Breaking Bad
Season 5.9 “Bad Breaks”
Guest Writer: Corey K. Creekmur

Monday, August 12, 2013

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
[The first in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on the final season of AMC's Breaking Bad]

"Bad Breaks"

Written by: Corey K. Creekmur (University of Iowa)

The final half of the final season of Breaking Bad has arrived with absurdly high expectations, generating what Alessandra Stanley called a “finale frenzy” in the New York Times yesterday, in one of dozens of pieces written in anticipation of the impending conclusion of the celebrated AMC series that began in 2008. Centered on the rapid expansion of former high school chemistry teacher Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) methamphetamine empire, critics quickly summarized the show’s evident appeal as “addictive,” and so are now preoccupied with calculating the impact of our collectively going cold turkey once the supply of new product is cut off. However, as many other critics -- as well as ordinary viewers and even creators of “quality television” series – now clearly recognize, consumption of relatively harmless recreational drugs like Breaking Bad no longer requires waiting patiently for the serialized disbursement of weekly broadcast doses. Even if the first airing of an episode continues to draw the most fevered fans, determined to avoid the dreaded “spoilers” felt to dilute their rush, the widespread ability to record, download, stream, demand, or otherwise watch television on consumers’ own schedules has thoroughly altered our relationship to TV reception, perhaps especially of densely plotted serial narratives. The now common activity of binge viewing, as well as selective and controlled re-viewing (no longer determined by network re-run schedules or syndication), in addition to everyone’s more surgical ability to pause, rewind, and fast-forward, explodes the limited time frame of reception as well as the activity of collective cultural response. We are now, as another recent New York Times article puts it, in the age of “post-water-cooler-TV.” I could ruin the endings of Fringe or Battlestar Galactica for you since I’ve plowed through each in its entirety, but since I haven’t yet gotten to The Sopranos or Lost, please don’t tell me what happens: we are a now a long way from all talking about who shot J.R. together on the same morning in America.

At the same time, Breaking Bad has never shied away from indulging in the pulpy pleasures of cliffhangers and plot twists, nor has it (like a few notorious shows) frustrated viewers by perversely withholding satisfying answers to the enigmas it poses. Like most good crime fiction writers, the creators of Breaking Bad understand that the enjoyable anxiety of delay is tolerated insofar as it yields the regular satisfaction of resolution, of both big and small puzzles. So despite the technologies that allow me to consume the show when and how I may wish (on what I believe to be “my own time”), I remain captivated by the desire to find out “what happens” as soon as possible. I therefore arrange my schedule to watch the show as it first airs on Sunday evenings, and put up with the commercial interruptions that are one of the costs of that (somewhat) immediate gratification. (Always aware of the elaborate “story” he is telling about himself, at one point in the episode under review Walter White announces to his wife “To be continued …,” in sly acknowledgement of exactly the devices the actual narrators of his story employ to drag us along.) And now, after an interminable pause, “Blood Money,” the first episode of the final stretch (technically episode 9 of season 5) of Breaking Bad, directed by star Bryan Cranston, rewards our stretched patience by efficiently and (more or less) directly answering a lot of the questions the series had left hanging for a year.

Is Walter White really “out” of the drug trade, as he insisted to his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) after she showed him that that had accumulated more money than they could ever possibly spend (or launder)? Yes, it seems he is, especially when he rebuffs Lydia (Laura Fraser), his frustrated liaison to international distribution, with this confirmation. With a now shocking lack of evasion, he tells the suspicious Skylar (who wonders who gets their rental car cleaned) “She’s a former business associate who wants me to go back, and I won’t.” (We will see if Skylar’s subsequent verbal threat to Lydia will hold.) Are the Whites as a family now reconciled? It seems so, with Skylar clearly intrigued by the idea of expanding their car-washing business as a way to justify their wealth, and perhaps considering a trip to Europe, one of the first signs that the Whites might find ways to enjoy their ill-gotten gain. Has Walter’s lung cancer returned, as a few shots in 5.8 hinted? Yes, as a shot of Walt in chemotherapy, and his final verbal confirmation of his illness to Hank, confirms. The recurrence of Walt’s cancer (even wished for by Skylar in a dark moment) has been a quiet threat over the entire series, and now appears to be a central component of the concluding episodes. Has Walt’s DEA-agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) really finally figured out, via the clue of the inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass, that meek and mild Walt is really the monster drug kingpin Heisenberg? Yes, he has, as the conclusion to the episode decisively and efficiently dramatizes. (Another sort of crime show would have made the confirmation of Hank’s suspicion through the gathering of incriminating evidence the stuff of the rest of the season, but, it seems, we don’t have time for that now.) Hank knows, and Walter knows that Hank knows, although Walter, with characteristic evasion, admits his identity without really confessing his guilt. This is, in short, an especially satisfying episode: we’ve been asking these questions for quite a while, and we get more or less emphatic answers.

The episode also effectively continues and encapsulates some of the series’ main themes: the possibility of simply walking away from their crimes, of, as Walt tells Jesse, trying to “live ordinary, decent lives,” as if “the past is the past,” remains elusive as long as Lydia (and the considerable resources of Madrigal) resists Walt’s retirement, as long as Jesse’s guilt tears at him, and if Hank’s pursuit of his finally-visible target ramps up. Certainly the sudden appearance of packets of cash tossed into a rough neighborhood by Jesse (Aaron Paul) can hardly go unnoticed. Walt’s tendency to announce easy solutions and offer pat summaries (a legacy, perhaps, of his days in the classroom) has often been undermined by the difficulty of their actual execution. The episode also stages the troubling inquires into identity that have been part of its overall trajectory: within the episode, close-ups of Walt, Hank, and Jesse all appear in carefully composed shots including mirrors or reflective surfaces that replicate their faces, sometimes
with distortions, and both Hank’s and Walt’s revelatory trips to the White bathroom are partially filmed with the camera directed at virtual images, reflections in a mirror rather than direct shots of the actors.
At other moments, pairs of characters are positioned together on screen yet apart, in tense, balanced compositions with space between the figures marking their isolation, reinforced by dialog of evasive small-talk, as at the beginning of Walt and Hank’s final encounter, or outright lies, most obviously when Walt tells Jesse that Mike is still alive, carefully insisting “Jesse, I need you to believe me.” Breaking Bad has always explored the difference between surface deception and underlying truth through its skillful performances, in which characters speak about something in order not to articulate what is actually going on. While clearly lying, Walt carefully admits that his need trumps the truth. The powerful confrontation between figures who are now openly cop and criminal at the end of the episode brings questions of identity and (mis)identification to the fore: Hank’s full understanding can only be expressed by confusion: “I don’t know who you are … I don’t even know who I’m talking to.” While still denying his guilt, Walter explains the risk in Hank’s residual uncertainty: “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course will be to tread lightly.” Did Walter White become Heisenberg, or was Heisenberg dormant in Walter all along? (And to what extent does a simple change in costume allow for a change in character?) Does Breaking Bad dramatize the transformation in a character, or simply reveal a hidden truth, the greed, lust for power, and capacity for violence that had been lurking in the family man and chemistry teacher?

Such persistent questions raise the issue of the overall structure of Breaking Bad as a coherent narrative, now with an end in sight. If The Wire was often described as Dickensian, insofar as it fully embedded its large cast of vividly drawn characters in a social context defined by often soulless social institutions, commentators have frequently identified Breaking Bad as a tragedy, driven by the classical “fatal flaw” of Walt’s hubris (far more than his greed), and with some of its key narrative turns, such as Hank’s bathroom revelation, akin to Aristotelian anagnôrisis or recognition, the decisive change from ignorance to knowledge that can also transform love between characters to hate. (Whether Walter has ever experienced the often devastating self-knowledge also associated with the concept is up for debate, as are the Aristotelian questions of whether Walt genuinely suffers [pathos] or if his suffering can lead to our catharsis.) This general perception has led many critics to also suggest that Walt’s story is fated or predestined, with a preordained end that transcends the clever plans of series creator Vince Gilligan and his writers: needless to say, this view is a bit surprising in the modern (we might say post-Heisenberg) world.

If only in narrative terms, these loose claims for the series’ tragic classicism tend to emphasize its relentless forward drive, an unfolding that, again, has regularly offered suspense and resolution. Gilligan’s much-quoted summary of the entire series as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface” traces such a brutal through-line, and the semi-comic, frequent description (as noted above) of the show as “addictive” also testifies to progressive intensification and accumulation as its underlying principles. But for all of its evident propulsion, the series has also sometimes relied, unsurprisingly, on flashbacks to depict Walt’s earlier life or simply to remind us of important details (including a brief reminder of Hank’s earlier question about the identity of “W.W.” inserted at the end of the previous episode). More surprisingly, season 2 mysteriously depicted the results of the plane crash – debris strewn in Walt’s neighborhood, including the charred pink teddy bear and its missing eyeball – well before that disaster (of Walt’s making, sort of) was actually depicted taking place. In other words, the series has suggestively offered other narrative models than the relentless chronological structure of tragedy.

For instance, near the center of “Blood Money” a rather lengthy comic sequence depicts Jesse’s stoner buds Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) elaborating a piece of absurd Star Trek fan fiction in a sort of mock tribute to one of the first television shows to generate not only a rabid fan base, but fans who insisted that their relation to the show could be creative and interactive rather than passive. (Badger notes that his story, which involves a futuristic pie-eating contest by the classic Star Trek characters, only awaits being written down to be production-ready; Skinny Pete, serving as a pedantic television critic, points out that Badger has carelessly blurred the worlds of the original Star Trek and the later Star Trek: Voyager series.) Jesse spends this scene in near-comatose silence, wracked with the guilt that threatens to overwhelm him throughout this episode, so the silly dialogue seems to only highlight how unaware his friends are of his distress. But the scene is also a canny indication on the part of the show’s creators that they are well aware of how intimately fans now interact with favorite programs, whether in the form of their own crackpot scenarios (driven by the ultimate fantasy that these might actually be produced) or through the attempts at critical analysis this blog post represents, undoubtedly with less fun. Significantly, as well, Badger is seeking to expand a work that, at one time, seemed to have wrapped up over four decades ago (in other words, well before these characters were born). Offshoots, sequels, remakes, and reboots, of course, changed all that, along with the persistent, even obsessive return by fans to what in retrospect became “the original series.”

In addition to this witty allegory of the activity of fandom, the viewer’s narrative engagement with the larger text – the entire series, so far – of Breaking Bad is even more emphatically demanded by the opening sequence, a flash-forward that picks up on what had seemed an especially audacious and rare flash-forward that began this season a year ago. After the reassuring twang and smoke of the periodic-table title credit, a slow tracking shot towards a bathroom door in the familiar White house returns us to virtually the exact moment (in fact aired almost a year ago) when the first half of this season concluded, a “cliffhanger” poised on the edge of a toilet bowl. In more schematic terms, the prologue of 5.1 is picked up by the prologue of 5.9. The “present tense” opening of 5.9 picks up immediately from the conclusion of 5.8. Boldly, both prologues (for 5.1 and 5.9) are proleptic leaps into the future, anticipations, it seems, of how all of this will end. Or perhaps they are pieces of the future of this story that will themselves be embedded in a narrative that eventually stretches beyond them. In the future, we have learned, Walter White has a very dangerous cache of weapons in his trunk (including an M-60, with operating instructions downloaded from the web), to which he adds the small vial of the deadly ricin, hidden in a wall socket in 5.1, that he has returned to his devastated home to retrieve. Surely the conclusion of the series will not be Walt standing in his driveway, before his ruined house, with his identify as “Heisenberg” spray-painted as an accusation, simply terrifying a neighbor (“Hello Carol,” he says to her in both present and future), with two of his deadliest weapons at hand but unused?

The elaborate temporal play establishing both halves of this season of Breaking Bad is worth emphasizing precisely because, once again, the series has in fact used such devices sparingly. While I’ve noted exceptions to the regular unfolding of its narrative (and might add the series’ somewhat tiresome fondness for time-lapse sequences to simply show time passing or to simulate jazzed-up perception), the leap into the future, now reinforced, was a genuine surprise, and has the significant effect of recalibrating the entire series and our relation to it. How, we now have to ask, will the narrative we are following, get to this point? The lure of most engaging narratives – “what will happen next?” – has been redirected: “how will this happen?” While we are prone to still view the two prologues as glimpses of the (near) future where the story might be resolved, they raise more questions than they answer in episodes otherwise devoted to resolving uncertainties. The return of Walt’s hair suggests an abatement of his cancer, although he takes pills and has a telling cough in these scenes. The house indicates a dramatic, public revelation, and his family is nowhere to be seen. The weapons and poison suggest, like the famous gun shown in the drawer early on in a well-constructed drama, that they will eventually play their parts.

While narrative theorists have noted that the use of flashbacks (or analepsis) is far more common than the use of flash-forwards (or prolepsis), some have recognized that even relatively straightforward plots typically involve a process of double reading, a balancing act of memory and anticipation, with prolepsis simply a more explicit form of what usually serves more covertly to keep us heading towards resolution and conclusion. In a curious way, the flash-forwards of Breaking Bad might now reposition the majority of the series, which we have likely taken to be unfolding in the present, as past, as flashback, in the manner of those examples of film noir that almost all take place as dramatized recollection. Almost everything that has happened and is still to happen on Breaking Bad, we now understand, precedes the pair (so far) of cryptic scenes of a bearded, hair-covered 52-year-old Walt with a new identity and presumably remaining tasks in his narrative. Part of the participatory pleasure of the show is guessing where it will end, but now we know (some of) that, and so must try to figure out how things will lead to what seems to be a sort of apocalypse for the White family and their suburban home. At one time, such risky temporal manipulation of narratives was largely restricted to high modernist literature, or subculturally contained in the mind-boggling games played in science fiction time-travel scenarios. Eventually, narrative movement through past, present, and future became common to the universes of comic books (through the vast narrative web fans call “continuity”), and as I have suggested such acrobatics of plot are now not only common to some television series, but describe the ways in which those series, and a wide range of additional popular culture texts, are increasingly consumed. At the start of the current half-season, what literary critic Frank Kermode once famously discussed as “the sense of an ending” still exerts an overwhelming pressure on Breaking Bad, although the series seems to have also cleverly rendered its future its past. I’m still looking forward to seeing how it all ends, or, rather, how it all ends.


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Jennifer Aguiar said...

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Lauren said...

Thanks for this comprehensive post on an episode that is both a premiere and a fulcrum (given the two parts to season 5) in a season that is itself a finale. I like the analysis of tragedy confuted by narrative experiment.

My comment though is to do with the preamble. I'm wondering how seriously you take the post-watercooler moment to be. That is, I wonder myself to what extent it is a manufactured discussion--at least to some degree. People have been catching up on TV shows they didn't watch (via dvds or even reruns) for quite some time now; and people used VCRs to space out their viewing asynchronously since the 1980s (even if the difficult of using a VCR was often an obstacle!).

So yes, I agree that the ability to view asyncrhonously--and perhaps even the expectation that many people will--is a factor. (In fact I think it likely that fewer academics are watching Breaking Bad's current season as it airs because it has come at an especially busy time for them.) But whether that makes us post-watercooler I kind of wonder. Because I still think that people talk quite a lot about television since it is a good lingua franca (the kind of thing that sports is for those who like it.) People know how to talk to friends or neighbors or colleagues or relatives who are catching up or who haven't yet caught up and so I think there are conversations aplenty (watercooler) even though they are different than the kind that occurs when a huge viewing audience discusses the JR shooting all at once. That kind of mass simultaneous watercooler probably is increasingly rare (it now happens over outrageous spectacles like Miley Cyrus). But do you think that in some ways we "watercooler" more than ever even if the question is more like, "Have you been watching that last season of Breaking Bad?"

Anyway, would be curious for your thoughts - and thanks again so much for this great analysis of the episode!

Corey said...

Yes, what's now required is the negotiation of various conversations in different temporalities. Actually, the next-day watercooler has been largely replaced by the discussions that take place as the show is airing! One thing that makes commercials bearable is that they allow for chat during the show. At the other end are chats with folks who are only now watching a series like THE WIRE or THE SOPRANOS that others have viewed in full, some time ago. In the middle are those discussions where one person is just a season, or an episode behind or ahead of you. All of this is colored by the etiquette of spoilers of course. I haven't seen the recent season of GAME OF THRONES but for better or worse I know about the notorious sequence that shocked those watching the series recently. Back to BREAKING BAD, I'm fascinated that this final season has largely picked up the narrative immediately where we left off, a week earlier. For those who wait and binge-watch this stretch, this should play like a fairly continuous action, with the few seconds between episodes matching the story time itself. In that way alone watching the serial with week-long gaps and without them should be quite different experiences.

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