My BFF loaned me her Netflix codes last year, and as a result I’ve finally gotten around to understand what the concept of online streaming is, and what the show Breaking Bad is.
Okay, point: HUGE SPOLIERS FOR BREAKING BAD TO FOLLOW. IF YOU WANT TO VIEW AND YOU HAVEN’T YET, DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER. Thank you.
And, although it has taken me a good 4 months to work my way through the show, I now sit back with a sense of accomplishment over the whole thing, both from a casual viewer and someone currently undertaking a literary MA, well versed in picking apart characters in narratives.
Initial thoughts: It’s a good show. Bryan Cranston is worthy of the accolades thrown his way. And it feels rooted in the contemporary time period. Especially with the current drug situation in the Western world. The script is solid, the camera work is innovative and the characters are deep.
Okay, before I criticise the show I must point out two things: I’M BRITISH!!!!! I live in the UK, and for some reason the UK has never been interested in the drug crystal meth. In the last drug census there was only 17,000 reported cases of crystal use. Compared to crack (47k), heroin (27k) and cannabis (2 mill) that’s pretty insignificant. It’s apparently expensive, difficult to produce (the UK is an island, and in places it’s pretty crowded) and if you want a stimulant then just try cocaine or any number of legal highs already available.
Brit’s haven’t had the endless PSA’s lecturing on the dangers of meth (I’ve seen them on Youtube, funny!). It would be like an American comedy show set in a kitchen, and the primary focus of the show being the situation with the aubergines. You’d find out about them (in the US they’re known as eggplants) but it wouldn’t be something you’d be instantly hooked by,
Second thing is: I’ve already seen The Wire. And for anyone who has seen that show, it does, sadly, dull any subsequent show within the same genre. Identical number of seasons, identical iconic characters, radically different concept. Difficult to like both shows.
Do I hate Breaking Bad? No.
Do I think it’s the best TV show ever? No….
The truth, as always, falls somewhere in between.
So what am I saying? I’m saying that it’s a good show, but it has transfixed the population that watch it. To the extent that they overlook a couple of the points that I had problems with. Points that stopped be loving the show the way I love The Wire (which, for the record has its own share of problems).
My biggest sticky point is this. In a cast of characters who are all morally grey, either in word or deed, who do I (the audience) relate to? You have to side with someone in anything you watch, either consciously or subconsciously. In BB everyone is so grey and flexible that I found myself repeatedly asking the characters, verbally, out loud: ‘Why did you do that?’
Character’s motivations, and sometimes even their traits, appeared and disappeared at will. Marie’s kleptomania? Dropped. Even before Hank gets shot, it’s discarded like an afterthought. It makes sense on the one hand, the sphere of the narrative is expanding and time is precious, but on the other hand she is a main character, the second female character on the show, behind Skylar.
Hank and the rocks? (Sorry, “minerals”) I can see how they can be seen as part of his healing process, but it still didn’t make a lot of sense. Then he starts digging into Gale’s murder and it all gets dropped.
Gus’s time constraint. He must produce 40 pounds of blue meth a week. That’s the quota, otherwise the super-lab isn’t economically viable. This ties him to employing Walt, even when he doesn’t want to.
But, with a viable fast-food franchise as a front. And not having government quotas to appease (because meth, y’know, is illegal) and a product so addictive that anywhere Gus dealt he’d surly corner the market, I fail to see why shutting down the lab while they find new cooks is a problem?
From a storyline perspective it makes sense, it ties two of the biggest characters into an uncomfortable marriage of convince. But I think it’s also done to antagonise Gus.
Gus Fring is arguably my favourite character in BB. During the honeymoon period of the relationship with Walt he even invites the man over for dinner. He begrudgingly employs Jesse, against his own judgment. Then, after Walt kills two of his dealers he takes the boy back as an associate of Mike, working security. He’s a friend of the local DEA, and a man with good standing in the community.
But we (the audience) are permanently aligned with Walt. So when Walt starts riling Gus the writers had to show Gus as being worse than Walt. Which is difficult in this universe, with everyone being so grey.
So they get Gus to kill his own employee, Victor. It’s graphic, but afterwards it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Walt tries to fathom exactly why Gus would murder his own employee, the man who could cook, apparently, for no obvious reason.
‘Victor flew too close to the sun.’
Ok-ay. So Victor overstepped his authority? Fair enough, but if that’s the case why are Walt and Jesse still alive, if Gus is so loony-tune to butcher his own employees?
It sounds weak. And the whole incident did smell of writers who were aware they were painting themselves into a corner and needed an out.
Gus was shocked about his two men killing a child. And he tells Walt and Jesse he’ll deal with it. Then, before he can (and clearly not believing him) Jesse confronts them and bad stuff happens.
Gus says repeatedly that he has children (although to be fair, we never see them), and his approach seems genuine. Corporate and logical, but genuine.
I work in the NHS, people die, often every day. You need compassion, but you also need a degree of detachment, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to function. We’ll never know what Gus would’ve done to penalise his two men, but I can’t believe he would’ve let them off with a simple warning.
This ‘child poisoning’ angle gets replayed in season 4 when Jesse’s girlfriend’s son is poisoned. Jesse flips out, blaming himself and then, when he’s in the hospital, Gus visits and Jesse, understandably distraught semi-accuses Gus of the crime.
Gus visibly bristles at the accusation.
He’s trying to run a business, both legitimately and illegitimately. He’s sorry, but…
He’s not a hero, but he seems considerably more balanced than anyone else in the show (besides Mike, and they are the voice of reason in this chaos). The writers stick both Walt and Gus at loggerheads, which makes for great television, but I can’t help thinking they might’ve backed the wrong horse from my perspective.
Walt & Jesse. The heart of the show, but bloody hell, did they switch places a lot. One was good, then the other was good, then they were both bad, then one was bad, but then he was good. And you got the impression that none of the writers knew where their characters were going. I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but at times that was the impression.
E.g. Walt saves Jesse from the two dope dealers, and then covers for him, souring his relationship with Gus in the process.
Then he has to get Jesse to kill Gale, so Gus will be unable to kill him, thus leaving no cook at all. This Jesse does.
Then we assume Walt poisons the child of Jesse’s girlfriend, although how he does this is never shown. And as Jesse freaks out over his own guilt over having accidentally poisoned the child with his ricin cigarette, this unhinges Jesse. Was this plan to lure Gus to the hospital for the attempted car bombing? Because if it was I don’t think it did Jesse’s long-term mental health any good. And it set up a conflict the following season when Jesse figures out what Walt has done.
Jesse gives Walt a watch on his birthday. Walt pays for Jesse’s rehab following Jane’s overdose. Walt causes Jane’s overdose (kind of), but I think everyone can admit if she hadn’t died, both herself and Jesse would’ve OD’d in under a fortnight, with $500k cash to play with.
In the end Jesse gets so strung out (in every sense) over being unable to rid himself of the dope money he’s made, he drives through the town tossing it out the window, crashes, gets caught and starts talking to the DEA. At which point Walt has no choice but to authorise a hit on him.
It’s a relationship that’s doomed to fail. And one that Mike quite succinctly points out during his heart-to-heart with Walt, when he toys with the idea of putting Jesse down. ‘This kid’s been on the bubble for a while.’
Mike’s not mean, he practical. Later, he and Jesse form a solid friendship, and you can say that Mike’s shocking death (at the hands of Walt, in a moment of admitted stupidity) and subsequent disappearance cuts the last vestige of stability from Jesse. From then on it’s all downhill.
Although the final, complete ending is angrily ambiguous. Jesse, free from Nazi slavery, driving off, crying. Yep, good luck with your future, kid.
This is the end of part one. Don’t worry, there’s more to come.