“Breaking Bad” is a much simpler show than some people want it to be. Are there layers to the show, thematic resonances, grand story arcs of tragedy and doom? Absolutely. But what’s interesting about the way we (i.e., pop-culture obsessives in the Internet age) consume serialized media is our insistence upon coincidences and meanings that aren’t necessarily present. It’s as if we want to will them into being, to take an already-great drama and make it a puzzle that needs to be solved.
Part of this probably goes back to the success of “Lost,” which provided fodder for obsessives like few shows before or since. Many episodes seemed designed as a trap for viewers, a series of rabbit holes down which it would be possible to fall forever. Theories and speculation from the audience seemed to be the invisible guest star in every episode, the unseen presence fueling so many of the stories and tangents. As a result, a show like “Breaking Bad,” which is ultimately a tightly focused narrative designed to answer a single question — “What would happen if Walter White became a criminal?” — is grafted onto the template of a puzzle show, and the fit is often awkward. A few days ago, BuzzFeed ran a flimsy piece with the typically hyperbolic title “21 ‘Breaking Bad’ Easter Eggs That Will Blow Your Mind,” and true to BuzzFeed form, the list was a superficial assemblage of basic plot points, wild speculation, and laughable stretching to connect the dots. (My favorite is probably the assertion that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are the reincarnated versions of Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction because both sets of men have eaten at diners, the kind of evidence only a child would produce or believe.) It’s the kind of ill-fitting, breathless guesswork that doesn’t make sense for most series, but it’s the kind of wild-eyed theorizing that’s become a production empire unto itself. It’s kind of what makes AMC’s “Breaking Bad” Story Sync make sense. Viewing and consumption are starting to blur.
And things like that can detract from the fact that “Breaking Bad” is as straightforward and riveting a narrative as anything that’s ever appeared on television. This is not “The Wire,” which sought to explore theories of systemic corruption across the living organisms of criminal justice, education, politics, or the economy. This is a show dedicated to exploring causality, plain and simple. Walter White, if he were real, would be able to quote it to you without missing a beat: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” When you decide to sell drugs, the existing drug dealers will fight you; when you kill them, you become responsible for their lives; when you abuse your wife, she will hurt you in kind; when you try to leave the life, you create a vacuum. And nature — she abhors a vacuum. There is no action without reaction.
That’s what came to mind most in “Buried,” the latest episode of “Breaking Bad.” Do this, feel that. Say this, learn that. It all kept coming back to the relentless causality of Walt’s deeds, and how things are now getting harder for him to control. It actually took Walt a while at the beginning of the series to start cooking; most of the first season is about a cook gone wrong and his attempt to deal with the fallout. Here on the backend, as we head toward the finale, he’s not cooking anymore, either. He’s back to dealing with the flat consequences of his actions, still scrambling to keep a lid on things. Hank, as Saul said, isn’t exactly going to “turn the other cheek” and just let Walt off the hook, so for now, Walt’s story is about trying to rein in the effects of everything he’s caused. The problem, as Walt’s realizing, is that he’s done so much that trying to control it is almost impossible. “Please don’t let me have done all this for nothing,” he begs Skyler. He did what he did for a specific set of ends, and if that were to go away — if he found himself penniless and cancer-stricken — he’d be back where he started, as if there’d never been any action or effect. He’d have to actually reckon with himself.
Everything else falls in line with the “opposite reaction” theory, too. The White home, now drenched in shadows. The fact that sometimes these people can barely speak above a whisper. They’ve been driven into sadness and death by Walt’s actions, and everything he’s done hasn’t just made him rich; it’s destroyed his world. That’s the thing he can never face.
It’s not that the dominoes are starting to topple over now. It’s that they always have been. Walter White is now basically in the third act of Goodfellas, playing out the string and trying desperately to make his increasingly frantic plans hold together. At this point, we know a little of what will happen — Walt will, if nothing else, survive until his next birthday and pick up some startlingly heavy weaponry — but it’s the actual mechanism of watching these reactions unfold that makes the show so fascinating, and that have made it such a phenomenal experience. If you want to be a killer and a kingpin and a monster of a man, you absolutely can. But this is what will happen to you, and mercy on you if you don’t see it coming.