live and get a cut of his own treasure, leaving him to yet another caper in the desert that calls back to previous adventures like in “Four Days Out.” Meanwhile, Marie’s visit to the car wash shows off another pair of Breaking Bad’s strengths. First, it never forgets to ask how other characters might be reacting to the main action—lesser shows might keep the focus on Walt and Jesse, not mining the possibilities of the extended family’s involvement in the drama. Second, the series is expert at exploiting narrative knowledge differentials between characters and viewers. As Marie tells Skyler that Hank has arrested Walt, we squirm in agony knowing what has really happened, at the same time feeling so much empathy for Marie trying to make amends with her sister and restore the family—and anticipating her grief and anger upon learning the truth. This scene is exquisite in delivering the sincere family melodrama that Breaking Bad has always incorporated into its mixture of violent crime drama and pitch black comedy.

Marie’s insistence that Skyler tells Flynn is a brilliant bit of plotting, a development I’d never anticipated, but one that makes complete sense in terms of character motivation. While R.J. Mitte is often dismissed as a weak link in an ensemble of brilliant actors, his performance here is excellent, capturing the teenage anger and outrage toward his mother lying to him, and confusion inherent in having such a story dumped on him in such short order. As we watch them drive home, we know that they soon will face the revelation of Walt’s freedom and Hank’s absence, but are still emotionally invested in their attempt to regroup as a family.

bb5And then the fight. Last week’s desert standoff and shootout felt like the series climax, but the scene in the White’s home might be the most emotionally harrowing moment of a series specializing in harrow. Walt’s lying mojo has dried up, so all he has left is to assert his patriarchal power as the head of his household. Once he realizes that Flynn knows, all he can do is try to gain control by asserting that everything will be alright if only they just follow him. Skyler’s approach to the counter, posing the visual question of “knife or phone?”, is a brilliant moment of filmmaking from director Rian Johnson, about whom not enough praise can be said. The entire fight is just emotional torture, with Skyler finally confronting Walt with the violence he deserves, with Flynn making the leap from disbelief to aggressively defending his mother against the monster of the house, and with Walt’s impulsive trump card by abducting the one family member who doesn’t despise him (yet). The scene reminds me of the wonderful cult-classic film The Stepfather, where the horror of patriarchy becomes literally embodied by Terry O’Quinn—how much would you pay for Rian Johnson to remake that film with Cranston?bb10

After regrouping during the ad break, I wondered how the last 10 minutes might approach the exquisite agony of the first 50, but the next sequence matched those heights. It’s hard to steal a scene from Bryan Cranston, but Elanor Anne Wenrich, the very young actress playing Holly, manages to do it. Of course, Cranston (who I’ve heard is renowned for being amazing at working with children) makes every “mama” meaningful in his reaction, as any illusions that he might escape into a fresh start with Holly get submerged into a stew of guilt and longing. As is so often the case on Breaking Bad, the program’s best lines are those that are left unspoken in Walt’s internal monologue.

Which leads to what may be the most complex scene yet featured on the series. Walt phones Skyler to berate her for betraying him, for telling Flynn, for standing up to him with a knife—his rage call is pure Heisenberg id, fuming about the lack of respect he has been given and blaming others for the trouble he has only brought upon himself. He is also calling to exonerate her, to offer the police evidence that he is the monster and she is just the victim of his abusive bullying—it is a parting gift to Skyler that he hopes will allow her to live free while he escapes to die alone in New Hampshire. He is also calling to implicate the viewers, showing us the monster that we have been rooting for (at least up to a point), and particularly portraying the ugliness and bile frequently spouted by the Skyler-hating contingent of Breaking Bad fans—the series is saying, “this is what you sound like,” with as much strong condemnation possible without going so far as to break the illusion of fiction.

bb3 What is truly amazing about this scene is how these different layers of meaning can be perceived by different viewers. In my first viewing, I mostly saw the evil Heisenberg letting loose months of resentment and contempt, and the meta-commentary by the series itself in indicting those who have called Skyler a “stupid bitch.” This is what I wanted to see, validating my own interpretations of the series as serial melodrama, rebuking the Skyler hating that I have looked at with disgust, and proving the pure evil in Walt’s heart. It was only via Twitter conversation with my friend Nina Huntemann that I began to seriously consider Walt’s underlying strategy to save Skyler, as I was too consumed by my loathing to consider Walt’s motivations charitably. But just because his call was strategic—and rewatching the final act confirms that interpretation to me, via Cranston’s brilliant performance of subtly letting us in on his internal monologue—doesn’t make what he is saying untrue. Walt’s greatest lies have always been built on truth, and here he does resent Skyler’s judgments, her lack of respect and gratitude, and her decision to tell Flynn; he hates and blames her even as he is trying to apologize and save her. And the series is still condemning the Skyler-hating, even as it represents it via performative, melodramatic excess. It is all these things at once, paying off so many long-planted seeds in a sequence that still makes me anxious after rewatching it four times.

The most recent seed is planted in the episode’s teaser, with Walt’s phone call to Skyler in a flashback to the series pilot with his first cook. Upon first watch, the teaser seemed to be a nice if underwhelming callback to the series origins, highlighting the parallel use of location between past and present. But upon reconsideration, it is clear how much the teaser sets up the thematic and emotional weight of the final sequence—even the image of Skyler choosing between the knife and phone is prefigured, here selecting the innocuous way to communicate with her husband. Back when Walt had to coach himself on his lies, when Skyler was still obsessed with eBay, there was a casual lightness in their affection—rewatching the opening, Skyler’s tossed off “hey you” moves me as a encapsulation of all their love that will be lost. Walt’s not a good liar yet, but Skyler’s bullshit meter is still stored away, so she’s happy to accept him at face value. When Walt suggests they take some family time together, he means it—the cook is still the means to that end, not the end itself. He’ll go on to do horrible, unspeakable acts, some of which he speaks in this episode, but his partnership with Skyler always functioned as an ideal image in his mind as what he was cooking for, willing to sell his soul to protect.

And those memories, which might as well have been Walt’s own recollections while lying in the aftermath of the To’hajiilee shootout, make the final phone call all the more agonizing. Now Walt can only express his love through lies, horrible abusive lies that speak truth about his anger and hostility toward his wife, his family, and himself. The genius of Breaking Bad and Bryan Cranston’s performance is that he is both the man and monster simultaneously, the family man desperate to find the way out of his predicament and the bitter fallen emperor blaming his partner, his family, and his “stupid bitch” of a wife. Walt both loves and hates his wife, and himself, and expresses all of this at the same time. None of this forgives or exonerates him, and I come away from this episode despising Walt more than ever. But it does explain him, and I feel like I know him more intensely than ever before, despite already being the most deeply rendered fictional character I have ever encountered. And we all get to spend two more hours with him.

Random Notes Pinned to Abandoned Babies:

  • Poor, poor Jesse. First Walt sees his hiding place, then he learns that his mentor had effectively killed his beloved, then he is tortured and forced to be Psycho Todd’s meth monkey. I fully expect next episode to heap new agony upon poor Jesse, but in true melodramatic form, his suffering will lead to a triumph. (I hope.)
  • Hank’s death was arguably the least dramatic event of the episode, as it truly was inevitable that neither he nor Gomie could get out alive. He got to live his own moment of triumph last week, dying on his own terms rather than forced out of the DEA in scandal. I’ll pour out a bottle of Schraderbrau in memorium.
  • Lots of meta-moments abound this week, from the teaser callback to the pilot, to the embedded commentary on Skyler hate. But one Easter Egg moment someone caught and shared on Twitter was while Walt was rolling the barrel through the desert, he passed his long abandoned pants that were discarded in the pilot episode.
  • Just a final shootout to Rian Johnson, who directs emotional confrontations as well as anyone working today, and writer Moira Walley-Beckett, one of Breaking Bad’s long-time writer/producers who has scripted so many gems along the way. This was certainly her finest yet, and quite probably the best episode of the series, as Vince Gilligan had teased. It’s all down hill from here.

Paratext of the Week:

We need something fun this week, so here’s a double-shot. First, a knock-off Lego version of the Super Lab, which I would love to own—except that my Lego-obsessed son named Walter does not need such inspiration. Second, Jimmy Fallon did a must-watch parody/homage last week. Enjoy!

<i>Breaking Bad</i> Breakdown: Exploding Emotion

Click here to view the video on YouTube.


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Breaking Bad Breakdown: Peaking Plot Mon, 09 Sep 2013 15:04:07 +0000 In one of the most referenced axioms about suspense, Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut that suspense works best when the audience knows that there is a bomb under the table, but is powerless to intervene in the action, and must helplessly sit through the scene anticipating the inevitable explosion. In one of the most referenced axioms on the Internet, Godwin’s law asserts that if a debate goes on long enough, someone will bring up Nazis or Hitler, thus ending the conversation.

This week’s Breaking Bad ends the conversation by putting some explosive Nazis under the table. Of course, Hitchcock never worked in serials, where we have to wait a week to see who actually gets blown up.

bb14The desert scene offers moments that many of us have been waiting for. Jesse trips Walt up on his own ego, getting him to confess to murders as a way to boast how much Walt has done for Jesse (Hank & Gomie were recording that call, right?). Hank achieves his ultimate goal: slapping the handcuffs on Heisenberg, and even calling Marie to celebrate. Walt finally must face his reckoning, not only getting caught but being schooled by the two allies he always felt were easiest to manipulate; he sheds a single tear over being shamed, for being outsmarted with no way out, for having no more lies to spin.

But of course, it’s Breaking Bad, so it’s not that simple. The final 20 minutes of “To’hajiilee” might be as good as any sequence the series has ever aired, and may be revealed as the series climax. As soon as Walt gets the photo from Jesse, he stops having an A1 day and all the main threads from this season get tied together in a messy knot: the buried money, Hank and Jesse’s dual attempts to take down Heisenberg, Saul’s culpability in helping Walt, Todd and his Nazi army. Even though he tells Uncle Jack not to come, we know better, both because we know from the flash-forwards that Walt does not go to jail, and because you don’t introduce a white supremacist militia just to tell them to stay home. Bryan Cranston’s delivery in calling off the hit on Jesse is so insistent that we believe Walt, but overlaid with tense anger that I certainly believe Jack would interpret as the lies of a man being held at gunpoint. So we watch Walt in bracelets knowing that this will not end well, anticipating a violent stand-off to come.

And when it comes, the scene gives Michelle MacLaren a curtain call, as this is the last of the 11 episodes that she directed. I fully expect and hope that in ten years, one of the ways Breaking Bad will be best remembered is as the show that launched MacLaren’s directorial career, as she shoots both high-tension action and emotional reckoning as well as anyone in the industry. She has helmed some of the most explosive and emotionally wrenching episodes in the series, including “One Minute,” “Four Days Out,” “Madrigal,” “Salud,” and “Gliding Over All,” but this episode’s final sequence might be her greatest moment yet. If there is any justice, she will be directing major Hollywood action films soon enough—personally, I’d love to see her version of a Western, as she has a way of making the mundane feel epic and confrontations feel massive.

bb12What is so effective about the final scene is how everything builds in the anticipation. The actual shoot-out only lasts for 45 seconds, but it feels weighty because of how much time we spend waiting for it, with the tension drawn out via Hank’s deliberate process of putting Walt into custody, and everyone’s excruciating hesitations in firing the first shot. Second only to MacLaren’s directorial work here is Dave Porter’s score throughout the episode, which creates so much of the program’s tension and unease, a tone that is heightened through the contrast to the brilliant use of silence. Porter’s work throughout the series is an unheralded secret weapon, effective because of its moderate use and willingness to let a scene play without music to make the moody score stand out when it is used.

I haven’t really discussed the plot so far, as it’s pretty straightforward in its drive toward the ending. Unlike my prediction from last week, Jesse has no master plan to undercut Walt’s pride, but feels like attacking his money to lure him into a trap is a safer bet than walking into a meeting on Walt’s terms. Todd’s crew needs Walt’s chemistry more than his money, so Walt’s phone call gives Jack an upper hand to bring Walt back into the lab. While their house is still being repaired, Skyler aims for some normalcy by getting Junior to work at the car wash. And that’s about it—everything leads to the final scene, lulled into a tense but languid pace for the episode’s first two thirds. Breaking Bad’s use of pace is one of its most remarkable features, as many of its greatest episodes light a slow burning fuse toward a climactic explosion. Its rhythms and structure remind me of many songs from my favorite band Wilco, especially as they perform them live; for instance, this performance of “The Art of Almost” lingers on an escalating, complex rhythmic groove only to explode into a chaotic wall of throbbing noise until stopping at an almost arbitrary peak. Listening to this performance captures the rhythm and feeling of “To’hajiilee” better than any plot recap could.

But unlike a Wilco song, Breaking Bad will continue after a week’s break that already feels interminable. The episode invites us to speculate who will survive the shoot-out, and play the game second-guessing expectations, conventions, and rule-breaking. When Hank gets to carry out his long awaited arrest of Heisenberg and then calls Marie, it feels like a dramaturgical death sentence, almost as much of a cliché as a cop catching his most dangerous case a week away from retirement. But when is the last time Breaking Bad played such a narrative convention straight? Vince Gilligan knows that we’ll think the episode signals Hank’s demise, so he’ll probably turn away from that convention. But he also knows that we know that he knows this, so maybe it will be a double-feint and Hank will actually die? Perhaps I’m over-thinking it after watching The Princess Bride with my kids a few days ago, but I really hope Gilligan finds the narrative equivalent of poisoning both of the goblets to outthink us all.

Random Organs in the Garbage Can:

  • In my chapter about serial television endings, I discuss how often final seasons become more reflexive in their storytelling, commenting upon the series itself. While thus far Breaking Bad has not embraced the reflexivity of The Wire or Lost as I analyze there, it has used the common device of calling back to previous moments, images, and places. “To’hajiilee” explicitly references the pilot, both in Jesse’s comment that Walt buried the money in the precise place where the two of them first cooked, and with specific landscape shots to begin the episode’s final act that are identical to the landscape shots that start the pilot, albeit without ending with a slow-motion image of pants flying in the wind.
  • Another one of this season’s meta-pleasures is scenes pairing characters who have never met before. Last episode it was Marie greeting Jesse with a cup of coffee in a DEA mug; this week, Junior becomes starstruck upon meeting Saul at the car wash. While his goofy grin offers some needed comic relief, it also reminds us how out of the loop Junior really is—how might he react if/when he learns that his loser dad is a criminal genius? Will he be around for such a moment?
  • I must admit that I was frustrated to not see Jesse’s end of the phone call while Walt raced to the desert, if only for his facial reaction to finally catching Heisenberg. Maybe the series will continue the temporal layering its been using this season, starting next episode with Jesse, Hank and Gomie’s perspective on laying the trap? And while they’re at it, maybe we’ll see Hank put on a bulletproof vest, echoing Saul’s preventative measures? Fingers crossed.
  • Huell got a nice moment, getting played by Hank but not in a way that made him seem like an idiot. Huell’s freakout upon seeing Jesse’s dead image reminds us that in the criminal world, there are different levels of cold-blooded and violent, and Huell is really a low-level muscle and pick-pocket man, not a murderer.
  • Amazingly, I almost forget this week’s installment of “The Unthinkable Fuckery of Walter White,” where he visits Andrea and Brock to set a trap for Jesse. I have to think that even if Hank hadn’t intercepted Andrea’s call, Jesse would be wise enough to see it as a trap. The knowing looks Brock gives Walt suggest that he can smell the stench of inhumanity coming off his erstwhile poisoner. I hope their brief appearance this week gives them a little curtain call, but that both Brock and Andrea stay out of range of the shrapnel going forward.
  • This week was directed by series MVP MacLaren, and next episode comes from stellar guest star Rian Johnson, the feature film director behind the great Looper who helmed two of Breaking Bad’s most distinctive hours, “Fly” and “Fifty-One.” It’s called “Ozymandias” in reference to the Shelley poem about fallen empires and hollow reputations, which also anchored the season’s most memorable trailer. Are your expectations high enough yet?


Paratext of the Week:
I’ll use this space to plug the In Media Res week on Breaking Bad that starts today. I’m concluding the week with an entry on Friday, and I promise not to end with an abrupt cut to black.


Breaking Bad Breakdown: Postponing Progress Mon, 02 Sep 2013 14:53:43 +0000 bb5

Can an episode be simultaneously very good and disappointing? That’s what I was left feeling after “Rabid Dog,” especially coming down from last week’s phenomenal “Confessions.” There was nothing wrong with this latest installment, but it didn’t quite hit the heights of stunning surprises, character depth, and visual splendor that previous episodes had reached, making the episode a casualty of the season’s heightened expectations.

In large part, this letdown is because much of the action takes characters to places they had previously seemed to be going. At the end of “Buried,” we anticipated that Jesse and Hank would team up against Walt, and “Confessions” delightfully thwarted those expectations. In “Rabid Dog,” we arrive at that pairing, with the surprising reveal that Hank interrupted Jesse’s attempted arson and took on a new house guest. We knew from the flash forward in “Blood Money” that Walt’s house was not burned down, so the real suspense was how and why Jesse failed to light the fire. The reveal of Hank’s intervention was well done, effectively built up through the previous scenes where Walt and Saul could not find Jesse. But even though Jesse’s emotional journey provided better motivation, in the end we got Jesse’s confession to Hank just as we’d been expecting in the previous episode.

Breaking Bad has always been exceptional at playing with pace while maintaining momentum. There are episodes in early seasons 3 and 4 that felt slow and some fans complained that nothing happened, but I always felt the momentum building from episode to episode no matter the varying pace—slow and deliberate moments and even episodes usually feel linked into something larger. I’m sure “Rabid Dog” will feel more focused and driven upon re-watch, but on my first watch, I felt like it was a bit too much piece moving and delaying inevitable confrontations, lacking sufficient narrative progress.

As always, individual moments are quite enjoyable and provide many of the pleasures we’ve come to expect from the series. Walt’s failed attempts to clean-up the gasoline, and then deciding to lean into the deception are a nice callback to his ass-covering scrambling from earlier in the series, back when Skyler was slightly suspicious rather than fully attuned to his particular bullshit frequency. I enjoyed Junior finally calling Walt on his bullshittery, although of course the “truth” that he’d imagined was cancer-related rather than a vengeance-seeking arson attempt from his father’s discarded protégé and surrogate son.

We also finally meet Marie’s much-touted therapist Dave, who seems to be pretty unhelpful to Marie, but useful for us to hear of her attempts to plot Walt’s death by untraceable poison, making her another candidate to use (or ingest) the ricin. I have enjoyed Marie’s increased prominence this season, finally getting into the A plot line as Hank’s primary ally and anti-Walt cheerleader. Likewise, seeing that Hank opened up to Gomie was a relief, making him less of a lone wolf in the DEA and hopefully helping to protect his reputation if his pursuit of Walt falters.


And then there are the two characters I care most about. Skyler had her moment in the hotel room, first calling Walt on his lies and forcing him into a rare moment of truth. But then she pressures him, like Saul, to put down the rabid dog, with the chilling question, “What’s one more?” I’m quite mixed on Skyler’s arc over the past few episodes—I buy that she sticks by Walt in the hope that his cancer cleans up the mess he created with as little trauma to the kids as possible. But I have always felt that her willingness to support him was based on limited knowledge of how horrible his actions truly were, how many lives he’d destroyed. Yet here she sees Jesse as just another casualty, and one that she is willing to actually demand rather than simply tolerate. As always with a highly serialized program like this, we cannot really assess a character’s arc like this midstream, but as of now I’m skeptical that her story will cohere as much as I’d thought it would a year ago.

As the title references, this episode is about Jesse, with virtually every scene either portraying or discussing him. Jesse’s arc from the beginning of last week, where his emotional numbness and contempt for what Walt had done to him did not override his loathing for Hank, to his willingness to testify against Mr. White, felt well earned. As he awakes at the Schrader’s Jesse finds himself in the familiar position of needing an older man to guide him forward. But just as Jesse has been let down by many men before him, Hank ultimately thinks of him as no more than a lever to open up his case against Heisenberg, content to sacrifice Jesse if it means catching Walt. And thus he’s willing to roll the dice by wiring up Jesse and sending him into a parlay at the plaza with Walt that looks like a scene from a 1970s paranoid thriller.


What I found most disappointing was how Jesse backed out of the meeting—not that he backed out, but how his reluctance was triggered by mistakenly assuming that a bald muscly dude was Walt’s bald muscly dude. There’s an often repeated maxim about effective dramatic writing that coincidences should be avoided if they help the protagonist, but they can work if they hinder the hero. At this point in the story, Jesse is Breaking Bad’s protagonist, the character capturing my moral allegiance (especially now that Skyler has embraced her “by any means necessary” philosophy), so the coincidence with the bald bystander feels too neat to inspire Jesse to take the lead in his partnership with Hank. The moment where the bald dude greets his daughter to highlight the coincidence was a bit too cute in feinting that he was Walt’s muscle, underscoring the clunky coincidence.

Of course, we still do not know whether Jesse would have been better off meeting Walt and recording the conversation. His turnaround does inspire Walt to call for the services of Todd’s uncle, so that cannot be good news for Jesse. But Jesse taking control of the plan from Hank seems like it should lead to a better outcome than the wire would—Jesse has proven himself as a successful idea man in recent capers, such as the magnets and train siphoning, so I have no doubt that Jesse does know how to catch Walt better than Hank does (see below for my hypothesis on what that plan might be). Every other character sees Jesse as a disposable pawn in their games, and even Walt finally has seemed to give up on him by calling Todd, so Jesse taking over the game feels like a real win for him. And thus the episode ends in a showdown that it felt like we’d been going for awhile: Team White, with a neo-Nazi army at his back, vs. Team Pinkman, backed by a renegade lawman and his poison-Googling wife. My money is on the rabid dog.

Random Pieces of Gasoline-Soaked Clothing:

  • Saul gets the line of the night: “Let’s say that, just for the sake of argument, the kid’s not in the mood for a nuanced discussion of the virtues of child poisoning. His plans are running more toward stabbing you to death with a pointed stick.”
  • After a string of perfectly-directed episodes, this one felt a little less compellingly paced and shot (by writer Sam Catlin). Overall, the visuals were not noteworthy, aside from nice use of hallways in both the White and Schrader homes. Again, this episode is probably more visually vibrant and tautly-directed than anything else on television this week, but Breaking Bad’s track record sets a very high bar for itself.
  • Fans have taken note that Deadwood was seen on Hank’s bookshelf. Remembering that Anna Gunn was featured on that series, can we imagine what Hank and Marie thought of Martha Bullock?
  • While Walt’s scheming brilliance peaked with last week’s video, this week he seemed more flustered, as reacting to Jesse weakens his abilities. If Heisenberg were on top of his game, I think Walt would have reacted to the gasoline-soaked house by dropping a match—not only would it cover up an unexplainable situation, but it would allow Walt to upgrade his house to a more fitting castle for an emperor.
  • The episode ends with Jesse telling Hank that he knows how to catch Walt where he lives. I have a theory about what that plan might be—skip ahead if you don’t want to read such speculation. Jesse knows that Walt’s real motivation is to be an emperor, feeding his ego off the legend of Heisenberg. So if Hank arrests Jesse and publicly declares that this ne’er-do-well kid is the almighty Heisenberg, Walt’s ego might not be willing to take a backseat to his protégé. Of course, I can’t quite see how that would play out exactly, but I’ve long learned not to try to outthink or out-scheme Breaking Bad’s writers’ room.

Paratext of the Week:
Last week’s scene of Hank and Marie watching Walt’s fake confession video has spawned a lovely meme of “Hank & Marie Watch Horrible Things,” where fans edit other videos into the scene to prompt the Schrader’s disbelief. Variety highlights some examples, starting with the originating Miley Cyrus VMA clip and going on to other clips of both fictional and factual footage, but my favorite is a bit more meta: presumably Walt gives them the wrong DVD, letting them witness a mortifying moment of Walt’s younger days (courtesy of Malcolm in the Middle):

<i>Breaking Bad</i> Breakdown: Postponing Progress

Click here to view the video on YouTube.


Breaking Bad Breakdown: Title Tricking Mon, 26 Aug 2013 13:32:00 +0000 6This week’s episode is entitled “Confessions.” As Jonathan Gray has discussed in his book Show Sold Separately, paratextual elements like episode titles help to shape viewer expectations and frame what is presented in the text. With a loaded title like “Confessions,” my expectations were elevated to insane levels, as I imagined all sorts of scenarios where, building off last week’s final scene, Hank gets Jesse to confess and turn on Walt, or Walt admits many of his hidden crimes to Skyler (or Jesse, or Hank), or Hank confesses his culpability in Heisenberg’s reign to the rest of the DEA.

None of those things happened in the episode. While it featured many confessions, none were what we would have expected based on the title. This is what Breaking Bad does better than any series I’ve ever watched: create expectations and completely undermine them with twists that are more satisfying, compelling, and “Holy Shit”-inducing than anything I could have imagined. The title, coupled with last week’s final scene, was a little bit of trickery for viewers, setting up these expectations just to have Jesse shut Hank down quickly, but I forgive the series for how it deceived me because what it delivered instead was just so gloriously, deviously unexpected.

There were a number of confessions in the episode, but few were “true confessions.” Obviously the centerpiece was Walt’s fake video confession, the follow-through to his “tread lightly” warning to Hank. In a series full of jaw-dropping, mind-boggling moments of Walt’s immoral acts of deception and cruelty, this felt like one of the biggest. Even though there was no threat of physical violence, the video was just so brutal in how it threw Hank under the bus for all of Walt’s misdeeds, even though Hank has already suffered endlessly at his brother-in-law’s hand. The video served as preemptive retribution for Hank just trying to do his job, rather than in reaction to any actual questionable acts or lapses in judgment. The video forces Marie to make her own confession about Walt and Skyler paying for the medical bills, layering another level of shame and complicity upon Hank, who calls it the final nail in his coffin. And on top of what it did to Hank and Marie, the video felt like an almost boastful assertion of Walt’s mad skills as a liar, showing off how much of an immoral bastard he is largely just to strut his stuff in front of his hyper-macho brother-in-law who just a year ago, made Walt feel like less of a man.

This scene is also quite reflexive and playful. The video itself calls back to Breaking Bad’s pilot, which opens with Walt stating his name and address in his first self-shot video. Hank and Marie stand unmoving in total shock and disbelief, functioning as audience stand-ins, certainly accurately capturing the emotional reactions experienced on my couch. While we have watched Walt’s lies and manipulations for years, Hank and Marie are only seeing his true talents for the first time—and yet I was still dumbfounded that Walt could be this cruel and callous to his family members. Walt’s confession functions as a counter-narrative for the series, spinning a tale of a corrupt cop and desperate chemist caught under his spell that is much more plausible to anyone who has not been on this serialized journey, highlighting the unlikeliness of Breaking Bad’s actual story. Making the scene even more powerful, Breaking Bad’s regular cinematographer Michael Slovis directed the hell out of the episode, creating tremendous visual dynamism out of a sequence featuring two people standing still watching another still person on a television screen.

Walt makes another confession in the episode as well, when he admits to Walt Jr. that his cancer has returned. In what might be the most subtle surprise of the episode, Walt manages to manipulate a family member to do what he wants—in this case, keeping Junior from going to Marie’s house—by actually telling the truth. Obviously it’s not the whole truth, but he leverages his cancer to draw in Junior using honest emotions and legitimate familial concerns, and then forces Junior to make the decision that he needed him to make without resorting to his standard repertoire of lies. Of course, at this point in Walt’s devolution, the difference between lies and truths has become completely moot, as he says whatever is necessary to get what he wants, whether it’s the reality of his cancer or the petty lies about the soda machine that Skyler couldn’t care less about.


Walt’s inability to distinguish between lying and speaking honestly comes out in the desert scene, as Walt tries to convince Jesse to call the vacuum salesman and reboot his life. In a highly gratifying moment, Jesse calls Walt on his bullshit, asking him to provide a moment free of manipulation and deception. Walt responds with silence and a hug, prompting awkward confusion from Jesse. The ambiguity of the hug suggests that Walt just doesn’t know what to say honestly, responding with a hug that is neither real nor fake—he still feels some fatherly affection toward Jesse, but also needs to convince him to leave town. And Jesse’s request for honesty of motives is the one confession that Walt can never make, either to others or himself. So he embraces Jesse in a moment that layers silence with affection, condescension, contrition, and an implied threat.

Less of a confession than another statement of partial truths and strategic emphasis, the tease portrays Todd telling his uncle Jack and Kenny about the train heist. By notably omitting the story’s coda of killing young Drew Sharp, along with Todd’s fannish phone message to Mr. White, we see Todd’s own self-delusions and attempts to frame his role as swaggering thief and chemist, not heartless murderer. Todd’s two scene were the episode’s only weak links, although I fully expect that they are laying ground for something major to come, and I hope they’ll play better upon rewatch.

And most significantly for what is to come, Saul confesses his role in manipulating Jesse when Walt poisoned Brock, triggering Jesse’s gasoline-soaking rampage in Walt’s house. There has been some doubting among fans and critics that Jesse would have put the pieces together from Huell pickpocketing the pot, but I find it completely plausible—Jesse has spent months obsessively mulling over his own actions and picking at the threads of Walt’s lies, so it only took one extra piece of evidence to put it all together about Brock’s poisoning. Jesse’s desert confrontation over Walt’s lies and his realization of what Walt did (or at least, some of it) function as self-confession, finally admitting to himself what a monster his former partner and mentor truly is. Plausibility in Breaking Bad is less about the plot logic of cause and effect, than the character logic of emotional experience and motivation, and in this way Jesse’s revelation feels fully justified.

The larger character implausibility for me is that Skyler would go along with Walt’s video deception, as it seems like a step too far in aggressively confronting Hank and Marie. The fact that we see her trying to process what they’ve done, experiencing the type of regrets and doubts that Walt has long moved beyond, allows me to accept this leap, at least contingently until we see how it plays out. While many are suggesting that Skyler is now Walt’s equal in evil-doing, I think she is far from that—she has obviously made immoral choices, but she clearly regrets them and, like Jesse, is stuck in her own head wondering where things went wrong and what she could do differently. This is the key difference between Walt and most other characters who have broken bad: Walt never looks back at his crimes with regret and guilt, making him much more like Todd than Jesse or Skyler.

Next week’s episode is called “Rabid Dog.” Since a season three episode was called “Problem Dog,” named after Jesse’s therapy metaphor for how he killed Gale, my expectation is that Jesse is the rabid dog that Walt will have to put down. But because it’s Breaking Bad, it’s more likely that an actual rabid dog breaks into the house and bites Walt Jr.

Random Mobile Phones in a Drawer:

  • The dinner scene is a perfect encapsulation of Breaking Bad’s tonal juxtaposition of intense emotional drama and ironic humorous counterpoint. The cheery waiter pushing guacamole on the feuding, fuming Whites and Schraders was one of the most Coen Brothers-like moments in a series full of them.
  • Marie telling Walt to kill himself was stone cold awesome.
  • Based on the video scene, I want to see a remake of Videodrome with Bryan Cranston playing Brian O’Blivion.
  • Maybe it’s just because I’ve recently written about this with Homeland, but part of me thinks that a video like Walt’s doesn’t get made without being shared with more people than just Hank and Marie. Call it Chekhov’s Confession.

Paratext of the Week:
It’s gotta be Anna Gunn’s New York Times editorial decrying the misogynist vitriol directed at Skyler, and often Gunn herself. I won’t get into it here, but I’ve written some about this Skyler hate and I’m planning on expanding and updating that discussion at next year’s SCMS conference. While you’re at it, critic Maureen Ryan’s discussion of Gunn’s piece and how it’s part of a larger issue with TV wives and women is a must-read as well.


Breaking Bad Breakdown: Digging Down Mon, 19 Aug 2013 16:57:21 +0000 Sunday afternoon, I started thinking ahead to Breaking Bad in anticipation, and the question I kept coming back to was, “I wonder what they’ll do with the cold open?” The series has always used its pre-title sequences as a site of both artistic experimentation and narrative playfulness, from the puzzle-like flash-forwards in season 2, to the flashbacks to dead characters like Jane and Combo, to the fake music video celebrating Heisenberg. I was not surprised in the least when last week’s episode picked up on New Hampshire Walt’s flash forward return to Albuquerque, as it seemed like an appropriate way to signal the season’s return and remind us of where we’re going. But what might they do this week?

jessegifThe cold open doesn’t play much with time or narrative—although I suppose it rewinds a little from the end of “Blood Money” to Jesse’s nighttime door-to-door cash machine—but instead focuses on style and character. While we spend the first few minutes with a mystery man following Jesse’s lucrative breadcrumb trail, it’s all leading up to that final shot, with Jesse lying on the carousel numb, broken, and literally spinning inward out of control, fitting for a series that always seems to offer centripetal complexity by pulling each new event into the core of its characters. The overhead shot echoes the image of Jesse’s heroin experience, reminding us of everything he’s gone through since and how stuck on the ground he is now. Aaron Paul doesn’t speak a word in this episode, but his shattered presence in the bookending scenes sets the tone for the very downbeat and heavy drama throughout.

While last week it felt like the series would just fast-forward through Hank and Walt’s cat-and-mouse, rejoining Walt leaving Hank’s garage highlights how much the two still must do to capture or escape respectively, shot as a wild West showdown with a garage door opener as weapon. If “Blood Money” focused on Hank’s emotional reactions to uncovering Walt’s secret identity, “Buried” explores the ripple effect that this discovery has on Skyler and Marie. Hank gets to Skyler first, but misreads how to play her—one of Breaking Bad’s challenges is to keep track what each character knows about various secrets, and reminding the audience about these knowledge differentials. Skyler’s knowledge of Walt’s violence and deceit is more limited than Hank’s, but he has no idea how involved Skyler has become in the drug empire. The restaurant scene is a masterful example of how such knowledge differentials can be played to create viewing pleasures, as we know more than both of them, and desperately want each to reveal enough key information to help each other take down Walt. If only Hank told Skyler more about Walt’s murders and how he tricked Hank with the fake call about Marie’s accident, she would be much more likely to want to help him rather than the monster who dug the hole she’s stuck in; if only Skyler asked Hank for immunity for her role in money laundering, he could surely get it for her. But as the scene played out, Hank assumes Skyler was just Walt’s prisoner whom he can set free, and Skyler thinks that she is as guilty as Walt—and we’re forced to powerlessly watch with suspenseful delight.

IScreen Shot 2013-08-19 at 1.37.32 AM have written a good deal about Skyler’s story as serial melodrama, and how the final two seasons have shifted our perspective on her as an abused spouse imprisoned both by her husband and her lack of full knowledge about his actions. One the one hand, her refusals to help Hank and communicate with Marie makes it feel like she is protecting Walt, choosing the monster over the heroic knight. But I read Anna Gunn’s brilliant performance in this episode as motivated far less by protecting Walt than fearing for her own safety and the relative stability (and ignorance) of her children—when Marie tries to take Holly away from what she sees as an unsafe home, Skyler insists on retaining control of one of the few aspects of her life that still feels innocent, flexing her agency wherever she can. She’s not looking to retain her criminal power or the money; she’s looking to avoid her guilt by doing what she’d planned on back in “Fifty-One”: waiting for Walt’s cancer to take him away and wipe the slate clean. But in my favorite exchange of the episode, Walt asks the cancer’s return makes her happy, while she clarifies how little her own emotions matter anymore: “I can’t remember the last time I was happy.” She’s still a victim of Walt’s crimes (as are all of the other characters), but no longer a passive one, and given the limits of her own knowledge, she appears to have dug in and gambled on the wrong side (at least morally, if not strategically).

Lydia also gambles on what is likely the wrong side as well, enlisting Todd and his uncle’s neo-Nazi militia to take out the Phoenix gang and reclaim the means of production. Throughout the series, many scenes have shown how ill-fitted Walter White is to the seedier sides of the drug game, outfitted inappropriately to tangle with hardcore hoodlums like Tuco—but even Walt never wore high heels to a desert bloodbath. Lydia’s insistence that she not see the carnage she ordered is an effort to bury her head in the sand, or at least in the underground meth lab, but Breaking Bad never ignores the consequences of violence. Both Lydia and Walt have hired Todd’s army to do their dirty work, but I fully expect that they’ll both learn that working with neo-Nazis comes with strings attached, and debts will need to be paid.

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While the title “Buried” certainly refers to Walt’s underground bank account, it more conveys the state of characters pushed down under massive amounts of pressure, whether from guilt or evidence. As is typical of Breaking Bad’s vibrant visual storytelling, especially when the brilliant Michelle MacLaren is directing, the shot composition highlights the episode’s emotions—we see broken Jesse laid out from above, just as Walt’s bathroom collapse is framed in a bird’s eye shot and we see Todd guide Lydia through a field of death in an aerial shot, not to mention Huell and Kuby luxuriating on a money bed. Whether these parallel framings are meant to suggest how death already possesses Walt and Jesse—the former via cancer and the latter from an almost catatonic emotional state—or more literally to foreshadow the deaths to come for the erstwhile partners (or Saul’s henchmen), we cannot yet say. But clearly much more than just a van fully of money is being buried over the course of this episode.

Random thoughts while lying on a bed of money:

  • The episode’s emotional centerpiece is Marie confronting Skyler, a harrowing scene that serves as a counterpoint to Skyler repeatedly telling Marie to “Shut up!” back in “Hazard Pay.” Both Anna Gunn and Betsy Brandt have gotten far less praise for their performances than their male co-stars, in large part because they are rarely given the dramatic meat to chew on that Walt, Jesse, Hank, and others often get in this male-centered crime story. But both are phenomenal throughout this episode, and the scene might be one of my all-time favorites for portraying emotional violence and its consequences.
  • In his desire to maintain utmost secrecy for where the money is buried, Walt digs the vault himself, rejecting Huell & Kuby’s offer to help. But Walt is a dying man who is clearly not up to such physical labor, marking another time that his pride and obsession for control have paid off with unhealthy consequences. I assume it will not be the last.
  • When Walt was brainstorming options with Saul, I was surprised that the “vacuum cleaner salesman” didn’t come up, as the option to buy a new identity seems like Walt’s only way out now, and would help connect the dots to his New Hampshire relocation. It definitely seems like a more sensible option than sending Hank “on a trip to Belize.”
  • In the cold open, I exclaimed with fear when the old man sees the car’s lights blinking, fearing that Jesse had run himself off the road. But when I saw him on the carousel, my thoughts turned to The Wire, when Nick Sobatka fled to his playground haunts to console himself after Ziggy’s impulsive actions. Alas, Jesse seems in even worse shape than Nick and Ziggy.
  • The final scene with Jesse in the interrogation room both brings back two of my favorite bit characters, sarcastic Detectives Kalanchoe and Munn from “Face Off,” and delays the confrontation between Hank and Jesse that I’ve been anticipating for quite awhile. I only hope that Hank manages to play Jesse better than he played Skyler, although he faces similar but inverse challenges: with Skyler, his profile of her as a moral family member blinded him to the the possibilities that she might be culpable in Walt’s crimes, and with Jesse he needs to look beyond his picture of him as an immoral dirtbag and connect with his moral center. That should be worth the wait.
  • I’m sure it’s not going to happen, but I would be in rapturous joy if next week’s episode is nothing but Hank, Jesse, & Walt in the box, paying homage to one of the all-time great television episodes, Homicide’s “Three Men and Adena.” Maybe there should be a fly buzzing around the room too.
  • And kudos to Antenna editor Taylor Cole Miller for being my image jockey, and going above and beyond this week with his GIF of despondent Jesse!

Paratext of the Week:
While Breaking Bad does not inspire the puzzle-solving forensic fandom that I’ve discussed with Lost, How I Met Your Mother, and others, its fans are equally obsessive and detail oriented. Thus Wired’s list of seven “theories” of how the series might end is quite interesting, as the fans are not just conjecturing finales but analyzing allusions, patterns, and references. I’m particularly impressed with the color chart of character wardrobe change, as Breaking Bad is clearly invested in conveying narrative information through visual style more than nearly any other television series. We’ll check back to see what they got right in seven weeks.


Breaking Bad Breakdown: Fast Forwarding Mon, 12 Aug 2013 13:50:01 +0000 Breaking Bad returns from almost a year off to reset our timeframes and set-up its endgame.]]> breaking_bad_hankIt has been 343 days since Hank sat on Walt’s toilet and had his poetic epiphany. He has also been in the bathroom for only a few minutes.

This is the conundrum, and the essence, of serial television. We have to balance the dual temporalities of story time, which Breaking Bad generally keeps under tight control, and screen time, which AMC has drawn out to exceptional lengths this time. Viewers have filled their 11-month gap with a wide range of practices, paratexts, rewatches, and obsessions – or not, having put the series out of mind until its return. But no matter what viewers might have done in the intervening months, they could not share the immediacy and urgency of Hank’s reaction to discovering that he’d been taking care of Heisenberg’s kids. We’ve been anticipating, while he’s still in shock.

What I find most interesting in the wholly excellent “Blood Money” is how the episode deals with time and pace, recapturing the audience into the program’s timeframe and setting us up for the final stretch. Of course, the episode delays Hank’s reaction just a little more, with a cold open set in the future first glimpsed in the season 5 premiere, “Live Free or Die.” Bearded New Hampshire Walt returns to his old house, now a skatepark for squatters, and reclaims the hidden ricin to compliment his machine gun, presumably arming himself for Heisenberg’s Last Stand. This sequence reminds us where we’re going—we still don’t know how we’ll get there or who else is left standing (or against whom he is trying to stand off), but it reestablishes the time frame that presumably these final eight episodes will trace.

After the title card, we finally return to Hank in the bathroom, watching the door while we wait for his exit. Dean Norris owned this episode, and his look of numb terror as he made his way through the house—Heisenberg’s house!—helped reset our timetables. Breaking Bad would be taking this slow, easing us through Hank’s emotional turmoil, his attempts to find proof, his renewed pursuit of his white whale (another W.W.). As always, the program’s style served the story and emotion beautifully, as the haunting silence in the house punctured by Hank’s labored breathing, and the uneasy, limping camera, made us feel Hank’s immediacy despite our 11 months waiting for him to emerge from the bathroom, locking us back into the program’s tight time frame.

The episode continues at this deliberate pace, picking up just when we left off in “Gliding Over All,” an episode that featured a very non-Breaking Bad jump forward of a couple of months via a montage. Walt is truly out of the game, working at the car wash with Skyler, where they both wear beige as a symbol of their shared attempt to reclaim their former mundanity (costume colors always matter on Breaking Bad), and rebuffing Lydia’s attempt to reel him back into the lab. We soon learn that Walt’s cancer has returned with his old wardrobe, confirming a suspicion that fans had discussed at length over the hiatus, and that he’s keeping his condition and treatment a secret from his family. One common technique that final seasons often use is calling back to the first season for circularity and closure, so Walt’s health, outfit, and attitude all mirror his early character in an attempt to return to some semblance of his normal life.

At least on the surface. When he confronts Jesse about giving away his money, Walt shows his true colors even while wearing beige. Creator Vince Gilligan has suggested that Walt’s true genius is not as a chemist but as a liar, able to convince everyone of anything, even himself—which stands in stark contrast to Hank, who struggles to convince anyone that he’s feeling ill. But Jesse has finally heard enough, not fully buying Walt’s insistence that Mike is alive—and more importantly, rejecting the emotional lie that they can just put their past actions behind them and “try to live ordinary, decent lives.” But while Jesse cannot let go of the past and move forward, Walt seems to have no trouble letting go of his past deeds while still maintaining a web of lies and half-truths buttressed by rationalizations. Jesse wears the past’s weight for both of them, eventually resorting to throwing his blood money out his car window to try to leave his guilt on strangers’ lawns.

Aside from Hank, the episode finds all the other characters in states of stasis and denial, but Hank’s in-home investigation moves the narrative forward. First we watch Hank convince himself that his suspicions are correct, then try to assemble enough evidence to make a case stick. His investigation serves another function of final seasons, calling back to previous moments via the headshots of departed characters so we get one (presumably) final glimpse of Gus, Gale, Combo, and the like. And the cat-and-mouse chase launches late in the episode, when Walt realizes his Whitman is missing, and he soon suspects that Hank is on his trail at long last. The episode’s measured pace suggests that this chase will be slow-burning for the rest of the season, as they circle around each other and look for an opening. Walt’s visit to Hank’s garage feels like a probe, with Walt trying to gauge how much Hank might know and pick-up any clues that he can rationalize away with his superpower, and Hank struggling to maintain his cool despite his disgust at being in the same room as Walt (compare how Hank behaves here versus his calm confidence when he interrogates Gus back in season 4 to appreciate Dean Norris’s stellar performance).

And then the final scene hits the fast-forward button. When Hank picked up the garage door opener, my wife and I both involuntarily leaned forward off the couch as we wondered, “is the series really doing this already?!” Yes, yes it is.


The confrontation is as delicious as I’d imagined it over the last 11 months. Hank is the one who resorts to physical violence, but I feared for his safety more than Walt’s, having witnessed so much carnage left in the latter’s wake. While Walt does not quite admit to being Heisenberg, he he pivots away from denial to try to bring Hank into his inner circle of rationalized pragmatism: since he’s dying of cancer, the pursuit of justice is just an inconvenient hassle that will hurt the family. After Hank shows that he’s made of stronger stuff than that, Walt brings out Heisenberg to offer a chilling episode-ending threat to “tread lightly.”

After waiting 11 months, Breaking Bad didn’t wait long to take us deep into its climax, lulling us into an intense but measured pace only to push us up against the garage door in the final moments. We’re back in the game, and it’s going to be played hard and fast.

Random Stacks of Money in the Bushes:

  • So I’ll be writing up Monday morning breakdowns of all eight episodes for Antenna. While there is no shortage of such pieces available across the web, I’ll try to provide a slightly more academic take on the narrative, especially aiming to connect episodes to ideas I’ve explored in my book Complex TV, where Breaking Bad is one of the chief case studies. I’ve also posted some pre-season thoughts at my blog which I might refer to as the season moves forward. And as is the norm for such write-ups, I’ll save some random observations and favorite moments for the end of each piece.
  • Always great to see Badger and Skinny Pete rambling on, but their Star Trek conversation was epic! If only poor Jesse could just relax and geek out with them.
  • My one quibble with the episode was that there was not enough Skyler, as the episode was tightly focused on the trio of Walt, Hank, and Jesse. I’ve come to adore Skyler and her story, so I hope the season gives her opportunity to push back against Walt more, once she learns more about the “collateral damage” he’s inflicted. That said, she was fun smacking down Lydia.
  • I’m disappointed in Saul’s ethics, betraying one client to another. If you can’t trust a stripmall lawyer with cardboard Greek columns in his office, who can you trust?
  • Breaking Bad is a show rich with paratextual pleasures and fan creativity, so I’ll share a favorite example at the end of each week’s column. This video, as tweeted out by Bryan Cranston himself, is a wonderful example of remix that is both fun & funny, and actually provides some analytic depth of character alongside its sense of play. Enjoy!

Breaking Bad Breakdown: Fast Forwarding

Click here to view the video on YouTube.


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