Breaking Bad
Season 5.13
Return to the Western: Genre and Origins
Guest Writer: Scott Balcerzak

Monday, September 9, 2013

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

Return to the Western: Genre and Origins 

Written by: Scott Balcerzak (Northern Illinois University)

Last week’s episode of Breaking Bad, 5.12 “Rabid Dog,” ended at the Albuquerque Civic Plaza, with a near meeting between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, filmed in a mixture of first person point-of-view and overhead shots typically seen in the moments leading up to a classic Western shootout. After Jesse threatens Walt over a pay phone with “Next time I am going to get you where you really live,” the ominous sound of mission bells is heard. While that episode ended with allusions to the Western, this week’s “To’hajiilee” veers the series directly into one of the genre’s standard climatic set-pieces, a standoff and shootout that encompass its final act. The action builds to a climatic sequence where Walt rushes to the desert as he fears Jesse is burning his stash of money, only to learn the phone call was an elaborate hoax devised by his DEA brother-in-law Hank Schrader. Michelle MacLaren also directed the recent “Buried,” 5.10, which contained a memorable image of Western homage involving a stare-off between Walt and Hank as the

garage door closed, creating as Lysa Rivera wrote in her post, “a shot clearly reminiscent of a duel in a Western.” MacLaren returns to direct "To'hajiilee" and pushes that cinematic allusion to its logical conclusion in the red hills of the New Mexico desert, where Walt emerges from the rocks with hands over his head to surrender to the lawmen. Soon, though, the white supremacist hit squad, lead by Todd’s Uncle Jack, arrives against Walt’s wishes and a violent shootout commences between the criminals and the DEA. The episode ends mid-action, leaving us with the ominous feeling that major characters might not make it out alive, which is a distinct possibility this late in the final season. Throughout the sequence, various shots of the desert landscape and men with guns evoke the Western, the type of iconic imagery originally created by John Ford, Anthony Mann, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and others.

The standoff and shootout help to further classify the series as what creator Vince Gilligan called a “postmodern Western” on a recent episode of Charlie Rose. This classification was born out of a ‘happy accident,’ the selection of the unique location of Albuquerque, NM, for financial reasons. In a New York Times interview, Gilligan has complimented the area’s “wonderful topographical and geographical elements,” primarily “the immense size of the sky” as ideal for the look of the series. These skies are often contrasted on the show with shadowy interiors, such as the darkened walls of the meth lab seen in this week’s prologue, and onscreen framing devices enclosing the blue, as seen with the distinctive shot of Hank pacing underneath an interstate overpass early in the episode. Barry Langford writes in reference to the Western genre in film, it is “not purely in the depiction of these apparently dichotomous spaces, interior and exterior, urban and wilderness, but in the ambivalent relationship between and the values reposed in them, that the Western finds its determining ground.”1 In a similar sense, while certainly existing as a visually baroque show at times, Breaking Bad and its allusions to the Western should also be considered beyond style for style’s sake as a significant “determining ground” of its diegesis, a central component to its narrative meaning.

During many of the series’ most suspenseful scenes, often filmed on location in the desert landscape, Breaking Bad exhibits the visceral conception of visual storytelling found in the Western. The genre is central to the origins of cinematic storytelling itself, thus the series reconceptualizes these tropes for our current age of cinematic television. Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), film history’s Ur-Western, exists as a fundamental basis for filmic narrative. The suspense built in that film’s elemental design is in the DNA of countless heist sequences, including George Mastras’ masterfully directed episode 5.5, “Dead Freight,” which, up until “"To'hajiilee" was one of the series’ most direct allusions to the Western. While in Film Studies, the Western is a continual object of fascination, it is essentially a dead genre in terms of popular cinema, as the colossal box office failure of The Lone Ranger (2013), with its own elaborate train action sequence, illustrated. The Western and its genre codes are left mainly for auteur filmmakers to rearrange, like the Coen Brothers’ quirky remake of True Grit (2010) or Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti “slavery Western” Django Unchained (2012). If Gilligan’s series is the Western reborn and set in the post-millennium, perhaps, on that count even more revisionist than Deadwood (2004-6) or Hell on Wheels (2011-present), it feels distinctly different from all these period re-appropriations. The frontier myth that originally defined the Western as a genre is a distant cultural memory in postmillennial America. Yet the narrative conflicts remain – as exhibited in conflicts between the old and young, the law and the lawless, and the free and the domestic. If Breaking Bad is a chemical mixture of multiple genre codes also addressing these conflicts, ranging from film noir to domestic farce, the narrative remnants of the Western could be considered its base chemical.

These genre components are locatable throughout “To’hajiille” long before the climatic shootout. Key to the episode as well as to the series as a whole has been the pseudo father-son relationship of Walt and Jesse, reminiscent of John Wayne’s relationships with Montgomery Cliff in Red River (1948) and Jeffery Hunter in The Searchers (1956), where Wayne uncharacteristically portrayed morally flawed characters. By this point in the run of Breaking Bad, the pseudo father-son relationships also extend to Jesse’s protectiveness of Brock (which Walt exploits) as well as Todd’s obsessive adoration of Walt (humorously shown in his selection of ringtone for Walt, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science,” suggesting a blind adoration for the chemist). The series’ actual father-son relationship, Walt and Walt Jr., has become facile at this point, at least on the father’s part, as it remains the only relationship still defined by the untruths of Walt’s double life. As such, recent scenes between Brian Cranston and RJ Mitte have played almost like dark parodies of the father-son relationship, a series of ridiculous heart-to-hearts about Walt’s cancer, which are always played for manipulation on Walt’s part. In contrast, the relationship with Jesse has developed to expose the perplexing contradictory nature of Walt as both protector and abuser. As recently suggested by James Poniewozik for Time, Jesse has been skillfully portrayed by Aaron Paul as mentally abused, meaning Breaking Bad has been TV’s most sustained and horrifying depiction of long-term abuse.” This week saw Walt defending Jesse from Jack’s charges of him being a “rat,” which, of course, only proves bizarre as Walt, in the ultimate act of abuse, does so while ordering the death of somebody “like family to me.” In total, this pseudo father-son dynamic provides us with a truer insight into Walt’s complexities and contradictions than his actual family. Walt Jr. and Skyler are only seen this week inside the carwash, the manifestation of Walt’s rapidly fading ‘clean’ life, framed by a colorful array of greeting cards. Even as Skyler has reached new levels of moral decay this season, Walt’s real family still remains far removed from the dirt of the expansive desert landscapes, where, true to the Western, we see the series’ most violent conflicts.

This week’s violent conclusion has a special spatial significance. As Jesse reminds us before the shootout, the location is the “very first place we [Walt and Jesse] ever cooked, like, ever.” The episode’s title “To'hajiilee” thereby figures centrally into the overarching narrative of the series (or to use fandom speak, its “mythology”) as it refers to the 121 square mile Navajo reservation located West of Albuquerque, where Walt and Jesse first cooked meth in their RV in episode 1.1. The title conveys a return to a location that served as the birthplace of the series itself, the opening scene of the pilot where the RV rushes down the desert road. This full circle is implied in the return from the final commercial break, consisting of a series of ‘pillow shots’ reminiscent of the opening images of the pilot – rocks and cacti. While To’hajiillee is not the birthplace of the plot, the actual linear starting point of Walt’s cancer diagnosis, it is the start of the narrative of Breaking Bad, the first images we saw of Vince Gilligan’s world. Similar to episode 3.11, entitled “Abiquiu,” “To’hajiilee” actually employs a Native American word. "The reservation was originally given a Spanish name, 'Canoncito,' meaning 'little canyon', by Harry S. Truman. That name was eventually changed to the native word “To'hajiilee,” or "the place where the water is drawn up.” Employing the language of the original indigenous population suggests a return to origins for the southwest, beyond the multinational influences dictating the meth trade, from the Mexico-America drug wars highlighted in early seasons to the shadowy corporatized European connections of recent. As the series speeds toward its conclusion, we return to the birthplace of Walt’s empire as well as the starting point of the desert landscapes that so define Gilligan’s world. We also return to the untold history of the Western itself, the origins of the native people’s history overshadowed by the genre’s original frontier mythology, a cultural reference missing from the genre play of Breaking Bad. In a television series so much about chemistry, “To’hajiille” returns to the foundational elements, the building blocks of the narrative and the genre that dictate so many of its appeals.

1 Barry Langford (2005), Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005.


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Pam Wojcik said...

You are right, of course. But there are other influences-- Hitchcock in those overhead paranoid shots, Birth of a Nation in the Nazi cavalry. The revisionist western is not revisionist at all in terms of gender. Skylar and Marie are both trapped in enclosed spaces. neither has been in the natural landscape at any point in the series. My concern is that the masculine emphasis of the western complicates Gilligan's 's moral view. No matter how much masculinity is put in crisis, Walt may still end up an outlaw hero.

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,
I really enjoyed your post. (When I watched "Buried" I kept rewinding and pausing because I *thought* where Walt buried the money was the first cook spot. D'oh!

On your point regarding this: "The frontier myth that originally defined the Western as a genre is a distant cultural memory in postmillennial America. Yet the narrative conflicts remain – as exhibited in conflicts between the old and young, the law and the lawless, and the free and the domestic. "

I agree, and would just add that along with those conflicts (law and lawless, free and domestic) there was a racial binary throughout the first four seasons: all of Walter White's adversaries (with the exception of Hank/The State) were brown men ethnically tied to either Mexico (Cartel) or even further south (Gus in Argentina, was it?).

I couldn't help but mention this because of your excellent reading of historical space towards the end of your post. Thanks! (Lysa Rivera)

Anonymous said...

Also: I must credit Corey Creekmur (guest writer of first episode) for the Hank/Walt garage door stand-off! (LR)

priyanka said...

its a great post and i enjoyed it a lot...

Scott Balcerzak said...

Thanks for the responses!

Certainly, there are multiple genre film influences on the show. I decided to focus on the Western simply because the episode seemed to force the question. To me, those genre codes opened the question of location’s role in relationship to genre’s role in dictating narrative. I have to wonder, though, if a similar question could be posed with another genre: Noir influence and city locations, for example.

In retrospect, I wish I said more about the gender divides and how it might be related to genre codes, since the Western is such a hypermasculine genre, one that celebrates the outlaw hero, as Pam suggests. The Western and gangster film, both influencing the series, are so malecentric – which might explain Skyler's complicated position and, sometimes overlooked, Lydia’s oddly coded role. Racial binary is also a key question, especially in relationship to the Western influence. I do wonder how genre relates to both issues.