Breaking Bad
Season 5.15
"Story Land"
Guest Writer: Sean O'Sullivan

Monday, September 23, 2013

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

"Story Land"
Written by: Sean O'Sullivan (Ohio State University) 

In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, there is an amusement park called Story Land. It’s for little kids, with gentle rides and tame fun—the kind of place that might show Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium on a perpetual loop in the visitor center. It’s a living diorama of stories with the fears drained out of them: Mother Goose, Cinderella, and other characters on the safe side of registered trademarks gently instruct the clientele that stories operate on us from our earliest moments of connective consciousness, and that they are about the eternal, the predetermined, the comforting. Precisely the opposite, in other words, of the narrative juice provided by serial television, and especially the kind of juice required to keep the narrative machine of Breaking Bad going.

In this episode, Story Land—or, rather, story land—vacated New Hampshire and headed for New Mexico. A place called the Land of Enchantment would seem a likely place for such a change of scenery; but the stories told back home were not about magic and wonder. The tension between the possible and the probable—the seesaw that all long narratives have to negotiate—shifted forcefully to the latter in Albuquerque. Forget the breathtaking invention of “Dead Freight,” or improvised fugue states, or the yeah-bitch magic of magnets; much of this was story as the cold sheen of alignment, of pitiless event and consequence, and not transformation. Marie, bereft and lost in thought, does not even get the comforts of home, whisked away from yet another crime scene. Skyler, bereft and lost in thought, enunciates to the authorities the irreplaceable facts of her circumstances—“You will use everything in your power against me and my children”—in acknowledgment of the end of a certain kind of narrative line. When we did get tales of the fantastic, they were genre condensations, sadistic, ritualized narrative confinements that
delivered bluntly, without the pleasures of nuance. Skyler, in her other big scene, was thrust suddenly into a Lifetime men-with-ski-masks-stole-my-baby melodrama, with attendant musical cues and close-ups. Jesse, in a Southern Gothic nightmare, is chained into slavery and forced to watch what may have been, at least to my mind, the single most horrific execution in the show’s long history. Todd’s last words to Andrea—“Just so you know, this isn’t personal”—exposed the darkest side of narrative logic, where people are turned into objects for their use value, stories converted into economics. It will eventually be Walter’s inability not to take things personally, in responding to Gretchen and Elliott’s convenient misunderstandings of the relationships between person (Walter White) and narrative object (Heisenberg), that will bring him back to his story land in the Southwest. (He is able to heed Vacuum Man’s warning not to “take personally” Skyler’s use of her maiden name; but perhaps one story of name-changing is all Walter can handle.)

Because being exiled from narrative is too much for Walt to take. A cabin in the woods cut off from workaday human contact and communication has long held an important place in America’s self-construction, of course. But for Walter, as it would be for the kind of person who reads a blog post the day after a TV show airs, that isolation is anything but splendid. No satellite, no cable, no car, and only the vague opportunity for occasional French-Canadian programming? This is the hellscape that stories forgot. That, of course, is by design, since Vacuum Man’s main job is to separate Walter from narrativity. But, like a televisual fan deprived of a social and informational network, Walter cannot abide the storytelling silence—he is desperate enough to read stacks of newspapers detailing facts and versions of events that are stale long before reaching his door. Vacuum Man’s apparently regular monthly visits seem a parody of serial structure, the days marked off before the next installment that reanimates the captive audience. But this is seriality removed from culture, a place where Heisenberg’s hat, the most overdetermined accessory in this narrative universe, no longer signifies, other than as antler decoration. An hour of excitement goes for 10,000 dollars a pop here: two-man, seven-card poker while being hooked up to an I.V. He’s itching to leave from the start, of course; but a Smoke Monster patrols the narrative perimeter, making what happens next as scary for Walter as it habitually is for us. Only when his body itself seems on the verge of disappearing, his wedding ring forcibly repurposed as a pendant, does the fear of narrative get overtaken by the addiction to it.

Specifically, what propels Walter back to narrative is not Gretchen and Elliott as such, but Gretchen and Elliott on TV. Talk of televisions and screens is everywhere in the episode—from the monitor in the cold open showing us stir-crazy basement Walter, to the recorded spectacle of the “crybaby rat” Jesse detailing the murder of Drew Sharp (committed by Todd, that “Opie,” in other words, that TV character), to the television on which Vacuum Man saw Skyler’s inadequate public defender—a “deer in the headlights,” although presumably not the deer keeping Walter company. Todd, appreciative of Jesse’s assistance in the sexual pursuit of Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, tries to get the Colbert Bump by offering Jesse a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s AmeriCone Dream. But then Breaking Bad has always loved television, and the stories that it can tell. The primum mobile of Walt’s life of crime was watching a TV news report, in the pilot, about Hank’s seizure of $700,000 worth of meth. The series relentlessly and creatively breathed life into that relic of television narrative, the cold open, while trafficking in such familiar categories as the domestic drama, the crime spree, and the post-western. Think of everyone’s favorite televisual self-actualizer, Saul Goodman, or the narcocorrido video, or the impeccably ventriloquized ad for Pollos Hermanos. Unlike its cantankerous AMC cousin Mad Men, Breaking Bad actually has discernible act breaks, and a beating pulpy heart that is not afraid to aim for the direct hit. [See Corey Creekmur’s post.]

If Breaking Bad is a great show because it loves television, we might contrast it to a show that is great because it hates television. Since 2007, the gold standard of problematic closure has of course been The Sopranos. That show has been precedent-setting for many reasons; Vince Gilligan gestured roughly toward an affiliation in his acceptance speech last night by citing our “golden age of television,” a phrase that will give some media studies folks the willies. That golden age was, if not inaugurated, then at least signally pushed into prominence by a show made by David Chase, someone who always wanted to be Antonioni, and not a showrunner. When the Vacuum Man says “I’m not much of a movie guy,” that’s a sign of his focus and commitment, qualities that Breaking Bad admires even when demonstrating their occasionally ruinous consequences; if a character said “I’m not much of a movie guy” on The Sopranos, he’d be dead before the end of the episode.

Breaking Bad and The Sopranos are as operationally dissimilar as any celebrated narratives of the last 15 years, but they share some late-series affinities, even as obverses. They both feature an episode, in the early stages of the final season, named “Live Free or Die,” named after the state that is tangentially glimpsed here. In The Sopranos, the New Hampshire escapade offered a classic narrative byway, Vito Spatafore’s arc of sexual self-discovery that inevitably drew complaints for its putative irrelevance to things that supposedly mattered; in Breaking Bad, we get the birthday gesture at Denny’s and then an episode where Walt can’t get away fast enough, because mainlines and not byways are the core of Breaking Bad’s plot constructions. And each series, at least at this later and delicate juncture of things, seems similarly caught up by the question of whether an ending should be an extreme, a kind of unforgiving extension of the aesthetic forces that have most shaped the show. Will The Sopranos’ narrative refusal, its cut to black, be complemented by Breaking Bad’s overabundance of resolution, a conflagration of bodies tied up with a pretty bow of closed ends? To be yourself, or not to be yourself; that’s the problem that a television show has to resolve at the moment of suicide—if, unlike the vast majority of shows, a story gets to decide when and how to off itself.

This was arguably the last episode of Breaking Bad. As I’ve suggested, this show has made momentum and twist its calling cards from the start, narrative attributes perhaps poo-poohed by some of its Golden Age neighbors. This is a show that lives in the gaps between episodes, in the speculation about how the final shot will play out and lead on, given its tantalizing gestures. Fittingly, the last shot here—of a half-empty glass of Dimple Peach on the counter, its drinker vanished—sets up the strands of what-could-be for next time. What happens when there is no next time? Isn’t a finale for Breaking Bad a logical contradiction, a betrayal of its fundamental belief in the narrative of “and then”? But it’s also a show fundamentally invested in the tension between movement and shape. A few episodes ago, Hank described to Skyler his case against Walter as “a long-haul proposition. I got all these pieces…but they don’t mean much on their own.” The pieces need to link up; but do they need to end? More recently, Lydia told Todd that her buyers “expect a certain threshold, a continuity” of product—the same brilliant high, delivered again and again. What high can we get from a finale, given that a conclusion will bring the end to the continuity of perpetual motion? Will we survive an episode that could be 96 percent pure, without the chance to partake again?

Story Land located in New Hampshire
The episode's final shot provocatively blends two different non-diegetic worlds. Breaking Bad's sixteen seconds of theme music, layered week after week over the opening credits and kept forever separate from the score of the show itself, finally creep into the soundtrack at this moment—suggesting a blend of the fixed, familiar part and the continuous, evolving whole. The world of the discourse and the world of the story are brought into uncanny conjunction, signaling an incipient attempt to cook up something special one last time. That shot of the drink at the bar, if shifted forward one episode, could have been Breaking Bad going for the Sopranos ending. The story continues; we’re just not going to show it to you. (Didn’t I see the Members Only guy with a rifle?) Do we have to get all the pieces to believe they fit? If you go to New Hampshire and visit Story Land, the first character you see is Humpty Dumpty. What do you want, dear viewer? Must our narrators fit our story together? Or would you rather look at the pieces and admire the wreckage? Blue meth, after all, must be shattered to be properly consumed.


Make A Comment


Lauren said...

Wow Sean, what an incredibly thought-provoking piece! I did not notice all the TV references no doubt because I was too drawn into story to notice discourse.

I am not quite sure what you mean by saying that Mad Men is cantankerous--do you mean that it is too aloof from television?

Wonderful post Mr. O'...Sullivan! Thanks!

Ivan said...

Brilliant analysis, Sean! Really smart and illuminating points in re: the differences from Sopranos.

I agree with your point that that was "the single most horrific execution in the show’s long history." And I agree with the writer in Slate, actually, that the torture-porn elements of the Jesse plot for these episodes are really off-putting... but you at least provide a rationale for their role.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic work with this post. Thank you.

Sean said...

Lauren: Yes, I was suggesting the familiar Sopranos-Mad Men genealogy. I love the fact that, if you watch a late-night rerun of Mad Men, you get the arbitrary ad breaks--because Weiner says he doesn't write with them in mind--punctuated with informercials for depilatory products or baldness cures. I always like narratives that are at war with themselves, by design or accident. Mad Men can't escape the uncouth hucksterism of its medium.

Peter N. said...

An insightful and probing essay, especially regarding the self-reflexivity of the show. Perhaps more might be said about the snowy environs Walt finds himself exiled to. The fact that Walter White ends up in New Hampshire might be intended to remind us of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. If so, his final (or at least penultimate) destination / destiny was written in the stars, which is to say, encoded in his name. (His first name also might remind us Thurber’s Walter Mitty, the mild mannered New Englander whose day dreams include being an assassin testifying at a murder trial). Of course, the cabin could really be anywhere – anywhere that is no where, that is. Walt’s exile to it might even recall the frozen environs of the Cohen brother’s Fargo, where a snowbound cabin with bad tv reception houses murderers. (The entire episode is definitely tuned in to American cinematic gothic – it’s hard not to feel the ice cream delivered to the caged Jesse via bucket on a rope is a “Silence of the Lambs” allusion). If the Romantic sublime al la Shelly’s Mount Blanc or Woordsworth’s Prelude is unavailable to Walt in the snow mountains it is perhaps because, as Aristotle noted, nature abhors a vacuum, and Walt, whisked away by a vacuum cleaner salesman, has himself become something of a black hole. (He gasps for breath in the cold, and his lungs can no longer take in air – the result of cancer, a black spot on the x ray.) For Walt, as for all post-romantic modernists, nature is a barren, desolate place – his movement from scorching desert to the freezing mountain is positively Eliotic! Such a movement has allegorical designs – if the New Mexico desert is infernal (quite literally so in the first episode of the series, when a brush fire is accidentally set outside of the Winnebago meth lab) – so are the snow-covered mountains of New Hampshire when we will recall that Dante’s hell was a frozen waste land, with the devil quite literally locked in ice. Walt has not yet quite become the devil, but with his signature hat on a set of antlers, he’s getting there. Whether or not the mountains are in New Hampshire or some other state may of course not matter much, since, like Milton’s satan, wherever Walt goes is hell.