Sunday, July 04, 2010

[TV] Breaking Bad And You

Breaking Bad And You: Season three of AMC's near-pantheon series just recently finished up and it was very well done. Short version: this is the year Walter White's slow flight into the dark side went hyperbolic. The show has turned into a fascinating exercise in reflecting on one's personal morality. At what point is Walter White no longer a hero?

When we started he was a hapless Beta Male. He barely provided for his family. His brother in-law was a hot shot hero to his mildly handicapped son. His wife was (and still is) a sanctimonious shrew. He was given a death sentence (cancer) against which his only hope was to beg for money from more successful friend and rival. He drives a Pontiac Aztek for god sakes. He was worse than a failure. A failure has at least tried for achievement. He was completely ineffectual. He was a dust speck -- an intangible being. His destiny was to die pointlessly and drift out of memory having just as well not existed.

So he starts cooking meth with the plan to make enough money for his family (including a baby on the way) to survive after he was gone. Is this the point he turned evil? This naturally put him into contact with violent criminals and at one point he had to kill one such criminal for the sake of his own survival. How about now? Evil yet? Or excusable? Or at least understandable?

Further on, to preserve his operation, and partially for the good of his "partner" in whom he has developed a father/guilt complex, Walter allows someone to die through inaction, which indirectly leads to the death of hundreds of innocents in a plane crash. How about now?

Or how about when his brother in-law is brutally assaulted and partially paralyzed when offered up as a sacrifice by Walter's drug patron to save Walter's own life? How about when he runs over a couple of street dealers to save his partner and almost casually finishes off a survivor with a bullet to the head? How about in the last scene of the season, when he effectively orders the death of an innocent to save his own skin? The black hat he was sporting in the final episode seems to indicate that the line has been crossed.

Here's the thing. Once you accept that the first step -- that desperate cry for some sort of value for his existence -- the devastation that follows just cascades inevitably along with it. Unlike, say, Tony Soprano, who was a vindictive psychopath from the start and who you rooted for only in the sense of a fantasy, Walter White could easily be you or me. Walter White, in an act of desperation, in an attempt to die with some sort of identity, when faced with the ultimate injustice of mortality, did something very few of us wouldn't do (however manufactured the situation). It led to destruction beyond his imagination, but how can we declare him a villain when we can only in our deepest hearts we understand him and suspect we may would have done the same thing.

That's the high concept of Breaking Bad and it is a beaut. Oh there are sub-plots -- Jesse's various wars with addiction, Skyler's hypocrisy and potential complicity -- and the characters are wonderful, especially Better-Call Saul. But it's the high concept that has Breaking Bad knocking on the pantheon's door. There's still a bit too much dependency on contrivance and coincidence to let it in. (This tendency was on display at the end of this season as Jesse happened to find himself in a situation where he was facing down a couple of street dealers in the name of revenge and chivalry.)

The key thing now is not to drift in uncertainty. More than anything, creator Vince Gilligan needs to have the end in sight. He needs to know how he wants to finish it up and start getting there over the next couple of seasons. Right now, judging from recent interviews, he doesn't know where to go next and that's a problem. Complete the arc in your head, Vince, and work from there for two more seasons. Then close up shop. Call it a classic and move on to your next project. The key to the pantheon is in your grasp.