I have, of course, entirely missed the boat on this, as ever, and no doubt it’s all been said already and the Sauron’s eye of popular culture moved on to fresh pastures. But I just saw the final episode of Breaking Bad last night, and felt the need to muse a little on this extraordinary show. I’m going to try to avoid major spoilers in the text but I can’t say the same for the comments, so if you haven’t seen it, just go and watch it. Then come back.
There’s been a true revolution in television drama over the past decade or two. It’s becoming almost old hat to assert that the small screen has taken over from the big as the place where exciting work is aired. But even so it’s hard to think of long-running tv series that maintain their consistency, let alone present any kind of coherent arc from beginning to end. Indeed the commercial imperatives of US TV make it likely shows will be kept going at least a little bit past their best. The Shield had a fantastic first couple of seasons and a dynamite last, but sagged in the middle. Battlestar Galactica produced two superb seasons, one reasonable one, then wandered off into the philosophical desert. Deadwood was brilliant but meandering. By the end it was clear the writers of Lost had been lost all along.
Breaking Bad’s first season – somewhat hamstrung by the writing strike – was maybe no better than promising, but since then it’s been brilliant, and the fifth and final season was truly stupendous, more or less every episode a proper corker packed with shocks, horrors, big moments and huge payoffs. And it maintained its focus throughout, kept a steadily mounting pace in spite of the commercial pressures of tv, had a thematic purity that you very rarely see. Bold in concept and meticulous in execution, it’s maybe the most impressive example of a single, focused story brought to long-form TV. The closest you’ll come to a televised novel.
It’s an absolutely towering central performance from Bryan Cranston – hard these days to imagine as the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle – by turns pitiful, vile, likeable, self-defeating, terrifying, and yet somehow combining into a totally coherent and believable human. You believe in him as a harassed and hopeless chemistry teacher. You believe in him as a ruthless criminal mastermind. By the end of the final series he’s done some truly appalling things but when he’s finally portrayed as a monster unmasked you feel his sense of injustice at it because each step along the path has been natural, believable, even inevitable, his righteous motives of providing for his family after his death mutating by deft degrees into greed, ambition, self-preservation and a driving desire to win by any means necessary, the nature of the show changing with him to cover new ground, a grander scale, and an ever darkening moral climate.
The style undoubtedly developed over the course of the five series run, and became something truly exceptional I think. It often seems understated because what the camera is pointing at is so humdrum, banal, routine. There are long pauses, endless silences, in the desert of New Mexico, and in the deserts of the character’s emotional lives. Wide shots are sometimes left punishingly long (often the mark of great editing is not intricate cutting, but the confidence to let one shot breathe). There are strange, unsettling angles, weird fish eyes and points of view taken of smoke, equipment, cameras, faces looming disconcertingly into shot, distorted, monstrous. There are concentrations on odd details, ultra close-ups, recurrent motifs that in some way encapsulate the message or theme of a given episode. There are frequent glimpses of the past, reinterpreted with hindsight, and hints of what is to come whose horrible significance only becomes clear with time. There are occasional barn-storming grandstand sequences, like the one in which ten witnesses are murdered in prison within two minutes to the merciless ticking of Walt’s lovely new watch, the use of sound reminding me of a classic sequence from John Boorman’s Point Blank, in which tension builds to the tapping of Lee Marvin’s shoes as he strides implacably to a reckoning. Sometimes the visual inventiveness is far quieter – a brilliant moment in the final episode when Walt’s wife Skyla, sitting in her kitchen in static wide shot near a faux wood clad pillar, receives a phone call warning her that Walt might be on the way. You begin to suspect that Walt is in fact already in the house. In a more typical show he might have stepped out of a doorway or moved into shot as his wife put the phone down. Here the camera begins to crawl inexorably forward, so that Walt is revealed, behind the pillar, as having been standing in the middle of the room the whole time.
But, as with any great tv, or film, or books, it’s the characters that really make it. The acting, and the writing, is great throughout. It’s hard to think of anyone who doesn’t convince. Walt overcomes a raft of psychos, thugs and gangsters through his ill-starred criminal career, but his most dangerous and memorable antagonists – Fring, Mike, Jessie at various times and in various ways and finally, awfully, inevitably, Hank – are all fully realised people, often admirable in their own ways, usually considerably more sympathetic than is Walt himself. Walt is at times truly loathsome – small, vicious, selfish, manipulative, ruthlessly ambitious – and yet he remains human right to the end. Indeed there is a kind of redemption in his desperate attempts to hold things together that his own actions have irrevocably blown apart. He retains our sympathy because he remains utterly believable as a person, despite the fact he has done unforgivable things, then worse, then worse.
27 comments so far
You should watch True Detective (if you havent already)
“The closest you’ll come to a televised novel,” Completely agree with this, and I absolutely loved the show.
Still, for me, there was something missing at times to make it the best ever. Something that placed it on the echelon below–in my opinion the greatest ever TV show–The Wire. But I could never quite put my finger on what it was.
A masterpiece indeed. Great review.
Breaking Bad is, as a whole, the best show I’ve ever seen in TV. Truly amazing.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the third to last episode, Ozymandias. The day after watching it, I was completely unable to concentrate at work.
And now have a look at True Detective for another GREAT tv show.
You should watch True Detective (if you haven’t already)
I imagine it will be a long time before we see anything that comes remotely close to the brilliance of Breaking Bad. I loved The Shield and was glad to see it get a mention. Banshee, now into it’s second season, is worth a look if you you ever get the time. Very violent, very dark, very addictive.
I think watching him rediscover his ego, and how it eventually controlled him was fascinating. There were hints of his poor background, and to see him relish and lord his success over others after sublimating that ego…wow.
I found it really hard to empathize with him eventually, but to watch his complete transformation, and eventual acknowledgement of his joy in feeling so powerful was thought provoking.
Well, I’m a massive fan of the Wire, a strong contender no doubt for best TV ever:
But I do think it scratches a different itch to a degree from Breaking Bad. Packed with vivid characters, insight and ingenious plotting, but much more of a broad mosaic, an interwoven tapestry with many threads to build up an overall, almost documentary-like picture of crime, poverty, politics and policing. It didn’t have the central novelistic thread of Breaking Bad nor, I don’t think, the technical virtuosity.
Wonderful write up. I’ll throw in a third mention of True Detective though, I think if you loved Breaking Bad it will be right up your alley.
it is very special. Also, my wife and I would like to thank you for the Friday Night Lights recommendation sometime back on your blog. We watched it all the way through after Breaking Bad ended and enjoyed it just as much, though for very different reasons.
Clear Eyes Full Hearts!
Completely agree with your review of The Wire and especially how it is more documentary-like. I think that’s why I felt it was better *because* it felt real to me; like I was sat in the room/ on location listening to the lives of those people as everything took place.
Whereas–and I would just like to stress my love of Breaking Bad here–every time I sat down to watch an episode of Breaking Bad, I *knew* it was a TV show and I never felt entirely and utterly immersed in it all. I could turn it off and move on, whereas with The Wire, at times it emotionally affected me.
Sometimes Breaking Bad felt a little too aesthetically pleasing and the plots were too neatly wrapped up. And, dare I say it, sometimes it felt just a little too Hollywood. Not that that’s a bad thing I realise, it proves you don’t need a massive budget to make amazing TV.
Again, I stand by it being an utterly brilliant show, and I also think it will hugely impact what studios deem marketable and unmarketable now when choosing future projects, therefore improving TV for the better.
Did you watch the show weekly or did you “binge watch”? Was such a great show, could easily see myself loosing a few days if I’d never seen it and had the opportunity to watch it in its entirety at one go.
So many good characters; Walter White, Jessie Pinkman, Gustavo “Gus” Fring, Saul Goodman (I still say Odenkirk should get his own spin off, lol), Mike Ehrmantraut.. Cant really say I cared for Sklyer (always seemed to high strung) or her sister Marie (even Betsy Brandt who played her described the character as an “an unpleasant bitch”).
So, I know you liked Deadwood and I can see some of that in “Red Country”, do you think Breaking Bad might influence some future work of yours? Hmmm.. Glotka as Saul Goodman playing to Bayaz’s Gus Fring, lol…
Totally agree. BB stands alone.
I can really only think of two serialists in other media who were able maintain a coherent building arc across a multi-season/year work while still delivering a fresh, self contained episode each month/each season, and also giving each “season” its own narrative arc. Charles Dickens and Neil Gaiman (Sandman). Most everyone else loses the plot somewhere along the line.
Even harder now that everyone on the Internet is predicting, analyzing, and dissecting every bit of foreshadowing in real time.
Breaking Bad stands alone, but I think the model of the future is going to be the American Horror Story/True Detective style season where the narrative arc wraps up at the end of each season. That is much easier for creators and in the timeshifting/Netflix age will probably work for the networks as well.
The Wire was amazing, but the characters didn’t really transform from season to season the way Walt did. Season one McNulty was still a cad by Season five.
Oh, Joe, you’re not just a terrific writer, no, you ALSO have watched Breaking Bad.
I think that you’re not my favourite writer.
Man, you are GOD.
Cracking review. At what moment do you (or anyone else) stop routing for Walt? Or, like many others, do you remain loyal and keep on believin’ til the end? It was a question asked after the show (on Talking Bad) and I’m always curious to hear the various opinions. He does some despicable things, yet the fans just keep clinging on.
Yes, its definitely my fav show ever….like a modern western noir, you could really see Sergio Leone and the Coen brothers influences. The Ax twins attempt on Hank, the poisoning of the Don and his men by Gus poolside, the gut wrenching hit on Gale….and Gus and the boxcutter. There has never been as cool( I know its a way overused word)a show on american television.
now I am worried. a prequel will be airing this fall on AMC called Better Call Saul, with Saul as central character before he ever met Walt. good news is Jonathan Banks will be back too. Mike the cleaner is the man.
Possibly odd thing to say, but I always like it when my favorite authors write about other things they do, whether it is other books they read, tv/movie recommendations… or drinking copious amounts of awesome whiskey. 😉
I’m about four (and a half) seasons into Breaking Bad, and I’m surprised at myself for ever being reluctant to start watching it, clearly when it’s a well-spoken of show reviewed by a wide range of people. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who sometimes has trouble staying the course for certain shows, though. I really enjoyed Lost for the first few seasons, but the later ones went completely mind-boggling bonkers so I quit watching. Oddly enough, same with Fringe. Oh, JJ Abrams…
(Preface: introduced to your works by a good mate of mine. Making my way through the First Law series now. Great stuff. Also find myself about to launch into the beginnings of a Vikings kick, starting with the Long Ships per a previous post of yours)
Gotta ask: What books have you run across fiction or non fiction) that rocked you as hard as Breaking Bad in regards to characters/story/epic-crazy-business?
Great show and your great review. I just wanted to point you to other recent great series that is in the same league – House of Cards. You will not regret.
I am afraid it will take a long time until a TV show will be able to match BB in my personal opinion.
This show is brilliant and perfect.
I am a Fantasy nerd and I love what HBO did with the books of Martin but even GoT despite all its greatness cannot hold a candle to BB.
Another shoutout for True Detective over here!! The best thing is that every season will be a stand-alone one, 8 episodes to tell a story and that’s it…so more like a short story or a novella, but still wonderful.
Regarding BB vs The Wire both wonderful, but I’ll give he edge to The Wire for being more beliable and more of a breakthrough when it came out
You might enjoy this little tribute:
I would love to hear your thoughts on Game of Thrones!
I’m going to be yet another person here to shill for True Detective. It hasn’t been very long since Breaking Bad ended, but I think True Detective has already topped it. The cinematography is the best I’ve ever seen in a show. Just check out the tracking shot at the end of episode 4. Both McConaughey and Harrelson are masterful, the dialogue is often brilliant, surprising, and thought-provoking. The philosophy and the literariness (it is very intertextual) of the show truly make it stand out, though. Gotta love that sense of cosmic horror.
I want to suggest Fargo (the TV series) to you lovers of Breaking Bad and True Detective. Only three episodes out so far but it is absolutely chockers with stories.
Hesitant to suggest it to you Joe because I’m reading the First Law and saw your post about ‘ahem… interesting video game releases’ distracting you from your wonderful writing 🙂