[Think Tank] Breaking Bad

[Think Tank] Breaking Bad

No more half measures, Overthinkers.

[In breathless anticipation of the premiere of Breaking Bad Season 4 this week, Overthinkers John Perich and Shana Mlawski talked about their impressions of the first three seasons. SPOILER ALERT, obviously – Ed.]

Perich: If I had to attach one theme to Season 3 overall – and, algebraically, to the show as a whole – it’d be about people rationalizing their urges. Every character whose head we get inside is moved by these deep animal urges and they all come up with pretty good ways to rationalize them. Jesse tells everyone he can watch them smoke up without being tempted to smoke up himself, but note how effortlessly he slides back into The Game. Hank convinces himself that he’s about to crack the Heisenberg case as an excuse to keep from going back to El Paso. Skylar tells herself that she’s sleeping with Ted just to get back at Walt. And Walter? He’s the king of rationalization. He has more money than his family could reasonably hope to spend. And yet he’s back in the lab again.

Mlawski: I think that’s absolutely right. To me, BB is a Shakespearean tragedy about a villain whose fatal flaws are, fascinatingly, what most Americans would call “good values.” Walter works hard to provide for his family; he wants to be a “real man” who isn’t emasculated by his wife, his bosses, or his ex-girlfriend; he refuses to take charity under any circumstances; etc. All of his good intentions gradually become good justifications for criminal–and sometimes downright evil–behavior. Being a pinko commie liberal, I’d have to say my favorite Walter rationalization comes from the season opener, when he said, “If anything, I would blame the government.” That’s some good satire right there!

Perich: Watching Walter in the S3 opener was fascinating. There’s the assembly in the gym where the high school students are sharing their feelings (in a predictably maudlin way) about the airplane crash. Walter’s standing in the middle of the gym with his arms wrapped tight around himself. His adorable floppy haircut from S1 is gone. He’s wearing a goatee and his face is sunken. And he’s scowling with impatience at having to listen to this adolescent sentiment. I remember watching that and thinking, “He’s gone evil.” He just looks like a villain. Like an ogre in a castle on the hill, shrinking away from sunlight.

Mlawski: If I had to quibble with any of your points–and I guess I do, because otherwise this conversation is going to get really boring really quickly–I’d argue that, in this season, Jesse didn’t rationalize as much as he used to. At the beginning of the season, he admitted, “I’m the bad guy,” an admission Walt would never make. Walt rationalizes his behavior because he must believe he is the good guy. Jesse’s been a really fascinating case study this season, because he spent most of it trying to justify his claim that he is a truly bad guy. He goes to a 12-step meeting and tries to get his cronies to sling there, for example. But when push comes to shove, Jesse can’t actually bring himself to sell to Andrea–she has a kid. Or consider the two epic monologues Jesse delivered back when he was in the hospital after being destroyed by Hank. The first monologue is Jesse trying to be the Bad Guy: “Grr, I’m gonna get Hank and murder his family, blah blah blah.” Then, in the second monologue, he reveals what he really wants, and what he’s always wanted: Walt’s approval.

Perich: I accept your quibble and offer a quibble further: I don’t know that Jesse was ever the bad guy, even in S1. Jesse was a drug dealer, a slacker and a manipulator, sure. But the first three seasons have gone out of their way to keep Jesse from ever having killed anyone. It’s Walter who poisons the two dealers in the pilot and who chokes Crazy-8 to death with a bike lock. When Walter sends Jesse to “take care of” the meth heads who robbed Skinny Pete, Jesse doesn’t kill them – one of them kills the other with the ATM. The tension of the penultimate S3 episode, “Half Measures,” is the question of whether Jesse is finally going to kill someone – the dealers who offed Andrea’s brother. But then Walter drops in like the hammer of god in the family SUV.

(Of course, this makes the dilemma of the finale – is Jesse going to kill Gayle or not? – even more gripping. And then he does. Jesse’s now just as bad as Walt is.)

Mlawski: What’s fascinating to me is the in-fighting among BB fans on the Internet. It seems half completely buy into Walter’s rationalizations just as Skyler found herself doing toward the end of season 3. I’m on the other side of the fence.

Perich: I’m not as in touch with the BB fans on the Internet as you are. If I had to guess, however, I’d say the breakdown falls along the lines between those who buy into the myth of the Alpha Male – as Walt himself does – and those who recognize BB as exposing it. You see the same thing with Mad Men. Part of Mad Men’s immense popularity comes from anchorless young men in its audience who want to be like Don Draper. And who wouldn’t? He’s handsome, he dresses well, he beds lots of women, he doesn’t have a contract and he yells at his subordinates. Of course, the point of Mad Men is to expose that facade.

BB is similar. We see how pathetic the Alpha Male gestures are, moreso in S3 than in prior seasons. Walt tosses his money on the grill then lights it. Boom, dramatic gesture. Then he immediately realizes what he’s done and dumps the money into the pool. Walt makes a pass at the gorgeous assistant principal, whom we all thought was flirting with him in S2. She recoils. Skylar threatens him with a restraining order over voice mail. His response is to clutch his junk (through his tighty whities, bits of popcorn still in his beard) and snarl, “Restrain this!” in barely coherent rage. S3’s also about dealing with the consequences of one’s bold, impulsive gestures – of following one’s urges.

Mlawski: Well, I hate to generalize, but it sure does seem like the same people who rush to defend Walt regardless of what he does are the same people who say things like, “I’m not sexist! It’s just that Jane is a shrill bitch who deserved to die, Marie is a harpy, and Skylar is a vapid cunt rag.” (Interestingly, these commenters started warming to that vapid cunt rag when she started allying with Walt toward the end of the season.)

Perich: Totally with you. I’d say that the guys who think Don Draper’s life is awesome are also probably a bit sexist.

Mlawski: Speaking of Internet flame wars–TELEVISION IS SERIOUS BUSINESS, PEOPLE–there was also a big hullaballoo about the “Fly” episode. Was it “the best episode of all time” or a pretentious piece of garbage? Sadly, I lean more towards the latter. Not that I thought it was garbage… I usually love bottle episodes, but I think they only work if they tell us something about the characters that we don’t already know. Most of “Fly” was about the fact that Walter is a crazy perfectionist control freak who goes after one problem when he can’t solve another…and also he probably has a death wish. We knew all of this already. What made the episode for me was the bit at the end when Jesse was on the ladder and Walt apologized for Jane’s death. I guess “Fly” is important in that it drew Jesse and Walt closer together (like the similar “4 Days Out”) and alerted us that Walt was perhaps getting a little bit of conscience back. Could have done without the slapsticky fly-chasing and too-fancy camerawork, though. What did you think?

Perich: I don’t know that “Fly” was the best episode of all time, but I really liked it. The latter half especially. Jesse drugs Walt just after the midpoint of the episode. The audience expects Walt to slump right over. Instead, he gradually slurs his words and grows more introspective. It’s a masterful bit of intense acting and sceneplay – the kind of thing we only expect from good indie movies. The camera tricks were weird, but not so overwhelming as to take me out of the moment. I laughed at the slapstick; BB’s better at that than most shows out there. And there really is nothing more annoying than the low-frequency buzzing of a fat housefly.

12 Comments on “[Think Tank] Breaking Bad”

  1. Stephanie #

    the one little thing that drives me crazy about the show is why are Marie and Skylar the only two characters that are color coded. Skylar is always in green and Marie is always in purple. In the first season that wasn’t always so, Skylar got to wear other characters. I’m pretty sure by the end of season 3 that Skylar doesn’t own any other color.


  2. Chris #

    I feel the preeminent theme of the show is how Walt, intentionally or not, is slowly ruining the life of everybody around him. This is most obvious with Jesse, obviously. When the show began, Jesse was the criminal and Walt just seemed like some aimless guy looking for a quick way to make money using his skills, skills which had been languishing as a high school chemistry teacher. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume that Jesse would be the one ruining Walt’s life and that he’d be in over his head in the drug world.

    Little did we know that Jesse was also a drug dealing dilettante, and it was only with Walt there to motivate him that he actually accomplishes anything. Of course, Walt has dragged Jesse further and further down into the world of crime and destroyed his life, putting him in horrible situations and letting the love of his life die and all.

    Combo got killed, Badger almost went to prison, Saul’s got to fear for his life now. Gus’ life is getting harder, though obviously there’s not any sympathy there, Hank got shot and nearly killed because of a situation that Walt was heavily involved in. Things haven’t gotten that bad for Skyler or Walter Jr. yet, but I imagine that’s coming. Then, in the end, I presume Walt will get what’s coming to him as well.

    I am really looking forward to this season, because I think Gus is a great character and I presume that most, if not all, of the season will be sort of Walt versus Gus. Of course, one may have presumed season three would see the Cousins as the primary bad guys, but they were dead halfway through the season.

    If I may use this opportunity to express how I’d like to see the show end. I’ve pictured it as Walt getting found out, and then just abandoning everybody. His family, Jesse, everybody. No heartfelt goodbyes or anything. He just flees to Mexico. In the final minutes of the series finale, Walt is alone is a sweltering motel room hiding out and its clear his cancer is catching up on him. In the final moments, he lays down on his bed coughing his lungs out, as it becomes clear this is how it ends for Walt.

    Also, I really liked “Fly.” I actually discussed it in depth on an episode of my podcast, if I may plug myself: http://cheers.libsyn.com/cheers-episode-7-the-life-and-times-of-lorenzo-music


  3. Chris #

    Also, from listening to Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg discuss season four of the show, apparently there will be more focus on Skylar and Marie this season. So, there you go.


  4. Brian #

    Being a anchorless young man myself I think all those other anchorless young men looking to Mad Men to learn n be alpha are chumps and I laugh in theyre stupid wannabe faces the best place to learn to be really alpha Tom Cruise Magnolia Brad Pitt Fight Club Philip Seymour Hoffman Boogie Nights those movies arent make alphas look stupid but tell it really be that alphas R awesome always anyone who feels bad or not dicking just not being alpha enough prob cause is stoopid n not pretending to be busy enough! heres for numbnutz dont know how pretend to be busy guy which is alpah as fuck! http://youtu.be/55Kkip5z_0c Id like to comment more but I got lots of interesting things going on cause Im a busy guy. PEACH!
    Oh but real quick Breaking Bad be mad tight when Trejo die like when that fat british guy did dat black and white movie with the shower and shit cause it like made the world feel really alpha like it jus dont give a fuck if u Donny Trejo!


    • Qwil man #

      I have no idea whether this comment is real or not but I love it to bits.


  5. CPF #

    I love your site, but that graphic at the top put me off this article. Class 4 dangerous goods are flammable solids/dangerous when wet (emits flammable gas) and that label is specifically flammable solids. “Volatile” is not a category. “Extremely” would never be used – it is either dangerous or it is not. And the label itself is the “warning.”


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Blame AMC, not us. We swiped it from them. :)


    • Cornelius #

      That was a Class 4 “well, actually.”


  6. Stacy #

    The Breaking Bad fans who are so totally on Walt’s side and never think he is in the wrong do kind of annoy me. Because really they are being a bit sexist. If the show was reversed and the wife was the meth dealer, people would be talking about how horrible of a wife and mother she is and how the husband has ever right in the world to cheat on her or leave her. But nope, because the wife is the cheater, she is the worst person in the world who deserves to die a horrible death.

    I realize that this is just a double standard that I just have to deal with. But I hate that fact that my favorite show has so many sexist fans.

    Also, I loved Fly, I didn’t think it was pretentious, I thought I was hilarious.


    • Adrian #

      If that were true, I’m not sure Weeds would be as successful as it is.

      Is that really why people hate Skyler, the infidelity? If so, I agree with you that it is completely ridiculous. For myself, that act didn’t indicate that she was a bad person, just that she was something of a hypocrite since she had been so dead set on keeping the High Moral Ground. With “I fucked Ted” she completely wiped that away, and was being smug about it too.

      I think people often go to gender too quickly as an explanation. I’m not sure it’s true that a meth-cooking mom would automatically be vilified, and her roving husband championed because she “deserved it.” I think it depends completely on the choices the writers make, further adjusted by the subsequent choices the actors make.

      It took me a long time to dislike Skyler. I sympathized with her as long as I could because she was definitely dealing with a lot of shit from Walt that she didn’t deserve. He was clearly lying to her about SOMETHING, constantly disappearing, generally being as difficult as he could.

      That said, she just couldn’t stop being vindictive and petty. She pretended to be concerned about “what’s best for Walt,” but really she just couldn’t handle not getting her own way, and took revenge for it in passive aggressive ways, which really isn’t any more laudable than Walt’s strategy of running away and not dealing with anything.


  7. svan #

    I remember an article, and I can’t remember if it was here or not, but essentially reflecting on the ways in which the audience has shaped the moralism of Scarface. Which is that, almost irrefutably, Scarface is powerful anti-cocaine propaganda. Categorically, the events and circumstance established as a direct result of Al Pachino’s involvement in the cocaine trade are NOT desirable outcomes. He lives a life of shallow decadence only to die violently, young, and alone. He lives a repugnant life of near continual thuggish brutality, isolation, and all to profiteer on the back of a business that destroys lives and empowers savage criminal organizations.

    And yet. . . Scarface owns a cult of personality among the youth it was intended to affect. The Scarface metaphor is one that has never been particularly far behind Walt’s own meteoric rise to Meth King of New Mexico. The way in which we come to remember Scarface has a lot to do with the popular legacy that grew out of it, namely one which glamorizes alpha-male criminality. So who is Walt’s closest approximation if not the necrocratic Scareface when considering not just the story universe of Breaking Bad but also the audience response to him? My choice would be maybe David Sumner from Straw Dogs (Seriously look at that movie poster and tell me that isn’t a younger 1960s Hiesenberg http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1606590208/tt0067800).

    The primary narrative of Straw Dogs is essentially that David Sumner wanted to do extreme violence the whole time and leaps at the chance once there is virtually no chance at social reprisal. He is the definition of self-interested altruism, someone who, as soon as he is allowed, eagerly enlists crisis conditions in his favor. Crisis conditions he is partially responsible for making by not taking appropriate action earlier.

    This is how I see Walt more so than as someone who performs evil then looks for consonance. Walt’s character arc reads more like someone who gradually discovers their true consonance to be an ugly one. That the science teacher was the alter-ego and not Hiesenberg. This is likely why I find Walt’s family and friends so tedious in the first two seasons. They exist as necessary obstacles and external representations of the barriers Walt must transcend to assume his true self. But the question of whether or not Walt will reach that destination has not ever really been challenged. At no point during the show did it ever really seem like Walt would have to make a serious decision between dieing while retaining the bonds of honesty he had with his family and pursuing some radical transformation into wealthy badass.

    There are a number of things that seem to support this. Bad blood with Elliot predating cancer. How rapidly Walt assumes this persona. How hyper-critical he is with Jesse compared to how tolerantly he absorbs the disinterest of his students. Ongoing debt. Etc


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