Tuesday, September 4, 2012

WHEN THE PROOFS, THE FIGURES, WERE RANGED IN COLUMNS BEFORE ME ... HOW SOON, UNACCOUNTABLE, I BECAME TIRED AND SICK: Critical Debate A over this season of Breaking Bad seems to be whether the shift in pacing has hurt the show.  (Spoilers to follow)
At the outset of the series, Walter and Jesse would spend an entire episode or two disposing of a body, or an entire other episode or two refining a cook, or an entire other other episode getting to know the regional manager of the dominant meth franchise.  Now, in the span of 42 minutes, Walter has the time to dispose of a body, cook an entire Czech Republic's worth of Blue with a new apprentice, and arrange the coordinated murder of ten federal witnesses incarcarated in three separate prisons.  Plus rug time with Holly.  To my knowledge, Sepinwall was the first critic to point out that the show is short-cutting much of the detail it used to show, but an increasing number of critics are repeating, or at least responding to, the same argument. 

Critical Debate B seems to be whether the show crossed some threshhold of plausibility this season, with the super-magnet caper, the train robbery, the ten-murder choreography, the ease of entry into the Czech market, Mike's agreeing to let Walter bring him the go-bag, and, ultimately, with Walter recklessly keeping Gale's copy of Leaves of Grass -- with the inscription -- laying around where any old obsessive DEA agent family member might grab it to pass the time on the John (though the implausibility of the latter may be overstated, depending upon your answer to this question:  How many non-overnight adult dinner guests have used your bathroom in that particular fashion?  Make yourself at home, there, Hank). 

My own response to both is: eh.  Because the show spent so much time establishing its obsessiveness about detail, and so much time reinforcing it, even if we don't notice (for example, Sepinwall retweeted this link to a bunch of visual callbacks from the half-season finale), I feel better about assuming that it has engineered, or at least reverse-engineered, an internally consistent explanation of what happened.  And if that explanation is implausible, well, I didn't have a problem with the implausibility of a teacher becoming a meth cook/magnate, or of Jesse going from idiot child to deeply conflicted man in a year, or of Hank and Marie being too stupid to see through Walt's supposed gambling problem, or of the whole ricin switcheroo, or of Gus getting his face blown off by a MacGyvered wheelchair-bell-bomb contraption and then straightening his tie.  I don't have a problem with implausibility as long as I get the sense that the writers have satisfied themselves that the circumstances are at least possible, and as long as the implausibility is in service of a good story. 

And here, it is.  My fear with a mass murder would have been that it cheated the show of one of its consistent virtues:  that until now, every death is accompanied by some human consequence -- Jesse's unending guilt, and Walter's desensitization, primarily.  This series of nine deaths did not cheat.  Though quick, they gave us detail (realistic detail, like the repeated puncturing, instead of the movie-cliche of the single-stab) and a little bit of humanity (the look of horror frozen on the lawyer's face; the laundry manager stuck in his cell), enough to infuse an otherwise Michael-Corleone-consolidating-power montage with some sense of how utterly depraved Walter has become. 

As for the next eight episodes:  I know it's going to be (and has to be) the walls closing in around Walter, but part of me wishes it would just be the Hank Schraeder Story:  DEA agent suddenly discovers that the man he's been hunting is the guy who paid his medical bills, whose children Hank fostered for three months, who went on stakeouts with him (and whose son went on stakeouts with him).  The shift in perspective would be so great. 


  1. Eric J.6:16 PM

    Something that I haven't seen brought up much is that Hank is going to have a hell of a time convincing his superiors to continue the Fring investigation. Most of them considered it closed before the Jailhouse Massacre, and probably consider it twice as closed now. (Plus, I've always suspected that there's someone in the DEA who VERY MUCH wants the Fring investigation dead.) They may come around to it, or Hank may be going off the reservation and conducting his own investigation without official sanction.

    I've always assumed Walt would end up dead at the end of the series, but what if Hank puts together a case that can't stand up in court, and Walt ends up exposed, alone, but free- unable to spend most of the money he's made because he's under constant surveillance, unable to cook for the same reason, abandoned by his family, and paranoid that someone  - the remnants of the Cartel, the Phoenix gang, or whoever's running things on the ground in the Czech Republic is just around the corner.

  2. isaac_spaceman6:21 PM

    There may well be someone who very much wants the investigation dead, but I imagine the reaction to the murder of ten witnesses will be the opposite of what you posit.  That's the kind of escalation that an institution cannot ignore, for all kinds of reasons. 

  3. Andrew7:08 PM

    The big final scene moment from last season hasn't yet come into play (other than a beautifully tense scene of Walt and Brock sitting on a couch together). But Walt thought he was on top of the world at the end of last season, having dispatched the king? He's even more on top of the world now, having had a MY NAME IS MY NAME moment and accumulating his GIANT PILE OF CASH. 

    I can only imagine (and hope) that things are going to get pretty bad for Mr. White in the final 8. I can't think of any character who's gone from being the hero to the villian of his show so thoroughly. Is there anyone?

  4. This season dragged for me not because of pacing or any other element so much as the fact that it is now impossible to sympathize with Walt. 

  5. isaac_spaceman9:03 PM

    Anakin Skywalker?

  6. Anonymous9:25 PM

    And then they end it with a scene in a diner, with "Don't Stop Believing" playing, and everyone around him could be his killer.  Oh, wait.  Nevermind.

  7. AbbyG8:54 AM

    I've watched this season in eager anticipation of Walt's downfall.  Every little hint or hiccup in his plan is exhilirating if that's why you're watching. 

    Next year should be very very good for me.

  8. Paul Tabachneck9:28 AM

    I have never been able to sympathize with Walt.  He cooks a substance that is highly effective at destroying lives.  Any remnants of pity over the cancer went away when he killed Michelle.  Bad person.  Insanely good show, but bad person.

  9. Isaac, I have to agree with your "eh".  The show HAS strained plausability for me in the last season, but then, it always existed at the high drama end of the spectrum with a dose of unreality anyway. I found the train heist highly unlikely, but it was a helluva lot of fun to watch.  I found it hard to believe that Walt could mastermind the simultaneous murder of ten prisoners, but I also enjoyed the escalation in his crimes (and escalating body count) enough not to care.  The show continues to be edge-of-your-seat entertaining, and I'm just sad that it's going to take a year to return.

  10. Goghaway2:37 PM

    I agree 100%- plus the killings were reported on the news, which probably means lots of not-so-great attention on the prison and/or the DEA, I imagine.

  11. Eric J.2:38 PM

    I've noticed recently how effectively Walt distances himself from any actual meth users. Although the show as a whole has done that as the seasons have progressed. For both Walt and the viewers, meth has turned into something that gets sealed into baggies and disappears, to be magically replaced by stacks of cash.

  12. Nigel from Cameronn3:03 PM

    I have no problem with the (quicker) pacing...I think the show is a drumbeat that's been steadily increasing over the season...and as we reach the cresendo (which is the friggin' end of the series) a faster pace is just fine.

    A bot of an aside, but do others agree that Andy Greenwald has surpassed Sepinwall as the go-to critic for write-ups and critical analysis for golden-era show like BB? Seems to me that Alan critiques shows based on what he thinks they shoudl be/do as opposed to how they are as presented. Me thinks Dan F points this out (in his own less obvious way) weekly in the podcast.

  13. You're right, of course, Paul.  And "sympathize" was a poor choice of words on my part. 

    It might hit closer to the mark to say that until the end of last season I held out hope that some sort of cathartic redemption and penance might be in the cards for Walt.  At this point there isn't really any level of ass-handed-to-ness, no mortal penance or purgatory, that will counterbalance the dirt he's done.  I remember thinking, when Michelle died, "Okay, that's it, Walter.  You're fucked and going to hell and I'm done hoping for you." and then the face-off with Fring put a colder and more sinister face on evil and I was able to forget about it.

    The lily of the valley at the end of last season was dark enough to reboot that feeling of closed and unqualified condemnation in me even as the show invited us to enjoy Walt's triumph over Fring.  I wanted to, but I couldn't.  At the end I almost wish we'd just been left there with Walt on the phone on the roof of the parking garage. "Walt, what happened?"  "I won."  And we could have pondered if he had, what he had if he had, what it had cost him, what he had done and what he had become.

    The answers to those questions are all too clear now.  I need to see how it ends but there isn't any ambiguity about hating him.  I don't expect to enjoy it.

  14. isaac_spaceman9:15 PM

    I like and read them both, and see no reason to rank them.  Some shows, Breaking Bad included, are complex enough that no critic is going to see all the angles, and if you're into using critics to enhance your understanding of those shows, you need a well-rounded team of people who come at the shows in different ways.