Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair - Breaking Bad setting a new standard

Spoilers for season 5, episode 14 "Ozymandias" and all previous episodes coming. 

The fuck did I just see? I think this just topped or at least reached the WTF-level of the Red Wedding, and I'm not exactly generous with this kind of praise. Seriously, wow. It was obvious from the ending of last episode that there was no way for Hank or Gomez to get out of this alive, but before I was able to see the episode I wondered just how they would fill out the remaining three episodes to the series' inevitable end in episode 16, which, as we all know, ends with Walt's house in ruins and him driving around with a machine-gun in his trunk. Now, I guess, we know. The creators of Breaking Bad catapulted themselves in the High Olymp of storytelling and breached new heights to be achieved by serious TV drama. 
Say my name, ye mighty, and despair.

What did they do, exactly? They had many different plots that needed resolving that had been built up in the last four-and-a-half seasons. Instead of doing it, like, piece by piece, using the most of everything, they just dumped the whole thing in front of the viewers, which is brillant. Let me quote Sean T. Collin's review, because he nails it and I don't need to try emulate him: 
Credit the pacing of the episode with that sense of total freefall. Maybe half a dozen moments that had been built to for ages, that could have served as the anchor point for an entire episode apiece, were fired right at us in rapid succession. How long had we waited to see Jesse find out about Jane, to see Walt Jr. find out about Walt Sr., to see who would be left standing in the final Walt/Hank and Walt/Jesse showdowns, to see the final break-up of the White family? We got them all. There was just no weathering all those body blows without crumpling at some point.
It's just wonderful filmmaking in perfection. Not that it is enjoyable in any common sense of the word. I felt sick almost through the entire episode. But that's just the point. From the get-go, Breaking Bad wore on its sleeve that it was just a bit different than your average show. What makes it different, in my eyes, is the consequence in character building. Every action that these peoples undertake has real consequences on their psyche and on their relations to other characters, and it is clear from the beginning that cooking meth cannot ever be a heroic adventure that ends well in any sense of that word.
Remember that?
Only you never knew just how bad it would end. Walt's transformation into Heisenberg was bad enough, but somehow, I always pictured his final stand as more a kind of breakdown of his empire, Scarface style: the scene seasons back when Walt and Walt Jr. watched the ending of Scarface and told each other how cool it was, the season opener with the machine gun in the trunk - I guess these red herrings were giant trolling on part of the creators, after all. I wouldn't be surprised at this point if Walt never even used that damn machine gun.
Like Vincent Vega standing over it.
I think the breaking point for me as for the show was when Walt blinked away Hank's murder and pointed the nazi killers to Jesse's hideout. That there was no way for Jesse to escape this without being noticed (they will destroy the evidence he's hiding under anyway) misses the point. Walt gives him up to those people, those people he just experienced are the most ruthless and brutal guys he met in a while. And then, when they wouldn't kill him outright and Walt doubted their commitment to the murder, he murdered Jesse's mind by telling him about Jane. It was pure malice dripping from every word. 
Model of empathy right there.
And then the next instance of trolling on the creator's part, when they - but let's quote Sean again: 
Hell, you can, and probably should, make the argument that Walt's abuse and mockery of Skyler over the phone was the most epic audience trolling in the history of televised drama – that Vince Gilligan put the words of Walt's most loathsome Internet defenders and Skyler's most misogynistic comment-thread haters into Walt's mouth precisely to demonstrate how repulsive and monstrous those ideas really are. I mean, come on – "Always whining and complaining about how I make my money, just dragging me down while I do everything" could be lifted verbatim from the comments at any article in which Skyler is mentioned, simply with the pronouns replaced.
These guys are setting their priorities in a way that's almost singular in modern television. It's not about the plot - almost any other show would use a plot that potent as their main selling point. It's about the characters. Breaking Bad manages to give us deep, flawed, realistic characters, characters with whom we are engaged without really "loving" any of them in the usual way. There's no Tyrion Lannister in this show, no real hero. Or can you really root for Hank after his casual dismissal of Jesse's life? Can you recall Jesse selling out his parents? Skyler breaking with her sister?
Asshole with a phone.
The series is coming to its close, and it's not exactly a slow build-up. It's a spiraling way down, faster than one could have imagines, constructed in a beautiful yet terrifying way. Breaking Bad, I cannot love thee, but I damn sure admire you.


  1. another outstanding review Stefan
    I also appreciated Sean's view of Walt's over the phone outburst to Skyler. Great and terrible things have been a hallmark of breaking bad throughout its run. with the end fast approaching, the value of breaking bad, as a series,(as if anyone hasn't noticed yet) :-) is quickly becoming apparent. the shows name is Breaking Bad, look upon its works ye mighty, and despair.

  2. I think you totally missed the point of the phone call. Watch the scene again and remember the retrospect at the beginning with Walt rehearsing his alibi. It's exactly the same with the final call, Walt/Heisenberg is aware he is talking to the police and wants to take all the blame from Skyler by playing the mad husband. Every line is prepared, even Skyler realizes the play when she tells him, that she's sorry.

    1. Yeah, I had the same thought, but I wasn't really sure whether or not he was genuine. For Skyler, the call is indeed a giant alibi, but Walt isn't a super-genius when it comes to these things. Given his personality, it might well be that he was totally sincere in his accusations. Whether or not the police listened didn't matter at the moment, since he would leave his old identity behind anyway, and throw the cell away. He couldn't make it worse than it already was.
      That's not saying that he didn't want to give Skyler the alibi, but I'm not quite sure (yet). Let's see what this Sunday's episode brings.