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A 'novel for television': 'Breaking Bad' #503

I set my DVR to catch last night's prime-time Olympics excitement so I could watch Breaking Bad instead. Priorities! Before we get down to this week's new answers, new questions, and wasn't-it-awesome-whens, I want to share this interview with BB creator Vince Gilligan, by Salon's Erik Nelson, sent to me by my brother and fellow fan. Nelson begins by remarking on one quality that makes the show stand apart from other television dramas (particularly of the suspense-filled sort):

Breaking Bad really deals with the consequences of violence. Bad things don't just happen, and then, during the commercial break, get tidied up, with no consequences. You sweat the details; you sweat the consequences of your characters' actions. It adds a dimension to Breaking Bad that is extraordinary.

Gilligan responds:

[F]rom the outset, Breaking Bad was very much intended as an experiment in change, and in fact the opposite of the marching order of most TV shows. I wanted the characters to change week in and week out, primarily the main character, Walter White.... If Walt kills somebody, its going to have an effect on him. Its going to have an effect on everyone around him. He's never going to forget it. He's going to carry emotions like baggage, and the baggage will weigh him down more and more. And it will change who he is, and you as viewer will never forget those moments, because he won't allow you to, because he himself will remember them.

I think this is a big part of what makes Breaking Bad an excellent example, perhaps the best example, of what Nelson describes as "the rise of the novel for television." For me it has many of the same satisfactions of reading a very good novel. Imagine what Dickens could have done with a cable-television drama. On to this week's episode:

First of all, we got a direct answer to the question I was left with after episode 1: Walt's birthday is coming up, and per Marie, it's his first birthday since his cancer diagnosis. That means a year has elapsed since the beginning of the first season, when Walt turned 50 -- and the flash-forward that began season 5 (assuming Walt was telling the truth about his age, via his "52" spelled out in bacon) is happening a year from now.

Speaking of Marie: was it not satisfying to hear someone tell her to shut up? I know Skyler's emotional breakdown has broader significance, but I'd like to think of that scene as a gift to us faithful viewers.

As for big questions, perhaps the biggest (or at least the most nagging) is: How did Walt poison Brock?! I think I held my breath through most of that scene, wondering what might be revealed. But if Brock recognized Walt he certainly didn't let on. And Walt's later conversation with Jesse about how great it is to see him and Andrea together: shiver.

We went to bed discussing the last moments of the show, when Walt recalled the grisly death of Victor and wondered aloud if he had been done in by his own hubris, "taking liberties that weren't his to take." Was he having second thoughts about his meth-cooking scheme? Or was he threatening Jesse? The latter seems far more likely to me. Walt ought to be feeling cautious about flying too close to the sun, but based on his exchanges with Mike and Saul, I don't think he's in the mood to learn any lessons. I keep being surprised and horrified this season by how calculating and cold Walt can be. But when you remember all the baggage he's carrying, as Gilligan says, how could he be otherwise?

Speaking of the final scenes (and lessons unlearned by Walt), another thing I admire about this show is that the money is more than just a MacGuffin, an empty motivation that viewers shouldn't think too much about. Every dollar is accounted for, and my vague sense that Walt must be rolling in it keeps turning out to be wrong. It continues to be a plausible motive, or at least a plausible excuse, for his continuing to cook in spite of all the danger. Every turn in his fortunes brings new expenses. Hell, he even has a condo to maintain!

How about Walt watching Scarface with the kids: a little too on-the-nose, perhaps? Or does it just seem that way because AMC can't resist advertising its collection of mob movies with that same clip from Scarface at every commercial break? (The one thing I am not enjoying about finally watching Breaking Bad as it airs is having to put up with the commercial breaks. The one they keep showing with Gus's last moments really cheapens the show for me. Also, do you really want to see that horrifying visual out of context? I don't.) It was a great moment for conveying Skyler's emotional state. And we did get to see baby Holly sporting another of her many hats. There are infants in the arctic circle who go hatless more often than that kid.

Another link for you fanatics, this one from my sister (this show is becoming a family habit): iTunes has free "Breaking Bad Insider" podcasts, featuring Gilligan and other cast and creative-team members discussing each episode. I haven't listened yet, but I can't wait to download and dig in.What did you think?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Walt's Victor callback sounded like a threat to me, but one whose motive I couldn't quite figure. He's got Jesse wrapped around his finger -- Jesse even volunteers his whole take to stop his two daddies from fighting! Why risk waking up Jesse's recently neutralized default suspicion -- and after the first cook? Which reminds me: I know that Walt's hubris has reached unprecedented proportions, but is it really in character for him to choose such a risky cooking method and venue?Mollie, I thought of you when Skylar was laying into Marie -- I, too, wanted to join in the screaming. Great work from Gunn in this episode.

I did not understand why Walt made a veiled threat to Jesse either. In fact, I thought he was going to look for an opportunity to team with Jesse to get back it Mike, who just strong-armed Walt on hazard pay. If I had to guess, I'd say Walt plans on making a move to let Mike know who's boss, and he doesn't want Mike and Jesse to then team up against him (but my track record on this show is pretty miserable).

Grant, even as the "Shut up!" scene was playing out I was imagining the animated .gifs that would be posted on fan sites within the hour. Here's my guess as to the threat (if it was a threat): by using his mind games to get Jesse to dump Andrea, Walt reinforced Jesse's commitment to their partnership. He seems to want Jesse convinced that he's a criminal for good, no going back -- especially since the money is obviously not sufficient motivation for Jesse. So once that was done, he then had to switch tactics to make sure Jesse doesn't start thinking he can get along without Walt. He should know his place: as a criminal partner and subordinate to Walt. ...But that's just a guess.As a musical theatre enthusiast I feel I should comment on the use of (a very odd rendition of) "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" as the music during the meth-cooking montage. Does that also fit the Icarus motif?

This episode, for me: not so much. We're cooking again (with I agree a very weird rendition of On a Clear Day). Marie got yelled at. Other than that didn't feel like much happened.And yes I thought Walt watching Scarface was way too on the nose. This episode really treaded water compared to the first two.But I still love you B Bad.

I'd love to know how the episode order went.AMC: OK, so we're a little light on programming through 2013. How would you feel about splitting the final season in two?Vince Gilligan: You guys have so many awesome ideas. This is even better than the one about burying next-episode teasers three segments into that creepy reality show you're going to run after our time slot. So would it be seven episodes the first half and six the second?AMC: Actually, we were thinking of boosting the order to sixteen, so eight and eight. Gilligan: Three extra eps, huh? OK, but we'd planned for thirteen...AMC: Is this not what montages were made for?Gilligan: Say hello to my little music video!AMC: Perfect.

Ha, yes. It feels churlish to complain, but if I had to register any complaint about Breaking Bads storytelling it would be Enough with the musical montages. Like maybe we dont need the whole song? They're the only time I find my attention flagging at all.I listened to the most recent of those insider podcasts linked to above, and it was amazing. Insights into character and behind-the-scenes minutiae about production (for example, I can now confirm that the objects being consumed by the German businessman and sauce-sampler were tater tots), from people who actually know what theyre talking about. Highly recommended. But one thing that struck me was how proud they all were of their little music videos in that case, it was the Walt and Jesse look for the ricin cigarette in Jesses house for a very long time. They discuss how they found the song and what little tricks they put into that one with the direction and editing. And then at the end of the podcast they talked about how they have to bring in each episode at exactly 47:07 (or whatever the length is), and how hard it is to cut things. And Im thinking, Hey, I have a suggestion of where you could pick up some time!Im still thinking about Walts threat to Jesse. Im wondering if it was Jesses offer to let Mike plunder his take, instead of taking equal shares from him and Walt, that set Walt off. Both because it demonstrated that Jesse is more motivated by loyalty to Mike than by the money, and because Jesse was interfering in Walts power struggle with Mike, and Walt cant have that.I forgot to mention how striking, and troubling, it is to see Saul so rattled. It makes Walts hubris seem even more dangerous. When Saul starts telling you youre doing something dumb, you listen! Remember what happened with Ted!UPDATE 8/2: I'll just tack this on here. Are we all looking at that final scene wrong -- was Walt implying that Mike had started taking liberties that weren't his to take, and that therefore he (and Jesse), as the new Guses, might have to put him in his place?

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