This is an extremely spoiler-ridden post, so if you’re not caught up to the end the first half of season five, you’re gonna have a bad time. You have been warned.
I just found myself in the same mood that swept me into a writing fervour after watching Prometheus; when you love something, it breaks your heart to see it destroyed by its creators.
And I love Breaking Bad. I love its traditions of visual storytelling, I love its character hooks, I love its early beat structure. Breaking Bad is a show that challenges the most dangerous assumption most people have about themselves: namely, that they’re generally good, when the truth is that most people simply haven’t been given the opportunity to “break bad.”
So I watched the first two episodes of the fifth and final season with considerable disappointment: the opening scene felt trite, both episodes ended on the same, blunt-force emotional beat (Walt’s with his wife and he scares her! we should be scared for her! bad Walt! boo, hiss!), opportunities for visual narrative were wasted (e.g. the scene where Walt’s just hanging around with his hand in his daughter’s bassinet), and worst of all, a secondary character, Mike (while wholly phenomenal unto himself), was being used in the script in a way that took narrative precedence away from the two main characters, Walt and Jesse. This spoke to me of scriptwriting that had lost its capacity for nuance. Two episodes that should have outlined Walt’s cognitive dissonance more than ever in the wake of the season four closer, instead constructed solely reactive roles for Jesse and Skyler while distracting us with a more interior look into Mike’s (again, richly layered) life.
But episode three was very good. Beautiful, taut writing accompanied by powerful visual narrative, plus a fitting balance of screen-time between all players in the week’s given equation. In short: classic Breaking Bad. So I settled down and enjoyed the season until last week, when SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Walt murders Mike END SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER. And that’s when I scratched my head.
I said to my friends, why did this happen in the penultimate episode in the first half of the season? This kind of dramatic event is a perfect closing beat for the final episode of the first half of the season–especially considering the prominence of that character all through this narrative arc. What on earth could inspire more “What happens now?” questions than what happens at the end of episode seven? What did Gilligan have up his sleeve, that he figured would trump even that?
Well, this week I got my answer. And it wasn’t pretty. Almost from beginning to end, this episode messed with some of the best aspects of this series’ structure and narrative style. For one, you have two montage sequences used to convey the passage of months–this, in a show that used to pride itself on picking up from the last episode almost to the minute. And you have a flashback sequence, plus a mess of a conversation between Walt and Jesse that amounts to reminiscing about first season events as if they happened a decade ago (and as if viewers needed the reminder). But most of all, you have an act of incomprehensible carelessness on Walt’s part that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER makes Hank realize who Walter really is just before Fade to Black END SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.
This last element is the worst, because it is a tremendously improbable plot device. Even putting aside the question of why Walter kept this incriminating book for so long in the first place, after Walt talks to Skyler you’d think the two of them would clear the house from top to bottom–a final paranoid run to ensure all evidence is gone once and for all. But apparently on this one, most vital, culminating accord, the two of them are suddenly bereft of all capacity for attention to loose ends? This is their downfall? Bad housecleaning?
I was worried for a while that Gilligan would try to follow Scarface too closely after alluding to it early in the season, but now I wish he’d tried to follow at least the thematic arc a bit closer. Instead, in one fell swoop Gilligan did away with Walter’s cognitive dissonance and moral descent… so that we could, what? Start sympathizing with Walt again? See him as having his back to the wall after trying–albeit extremely late in the game–to make good at the very end?
Narrative tension is one of the hardest things to maintain, and I give Breaking Bad immense credit for sustaining it at that fever-pitch for so long. But instead of ending this first half of the season where he should have–with SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER the murder of Mike and the question of “what now?” for both the business and Walt’s mental state END SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER–Gilligan chose a half-season closer that has zero imaginative capital built in.
After all, the show’s primary characters (Walt, Skyler, Jesse) have now all made concerted efforts to return to goodness, so we don’t have to follow Walt on a path of destruction entirely of his own pride’s making anymore. Meanwhile, the character Gilligan has situated as the person we should be thinking about for the next ten months is not a character we have any reason to expect a calculated, eight-episode hunt from; rather, this is the character who just a couple episodes ago busted into an assumed felon’s home at a moment’s notice. This is our adversary? Just when we were gearing up for Walt to be his own adversary right to the bitter end?
I hate to say it, because I really do love this series, but I don’t think there’s anything the next eight episodes can do to repair the damage of this spent narrative tension–both within Walt’s headspace (and with it, the question of justified audience sympathy) and in the surrounding character environment. The final eight episodes may be well constructed unto themselves, but we were promised Mr. Chips turning into Scarface. And so far as I can recall, Scarface doesn’t try to change his prideful, self-serving ways just before the final act.