Monday, September 30, 2013

Bon Voyage, Crystal Ship: A Farewell to Breaking Bad


You know what the most amazing thing about "Felina," the series finale of Breaking Bad, was?

It was a surprisingly quiet affair for a show as frantically paced as this one. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), our protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your point-of-view), was backgrounded in most scenes of this episode: standing behind another building as he watches his son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) come home from school, or sitting at the counter of the coffee shop where Lydia (Laura Fraser) meets Todd (Jesse Plemmons, an understated MVP of this final season). This version of Walter is a far cry from the one we were introduced to in the pilot in January of 2008, the lame chemistry teacher who had just been handed a cancer diagnosis. He's the polar opposite of the Walter he became: the meth cook who killed Gus Fring, who proclaimed himself to be in the empire business, who fashioned himself into a modern-day Jessie James, Mr. One-Who-Knocks himself.

Yet empires fall, and those who used to rule the world find themselves humbled by all they've lost. We saw that two weeks ago, in the standout episode "Ozymandias," whose title foretells what will become of Walt. At the end of that episode, he has literally lost everything: his DEA brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), was killed by his actions. His wife, Skylar (a superb Anna Gunn), has thrown him out of the house, and his son despises him. The millions he earned in his operation - the money that was ostensibly for his family - has been stolen by Todd's white-supremecist uncle Jack and his gang. And Walt himself is sitting in a minivan, prepared to be driven off to an unknown location to spend the rest of his probably-short life in anonymity. Everything he did, everything he was, would disappear into the New Mexico desert.

When Breaking Bad first debuted, no one expected it to tell the most complex and compelling narrative on television. As I stated in my top 10 list a few weeks back, the show initially began as "Mr. Chips becomes Scarface," a story about a chemistry teacher who falls on hard luck and is forced to cook crystal meth in order to provide for his family after his death. This was a pulpy genre show, yes, with plenty of breakneck action and a few less-than-plausible scenarios (the plane crash, the magnet, the train robbery). Yet those conventions and situations were always given a powerful narrative through-line, generated by character development rather than writerly flourish or deus ex machina. The show's heart, though, lied in its morality tale, presenting Walt as a Shakespearean power-monger whose ego would be his ultimate demise.

What the show so brilliantly did, though - and what makes it one of the best-written shows in the history of television - is that the writers didn't stick to that narrative, instead using the subsequent 61 episodes to peel back the mask of meekness that Walt wore and expose the monster that had always been lurking underneath. He never had to cook meth; he was given opportunities from old friends to help pay for his treatments. It was his pride that drove him to cook; like many of the events of the series, it was all based on Walt's choices, and at those decision points, he almost always made the one that would best service that pride, no matter the cost to those around him.

While much of the show's praise has been focused on heralding Cranston's revelatory performance, it would have never succeeded without the talent behind the show's supporting characters. The role of Skylar could have easily fallen into the "silent and long-suffering wife who's a nuisance to her badass husband," and indeed, enough fans interpreted it as such to the point where Gunn wrote a brilliant opinion piece in the New York Times about it. However, Skylar was so much more than that; she was the woman who was just now seeing the man she married for who he really was, and was terrified. But more impressively (and the fact that I have to qualify this as such speaks to the sad state of female characters in television drama), she has the courage to stand up to Walt and push back, going from silent bystander to partner-in-crime, before finally declaring she'll have nothing to do with him and kicking him out of their home.

Similarly, Norris did a terrific job at shading what could have been a stock character, making Hank a flesh-and-blood human being who was not without his hobbies (mineral-collecting, brewing his homemade "Schraderbrau" beer). What's more interesting is how the writers and Norris reveal the truth about Hank as a person. In the beginning, Hank was presented as kind of a jerk, a bullheaded cop who wasn't opposed to "off-the-books" methods to catch criminals. But as the show progressed, we came to understand that that's not Hank; he's a legitimately good cop, just one who's determination to catch the notorious Heisenberg casts him as a cross between Popeye Doyle and Captain Ahab. The former of which Hank noticed himself in season four: "Me and ol' Popeye, huh? Day late and a dollar short." The fact that Hank was truly a good man only made his death that much more tragic, especially given that Walt, who had tried to call it off, could only helplessly watch, the full weight of his actions' consequences finally being felt.

There were, of course, other fantastic, beautifully-realized characters throughout the show. There was Mark Margolis' Tio Salamanca, the wheelchair-bound former leader of a cartel begrudgingly aids Walt. There was Raymond Cruz's Tuco Salamanca, Tio's son and unhinged drug dealer who became Walt's first major obstacle. There was Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring, the most terrifyingly composed meth kingpin/chicken restaurant owner ever who eventually had half his face blown off. There was Jonathan Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut, Fring's former right-hand man (previously discussed here). Todd, the "Opie dead-eyed piece of shit" who was legitimately the scariest motherfucker in the room at any given moment. And that's to say nothing of the hatchet-wielding assassin cousins (Daniel and Luis Moncada), Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter), Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada), Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt), Badger (Matt Jones), Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), and Tortuga (Danny Trejo's decapitated head on the back of a tortoise).

But the most important character, the one everyone was rooting for, was Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who was nothing short of perfect). Jesse began as a rather dim meth dealer/addict who was a former student of Walt's. From the very beginning, though, Paul shows us the intelligence behind Jesse's perpetually bloodshot eyes. The relationship between Walt and Jesse is the series' heart and most heartbreaking; they form a bond that's, at its core, ersatz father and son. The sad cruelty of this is that Walt is constantly manipulating Jesse, whether by letting his girlfriend die in her own vomit or poisoning a child (when he's not just flat-out lying to him). Jesse does a number of terrible things for Walt, all in the name of helping out their operation. And Jesse, deep down, is a good person in a bad situation: he's goofy, but he wants more for himself than the drug business (one of "Felina"'s best scenes finds him imagining a life in carpentry, instead of being chained inside of Todd's warehouse laboratory). He's the innocent being dragged down by the devil Walter White. In "Ozymandias," Walt tells him one last lie: "I never cared about you." Jesse gets his moment of triumph when he refuses to kill Walt at his behest; he will not be manipulated by him any longer.

The series leaves a number of questions unanswered in the finale, even though it does tie up a lot. Todd and his uncle's gang are dead. So is Lydia. But will Skylar having the location of Hank and Steve's bodies help her when she faces the DA? Will Jesse be able to get away from Albaquerque and start over, a new life in a new place (Alaska, perhaps?)? Is Huell (Lavell Crawford) still sitting in that DEA safehouse? Will television ever see something like Breaking Bad again? To this question, I answer yes and no. Yes, we'll likely see a number of imitators (we already have). There will be a number of shows that try to capitalize on what Breaking Bad did, and they'll see mixed results. There will never be something exactly like it. It was lightning in a bottle, the confluence of several incredible talents creating a brilliant show. It deserves a spot among television's greatest dramas, and it will likely be named among them for years to come. There will be other great television shows; there already have been and there always will be. But none of them will be exactly like Breaking Bad (in fact, Todd VanDerWerff has already posited that the show effectively ended the TV anti-hero).

But for those who watched the finale last night, we know the fate of Walter White. In his last big play, he crafted a device that opened fire on all of Uncle Jack's men, and in the process of saving Jesse from the hail of bullets he took one in the side. As Jesse speeds away, finally free again, Walt shuffles around the property, ending up in the warehouse laboratory where Jesse was cooking. He touches the machinery, holds the gas mask in his hands. Then he's seen on the floor, a pool of blood at his waist.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

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