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Posts published in “Breaking Bad Week”

Treading Lightly: The Breaking Bad Legacy

With its five seasons, Breaking Bad redefined in many ways what a serialized show could accomplish. The little drama that could surpassed everybody’s expectations and left behind an amazing example of what television should strive to be.

Serialized binge-viewing

In the span of five years, Breaking Bad literally decupled its audience, going from under a million viewers for the series premiere to over ten million for the series finale. And it’s all thanks to a lot of binge-watch. “Marathoning” a TV show is nothing new. We all love to either catch up on, or watch for the first time a great show back-to-back. I’ve actually talked about this previously in regards to the impact on serialized shows. But this is something different.

Breaking Bad Saul
With the advent of Netflix and other great streaming services, Breaking Bad was able to capitalize on its serialization where other shows had previously failed. Word-of-mouth coupled with amazing cliffhangers (i.e. the need to watch the next episode) cemented its online boom.
It started out as a niche show that caught on with the popular success only coming the last couple of seasons. It is without a doubt thanks to the unprecedented access to Breaking Bad‘s previous seasons that viewers were able to not only catch up on the show but tune in live for the final episodes. Bad was the first drama to fully benefit first-hand from the one-click-away access to its serialized episodes. Everybody caught on just in time for the final season. With only a couple million viewers watching the series “live” during most of its run, it isn’t a stretch to believe that more people actually watched the show on Netflix than on AMC.

Grandeur and subtlety

We’ve already talked a bit about the realism of the series and its other strengths. Not the least of which is, without a doubt, the way it downplays a lot of it stories. Only a few shows have been dramatically successful at keeping their most intense scenes around characters (as opposed to action or mythology). Breaking Bad not only excelled at these moments, but showed that you didn’t need to have big and crazy moments to get a large viewership. Intense drama could come from the smallest of scenes and the littlest moments. It was also one of the most thought-out shows in history, with every details counting for something bigger. Subtle callbacks or clues that you would barely notice.

Breaking Bad Painting
A cross-season example is a painting that appeared twice in the show’s history, in very different circumstances. The first time was in 2×03 (“Bit by a Dead Bee”), with Walt waking up in a hospital bed after his “fugue state”. The second time the painting appeared, in 5×08 (“Gliding Over All”), Walt was ordering multiple murders from neo-nazis. “Where do you suppose these come from? I’ve seen this one before. Are they all in some giant warehouse someplace?”, he nonchalantly wonders. It’s a subtle detail that echoes back to another subtle detail three season prior. It’s also as much a callback as it is a subtle reminder that everything happening in the episode has ramifications beyond it.

Breaking Bad Crawl Space
On the other end of the perception spectrum, Breaking Bad offered another perspective: striking shots. With the advent of high-definition, wider televisions, and better systems, the “small screen” could rival on a visual level to its cinematic counterpart. To quote Michael Slovis, the series’ cinematographer:

It just so happened that during the last seven years, widescreen televisions became affordable. And HD became the norm. Now people could see what we were doing and we didn’t have to tell stories in the old style of closeup [then another] closeup. We would have told the story if everybody was watching it on tube televisions. But we were damn lucky that people started watching wide screen HDTVs.

Every frame told a story about the characters on multiple fronts. Lost brought amazing production value to the table, Breaking Bad led the cinematography to another level. The series showed that you could embrace the medium on a visual degree: size doesn’t matter anymore. The story may seem, on paper, small-scaled, but the truth is that the main characters simply cannot be contained in their environment. Even with a middle-aged guy lying in his basement, the drama proved that there are ways to make mundane shots grandiose.

Ode to transparency

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the state of fandom, especially in relation to larger genre series (most notably Star Trek and Lost). The discussion has mostly revolved around fans’ “sense of entitlement” around what production-related information should be made public. I won’t enter the debate right now, however I wanted to praise the Breaking Bad crew (writers, directors, editors, producers, etc.) for being so open about the process.

Breaking Bad Insider Podcast
My love for the Insider Podcast is well-known by now. Besides it being amazing from a TV writer’s standpoint, it’s also amazing for what it offers as a fan of television. The last podcast was a great case of that, as Vince Gilligan offered unproduced pitches/storylines from the show.
Television is such a collaborative process that it’s difficult to pinpoint specific idea on specific people, even if the showrunner will usually take most of the credit or the blame. What the podcast offers, in addition to information, is perhaps more important: context. Credit is given where credit is due. Everyone is very open about what they bring to the table in each episode.
A lot of people were annoyed (or amused) by the leaked Lost “ABC bible”, however I’d wager most of these people were not aware of where it fit within the history of the show simply because the blogs reporting on it didn’t provide context. It doesn’t help that bitching about the show and its writers is still in vogue.
But opening the door to the “inside” of a show isn’t about filling a sense of entitlement, it’s about showing respect. For the fans, for the creative process, for everyone involved. Breaking Bad, more so than any show before it, showcased every craft that got put into it. Right down to everyone game to come back to shoot an ad-lib the first AD came up with after wrap. The crew cared about the show, and through their transparency and openness, they shared the love.

Beyond Breaking Bad

Every Bad things must come to an end. It is difficult to say goodbye to such an intense show that, unlike other serialized dramas, piqued most of our interests because of its characters, rather than mythology or plot.

Breaking Bad Saul Ad
Unlike Lost three years ago, there is no need to “predict” the future of the series. In fact, until recently, the idea that Breaking Bad was any kind of franchise would have seemed ridiculous. And yet, we now know that a Better Call Saul spin-off is on its merry way. Bob Odenkirk recently revealed that the series would actually be darker than one might have previously imagined. I’m definitely looking forward to Peter Gould heading the project, and the black humor that comes with it.

After 62 episodes, it is impossible to summarize the drama in a few words, let alone identify a single thing to remember. From its compelling writing and mesmerizing montages, to striking acting and captivating music, the reach of the show has expanded like the reach of its main character.
The legacy of Breaking Bad is ultimately that of its premise: a successful experiment.

The Realism of Breaking Bad

Is Breaking Bad realistic? Let’s hear what the creator and showrunner of the show says:

Realism is very important on Breaking Bad. To me, realism is important even if you’re making a super-hero movie. You get the one “buy”, the guy can fly or whatever. You want everything else to be believable.

– Vince Gilligan

Power through character

Like any good television, Breaking Bad is about characters more than story. Realism on the show starts with the people it represents.
Continuing to quote Vince Gilligan on the subject:

First and foremost, you want human behavior to be believable. You want people to behave as human beings as we know and understand. Anyone out there, writer or not is an excellent judge of human behavior. You know when to call bullshit on behavior that seems “writerly” and seems made-up just in order to hit a certain plot point.

There’s a lot of plot in the show, but it’s primarily a study about these characters. A lot of the time spent in the writers’ room is talking about who these people are. What makes them tick. The best watercooler moments of the show are always the controversial decisions made by the characters. Why did they do that?

Breaking Bad Fly
The show always finds great ways to explore their characters. Although we did not mention it in yesterday’s post, it could be said that the play-like episodes (or bottle shows) peppered across the series were experiments in their own right.
Going back to Vince Gilligan’s thoughts:

I feel as a showrunner that there should be a certain shape and pace to each season, and the really high highs that you try to get to at the end of a season — the big dramatic moments of action and violence, the big operatic moments you’re striving for — I don’t think would land as hard if you didn’t have the moments of quiet that came before them. The quiet episodes make the tenser, more dramatic episodes pop even more than they usually would just by their contrast.

Every year, Breaking Bad had one bottle episode, usually between Walt and Jesse. One of the most well-known is the infamous Breaking Bad Fly episode (3×10), also known as “Waiting for Godot in a meth lab”. Walt is constipated emotionally, and you can talk ad nauseum about how the fly symbolizes his ongoing loss of control (through Gus Fring). The production reason for doing such an episode is, obviously, to save money. In fact, the show had pretty much run out of its yearly budget by that point. Regardless, this one-on-one was a great way to put out in the open the emotional toll previous events had on the two leads. There’s always new ways of deconstructing these people and their intentions. The series even went so far as to explore the likes of Skinny Pete, Badger, and even Wendy, which are tertiary characters.

In a typical cop show, the hero kills a bunch of bad guys, and then goes on with his life as if nothing happened. Breaking Bad characters change. Hank dealt in the second season with accrued PTSD after his shoot-out with Tuco. A season later, he then had to go through physical therapy after getting shot. The character had a permanent walking problem, even up to his final episode. There is no reset button in the series, and no magic wand to speed things through, even if it’s something that will take multiple episode to go through (if not the remainder of the show). These are the sort of storylines that would get glossed over elsewhere, with a focus on the “dramatic moments”. The reality of Breaking Bad‘s world is the reality of its characters. What matters is what they go through. Drama begins and ends with them.

Full measures

Breaking Bad has had one of the best crew on TV thanks to their commitment to the finished product. “Best idea wins” is now a common trope in writers room (rightfully so), but this show is perhaps the current epitome of the phrase.

Cinematic perspective

One of the things Gilligan took away from his experience on X-Files was one of Chris Carter’s rules: have a visual point-of-view.
What is the image you’ll retain from the scene? From the episode?

Breaking Bad Mike Walt
Perhaps also because of his feature screenwriting background, Vince Gilligan completely embraced this idea on Bad. The show is clearly thought-out on a writing and acting level, but also through its directing and visuals. The many directors on the show, from Michelle MacLaren to Ryan Johnson, and cinematographers (namely Michael Slovis), have done an extraordinary job at embracing that ideal.
Color palette, long shots, wide angles, silent scenes, fast-paced montages, stylized shots. There is quite a long list of visual elements that are now associated with Breaking Bad. The point behind is always to try and convey the stylistic reality of the environment. As Vince himself explained, whether you’re working with TV or movies, it’s all the same: motion pictures. You need to realistically tell the story on a visual level.

The devil and details

Breaking Bad is TV subtlety at its finest. It underplays its big reveals. One of the best examples of this is in season four, where several moments surreptitiously hinted at Walt being the one who poisoned Brock (before the actual revelation in the last seconds of the finale). Like any good mystery, even prior to the last scene, there were ways of figuring it all out. You can even check out this thread by a redditor that uncovered the clues prior to the season’s finale. Sometimes moments become self-evident only after the facts, like in life. Hindsight.

Breaking Bad Lilly Prediction
One of the show’s greatest strengths is its capacity to rarely (if ever) have loose ends. Of course, the writers sit around and talk about the details of each episodes. Not only on a visual level, and characters, but (evidently) with the story itself. As the sprawling plots developed, so did the time spent breaking each episode. In the second season, the writers took about ten to twelve days to break an episode. By the final season, it came down to about a month each. The more dangling threads you have to resolve, the more time you spend going deeper.
Ted was brought back into the fold in season four, after apparently disappearing with money issues two years prior. Not only was his plotline resolved in that season (through Skylar almost bailing him out), but more importantly it tied directly to Walt’s ultimate demise (in “Crawl Space”). Just because something seems in the background at first doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant. Breaking Bad is great at connecting these dots in an intrinsic way.

Breathing in the world

You cannot talk about Bad‘s realism without at least mentioning its portrayal of chemistry and the drug trade. Quite a few articles have been written on the subject, so I won’t really delve much into what is real vs. made-up. Rather, I wanted to briefly talk about the heightened sense of reality of its world.
Breaking Bad is a slow burn. It takes its time to flesh out its characters, but also the stories it presents (while twisting expectations). Even from a popularity standpoint, it took pretty much half the series’ lifespan to garner its current cult status.

Breaking Bad Cousins Bell
The show was hyper-serialized, and given its time-frame (one year within the story), it couldn’t afford being “ripped from headlines” topical. Nonetheless, it was still relevant. We’ve already seen how the series embraced its everyday roots by showing the “moments between the moments”. And the show proved to be even more receptive to its cartel storylines. Most notably, in the second season, the now-iconic image of a drug informant getting beheaded (and later put on a tortoise). “Extreme” moments that are, actually, completely believable (and similarly happened later in real life). Another great example of an atypical sequence is Los Cuates de Sinaloa’s narcocorrido track inspired by Heisenberg in 2×07 (“Negro Y Azul”). Narcocorridos are traditional Mexican songs with lyrics usually inspired by illegal criminal activities, often cartel-related. Although not a music genre well-known in the States, it nonetheless cements his story within the “real world”.

We all remember the long, silent scenes, often punctuated by Dave Porter’s music. People might see these scenes as out there, but here’s a clear “flavor” to the series, and the way it portrays its hyper-real world, which in turn reflects its characters. So how realistic is Breaking Bad? Breaking Bad is believable not only because of its characters, but because of its realistic context. The people are put in dramatic and heightened situations that feel real because, on some level, they are real.

Bending Without Breaking (Bad): Experiment in TV Telling

The experiment [of Breaking Bad] is that it’s a show about change. It’s a show about transformation and process. It’s a show where our hero, our main character, becomes our bad guy. Our protagonist transforms himself into an antagonist.

– Vince Gilligan

Justifying evil

If you had to name one thing to describe the show, it would be its main character. A good guy that “breaks bad”. Mr. Chips gone Scarface.
The show has embraced its premise, and went probably beyond anyone’s “hopes and dreams”. And it’s all thanks to one thing: it makes sense. Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg is, on some level, understandable. His ego was, bit by bit, eating him away, as he was going down an inescapable rabbit hole. We were with him as he was slowly losing his humanity.

three heisenbergs
In my mind, the irrevocable turning point was when he watches Jane die at the end of 2×12 (“Phoenix”). Standing by, as an innocent woman chokes to death, he reacts very emotionally to that moment (albeit with no one to notice). A season later (3×12 – “Half Measures”), he directly kills two “bad” people with his car (and gun). Adrenaline is pumping through his veins. He dryly tells Jesse: “run”. Down the line, a further season after (4×13 – “Face Off”), it is revealed he is the cause of the (near-)demise of an innocent child (Brock). By that point, he is completely removed from the act itself, oblivious to the pain he has caused. All that matters is that he has won.
From witness to perpetrator, Walter White has been replaced by Heisenberg.

This fall from grace can directly be tied back to his ego, and specifically a moment in the first season where he refuses to take up on an offer from his (ex-)friend Elliot Schwartz.
To quote Vince Gilligan himself on the matter:

One of our finest moments was not necessarily one of our most dramatic. But in the writers’ room during the first season, we did an episode – only our fifth episode – where we offered a Deus Ex Machina moment to Walter White. We basically had a savior, a white knight, come to Walter White in the form of Elliott Schwartz, his former friend and lab partner who is now a millionaire, running an enormous scientific research company.
And Elliott comes to Walt and says, ‘I’ve heard about your cancer, I’m going to pay for your medical treatment, I’m going to pay the full freight on it, and I’m going to give you a job, anything you want – I just want to do right by you and help you and help your family…’ And instead of taking this life preserver that’s been thrown to him, Walt decides to go back to cooking crystal meth, and that’s one of my favorite moments and one of the most important moments in the life of the show, because prior to that I don’t think the writers and I truly understood Walter White.
We didn’t understand that he was a creature of such pride and such damaged ego that he would rather be his own man and endanger his family’s life than take a handout like that. He’s that kind of a guy. Prior to that Walter White was basically a good but mislead guy with bad decision-making skills. He was going to make money, and then what was going to happen to keep him cooking meth? The money was going to get stolen, so he’d have to cook more meth… we came to realize truly what we had in that fifth episode.

As Vince explained, the gamble of Breaking Bad was to create an antagonist out of a protagonist. He expected viewership to drastically dip as the series continued. The exact opposite happened.
To this day, a lot of people still root for Walter White, even during his darkest moments. The character isn’t necessarily likeable, but he is justifiable. This is a guy who deludes himself about what he does, and why he does what he thinks he does. The morality and goodness of Walter White/Heisenberg is beyond ambiguous at this point. Yet, every person has a different opinion on the matter. Is he a good man? Is he a good provider? This is about justifying the unjustifiable.
You could write many essays on what drives Walt to do the things he do. You could even track his mental state in every scene, and see his evolution into an anti-hero. What made the show such a tour de force, and Walt such an amazing character, was that neither were unilaterally hopeless. Rather, they offered a view of one man falling prey to his own pride.

The perspective of Breaking Bad was not one of story, or even action, it was one of motivation. Why are these people doing the things they’re doing?

Expecting the unexpected

Breaking Bad takes what you expect, and then confronts it. A recent example of this is the climactic encounter between Hank and Walt at the end of 5×09 (“Blood Money”). A few people were surprised at how “soon” it happened, however the series was never about one man chasing after the other. In fact, if it were not for Dean Norris’ performance, Hank would have probably had more of a background role.
Going back to the scene in question, the “twist” on the expected isn’t how soon it happened, rather what happened in it. The two men are superficially talking about Hank’s well-being as he stays home. Walt has come all the way over there to (unofficially) check how far he is into the Heisenberg investigation he is. A lot of things are left unsaid. Until…the moment where Walt steps back into the garage. And Hank closes the garage door behind him.
Any other show would cut to black at this point. Not Breaking Bad. The show pushes the scene ever further, and goes all-out with this confrontation, mano-a-mano. The cat is let out of the bag. Five seasons of drama finally let loose. Everyone is aware of what they’re working with, so there’s no reason to play coy with the drama.

Breaking Bad Parking Lot
Two season earlier, Tucco’s cousins arrive in town to kill Heisenberg. Expectations were high for them: they were being framed as season three’s main bad guys (or at least characters surviving more than a few episodes). By the second episode, they’re already at Walt’s home and are on the verge of killing him. By the seventh episode (mid-season), a shoot-out happens between the cousins and Hank, effectively ending their existence. In most shows, this would have been a finale, or penultimate episode, with their arc lasting an entire season. Not Breaking Bad. The show knows when to pull the trigger, both literally and figuratively, on its storylines.

After 4×11 (“Crawl Space”) aired, I tweeted: “TV hasn’t felt this intense in…ever?” Piece by piece, throughout the year, the series had slowly build up to the insurmountable wall now facing Walt. It seemed like Skylar’s plot of giving money away to Ted was irrelevant to the larger story, it was in fact a key part of it. Same goes of Saul’s disappearer.
The show has never ended a season on a bona fide cliffhanger (Hank pooping was mid-season). Admittedly, you wanted to know what happened to the characters (especially after the third season), but most threads were usually closed by season’s end. What maintained people’s desire to come back was the universe itself, not answers to key mysteries. Each season became progressively intense because of its own internal dynamic, not because of a compound effect where the preceding year’s dangling threads were being paid off. The only exception being the final season (specifically its second half) and the beginning of season four (following the murder of Gale Boetticher).

Breaking Bad went against the grain by declaring it was okay to disregard the conventional rules of the genre. What matters most are the characters.

The moments between the moments

Breaking Bad started out on a much lower scale than it now is at. Although the series is going back full-circle to its roots, it merely started out around a high-school teacher and his family. Then came Tucco, the cousins, the cartel, Gus, the DEA, and neo-nazis. Heisenberg’s empire evolved, it expanded, and so did the show.

Breaking Bad Walt Birthday
Beyond the thriller, Breaking Bad was about the “moments between moments”. Most shows focus on the big moments where “stuff happens”, and everything in between is filler. But this series was never about dramatic shoot-outs, or even box-cutter throat-slicing. It all started with small moments, daily life. Birthdays, breakfasts, school assemblies, awkward parties hosted by “old friends”, house-hunting, PTA meetings. You may remember the action sequences in retrospect, but before that you need the calm before the storm. Bad was constantly reasserting itself around what mattered: smaller scenes, not epic set-pieces.

The show took the time to breathe and embrace the real world around it, and feed the humanity of its characters. Consequences and repercussions mattered because of the time spent at building these relationships, this status quo being broken apart. Like a steady hand on the wheel, it knew where it was heading towards. It was spending its time on meaningful moments. Bad was about real emotions, real greed, real jealousy, real fear. All of it stemming from smaller scales. The series was not trying to milk these moments, it was trying to establish context. Even in the craziness of season five, you still had family moments and humorous moments, like Skinny Pete and Badger’s Star Trek conversation.

Breaking Bad‘s ultimate experiment, beyond its characters, was to question the middle ground between consequence and justification.
This was a show about lives and decisions.