A lot of critics weren’t wild about Breaking Bad when it debuted. Some were put off, others were on the fence, but just about all of them felt that there wasn’t as much there as they’d hoped. It’s tempting to look back and laugh, or to chide those critics for somehow missing the arrival of what’s become one of the most revered and talked-about shows of the modern golden age. But the truth is that none of those reviews could ever hope to be accurate. They were, by their very definition, hobbled and pointless pieces. Reviews of new (or even youngish) series are, by necessity, going to fail to do what criticism can do under better circumstances, which is to explore the execution and themes of a work of art and discuss everything from cultural relevance to trends to emotional resonance and so on. It’s not that TV critics don’t want to talk about these things. It’s that, early in a show’s run, or when looking at a new series, it’s impossible to actually talk about any of that because the show hasn’t been around long enough yet. It has not yet had the opportunity to stand or fall, to deliver on its promises or to fail to connect the dots. A film or a book or an album is a contained thing, a work of art and commerce that can be explored and talked about as a singular unit. But a TV series always grows and changes with age. Breaking Bad boasted an amazing pilot and a killer first season, but it wasn’t possible to really see what was happening — to really explore and understand and sit in awe of what Vince Gilligan and co. were doing — for a couple years, easy. A complex, developing work building toward an unseen future? No way anybody could have known what would happen. Those early reviews weren’t pointless because they were bad reviews; they were pointless because they could never have been good. The only way to know what will happen in an ongoing TV series — to really know if it’ll be worth your time or not — is to just wait and see.
And so now, as we come just a little closer to the end of Breaking Bad, questions like that continue to haunt me. I write about the show every week, and I’m fortunate because it’s one of my favorites and one of the few series I actually watch. Yet in the same way that early reviews were blindered by not knowing where the show would go, I worry that reviews of later episodes or seasons can once again become so hung up on trying to anticipate the show’s move and fill in those gaps we haven’t yet reached that we miss out on the experience of watching a masterful story unfold. I worry because I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Part of it’s natural, the same kind of water-cooler talk people have been having for generations about television. Wondering what will happen is part of the game, and a defining aspect of the experience of having your story doled out in little chunks over weeks, months, and years. But it’s so, so easy to transition from viewer to consumer, and to treat the work in question like nothing more than raw content waiting to be turned into a meme. I don’t want to do that. Not like this. There are movies and TV series and books and songs that I love, that fucking shape the walls of who I am, and I am terrified of treating them like gimmicks created for sarcastic summation and disposal. I work at it all the time, and I fail as much as I succeed, and I don’t know what to do but keep trying.
“Granite State” was a great episode. Of course it was. It was written and directed with the acumen we’ve long since come to expect from Breaking Bad, and it marched steadily toward a cloudy but damning future for the characters who’ve survived this long. The pieces were all there, as were all the themes the show’s been working with for years. There was Todd, doing his best to assume the mantle of Walter White, right down to the button-down shirt for his meeting with Lydia and his blunt but no less manipulative means of keeping Jesse in check. There was Walter White, lonely and struggling, scrambling out of the dirt like he’s been doing every step of the way since he went on a ride-along with Hank and saw Jesse jump from a second-story bedroom window. There was the constancy of the crime world, and how Jack and Todd are mercilessly moving into Walt’s territory the same way he moved into Gus Fring’s. There was that world’s cruel randomness, too, as Jack and Todd dispatched of people like Andrea with gut-churning ease, underlining just how fragile was the claim Walt made for the throne. There was the way director Peter Gould kept the viewer locked in with Walt, cut off from the world, forced to learn about Skyler and the manhunt through terse updates from Saul’s fixer (a great appearance from Robert Forster). And there was Jesse: poor Jesse, a dumb but mostly harmless kid who went for a walk with the devil and has been lost ever since. It was all there, and I could feel myself frantically unpacking it even as I lamented every passing minute, knowing when the hour ended I’d only have one left.
Some of the best grace notes of the episodes were the little reminders that, even though it’s been on the air since January 2008, less than two years have passed in the story’s world. Seeing Principal Carmen in her office, or Gretchen and Elliott on Charlie Rose, is both a charge for viewers and totally normal for the characters. It would have been weirder if Gould had made a bigger show of reintroducing Carmen, or acting like Gretchen and Elliott were anything other than the recurring thorn in Walter’s side. And I remain stunned by how casually evil Todd can be. He’s a distilled Walter White, all goal and no soul, and just as enamored of the idea of endless riches. Jack even tried to wave him off, pointing out (pretty reasonably for a cold-blooded killer in his own right) that they’d just cleared tens of millions in cash and didn’t need to worry about peddling crystal anymore. Todd’s reply was only a slightly more extreme version of Walt’s m.o.: “This is millions, Uncle Jack,” he said of the still unproduced meth. “No matter how much you got, how do you turn your back on more?”
Maybe it’s fitting that the penultimate episode of one of the most finely crafted series in recent memory aired against the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, at which Breaking Bad won in some categories but lost in others. Do those wins or losses change the show? Does the amount of hardware we can attach to it alter its value or impact? Does the presence or absence of another statue on actor’s shelf diminish the emotional journey we’ve taken? No. Of course not. Suggesting so would be silly. I want to try my hardest to keep that in mind next week and in the months to come, when Breaking Bad the show starts to become Breaking Bad the tangible commodity, the yardstick, the watchword, the litmus test, the shibboleth, the game, and the forgotten. I want to watch what happens, and to love it or hate it for what it is, and to hold onto it. I don’t want to forget the story. More importantly, I don’t want to forget that the story is the journey, and that it’s not just about what happens at the end, but about how we get there.