Wednesday, October 09, 2013

One Last Time (We Promise) With Breaking Bad

For the past six years, Walter White has reigned as the king of television on top of his empire of meth. As of last Sunday, the king is officially dead. Whether I mean that figuratively or narratively will be revealed later (I’ll warn you when the spoilers show up), but by any definition, America’s love affair with Breaking Bad has officially reached an end point with the series finale.

No, I'm not tearing up. There's just so much smoke in here suddenly.

But I come not to bury Walter White, but to praise him. And his wife Skyler, son Walt Jr., brother in law and DEA agent Hank, and the myriad of other Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns that made up the show that has been called the best television show ever. Despite a decidedly unglamorous setting (meth labs among unattractive downtrodden people in Albuquerque, New Mexico) and a cast of people who seemed, you know, real and not like caricatures, somehow this taut, tense little show found a way to worm itself into our collective bloodstreams and leave us just as addicted as the wasteabouts we were watching each week.

Through preternaturally solid and consistent writing, precision directing that would make German auto engineers jealous and award-winning acting, Breaking Bad let us see a story that started off utterly sympathetic and turned horrific. The basic premise, that sad-sack high school chemistry teacher Walter White learns that he has terminal cancer and so decides to cook meth with a former student to raise the easy money he needs to ensure his family’s survival after he’s dead, is well known, even for those who haven’t watched the show. What was fascinating though was how much the characters that we initially believed would be the victims, like wife Skyler, turned out to be just as morally ambiguous as the character we started off with. The cheap and easy classification of this show is that it is another in a long line of anti-heroes that we love despite knowing that we shouldn’t. What made Breaking Bad different, though, was that at his core, Walter was never an anti-hero; he was a villain, right from the start. We just didn’t notice it until we, like the rest of Walter’s family and associates, were so deeply enmeshed in the chaos that we couldn’t turn away from him.

In retrospect, we all probably should have seen the writing on the wall.

It’s a testament to how well Breaking Bad did things that the episode that sounds the most dull on paper, Season 3’s “Fly” which followed Walt and Jesse through one long, interminable night stuck in their underground meth lab and unable to leave because of a delicate chemical process all the while being tormented by a single fly that’s managed to find its way into the otherwise perfectly sealed lab, seem interesting and tense. Because no one just talked about the weather in this show and every line of dialogue could be interpreted multiple ways, we as the audience sat through 45 minutes of two men chasing a fly around a lab and couldn’t stop watching because we knew that what was really going on was that Walt was carrying a secret that he couldn’t tell Jessie – namely that the previous season, he was in a position to save Jessie’s girlfriend from dying and actively chose not to, mostly to keep Jessie loyal to him. The continual ratcheting up of tension and dread, which started with a terminal cancer diagnosis for a man who just turned 50 and who’s wife is seven months pregnant, meant that learning that your life is about to end ends up seeming like light-hearted fun by season five.

And so we watched Walter build up his empire, all under the nom de plume of “Heisenberg”, the Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll. Before long, it becomes clear that Walter has long since stopped making meth, and in the process becoming one of the most powerful drug lords in the southwest, just because he wants money for his family – he’s doing it because it’s the only way to get the respect and the fear that he’s long craved and never been able to claim as a low-paid, disrespected high school teacher. In the fifth season, Skyler, who has long since showed her true colors by helping Walt launder the massive piles of money that he’s acquired, brings Walter to a storage facility that she’s been forced to rent just to house the mound of money, well into the millions of dollars. “How much is enough?” she asks him. “How big does this pile have to be?”

Thus marking the first time in history a wife ever got angry with her husband for making too much money.

Walter agrees to retire, but not happily. We’re led to believe that Walter is corrupted by his experience, turning more ruthless as he amasses power, but in reality Walter was really just becoming what he always was inside. Walter White was the persona – Heisenberg was the reality. Meanwhile, just as he is out for good, his DEA agent brother-in-law finally makes the connection that the meth empire he’s been hunting for the last two years is being run by none other than his own family member, setting into motion a blitzkrieg of final episodes that bring us to the end of our story.

Spoiler-phobes, skip the next paragraph. I go back to spoiler-free mode after it.

With all this drama, then, it was odd that the series finale chose to go the way of safe television, an unconventional choice for a show that was so bound up in allowing the worst of all possible things happen to its characters. There was no ambiguous Sopranos-style ending here. As such, the episode felt like a victory lap, to use the phrase of my friend who watched it with me. The episode was almost fan-service, showing Walt outsmart everyone that he had to confront and even resorting to an almost Robert Rodriguez-level of ridiculousness involving a hidden machine gun in the trunk of a car. In the end, Walter’s family is ruined – his son hates him, his wife is broken an unemployable due to her association with him and has moved herself and her kids into a dingy basement apartment. The various drug dealers and kingpins are all dealt with, most of whom are killed outright. And in the end, we’re down to Walter and Jessie, the two who started this whole mess, staring each other down and the audience wondering which one is going to kill the other. Walt, knowing that his cancer has returned for good and that there is no survival for him now that his crimes have become public knowledge tries to manipulate Jessie one last time into killing him. Jessie, for once, is able to resist, telling Walt that if he wants to die so badly, he should kill himself and then tearing off into the night in a stolen car, weeping and broken but finally free. Walt however, unbeknownst to Jessie, has already been fatally wounded in the epic shootout that occurred moments before and makes his way over to the meth lab, appreciating the setup that produced the purest form of meth and was his signature contribution to the world. Walt collapses to the ground, dying as we always assumed he would – in his lab, just as the police finally arrive to arrest him for good, thus allowing the Scarface that we knew we shouldn’t like something like a final getaway. And a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.

"I love you, meth bin. Never leave me."

And maybe it was because the final episode, while powerful and as satisfying as an ending to a beloved show can be, never really hit the high emotional stakes that I wanted to, but for me, the true finale was “Ozymandias”, the episode airing three weeks ago when Walt’s vast criminal empire finally comes truly tumbling down at the same time as several major characters are killed in the desert.  At the moment when Walter White finally allowed himself to rip off the mask and become the monster, the show utterly proved how fearless and rare it was. There have been “the best television show”s before and there will be “the best television show”s again. But here’s one that deserves its moniker, regardless of how monstrous or good the characters were. 

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