In the past week, I have watched pretty much the last two complete seasons of Breaking Bad, including the finale tonight, right at 9 p.m. EST. I am still debating whether this was my proudest moment: being able to manage my time in a manner that allowed me to get caught up with a series just before it aired its finale. I was barely able to do that with Lost, and I loved that show.
After watching nearly 65 episodes of this series, I find I am still unable to explain why I continued to watch it, beyond the curiosity on how the characters got to that point. I admit, my interaction with Breaking Bad is different from a lot of viewers. Unlike I would hazard a guess and say the majority of viewers, I only jumped onto the Breaking Bad train a little over a month ago; I did not give myself the luxury of time with this series. Unlike the majority of viewers, I did not start watching the series upon the pilot episode, nor did I get caught up two seasons in and then watch season by season with the rest of the viewing audience. The finale was the only episode I did not watch on either Netflix or OnDemand. And that could say a lot about how people watch TV and follow TV, but that’s another essay for another time.
So I didn’t have a lot of time to get to know Walter White. I didn’t have the time to breathe after he let Jane die – I just moved into the next episode. And thanks to Netflix, I didn’t even have to click the button to say yes, that I wanted to watch the next episode; Netflix did the heavy lifting for me. Thanks, Netflix!
I didn’t have time to rationalize Walt’s manipulation of Jesse in “Full Measure,” where, to save their hides, he sent Jesse off to murder Gale in cold blood. Jesse didn’t realize the full extent of what he was doing, but Walt sure as fuck did. But unlike the majority of the viewing populace, I didn’t take that moment to breathe. The next thing I knew, Gus Fring was walking down the staircase and brutally and wordlessly slicing Vincent’s neck open with a box cutter.
One of the downfalls of the new ‘binge-watching’ that’s going on, in my opinion, is that the audience is not given the chance to build opinions, to test them, to fully understand them. I plowed through 63 episodes in about eight weeks. There are some who have been watching for almost six years. I didn’t have the time to know how to feel about Walter beyond my first impression: that though he may have started out cooking meth in order to make money to support his family after his death, somewhere along the line he decided — for himself — that he liked it. And at that point, where he decided that he wouldn’t take an opportunity to return to his family life — that is where I decided that my opinion of Walter’s character was unfavorable.
And people really – really – didn’t understand why I don’t like Walter. It comes down to this: I reacted exactly how Vince Gilligan wanted me to. His main objective in creating Breaking Bad was to try and find the point, the moment, the line — where a normal, everyday, humdrum, boring person could descend into villainy, and then descend so far that he decided that he liked it. And I think part of the reason I couldn’t identify with Walter is because I grew up with superheroes and police officers as role models, and the idea of a person getting away with multiple murders – yes, mostly of gangsters and other villains, but let’s not forget Gale, nor the assisted manslaughter of Jane, nor the poisoning of Brock in the interest of manipulating Jesse again – does not jive with the idea of ‘role model,’ or with the idea of ‘a person one will root for.’
My father raised me on Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four: normal, everyday human beings who, given the chance for amazing powers, decide to use them towards good. When I was little, I read Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew; when I was older, I graduated to Kinsey Millhone and John Grisham novels — they were always the underdogs, scrambling to secure justice for even more under-underdogs. In my late teenage years, I fell in love with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which did so much for girl power, and justice, and the idea of doing the right thing instead of the wrong thing, and being able to show the consequences for both types of power (because doing the right thing can also be a bad thing at times).
Having those formative influences — not to mention Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, Eddie Valiant, and Elisa Maza from Gargoyles — in my childhood and, well, formative years? Of course I’m going to root for Skyler and Hank! Why would I root for Walter instead?
By the way, I’m just going to state this and move on: Skyler is a fantastic character. I only questioned her motives a couple of times during the entire series, which makes sense, because everyone makes decisions sometimes that other people will question, based upon the outsider’s formative influences and personality. Anyone who comes to me and says that they are sorry Skyler didn’t die in the finale? Turn around; there’s the door. I don’t want to talk to you anymore. You go think about what you’ve done, and you go think about a lot of things: the tentative treatment of women, both in Hollywood and in real life; the state of marriage today; how strength of character shines through in the oddest of moments; you just go think, Person. Because seriously; I do not want to talk to you Skyler-Haters right now. Because she is amazing and one of my favorites (and almost the only one that didn’t die).
And this brings me to my final question that I need to sort out: was the show perfect? Because a lot of people are saying that it is.
I’m saying … I can’t answer that.
Because of who I am, and what I believe, and my moral code and my formative influences and my yada yada, my instinct is to say ‘no.’ But I can’t hold myself to that. Here’s what I can say:
The finale was the perfect finale for this show. I one-hundred-percent admit, it did exactly what it was supposed to do, and for the show, it was 100% satisfying. And guys, I’ve watched a lot of TV (an actual quote: Mom: “No one watches TV the way you do, Alaina.” [I don’t think she was saying it as a compliment.]). That means I’ve watched a lot of series finales. Do I think it was the best series finale in the history of ever? No. But was it the perfect finale for this show? Yes.
Before I get into how the show worked on its own and how the finale enhanced it, I’d like to use a metaphor. In the episode “The Limo” of How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson whips out his Perfect Party Mix CD and describes the Philosophy of the Mix CD thusly:
Barney: People often ask me, “Barney, how is it that you’re so psyched, so much of the time?”
Lily: By who, who asks you that?
Barney: And the answer is right here – my own personal Get Psyched Mix. Now people often think a good mix should rise and fall, but people are wrong. It should be all rise, baby!
And if nothing else, Breaking Bad treated its run like it was the perfect Get Psyched Mix CD. It was all rise. My Friend Sarah has tried at least twice to get into Breaking Bad, and can’t get through Season 1. For what reasons, I’m not sure; Twitter’s not the best at elucidation. And people have told her to just keep going, “Season 3 is where it really picks up.” And that is a stupid reason to watch a TV show. Why would you watch a TV show from season 3? If seasons 1 and 2 are so not good, why would you watch them? So I totally understand Sarah’s hesitation in powering through Breaking Bad.
As for me, I powered through because my curiosity to see the arc of the characters overwhelmed my boredom and frustration with the early seasons. And once Season 3 started, yes, the action picked up, and it was like a runaway train (from which people were siphoning off methylamine); it was all rise.
Going back to the curiosity for a second. Because I didn’t get into Breaking Bad in the traditional method — watching it from the beginning on TV like normal human beings — I was a bit spoiled on certain events. Because I maintain a healthy Internet presence, and spoilers abound. So I knew going in that Gus Fring was going to have half his face blown off. I knew that an airplane crashed over Walt’s house (I guess I didn’t know it was two). I knew that Gus Fring’s weapon of choice was a box cutter. I knew that at some point, Walter poisoned a child; I didn’t know it was Brock, and I didn’t know until I watched the episode that it was merely Lily of the Valley.
But the point is here, that I knew that these mile markers existed. And since I knew that Walter started off as a meek chemistry teacher with a lung cancer diagnosis, and ended up orchestrating the murder of ten men in three different prisons, I was curious as to how that arc progressed. And that was what kept me watching; not emotional ties to the characters, but a curiosity as to the plot and its progress.
Back to the Perfect Get Psyched Mix. In every season, Walt’s actions escalated. From killing Crazy Eight to telling Tuco he was Heisenberg, to watching Jane die and not doing anything to help her, to manipulating Jesse into murdering Gale, to orchestrating the suicide bombing of Hector Salamanca and Gus Fring, to the Great Train Robbery and the involvement of the Neo Nazis … the action was all rise. I can see how the viewing audience would get swept up in its fervor.
And to that end, the finale was the perfect finale this show could have: it wrapped every plot point up wonderfully, with a little bow on it, even. Everything and (almost) everyone came back into play, and either died or was redeemed or maybe, both. Spoiler Alert! Walter White does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly. (That was Gary Cooper, asshole.) Walter White’s end was fitting, though — I admit — not what I wanted. But again, I have different opinions than the majority of viewers on that subject.
So the final question – is Breaking Bad the best show — the most perfect show — in all of television history?
Now, admittedly, I am not a television critic. (At least, I’m not getting paid to be one, so I don’t think I can exactly put that on a business card.) (Although I might, right above a line declaring me to be an Obtainer of Rare Antiquities.) But using my knowledge of television, my history with television, and my formative influences, I can say that Breaking Bad had flawless construction: its cinematography, its direction, its writing, and the overall arc of the series and the fact that it achieved what its creator intended; all of those facets combined to make Breaking Bad a truly great television show, if one uses the term “great” as one does when describing Jay Gatsby, not as if one is describing how the show made one feel.
But perfect? I feel that I cannot consider Breaking Bad to be ‘perfect’ when I cannot identify with its main character. I guess, granted, that was the creator’s intent, but … I don’t know. I’m not sure. After watching 63 episodes in almost as many days, I still feel disconnected with Walter. I understand his actions, though I do not approve nor empathize with them. So admittedly, I am looking at this question with biased eyes. Because I do not approve of the main character’s actions — and that disapproval therefore bleeds into my assessment of the show — I do not think I can ever say that Breaking Bad is the most perfect show in the history of ever.
But then again, a lot of my favorite shows were flawed. The aforementioned Buffy? If I had my way, I would have ended it at “The Gift.” While that would not have given us the amazing “Once More With Feeling,” and while “Chosen” is a very good series finale, “The Gift” is, thematically, an excellent stopping point. (I also know it was supposed to be the series finale, but then the show was brought to UPN, so that kind of ruins my metaphor.)
Arrested Development was the show of my heart for years, and I thought it was flawless. But there were bad points. Don’t talk to me about “Ready, Aim, Marry Me!” — it’s my first least favorite episode. And there were network notes, and overall lack of support which caused the quality of the show to suffer. And I still don’t know how I feel about Season 4 beyond a shade of “… huh?”
Alias suffered BIG TIME in its later seasons. As much as I love it – and I do! – there were problems with it, and it did not end the way I would have wanted it to.
Don’t even talk to me about Lost. I’m still not over it.
So while I believe that Breaking Bad is an imperfect show because of my disconnect with the characters, at least the network didn’t interfere with it like others did with my favorite shows. At least the quality of writing didn’t diminish. At least the creators and actors and everyone involved on the show loved it from Day One until the end.
Again, I guess I can say the construction of Breaking Bad was flawless, and everything anyone who ever works in the business could ask for, production-wise. In terms of how I interacted with the story it told, and the characters it presented, it left me cold. Yet I still feel that that was what Vince Gilligan wanted when he set out to create the show in the first place.
Maybe it is perfect. I don’t know. I think I started trying to talk everyone into believing me, but I ended up believing the hype.
I guess I’ll end with this: Breaking Bad was a good show. It is not the worst show I’ve ever seen, but neither is it going to be anywhere near my list of favorites. And I mean ‘good show’ in the most technical terms possible. Because I firmly believe that if it was a bad show, or a poorly-made show, I would not have let it get past the three-episode rule.
Will I ever rewatch it? Probably not. Will I watch the prequel, Better Call Saul? Maybe, but that’s because I love me some Bob Odenkirk and I’m kindof hoping David Cross gets to be his best friend in it.
I guess, the best thing I can say about Breaking Bad is: it is the first show I’ve ever watched where I’ve analyzed it more than I’ve enjoyed it. It made me think about a lot of things; some things for the first time under the context of television-watching. And I guess, I have to commend it for that.
But I probably won’t rewatch it. And I definitely do not understand how people fell head over heels in love with it, and with Walter White. And I never will, nor will I try.
If you need me, I’ll be over here taking a breather, watching me some Once Upon a Time, and going back to shows that don’t make me think. For a while, at least.
Goodbye, Breaking Bad. May I never cross paths with you in a darkened alley again.
August 31, 2015 at 9:15 am
Great write up. I’ve just finished the series and I’m an emotional wreck but do agree on a lot of your points and especially the one about binge watching – it doesn’t give you the chance to ponder what’s going on. AND I am definitely team Skyler, which I know is not a popular camp.
As for Walt, I think my affection for Hal from Malcolm In The Middle affected my feelings towards him at first and is what put me off watching it in the first place to be honest as I didn’t think I’d be able to take Bryan Cranston seriously as anyone else (and by the way, MITM was the BEST and MOST PERFECT season finale – please note that I watched a LOT of MITM while on maternity leave and Lois and Hal saved my sanity) – but anyway, at first I could see his reasons for doing what he did and that it escalated quickly into a world he didn’t want to be in but then I started to hate him. Jesse on the other hand I hated at first and then grew to love, THAT I felt was what was good about the writing in the show. I do see how Walt tried to redeem himself towards the end and was full of regret and you could see glimpses of the old Walt there which was touching. Hank’s depth of character throughout the show was amazing too and I was devastated when he was killed.
So, yes, I enjoyed to a certain extent, though much of it was watched behind my fingers because it was all a terrible mess and I just wanted it to end. I will be watching old episodes of Malcolm in the Middle for a while to help me get over it. Thanks for the write up x