Rewatching Breaking Bad
As the summer wanes, it’s my annual time to look back at all the things I failed to accomplish. It’s been an excellent summer, marked by quality family time, enjoyable trips, house projects, and general low-stress fun (including a successful immersion into the best videogame I’ve played in a long time, Red Dead Redemption). But for many academics, summer is the designated time for getting things done that require concentrated time and attention – and in that regard, I fell short of my goals, especially in the desire to blog.
While my last post about Mad Men was highly gratifying in terms of generating conversation both here and on other blogs, it was a bittersweet form of engagement – I long ago decided that I should take advantage of one of the great privileges of being an academic, in immersing myself in writing about things that I enjoy, or at least that deeply interest me. Thus instead of dwelling in the realm of dislike, I want to spend some time on one of my favorite television shows that I have written insufficiently about: Breaking Bad.
After Breaking Bad‘s second season, I took the leap to name it to my Top 5 of the 2000s decade, despite having only 20 episodes in the can. This was in large part due to my faith that the giant leap forward that the show took from season 1 to 2 pointed toward sustained quality, not just an aberration of excellence. The critical consensus on season 3 this past spring was that it was a step forward from season 2 – I’m still not sure which I like more, but both are as good of seasons of television as you’re likely to see.
I really wanted to teach Breaking Bad in some form, as an example of a serialized character study and model for various aspects of formal experimentation. However, the challenges of teaching a serialized narrative are significant – if you don’t start from the beginning, you miss much of the show’s accumulated depth and nuance, and unless I’m teaching a course focused on a single show (like with The Wire) I have limited time to stretch a series out. Breaking Bad is ideal in one way, as the strike-shortened first season is only seven episodes and thus easy to fit into a semester – but would teaching the less-accomplished season 1 be satisfying?
With that question in mind, I’ve rewatched the show’s first season over the past couple of weeks, along with my wife, who had not previously watched the show (aside from one s2 episode which she found too bleak to invest in, especially without knowing the characters). As with both The Wire and Lost, I convinced her that Breaking Bad was worth the effort to give another chance, and I’m happy to say that my track record is 3 for 3, as she’s now hooked! I think the key to her getting on board the show was when I described it as a serialized Coen Brothers film, providing a frame of reference for the show’s mix of black comedy, brutality, and intense drama.
What I’ve found most surprising upon rewatching the first season is how much better I found it than the first time through. While I quite liked season 1 back in 2008, I thought it was more of a perfect showcase for Bryan Cranston’s brilliant performance than a compelling overall drama. The supporting characters seemed much more thinly drawn and hard to latch onto, in large part due to limited screen time in contrast to Cranston’s Walt. It had first felt like a series with unrealized potential, and that quickly rose to the occasion in the next season.
But I found little of those issues the second time through, and this highlights an interesting aspect of serial narrative – we can read character depth retroactively, filling in the gaps in characterization with what we’ll come to know about these people from later seasons. Thus while season 1’s Hank shows little more than macho bravado, I saw that behavior as hiding anxieties and insecurities that start to show through in subsequent seasons. Likewise, Skyler in season 1 doesn’t serve as much more than an obstacle to Walt’s secret life or an object to his reawakened sexuality. But I found the seeds of her own dissatisfaction and desires for more of a life outside of Walt that would develop more fully in season 3.
What do we make of this retroactive deepening of character? I wouldn’t contend that all of those pieces were in place at the beginning of the show. Based on interviews and commentaries, I’ve come to think that creator Vince Gilligan had a clear idea for the show’s overall tone and Walt’s character arc, but that his plan changed significantly after the strike-shortened first season – the original season 1 plot moved quite quickly, culminating with Jesse being killed off in the season finale. Aaron Paul’s performance and chemistry with Cranston changed that plan, but certainly the pace of season 1 is quite accelerated compared to where it will go in later seasons. It feels like Gilligan and his team discovered exactly what they had in the cast in the first season, and realized that the strength of Cranston’s performance would allow them to slow the pace and ramp up the tension to witness the character’s slow burning implosion.
What’s most impressive to me about the transformation after the first season is that Gilligan was willing to change gears by complicating the supporting characters, pulling back the pacing, and add new storytelling strategies like juggled chronology, rather than sticking with the initial formula. While the more nuanced versions of the supporting characters that I read into the first season on a second-time through may have been unplanned, they are mostly consistent (with the exception of Skyler in the pilot – the handjob scene seems totally out-of-place) and well-designed.
The effect of reading the characters backward is also strengthened by a technique employed in season 3, as episodes feature more flashbacks to characters in moments within the prior season gaps, like Jesse and Jane in the art museum, or Jesse and Combo’s initial acquisition of the RV. These moments fill in gaps that we didn’t know were there, creating a richness in characterization and backstories that are virtually unmatched in anything I’ve seen on television. Breaking Bad features a very small world, frequently with unreal coincidences and chance intersections, but the depth of that small world is impressive and highly rewarding for the attentive viewer. For instance, late in season 3 as Walt pursues purchasing the car wash, dedicated viewers are offered a callback to the show’s pilot (when Walt moonlighted as a cashier and quit in a beautifully awkward tirade) as well as providing a deeper motive for Walt to be able to revisit the site of a previous humiliation.
Another facet of the show that has become clearer upon rewatching is how it fits on a narrative continuum between tight and loose storytelling, an idea I’m trying to work out for my television narrative project. Both Breaking Bad and The Wire (which are otherwise quite different in tone and scope) are quite tight in their storytelling: every detail seems carefully designed to fit into a broader tapestry, and (to quote Lester Freamon) all the pieces matter. Neither is a puzzle-show like Lost, but there is a sense that things fit together with meticulous construction. In contrast, a show like The Sopranos (and based on my first season viewing, Mad Men) is much looser in its plotting, allowing episodes or moments to be offered without a greater design or connection to a larger whole. Loose shows need not be inconsistent (although that’s a danger), but rather don’t set-up the expectation that everything comes together in a way that feels organic and of a whole – we accept such dangling threads as the texture of the storyworld rather than pieces of a storytelling machine. Lost might be seen as a show that appeared to be a lot tighter than it actually was, and your opinion of the finale might be tied to your willingness to embrace its looseness.
I’m looking forward to moving forward into rewatching season 2, in part to see how much my love for the season was tied to the surprise of its improvement, but mostly just to relive the glorious set-pieces of prolonged tension found in inescapable situations, like Tuco’s desert captivity, Jesse’s time with the meth-heads, or with the dead RV in the desert. I’ll definitely be incorporating the pilot, if not a longer arc, into a course this fall, and beyond that, I’ll need to be patient for the best television series still airing to return, as AMC has delayed the start of season 4 until July 2011.
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 2 Comments
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