Exactly what are we doing here? I mean you and me and everyone else, the people who love this show. What do we want to get out of this?
I’m privileged to be writing about “Breaking Bad,” a show I genuinely love and one that I cared about before doing any kind of weekly piece on it. This is not “The Newsroom,” whose coverage is defined almost exclusively in terms of the strength and commitment it took respective critics to get through another preachy hour. This is a show I actually enjoy watching, you know? So I find myself thinking about how we consume and discuss the show, and the degree to which that dissection becomes a part of the product itself. There are hundreds of places — easily — where writers spend thousands of words on each hour-long chunk of this story, looking for new ways to restate basic theses that have long since made themselves known both in the show and in the commentary surrounding it. Maybe it’s because our shared tastes have bred similar modes of expression, or maybe it’s because we all wind up reading the same thing and internalizing it. Maybe there are still pesky strains of infection running through us; maybe we’re still paying for the sin of reading Television Without Pity; maybe we’re just doing this the same way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.
What I’m trying to get at here is: I might wind up experimenting to some degree in this space, writing about this show. Or at any rate, I’d love to try. Film reviews, templated as they may seem, can still take so many shapes, but it feels like what we think of when we picture “modern TV criticism and weekly coverage” is starting to blur together. The same words, the same formats, the same types of jokes or reactions or anticipatory gags. I want to find ways to talk about the shows we love (and those we don’t, and those we just kind of watch) that feel fresh. I’m just still in the process of getting there. I worry about falling into traps in my weekly TV reviews, gimmicks of style or execution that can set in after too many episodes. I know I’ve done it in the past. I spent so many years writing terrible pieces about “Lost,” big ugly lumbering beasts that missed the entire point of TV as experience and what criticism of it should really do. I don’t want to go back there, even accidentally, so I find myself more willing to fail if it’ll get me closer to an ideal I can still barely define.
For what it’s worth, this is all coming off the cuff with zero editorial feedback or clearance from anybody else here at the site, so know that I speak only for myself, my own feelings, my own wonderings if we can make this look different. One of the (many) things I love about Pajiba is the way every author is pretty much allowed to figure their own thing out, so what works for me re: TV writing might be a totally bad idea for somebody else. I am typing these thoughts as I have them. I don’t even know if I should be putting this in the piece. We’ll have to see.
Two things stuck out in “Blood Money,” the ninth episode of the fifth season of “Breaking Bad” and the first installment of the final eight episodes of the series. And in “Breaking Bad” fashion, those things seemed both to contradict and support each other.
The first was the eerie, beautifully uncomfortable sense of foreboding in every second of the episode. “Breaking Bad” has repeatedly demonstrated that crime does not pay and that nobody ever gets away with it for long. Walter White’s journey has been about making others pay for his greed and mistakes, but now things are finally starting to close in on him. It was as simple and as small and as damning as the hubris that caused him to leave his copy of Leaves of Grass in the bathroom where anybody — including his federal agent brother-in-law — could find it. For things to happen any other way would feel inorganic, and worse, out of line with the steady drum beat of death and destiny that creator Vince Gilligan has been beating since day one. This sense of finality, of everything clicking into place, showed up everywhere. Bryan Cranston directed the episode with wonderful tension and grace, using slow pushes in and out to play up the tension. The episode starts with a slow move in on the bathroom door behind which, we know, Hank is sweating and worrying and wondering what to do with the realization that his milquetoast brother-in-law is a mass-murdering drug lord. And then at the end, when Walt and Hank stand facing each other, we get a nice reversal of that move, a slow pulling out and back as we watch these men lock in.
The other thing that stood out was the show’s unpredictability. “Breaking Bad” has never felt like a conventional story, from its relentless commitment to one basic narrative thread (“What will Walt do next?”) to its slow but steady depiction of moral decay. So it makes sense for the show to avoid the kind of boilerplate cat-and-mouse game that you might see in a more modest thriller or procedural series. It wasn’t just that Hank figured out this “early” that Walt is, indeed, Heisenberg. It’s that Walt put a card on the table by pulling out the GPS tracker Hank had used, and then that Hank called Walt on his deeds, and then that Walt essentially confessed to the crime while hedging his story and laying the groundwork both for a path of compromise (“I will never see the inside of a jail cell”) and one in which he defends his castle to the end (“Tread lightly”). The fact that Walt and Hank could talk so openly, even to that degree, of what’s gone on was startling and invigorating, and another sign that this series will continue to tell its own story, in its own way, until the screen goes black for the final time.
And yet we also know things will end in a way that none of the characters can probably anticipate right now. A few months in the future, Walt will return to his abandoned home and see the name “HEISENBERG” spray-painted in the living room. His identity is going to get out, and his name — the real one — will become tainted despite his years of effort to keep it clean. Jesse’s losing his grip, too, driven mad by guilt and fear and worry. He’s a bombed-out shell of who he used to be. It looks like Walt’s in line to go through the same thing.
This is the beginning of the end, and it’s a bittersweet feeling for a viewer. “Breaking Bad” has demonstrated the kind of precision and power that few shows ever come close to capturing, and knowing it will end in a few weeks is a little sad. But believe it or not, there’s a happiness to watching something this good end. It means you get to watch storytellers and directors and performers at the top of their game go out grandly, instead of spinning their wheels or trying to bring life back to something that’s died. I can’t imagine a better seat in the house than mine, than any of ours, as we watch the ballad of Walter White call down one last refrain.