** If you have not watched Breaking Bad, I encourage you to not read this (like you had to be encouraged) and rumpus onward with your looney self in the comments, as usual **
Well shucks, I wasn't originally planning to wave around my Bad flag and go on some crazypants rant about the sheer splendor that is Vince Gilligan's masterpiece of a television show. But I don't label that lightly and then one of you dillholes in the last thread had to go saying that Breaking Bad doesn't have so much social commentary (specifically related to the abundance found in The Wire aka: The Other Most Bestest Drug Show Ever). And I couldn't just let that comment slide. And then I couldn't just say enough in a comment reply either. So here goes the missive. There will be spoilers. But! - knowing that many folks are yet to watch the first eight/released episodes of Season Five, I will keep the discussion to 1-4 and merely touch lightly on themes that might bleed into 5. NO SPOILERS FROM S5 AHEAD.
Although the aforementioned comparison stoked this post, I don't wish to pit two of history's best tv shows against one another and argue that one is better than the other. I truly believe it's a personal taste. I have already declared where my loyalty falls on the topic and I stand by my passion for Breaking Bad as hugely weighing on the filmmaking and technical elements that so artistically drive the narrative. Not that The Wire isn't technically gorgeous as well. But it doesn't take an aesthete's breath away as much as BB does, consistently.
My personal preference can boil further down to aesthetics of the landscapes. As cozy and inviting as Baltimore is made to feel (as homely as Hamsterdam?), I'm partial to the sweeping southwestern views, the Albuquerque skies, the colorful emphases, the incredible camera shots - frames that belong in frames, and the overall devoted meticulousness that goes into every single 35 mm shot of Breaking Bad.
Additionally, and very importantly, when it comes to "Jewish" lawyers, I happen to prefer Saul Goodman, Bob Odenkirk's hilariously sullied faux-Jewish friend of filthbags, to The Wire's more sinisterly sleazy defender of drug lords, Maury Levy. But again, these are just one gal's opinions.
So moving right along as you know I'll do in as few words as possible, I think what BB lacks in social commentary, it makes up for in analyzing the condition of being a human being. I dunno, that's kind of interesting too, I guess.
Here, we are given at the fabric of a story, an everyday suburban man, a lame-o high school chemistry teacher, who morphs over the course of one year's time (spread out over four and some change television seasons) - from a meek and mild-mannered family guy, to an unrecognizable monster. The comparison has been made many times over by creator Vince Gilligan and others: Walt's journey is Mr. Chips becoming Scarface.
And the audience is spared absolutely nothing as sympathetic witnesses to his transformation. We enable Walter White to become Heisenberg. How long did you root for him? Or have you not stopped yet? Or perhaps you've watched through season four (no five yet) and you're right on that brink of wondering what to do with your affections. That's some damn fine writing regardless.
Walt's breaking to the dark side commences as early as the Pilot when the pitch-perfect Bryan Cranston as our "hero", bashfully blackmails his former student Jesse (a tragic character so stunningly portrayed by Aaron Paul) into cooking meth with him. Walt initially pursues this extreme measure as an attempt to secure his family's future beyond his own demise from lung cancer. The audience sympathetically goes along feeling as though this is a genuine and clever masterplan, albeit illegal (meh.). Only Walt hasn't even mentioned his diagnosis to another soul yet. He hasn't discussed, nor sought other avenues. For this, I think it's fair to wonder about Walt and his thought processes from the start.
A question that flagrantly lingers throughout the series, is what is Walt's real motivation? It starts off simple and innocent enough (the family! Of course, whatta guy!); but the complexity mounts right alongside the pile of bodies waiting for their acid baths. Walt's sheepish, slouched demeanor is certainly a fantastic costume to conceal the real monster that dwells inside him, thus far untapped. I think it surprises him too; and worse, it feels pretty damn good.
And so begins a great character study. I am always thrilled to be conflicted in my feelings for a character. Sympathy or relatability (and very clever story construction) can force an audience to compromise their own beliefs to cheer on the actions of a character that they may not necessarily appreciate if they came across him in real life.
Dichotomies are a central theme throughout BB. By which I mean, opposites and absolutes are presented and then blown up into "gray matter"; which is coincidentally the name of the billion-dollar company that a younger Walt co-founded and then prematurely abandoned for a miniscule buyout - what we eventually find to be Walt's ultimate sore spot and regrettable failure in life. Oh, the things we carry.
Long before Walt becomes Heisenberg, the meth kingpin who eventually feels confident directing scary cartel guys to "say his name", he's a teacher giving boring lectures on chemistry, as he describes it, the "study of change - growth, decay and transformation" and the concept of chirality - a blatant foreshadowing to the duality that we'll experience in him as he transforms. The handedness of the one who knocks.
And this dualism exists far beyond the basic level of good versus bad. Or good cells gone cancerous. There's also that massive flaw despite the scientifically brilliant mind of Walt: his emotions. His right brain lacks understanding, while his left brain is working overtime to control his environments and his situation in whatever way he can figure.
Because of this emotional disconnect in him (in part guided by the things he must do along the way and in part guided by the ever-loosening grasp he has on his family life), he only gets deeper into the bloody game of empire-building, and further from the emotional source that guided his foot through the damned door. As he is busily calculating how to stay alive and succeed in the drug world, he manages to push away nearly every emotional rock he had, leaving him with nothing to lean on but his chemistry and newfound rush of masculinity and notoriety.
There are a couple moments in the fourth season and beyond, when it becomes clearer that the interest of the White family and their safety is a very distant second to Walt's egomaniacal insistence to prove himself to...well...nobody but himself. So when he starts bringing innocent pawns into his game and manipulating the goodwill of other characters to achieve selfish results, we are forced to reevaluate the loyalty we once had to this guy.
It's worth noting as a nod to the amazing writing on this show, that as I watched S4 for the first time, I commented that I felt a strange connection to/sympathy for Gus Fring, who is simultaneously Walt's nemesis and revered mentor. Gus knew how to do a poolside tequila party better than Walt, am I wrong.
Walt is masterfully badass as he plots the murder of Gus and we feel that victory sigh of relief of with him after the deed is cleverly done. But the celebration is all too fleeting. The very same episode can't even conclude before the final frames reveal to us the twisted lengths of manipulation that Walt actually arranged to achieve those results.
He is also blatantly dishonest about the danger involved in his trade and all the people whom he directly endangers throughout his quest. Only after a character's timely and breath-taking death, when Walt's image is questioned by Skyler's expressed fear for his well-being, does he reveal to her some of his true colors through one of the most badass moments of the series - his "I am the one who knocks" speech. In this moment, Walt is more upset by the notion that Skyler doesn't appreciate or see how respected and intimidating he has become, that he compromises her already-shaky mental state, just to tell her so.
I recall picking my jaw up off the floor after he delivered that exceptional line. That is the first of a couple turning points for Skyler, who so heavily influences the course of Walt's transformation and even dips her feet in the dirty pool along the way, to help Walt and save the face (and the lives) of their family. Her initial pursuit to protect the family (including the en route to evil version of Walt) from prying eyes like her DEA brother-in-law Hank, slowly changes to a pursuit to protect her family from Walt himself, and whatever stupid shit he's getting into at any given time. She stops asking for details.
Anna Gunn's character does her own enthralling transforming throughout the show and where Walt's speech leaves her is where she is still gravely stuck in season five: utterly fearful of the stranger she sleeps beside. No longer a sympathizer for him. But rightly scared of what her husband, self-described as "the danger", is truly capable of. Their moments together in S5 are uncomfortable and even rapey at times. Now she simply must wait with bated breath and a freight train full of white wine, for his cancer to come back and save the day.
Multiple characters on the show are noticeably more affected and punished by Walt's actions, but Jesse and Skyler perhaps take the biggest brunt. Jesse repeatedly gets smacked in the head by it, while Skyler must carry it. She can't tell anyone. She sits back and watches as their disabled teenage son idolizes Walt's coolness and simultaneously resents her for putting any reasonable foot down as a result of her oft-understandable protectiveness.
I also have to bring up the subject and theme of personal interest versus society's, and how far each of us would go for individual self-preservation. We're excited that Walt is succeeding at building this meth empire, but at whose expense and what cost?
BB so eloquently weaves in examples of the far-reaching ripples of Walt's tide - his impact on strangers and connected parties alike. Such as Jane's father, the grieving air traffic controller who while distracted, causes two planes to crash and hundreds of bodies to fall from the skies over Albuquerque. Or the clientele even. Those frightening scabby meth-heads with whom Jesse is forced to spend some hellacious and painful hours. A dingy kind of personal level that Walt hasn't needed to crawl.
And oh, the children. So many children used as motivation, exploitation or pawns along the way. The night that Walt leaves to get diapers for his own baby girl, he witnesses another man's daughter overdose and die, even though he was in range and the capacity to help her. This scene was special in that it's possibly the first time that Walt does something so questionable or unsettling. A relatively innocent girl dies and I was pleased at Walt's inaction. It freed Jesse. It saved Jesse in a way. Jane was inconvenient and her death was the complete opposite of that.
So long as Jesse never finds out.
All the children dragged into this story (S5 no exception) makes me worry and wonder about the fate of Walt's own children, who are nothing more than innocent bystanders (one of them being the relatively new baby girl), yet undoubtedly in the crossfires of whatever climax awaits in the final eight episodes.
So we'll see what's to come of the ultimate stand-off, and what I have always anticipated the show building to - Walt vs. The Law - specifically, Walt vs. Hank. Isn't he our Sherlock to Walt's Moriarty? Hank is unlikable in many ways, but at this point in the story, he is one of the purest guys we have left. Wounded in his own rights, but passionate and true in his pursuit. Unfortunately for everyone involved, a blatant reference to Scarface is foreboding a kind of massacre that feels imminent. But I have no doubt that Vince Gilligan and crew have something hugely satisfying planned (even if that means an unsatisfying result, if that makes sense). We've come this far and what a calculated bunch of brilliance it has been.
Can't wait to see how it ends and where television goes from here.