Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad: Darkness Ends an American Dream

By Steve Evans

I'm not one to put a lot of thought into television shows. Most of them just fill time instead of passing it pleasantly. The difference between those notions is huge. Fact is, I've always preferred the cinema.

Then I was drawn into Breaking Bad, the only program since The Sopranos that grabbed me emotionally and intellectually. In its best moments, Breaking Bad was high tragedy, as good as Shakespeare, as devastating as David Mamet. I mean this most sincerely; not as mere hyperbole.

So here it is: Breaking Bad was the greatest TV show in the history of the medium. If you are among the few late to the party (the series ended last night), I can only suggest catching up via NetFlix and while the full five seasons are still available for streaming.

For the clueless who've spent the last five years smoking drugs, Breaking Bad told the story of Walter White, a meek chemistry teacher who learns he’s going to die from lung cancer. Faced with insurmountable financial problems, a teenage son with cerebral palsy and a wife expecting an unplanned child, White slowly descends into the criminal underworld as a manufacturer of ungodly pure crystal methamphetamine. His goal, or so he tells himself, is to earn enough money in the illicit drug trade that his family will not suffer after he’s dead. Providing for his family informs his every decision, at least on the surface, but something else is going on deep inside Walter White. As his wealth and dark reputation begin to grow, a sense of excitement and purpose fuels a raging ego and a hair-trigger temper – traits he no doubt always possessed but had long suppressed.

The triumph of Breaking Bad comes from watching Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips into Scarface. Slowly. Incrementally. One bad decision leads to another until there is no turning back.

The episodes themselves are a goldmine of symbolism and subtext, for those who enjoy reading that sort of thing into a TV show. The cinematography (Breaking Bad is among a handful of shows shot on film) was consistently breathtaking, even innovative in its use of time-lapse photography as an exciting and effective alternative to montage. The acting was uniformly superb (star Bryan Cranston won three consecutive Emmys for best dramatic lead). The writing was beyond reproach, never a false note, while consistently surprising the faithful viewer with plot twists and ridiculously clever dialog. Characters ended in places we could not have foreseen.

Music cues were spot-on. I'll never forget Breaking Bad's use of the old pop ditty "Windy" by The Association as counterpoint to the comings and goings of a meth-addicted hooker named...well, Wendy, but close enough, or the propulsive instrumental "Shambala" to accompany a hitman on his murderous business. "Crystal Blue Persuasion" by Tommy James and the Shondells might seem an obvious choice for a scene of crystal meth cooking, but it was series' capper "Baby Blue" by Badfinger that set the perfect eleagic note before the credits rolled on the finale: "Guess I got what I deserved" is the song's opening line.

In terms of pure craft, this show was impeccable.

Mostly, though, I will always view Breaking Bad as an allegory for an America gone horribly wrong, where societal values are hopelessly skewed toward the banal and men have their DNA imprinted with certain cultural notions of what is expected of them -- and how success shall be defined. As Joe Pesci observed in Casino, "It's the dollars. Always the fuckin' dollars."

Ultimately, Breaking Bad was a show about choices and their consequences.

If drama serves as both entertainment and an opportunity to examine life in a certain place and time, then Breaking Bad used the tropes of that uniquely American genre, the Western, to deliver some seriously profound insights into who we are and how we live today.

I can relate to the travails of anti-hero Walter White even if I cannot condone his transformation. Perhaps only someone facing a terminal illness and dire financial straits could fully appreciate how a man might be tempted to veer toward the darkness. Breaking Bad also raises innumerable questions about morality and free will, then creates situations in which there are no easy decisions. See for yourself. At several critical junctures in this five-season saga, it is clear that characters have no choice but to keep inching closer toward a moral abyss.

The series finale may disappoint some viewers as a bit too tidy, perhaps even a callow bid for redemption. So be it. As much as fans may like to embrace this show as their own, it is ultimately an artistic work that belongs to the talented people who brought Breaking Bad to vivid life. Last night series creator Vince Gilligan presented his ending. He wrote it, he directed it, the choices were his. I respect that. Seldom does an artist get to realize his vision without interference. For good or ill, Breaking Bad ended on the same dissonant chord struck at the beginning of the series by Gilligan, whose decisions only the most arrogant viewer would dare to second guess. He went out on his own terms. Just like Walter White.

I would no more change the ending than I would tell Renoir how to apply paint to his canvas. Walter White's story arc was always about the journey, not the destination, which was inevitable from the pilot episode.

And now it's over. I will miss this show terribly and will always be grateful to Gilligan for expanding my consciousness while leaving me breathlessly entertained.

Farewell, Walter White. I will remember your name.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.