Breaking Bad
Season 5.16
"Under Pressure"
Guest Writer: Corey K. Creekmur

Monday, September 30, 2013

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

“Under Pressure”

Guest Writer: Corey K. Creekmur (University of Iowa)

Written and Directed by Vince Gilligan

“It’s all over now, Baby Blue” -- Bob Dylan (1965)

“Men, like poets, rush ‘into the middest,’ in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems. The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations. They fear it, and as far as we can see have always done so; the End is a figure for their own deaths.” -- Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (1966)

There has perhaps never been greater pressure on creators of television series to provide fully satisfying conclusions to their full runs. The final episodes of successful television programs have become much-anticipated and much-discussed “media events,” at least since “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” the two-and-a-half-hour conclusion of M*A*S*H’s 11th season aired on February 28, 1983 and famously drew a record-setting 121 million viewers. (The previous record was held by the 1980 Dallas episode – not a final episode, but the fourth in the fourth season – that resolved the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger from the end of the third season.) But of course that was from the pre-VCR or DVR or streaming era, when collective viewing required that everyone sit down in front of a television set with millions of other people at the very same moment. As virtually every contemporary TV critic now emphasizes, we simply don’t watch TV that way anymore, and so conclusions are now expected to provide especially pleasing narrative resolutions to multi-season story arcs, in addition to allowing audiences to sentimentally and collectively say “goodbye, farewell, and amen” to beloved casts and characters. Perhaps, as I noted in my previous contribution to this series, the only reason to now watch the conclusion of a contemporary serial as it first airs is to avoid the dreaded “spoilers” that now appear not just within hours of the program’s airing, but as live tweets and blog posts as the episode is being broadcast. Otherwise, we expect conclusions, whenever we consume them, to reward our considerable investment (of time, emotion, and often cash) in long narratives, and we are harshly critical (“hated the ending” is a common cry) when they do not. As 21st century TV viewers we are not unlike, as many have noted, the voracious and sometimes demanding readers of long multi-plot 19th century novels.

However, like a few other recent examples, the airing of “Felina,” (not just an anagram for “finale,” it turns out) the final episode of the last season of AMC’s Breaking Bad became an event many people felt should be experienced in real time, simultaneously with millions of other viewers, reportedly requiring some latecomers to binge-view in the past few days in order to “catch up” with the entire series right before the finale began. Fans of the show, some only recently addicted, had become determined to see if this highly esteemed show got its ending right, unlike other programs with conclusions deemed disappointing or simply frustratingly confusing. (A number of recent essays have argued that Breaking Bad was doing well what the more or less contemporaneous serial killer drama Dexter had just done poorly, for instance.) And so as if in acknowledgement of this increased pressure from the media and fans alike – pressure which, in chemist Walter White’s scientific understanding, would mean the ratio of force to the area over which that force is distributed – Breaking Bad, relentlessly and increasingly reflexive in its final episodes, has its anti-hero check a pressure gauge one last time in one last meth lab before he meets his end. He seems content as he awaits his doom: it seems the set pressure has been just right. This brief close-up, near the end of the end, efficiently functions as both our and Walt’s final reassurance that what has just preceded it has functioned like clockwork, ticking along, in Walt’s words when threatening Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz, “like a kind of countdown.” Despite moments of emotion and violence, the final episode of Breaking Bad seems, finally, precisely calculated, measured, and balanced. Even the object that causes the most mayhem in the episode – Walt’s bizarre remote-controlled, pivoting machine gun – serves its primary purpose as a tested and carefully calibrated narrative device.

Thus, rather than teasing its audience with the open-ended or cryptic conclusions that notoriously ended The Sopranos or Lost (or the typically weak conclusions of programs cancelled without their creators being allowed to construct proper send-offs), Breaking Bad stayed true to its persistently linear progression and classical construction, satisfying basic narrative desires centered on pure plot points rather than the more lofty themes – the healthcare crisis, white male trauma, entrepreneurship amidst capitalist collapse, etc. -- the show has perhaps explored (and critics have obsessively pondered). Creator (also the writer and director of this episode) Vince Gilligan apparently decided that answering the basic question of “What happens?” would ultimately be more enjoyable for his audience than exploring the supposedly more sophisticated interest in “what it all means.” In addition to the relentless forward propulsion of its narrative – in contrast to the more episodic, fragmentary structure of series like Mad MenBreaking Bad has often employed the sort of narrative symmetry, contrast, rhyme, and repetition associated with “classical” Hollywood cinema. To take only the present episode as an example, we begin in the cold Northeast and end in the hot Southwest, in both circumstances with Walt enclosed and close to the nearby police, following a standard model of repetition with variation.

Employing a “rhyming” device relatively rare for this series, the episode also begins and ends with prominently placed, familiar songs – despite their stylistic contrasts, both elegiac – to set the narrative into action and then to close things down. The selection of the songs may deserve greater attention, but I’ll just note that the cowboy singer Marty Robbins’ 1959 hit “El Paso,” which recounts a dying cowboy’s tale of his deadly fascination with the alluring Mexican girl Felina, reinforces the persistent echo of the Western genre motivated by the setting and actions of Breaking Bad, whereas Badfinger’s 1972 “Baby Blue,” which opens with the blunt acknowledgement “Guess I got what I deserve,” also affirms what finally seems to have been Walt’s one true love, the cool metal of the meth lab and of course the almost pure Heisenberg blue produced within: “the special love I have for you, my baby blue.” The first of these songs, on a cassette located in the car he steals in New Hampshire, is apparently still playing in Walt’s head as he plans his own final Western showdown, while the Badfinger song supports what seems to be his dying reverie. Long ago, Walt’s mysterious behavior as he began his transformation into Heisenberg lead Skyler to wonder if, improbably, her timid husband might be having an affair: as these songs summarize, the near-perfect meth Walt could cook was his actual mistress.

In moving towards and being allowed to fully plan its conclusion, the creators of Breaking Bad -- so anxious to arrive at the end that they were leaping ahead with flash-forwards -- made the narrative function of the ending the virtual subject of the final episode, with, again, many of the big themes critics have attended to within the series drained away to allow for a tight focus devoted to the means for achieving closure. It’s time to wrap things up, so Walt literally wraps up a box of money that he seeks in vain to deliver to his family; it’s time to (again, in the overused cliché of critics) tie up loose ends, so Walt literally ties up the loose ends of the string that now holds the wedding ring that falls off of his emaciated finger. Persistently, in dialog, the characters speak only slightly indirectly about the narrative trajectory in which they appear: “It’s over,” Walt informs Sklyer and us, decisively, finally. The drama he has staged for Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz, he promises them, and us, will end as good dramas do, with “curtains.”

Unsurprisingly, the shape of the whole episode, reinforced by the bookend songs, also reveals a careful balance: the two halves of the episode pivot around Walt’s return to his devastated home, thus taking us, at last, right up to what the narrative had until now marked as a future event through a pair of tantalizing flash forwards; now that we have caught up to that moment (perhaps in homage to those viewers who caught up with the series in order to view the finale “on time”), the latter half of the episode then unwaveringly moves forward, aligning the previously disjointed narrative and narration to unfold together. At the heart of this literally pivotal moment, a quick flashback to the beginning of the series – brash Hank offering to take meek Walt to see a meth lab to lend excitement to the teacher’s humdrum life – tightly binds past, (now arrived at) present, and future. Within the dramatic events of the episode, the demands of classical narrative are also efficiently, even mechanically -- a term often used dismissively in regards to narrative, but perhaps for the scientific mind an admirable procedure -- ticked off: “I can do the math,” Walt reassures us when he sits down with Lydia and Todd, an otherwise unscheduled appointment he makes because he has noticed that she is also “rather schedule oriented, I guess.” Summarized too bluntly to convey the long-delayed rewards they provide, Walt arranges to provide for his family (and perhaps show up the rivals from his past), says a “proper goodbye” (“not our last phone call”) to his wife as well as to his infant daughter, gives Skyler a bargaining chip with the lottery-determined location of the dead DEA agents, eliminates all of his remaining enemies, and – most satisfyingly -- frees Jesse from his pathetic captivity. (Jesse’s stoner buddies even get a last witty cameo.) Initial reactions indicate that audiences have already found the conclusion strong, and critics have applauded the series for – again, in the dominant cliché – effectively tying up loose ends, although in fact the ends of the show have never been very loose: but we don’t have a ready way to complement the tightening of already taught ends. In the spirit of the well-crafted series, Jesse’s gold-tinted woodworking fantasy seems to perpetuate (“passing the torch,” one of Jesse’s pals notes) Walt’s pedagogy, of taking pride in work (no matter how illegal or immoral) and working towards perfection rather than a demonstration of basic competence.

In addition to its commentary on its own narrative drive for closure, Breaking Bad seems to have incorporated discussion of its status and impact as a cultural artifact. As mainstream publications as well as (it seems) a thousand blogs and websites have engaged in lively debates over the series – with special attention to negotiations of the increasingly difficult ability of audiences to identify or empathize with its characters (can and should anyone remain on “Team Walt”? What degree of misogyny is revealed by fan hatred of Skyler?) has led to the often witty incorporation of such chatter into the show itself. I previously noted that a comic discussion of the legacy of Star Trek in 5.9 seemed to engage with the already anticipated canonical status of Breaking Bad in the history of television, and others have viewed Walter’s brutal verbal assault on Sklyer in 5.14 (although also a performance staged in an apparently successful attempt to exonerate her) as the series itself ironically ventriloquizing her character’s harshest fans. (Anna Gunn’s Emmy award a week later has been widely viewed not just as a confirmation of her talent, but as a moral vindication of the verbal abuse both the character and Gunn herself have received.) Thus, even as commentators have wondered whether Walter White is now beyond redemption or audience sympathy, Walter himself can summarize the conventional narrative now in popular circulation: “My children are the blameless victims of their monstrous father.” In helping Walt to convince the Schwartz’s that they will be continually shadowed by the “two best hit men west of the Mississippi,” Jesse’s stoner buddies Badger and Skinny Pete express their own and perhaps our own qualms: they are “not sure how to feel about this,” even articulating that things feel “kinda shady, morality wise.” (Paid handsomely, they suddenly say they feel better.)

If the penultimate episode, as Sean O’Sullivan detailed, was all about video screens (on which Walt, Jesse, and Elliot and Gretchen appear), the final episode is organized around the frames within frames of mirrors (especially rearview mirrors in cars), windows, doors, and architectural features such as columns in even shabby apartments. The episode also relies, like the series as a whole, on an alternating rhythm of quiet and violence, and a visual structure of wide-angle long shots depicting vast exteriors and even cavernous interior spaces, contrasted with extreme, slightly disorienting close-ups – here of coins being pumped into a pay phone, an abandoned wristwatch, a set of keys just out of reach, woodworking tools, and a terrifying cup of tea (perhaps in homage to the universe revealed in a coffee cup in Godard’s Two of Three Things I Know About Her, itself echoed by a zoom into a glass with a dissolving antacid tablet in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), as well as the finally loving caressed, shiny tools of the trade in the meth lab. Breaking Bad’s title sequence, like chemistry teacher Walter White persistently reminded us, demonstrates how science breaks things down to their basic elements, and these extreme close-ups – at times approaching the quality of abstract paintings -- suggest the essential building blocks of narrative: viewed in purity, they serve as acts of communication (phone) and exchange (money); the organization of time (watch); the useful devices that answer questions, open doors, or otherwise mark transitions (“keys”), the creative act of construction (tools), and the simple props for decisive actions that may effect the narrative shift from life to death (tea, poison). Such basic pieces, foregrounded (purified) through images that eliminate other distractions (impurities), recall the efforts of previous, scientific models of narratology that sought to collect the basic elements of narrative along the lines of something like the notable achievement of the periodic table.

Vince Gilligan has acknowledged that one of the intertexts for “Felina” is John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers, most prominently glimpsed in the final confrontation between the slowly bleeding Walt and the freed and armed Jesse: curiously, Jesse occupies the position of both the kidnapped Debbie (Natalie Wood), the niece of the obsessed and brutal Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who may not wish to be rescued from her captivity among the Indians, as well as Ethan’s often abused “halfbreed” sidekick Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who almost kill one another despite their tenuous partnership though most of the film. In addition to this narrative kernel, which condenses the deeply ambivalent affiliations and identifications between characters in both Breaking Bad and The Searchers, Gilligan inherits that film’s prominent motif of perfectly framed doors and entry ways that keep Ethan outside of civilized society more often than they welcome him into it. Shots through windows and doors organize this episode, and include a lingering shot on a window as Walt walks away (becoming a hazy blur) from his last glimpse at his alienated son; other shots rely on the prominent blocking of figures, such as the image of Walt and Skyler, oddly reconciled once he has finally spoken the truth to her, forever separated by a vertical pillar: these carefully framed shots prepare us for Walt’s final containment within a series of internal frames as the camera rises after he falls to the floor of the meth lab in the final shot.

I suspect ongoing commentary on this episode and the entire series will center on Walt’s confession to Sykler, following her voicing of what more and more fans have also said when Walt’s actions, however misguided, have been explained by him (and his defenders) as for the sake of his family. “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family …” she begins, speaking for many who have reached their limits with this excuse, firmly attached to the increasingly frayed ideology of the male breadwinner and middle-class patriarch. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was … really … I was alive,” Walt acknowledges. After five seasons of lies, the moment is stunningly, and calmly honest. As narrative resolution, which do we want: the long-delayed, perhaps repressed, truth, which now admits to sociopathic narcissism and self-regard (albeit tinged with professional pride), or the increasingly thin façade of misguided family values? How are we to finally reconcile Walt’s persistently emphatic insistence that he was serving family and home with his late admission that destroying his family and home were the routes to feeling alive? Skyler’s response to Walt’s calm confession – so different in tone than the verbal abuse of his phone call to her – seems to be accepting, and she is given an almost beatific close-up when Walt says goodbye to their baby daughter moments later. It seems, whatever moral formula this revelation requires us to work through (“do the math”), for Sklyer and Walt, and perhaps for us, some sort of pressure has finally been released.

Note: I’d like to take the opportunity of the conclusion of this series for KRITIK to sincerely thank those who made it possible: Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Esti Ezkerra Vegas, and Sofiya Pershteyn at KRITK for invaluable editorial and technical support, and to all of the contributors to the series, who rose to the challenge of providing smart, elegantly written criticism produced as quickly as possible: Lysa M. Rivera McGuire, Pamela Wojcik, Ina Rae Hark, Scott Balcerzak, Tedra Osell, and Sean O’Sullivan.


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Lauren said...

Thanks so much Corey for that beautifully written and elegiac finale. I hope I won't embarrass you when I say that I found it more moving and profound than "Felina"!

I have no idea what anyone else has said (beyond what you report) because I just finished watching 15 minutes ago. But I think that the show has been one of the most entertainingly well-acted and cleverly sustained and executed male fantasies in the history of American culture. You are right of course that the show touches on open wounds like healthcare and late-capitalism in crisis. But you are oh-so-right to say that somewhere along the line, and emphatically with this finale, the show opted for staying true to its genre and delivering the undisguised pleasure of a (male) fantasy of total control.

I found it especially wry that it mattered so much to both Skyler and Jesse that Walt admit to them that he was doing--and had all along been doing--exactly what HE wanted. As though his alpha-male-in chemistry-teacher/cancer-patient's-clothing was fooling anyone.

The only thing this finale was missing to make it even more joyful was Walter saying "Yippe ky yay" as he slips off into oblivion because even cancer couldn't get him in the end.

Regrets, I've had a few...

This has been an amazingly well-done series of posts, Corey. Thanks so very much for all of your hard work and thanks to everyone who participated in. It's been a pleasure working with all of you.

Badezimmer Set said...

(A number of recent essays have argued that Breaking Bad was ...