One of the things that draws me to the medium of television is the way a series can show the process of doing something. Think of how Project Runway gives you a quick shorthand to the process of coming up with new fashions or how the best procedural cop shows take you inside the world of solving crime. TV shows can also show you the process of one person becoming an entirely different person, slowly and painfully finding out what they are capable of (even if they rarely do this). Most TV, obviously, just takes aim at the widest possible target and hopes for a mass audience (has anyone ever learned anything about the art of singing from American Idol?), but the best TV focuses in on some laser-specific arena, showing us every inch of it in minute detail. It’s this sort of detail that makes Breaking Bad, ultimately, so satisfying.
Breaking Bad is ALL ABOUT process. It rarely avoids showing us every step of something the clinically detailed Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is doing. On the series, process IS the story, rather than the crime being committed. Even a scene as simple as Walter trying to better hide all of the money he’s socked away to support his wife and children after he dies goes through an almost laborious step-by-step portrayal of Walter going to the vent where he’s keeping the money hidden, then removing it, then pulling out the money, then looking for a better place to hide it, then finding that place in a half-empty diaper box, and on and on. All the while, Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) was calling for him, and we wanted him to go to her, since their marriage was more fraught than usual in this episode, but the scene kept doggedly showing us how Walt’s devotion to the big picture was completely messing up his several smaller pictures. In his own way, he WAS caring for his wife, but only in the long-term. He needed to be there in the short-term as well, and the short-term, where Walt is often unable to improvise, is what so regularly trips him up.
“Seven Thirty Seven,” written by J. Roberts and directed by Cranston, is a pretty classic season premiere. It opens with a black-and-white sequence of what appears to be teddy bear carnage in the Whites’ backyard, police sirens wailing on the soundtrack, then goes immediately into resolving last season’s ad hoc cliffhanger (only forced to be a cliffhanger because the writers strike cut the episode order for season one down to seven from 10). The teddy bear scene is a taste of what’s to come, though it seems unlikely we’ll get to figure out what that was all about until much later in the season. (The series’s pilot opened with a similar framing shot, but that episode circled right back around to telling us where the framing device fit into the narrative within the pilot itself.) The episode replayed just enough of last season’s final scene to get everyone all caught up again before Tuco (Raymond Cruz), the big-time player on the Albuquerque drug scene that Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) have thrown their lot in with so Walt can make as much money as he can as quickly as possible, exploded in a murderous rage (perhaps under the influence of the meth Walt had made just for him?) and beat one of his lackeys to a pulp. Things, as they have a way of doing, went from bad to worse, as Walt and Jesse ultimately became witness to the deaths of two of Tuco’s underlings and soon realized that Tuco probably wouldn’t want any witnesses around (though seeing Tuco angrily force Jesse to breathe into a dying man’s mouth while Walt pounded away at his chest was a nicely black comic moment).
All of this served as what was more or less an action-packed opening for an episode that then quickly got back to the business of slowly unraveling the story of how Walter White goes from law-abiding family man to drug kingpin. He’s moving more quickly than he might have suspected, but he’s also moving perhaps a little too slowly overall, as he’s unable to keep far enough ahead of Tuco to guarantee the safety of himself, Jesse and his family (as seen when Tuco kidnaps him and Jesse at episode’s end). Walt’s still a little too methodical to work in the criminal underworld where things can shift so quickly that it requires someone with an improvisatory mind. Walt’s smart, but he’s not as good without a plan, while Jesse has a lot of quickly-arrived at plans but doesn’t really have the smarts to carry them out in the fashion that would keep him above suspicion. Even Walt’s brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris), who’s a pretty smart guy, just isn’t able to really stop drug crime in Albuquerque in a meaningful way because he’s always about three steps behind people like Tuco. If Hank, who’s been doing this his whole life, can’t keep up, then Walt will need to be a much quicker study.
But, again, that’s part of what makes Breaking Bad so appealing: The series’s microcosm of various processes at work (like, say, Walt making the ricin out of beans) adds up to a much larger macrocosm—the process of Walt becoming an entirely different person. He’s still not there, but he’s learning and learning quickly enough. He’s much better off than he was when the series started, and he’ll surely have figured more of the game out by the end of this season, but he’s still no match for the Tucos of the world, and finding his way out of the mess he’s trapped in at the end of the episode will be another growing experience for him, much as his need to kill Krazy 8 last season served as an initiation to the way he’d have to do anything just to stay alive in the world of drug-dealing.
When I reviewed Breaking Bad for The House last year, I thought the show tried too hard to make Walt’s actions part of an “everybody sins” continuum, but I’m starting to think that’s a misreading of what the show is trying to do. Yes, everybody sins on the show, but they do so less because the show wants to exonerate Walt and more because everybody, well, sins. Marie’s (Betsy Brandt) kleptomania is less a way to suggest that even the relatively well-off have their skeletons in their closet and more a way to draw a line between Skyler (who finds the thieving just another way to write off her perpetually disappointing and irritating sister) and Hank, who’s a man of the law but also a man of his family first and foremost. He’s trying to fix Marie’s problem, not send her to jail, even though he probably could, and when he hears the long litany of Skyler’s problems, his first instinct is to fix her problems too, starting with a rusty old water heater. Breaking Bad doesn’t need to tell us what Walter does is bad, as it’s right there in the title, after all. We’ve seen the chaos his product creates in the community (mostly in last season’s “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”), and we’ve seen him both kill a man and plot to kill another, even if both men were bottom-dwelling scum. He may have mostly noble motives, but his crimes have reached a point where they supplant his motives, no matter how noble they are. The series, again, is about being clinical and non-judgmental, largely because it doesn’t NEED to be judgmental, so long as what Cranston is doing is interesting, and it more than is. (The man’s Emmy win for this role is maybe the most deserved trophy handed out by that awards body in the last ten years.)
I also like the way Breaking Bad manages to be about the financial crisis without ever grinding our face in how it’s About The Financial Crisis. The series was first conceived of before anyone knew just how bad things would get, and it managed to hit with a great burst of lucky timing (as the opening salvos of the crisis were fired as the show was airing its truncated first season). Obviously, a chemistry teacher in New Mexico was never going to make enough money to perpetually support a wife and two kids, much less pay for expensive cancer treatments, so that was the show’s excuse at first, but the way the show is subtly bringing in things like how Hank and Marie tend to live beyond their means or how Skyler just wants to fix the water heater but has no money to do so very much settles it in our world, rather than the carefree world of no money worries most TV characters inhabit. Just listening to Walt list off the long number of bills he needs to account for after he passes on drives this home as well (the episode title refers to how much money Walt needs to amass to provide for his family: $737,000, which he figures he can make in just under three months if all goes well). Breaking Bad’s not arguing that we’re all in such trouble, but it IS kind of arguing that the American dream of the last 30 or so years has been about dancing just ahead of an ever-growing mountain of debt. For the characters on this show, as well as those of us in real life, the debts are coming due. Walt’s just dancing ahead of an even greater, even more ultimate debt, and he’s increasingly aware of it.
It’s the powerlessness of Walt that makes him so compelling, to a real degree. After the run-in with Tuco, Walt goes home and wanders his house restlessly, flipping through the channels on the TV with no real purpose until Skyler breaks his reverie and asks if he wants a little chicken. I’m not sure how much longer the series can keep Skyler out of the loop on Walt’s secret (in the episode’s closing passages, he almost told her), since she’s occasionally too good to be true (though having her boast an all-consuming envy and hatred for her sister is a good way to get started on humanizing her), but showing how Walt’s powerlessness could reverberate through his marriage as it did in this scene, where Walt grabbed Skyler and forcibly tried to have sex with her before she managed to get him to stop, also managed to suggest that Walt’s newfound career has implications for his life that he’s maybe not even fully aware of yet. It’s hard to imagine pre-cancer diagnosis, pre-meth provider Walt doing any of this, yet now, it feels of a piece with everything else he’s been doing. His central choice, to break bad, is reaching out to infect every other aspect of his life, and if he can hold his marriage together by the time the series ends, I’ll be impressed or deeply skeptical.
There was plenty going on in “Seven Thirty-Seven,” but most of it was of the variety of plot points that set up things for episodes to come (as in most season premieres), so it’s hard to analyze without a lot of the context that’s to come standing in for it. For me, though, the episode boils down to the scene of Walt trying to re-hide his money, avoiding his wife’s calls to talk to him, and the scene where Walt methodically tries to get Jesse to explain how he’s going to kill Tuco only to realize that Jesse doesn’t have a plan, doesn’t have any sort of process, just an improvisatory nature. Somewhere in this scene, we realize that Jesse and Walt make such a good team because Walt’s caution is always able to temper Jesse’s raw ideas. Walt eventually comes around to Jesse’s idea of killing Tuco (hence the ricin), but it takes a little while for him to come up with a plan. If anything, though, the second season premiere of Breaking Bad suggested that just having the very best plan may not end up working out for Walt. He’s going to need to come up with those plans a lot faster than he generally has if he wants to stay one step ahead of everyone who’s after him.
Some other thoughts:
• I’m gonna try to get some screeners for the second and third episodes so writing these episodes up doesn’t continue to interfere with my Big Love pieces. If worst comes to worst, we’ll just have to have some Breaking Bad Tuesdays until Big Love concludes in a couple of weeks.
• Vince Gilligan, the series creator, is best known for writing a lot of the better episodes of The X-Files (including the goofy-weird “Small Potatoes” and the moving “Paper Hearts”), and now he’s brought a fair number of X-Files personnel along to work on the show, including editor Lynne Willingham and writer John Shiban. The X-Files had an oft-procedural tone that delved into the process of, say, Scully doing an autopsy, so perhaps the process stuff on Breaking Bad comes from that place.
• I wasn’t sold on Paul when the series began, but I think he’s really taken Jesse beyond a place where he’s simple comic relief and to a place where you can see just how down-and-out he would be without the options Walt affords him.
• Cranston’s direction of the episode is, in general, well-done. Used to be that series stars only got to direct episodes when the series has run so long that the cast is just looking for any way to stay intellectually engaged in the show, but in recent years, stars have gotten much more involved in the directorial process on a variety of series. I don’t know that any visuals in the episode struck me as particularly innovative, but Cranston got great work out of every member of the cast.
• Is AMC really squeezing the closing scenes of movies into a little box and then running the credits for those movies beneath them? I mean, sure, it lets you show a little more of the movie when you need to chop it down for broadcast TV, but that just seems like a bad move all around.
• Something I’m unclear on because I still haven’t bought the season-one DVD (since it’s weirdly expensive): Is Walt still going in for the super-advanced cancer treatment that will possibly help him live? Or did he give up on that?
• Another thing I’m curious about: How long do you think the events of Breaking Bad have taken place over so far? I kind of think it’s only been a couple of months (well, obviously, Skyler’s pregnancy means it can’t take place over TOO much time), but has the show ever spelled this out?
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