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?

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

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