SEPTEMBER 29, 2013
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
— W. H. Auden
IF, FOR WHATEVER REASON, you did not watch or did not like Breaking Bad, I’m sure you are sick to death of hearing about it.
We fanatics have been a voluble bunch, endlessly discussing the show, watching other people discuss the show, listening to podcasts of people discussing the show, and then talking about that. For the past two months, we have also enjoyed the old-fashioned, pre-TiVo excitement of waiting anxiously for Sunday evening, and, come show time, basking in the psychic comfort of knowing that untold others were gasping and moaning and using pillows to blind themselves at the same moments.
I know; you don’t care.
But all of our talk was not, as you might think, just fannish blather. Breaking Bad sparked a national dialogue with astonishing range and depth. The show’s messages and metaphors were dissected in synagogues and churches, on op-ed pages, in universities, and on global news sites, where one PhD identified Walter White as a “Waltzian neo-realist” whose alliance with Tío Salamanca against Gustavo Fring was “like the actions of a potential but threatened hegemon, no?” Some of this national dialogue went no deeper than tweets that said “OMG I’M PLOTZING” or “Well this is this is … this is just I mean this is I mean just this is #breakingbad.” But what was shallow was wide: “Ozymandias,” the third-to-last episode, generated 604,765 tweets — including 16,329 tweets per minute during the last 10 minutes.
Aside from sharing anxiety or speculating on what might happen, fans also liked turning over what had happened, as if trying to figure out not just plot points, but why the fate of Walter White had so stirred them. Breaking Bad editor Kelley Dixon hosted an “Insider Podcast” after each episode (available on the AMC website), in which she questioned Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and an assortment of writers, actors, producers, and directors about how that particular story was put together. Dixon is a strong interlocutor; she knows television but is a bit of a naïf about writing, so her questions are informed but basic, allowing the parties to talk about whatever interested them that week. Probably only a true fan would sift through these more than 40 hours of audio, but the shoptalk of Gilligan and his crew offers a unique window into the creative process, as they enumerate, for instance, the reasons the story took this turn rather than that turn. Sometimes they disagree about why Walt did something or what his expression conveys. The writers, including Gilligan, speak of the characters as independent beings with motives that are ambiguous sometimes even to them. They speculate and argue exactly like the fans. They are as intrigued as we are.
Other podcasters like Nerdist produced excellent Breaking Bad panels as well. Gilligan and the cast made themselves available for so many interviews and appearances one worried they weren’t sleeping; add to that the many AMC website extras (e.g., a production designer takes us on a tour of the superlab), which more than filled in the gaps caused by diminished feature coverage as newspapers collapse, and delivered more inside information than any journalist would have access to or space for. In addition, AMC gave viewers a further final-season add-on, Talking Bad, the Sunday night after-show in which related and unrelated celebrities discussed intricate plot and character details with varying degrees of perspicacity.
Parodists also found the show impossible to resist. The Emmy Awards, Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Conan, and The Simpsons all produced elaborate homage, as did Stephen Colbert, who gave us Breaking Abbey, in which the tuxedoed men of Downton Abbey spouted obscenities and brewed meth-laced tea in a silver pot —not even The Sopranos sparked this amount of prime-time commentary. And then there was the rest of the internet, with some very jolly parodic re-imaginings: what if the show was a Taylor Swift video, a middle school musical, or a Facebook post:
The comedy website Funny or Die entered the fray many times; one of its best efforts gives us Breaking Bad as a comedy on ABC:
This mash-up gets at the eerie cognitive dissonance of watching the hyper-intense Breaking Bad on the same screen as Two and a Half Men: I say eerie because looking at an average TV show in the throes of Breaking Badism, one is uncomfortably aware of the brittle cheer we so often accept as entertainment, even as the medium struggles, Atlas-like, to throw off its demographic burden and find some economic equation whereby a show like Breaking Bad might not be such a rare occurrence. Even then, economics is in a way the easy part; there must also be producing savvy, producers who know when to step aside and trust talent. As has been much reported, AMC was known as a movie channel when it signed up Breaking Bad (Mad Men had not yet aired), and because it had nothing to lose, the channel was willing to take a chance on a seemingly uncommercial show. (Gilligan once likened his show to a bumblebee, which, according to a 19th-century aeronautic theorem, should not be able to fly.) AMC is now an original content player, with the highest rated show on cable (The Walking Dead), as well as two of the most critically acclaimed, and it bet its painstakingly acquired capital this year on Low Winter Sun — not a horrible show, but one that became a punch line because of its grim, on-the-nose treatment of the kind of complex moral issues that Breaking Bad fields with such aplomb.
Breaking Bad is a challenge to the television industry, or should be.
For a story about a man choosing to walk into the anus of hell, some of the show’s most powerful scenes were fleeting, small, and uncelebrated. A season two episode, “Bit by a Dead Bee,” measured out Walt’s alienation in coffee spoons. It opens after Walt has escaped from a combustible drug lord called Tuco who planned to take him to Mexico and force him to make meth there. Walt has been missing, and his family is wild with worry. To make up an explanation for his absence, he strips naked in a drugstore and waits to be found. Cranston, whose physicality consistently provokes laughter even in the show’s darkest moments, takes a stance both aggressive and unrepentant, with his legs spread, facing the dairy section. He is sent to the hospital, where he tells his family that he suffered a massive memory blackout, a “fugue state,” possibly caused by cancer treatment. His family believes him. In his hospital bed Walt stares at a small watercolor on the wall. It depicts a man on a boat rowing out to a larger boat; his family stands on the shore and waves goodbye to him. Cranston’s doleful contemplation at this scene of parting is breathtakingly delicate — it’s like he’s gently opened his hands and showed you a part of the character’s soul that he’s holding, turning it your way so you can see it clearly.
Breaking Bad also fulfills our infantile need to feel terror, but so does any film by Michael Bay. What attracts devotion, though, is that the show pushes us to confront some very basic issues: What does it mean to get emotionally involved with fictional characters? What happens when we identify with them? How do we understand their moral dilemmas? How do we understand their capacity for evil? What does it do to our own moral sense to go so far down the road with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman? The show stretches our capacity to understand Byzantine intrigue while intelligently challenging our sense of morality, and it reminds us of something we try to forget: that none of us are immune from being plunged tomorrow into an abyss with no moral markers.
“Art is a divine game,” Vladimir Nabokov said, and the playfulness of Gilligan and his writers lightened what would have been a maudlin pilot, a TV show so demoralizing you would only watch it because enervation prevented you from picking up the remote. But more than that, this playfulness locates the exact nexus between comedy and tragedy, an exquisitely torturous precipice. In this show, if four main characters meet at a safe place, a local Mexican restaurant, for a long-anticipated showdown, the background music will be a circus-y kind of Mexican oom-pah-pah that starts and stops at moments of unbearable tension. It is funny. It is excruciating. It is dissonance. It is classic Breaking Bad.
The writers also have a sly relationship to certain products — a Thomas Kinkade painting, Funyuns, the Pontiac Aztek, and Denny’s all make comic appearances (and apparently all were good sports about it). When Walt finds that the last movie he will ever get a chance to see in this life is Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, I swore I could hear the writers cackling in Burbank.
Like many viewers, I tuned in late — four seasons late. What I knew about the premise — high school chemistry teacher with inoperable cancer turns to making meth to leave money for pregnant wife and son with cerebral palsy — sounded suspiciously contrived and made me anticipate the heavy hand of a syrupy drama. Whatever I anticipated was blown apart by the pilot. From its first moments, Breaking Bad parcels out its story at an unexpected, fascinating rhythm and with a wit so dry it is practically weightless. Moral binds arrive so fast we never have time to see the next one coming.
It’s not too hard to speculate why we are drawn to the vicarious experience of extreme situations. They are exciting, and in art, no one we know gets hurt. We immerse ourselves in stories as a way to prepare ourselves for whatever may come in life, while at the same time celebrating that it ain’t come yet, and it might not come. We consume stories for the same reason we read self-help books. As Wallace Shawn once noted in a memorably Chekhovian mood:
[T]hose books are just so touching because they show how desperately curious we all are to know how all the others of us are really getting on in life, even though by performing these roles all the time we’re just hiding the reality of ourselves from everybody else. I mean, we live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other!
Breaking Bad also made thematic use of a ubiquitous TV trope, the inanimate object POV shot. That this drama is witnessed by washing machines and Roomba vacuums conveys the sensation that secrets are always being observed, or registered, by someone or something. One of the show’s signature edits, from a close up to an extreme long shot, also encourages us to register the larger ramifications of any action. This, I believe, comes from Gilligan’s sense of justice, which is itself complex — it may appear to be nowhere, but it is, he implies, everywhere.
I made the mistake of over-sharing when I interviewed Gilligan last April for Los Angeles magazine. I had developed a theory about the eyeball that we see at the beginning of season two, and that Walt then fishes out of his pool filter. The eye came from a teddy bear whose fur was matted from engine fuel or maybe by blood when the plane on which some child had carried it blew up in the air over Walt’s house. In an indirect way, Walt’s actions had caused that plane crash. My theory was that the eyeball was witness to all that Walt chose to hide from himself. For me, the eyeball, like the shots from the POV of the bottom of a bathtub, indicated the presence of a watchful being, someone who was tallying up the rights and wrongs of all these driven, desperate humans. The eyeball isn’t God, though, it is us, the watchers. Gilligan’s response surprised me.
“We don’t have time for that,” he said. “We’re too busy trying to map out the story.”
The obsessive reaction of fans, even what might be our overreading, the theories we have all been spinning out across old and new media, can be read as a rebuke to the rest of the entertainment universe. The rabidity that so annoyed non-watchers points to a kind of starvation. Breaking Bad gave us what we didn’t know we needed. It makes us ask of the rest of our entertainments: How much are you contributing? Are you adding something meaningful to our fitfully illuminated lives? What do we do now?
As a musical theater fan/geek, I’ve been known to borrow wisdom from the genre. You may remember a scene from A Chorus Line in which a dancer reinjures a compromised knee at rehearsal and has to be carried off stage, while the rest of the company looks on grimly. These artists with the briefest of artistic lives have to ask themselves: how will I look at myself and how will I cope with reality when I can no longer dance? And then they sing “What I Did For Love,” which contains the line: “Look my eyes are dry / The gift was ours to borrow.”
I like to think of Gilligan as one of those dancers. During the five seasons of Breaking Bad that has just ended, he had the national baton, the storytelling stick, the talking pillow, the ear of the zeitgeist. He made himself available to almost anyone with a question, and all of his interviews are a recording for posterity of how it all went down. At the same time, one senses, Gilligan was also making peace with the idea that he may never have it again (despite his new deal with CBS). The sheer number of circumstances and people that have to come together in just the right formation to produce something like this — it doesn’t happen often. We viewers may have to make peace with that as well.