Thursday, September 4, 2014

Breaking Bad Season 1 and Early Season 2

I’m late to the Breaking Bad party.  Before season 5 began I tried to get caught up.  I watched the first 2 seasons, but in reality, with law school, I just was not able to catch up in time.  Had I been truly enthralled by the show at that point, I probably would have continued and made time, but though I liked many parts of the show it for me was not must watch television. 

However, many people and critics whose judgment I trust swear by this show, so I am committed to finishing the series.  Over the last week and a half I watched the entire first season (only 7 episodes) and the first 6 episodes of the season 2.  My thoughts of the show remain largely the same.  There are a number of things I like and a couple things that have prevented me from truly embracing the show the way many have.  I thought I would explain my thoughts on Breaking Bad so far, starting with the good. 

The way the show builds tension into almost every seen is both brilliant and rare.  Simple things like Walter receiving phone calls, sorting his money or seeing car lights outside his house are used in a way to make every scene feel like something bad not only can happen but imminently will happen.  There are several scenes that stand out for the way they build tension, like Walt’s pantsless driving of the RV with the sirens going in the Pilot, Jesse’s first meeting with Tuco, Walt’s first meeting with Tuco, and every scene in the Junkyard.  The way tension gets built just from little things, conversations, or just taking the time to show every detail reminds me of Tarantino films, particularly this one.  

However, my favorite use of tension and my favorite scenes in the series to date involve Tuco’s Uncle Tio.  It starts with him seeing Walt dump the poison in Tuco’s burrito, but culminates in the great scene where Tuco questions Uncle Tio about Walt and Jesse.  It’s a tremendous build of them trying to come up with excuses, trying to dismiss the Uncle and yet the Uncle being focused on exposing them to Tuco in the only way he can.  It’s a great scene it what I consider the best episode of the show to that point.  Uncle Tio also appears in the next episode where the police question him regarding Jesse and Tio refuses to expose Jesse, because he won’t cooperate with the DEA.  (Here’s that scene)

Additionally, I have really like the work Breaking Bad has done with Jesse.  He’s a great character and they’ve played his desperation perfectly as he lost everything when his parents cut him off and all of his money had been previously taken by Tuco and then confiscated by the police.  I really appreciated the earlier use of the episode where Jesse temporarily moves back in with his family.  You see the conflict in his parents and their wanting to help Jesse but not allow Jesse to destroy himself.  You can see Jesse wanting his parents to be there for him and wanting to feel like a part of the family.  You even see Jesse taking the blame for his brother’s joint and getting kicked out.  You cannot blame Jesse’s family for cutting him off when they find the meth lab in his basement and yet it crushes Jesse and leaves him at his most desperate.  I think his arc has been really smart, well done and it’s easy to empathize with Jesse.

This brings me to my biggest issue with Breaking Bad.  I’m supposed to relate to Walt, I’m supposed to care about Walt and be sad for Walt and yet at no point has Walt came across as anything but a selfish asshole.   A ton of time in this show is spent on the slow deterioration of Walt’s relationship with his family and the conflict that has resulted from Walt’s decisions to go criminal and yet I don’t feel bad for Walt, because Walt to me was never presented as a good person.  The stage 3 Cancer seemed like a plot device to make people feel for Walt, but I never saw Walt treating people well, being honest with people or saying anything that I could reasonably believe was true.  Simply put, there has been no reason shown for me to invest in Walt, other than Cranston’s great performance.

This is not to say that characters have to be good people.  They certainly do not.  You can build a show around flawed or even bad people.  The problem with Breaking Bad is that Walt’s actions have never made him seem to be a good person and the show is built around trying to make me care about his life falling apart.  If Walt were just an asshole we were meant to hate from day one and we did not spend so much time trying to make his family matter, his actions would be easier to take.  If Walt were flawed, but given some redeeming qualities I might care for him more.  When you structure a show substantially around his life unraveling I should have a reason to care about him. 

Early in the series Walt hides his cancer from his family.  He continually lies about where he is, what he is doing and tries to make his family feel bad for even asking him about it.  The show operates on the theory that Walt is “breaking bad” to help his family and allow them to live without him.  However, if Walt truly cared about his family and not merely himself I cannot imagine him turning down the aid of anyone.  The cost to him was his pride.  The cost of cooking meth is potentially much more harmful to his family and this is no secret to him.  It forces him to continually lie to his family and to make their lives much harder.  Walt’s decision to cook meth comes off to me as nothing but pure selfishness and I just do not buy his commitment to his family, because his actions go contrary.

It’s not just his family that Walt treats horribly throughout the show.  From the very beginning Walt treats Jesse as a means to an end.  He has very little regard for Jesse’s life.  He yells at Jesse, but worse he consistently says deplorable things to Jesse and puts Jesse in danger.  But it’s not just Jesse the most recent episode I watched had a great example of Walt at his worst.   Walt had lied to his family about his former partner paying for his treatment and Gretchen (his former partner’s wife) found out about it when Skylar thanked her.  Gretchen didn’t tell Skylar and Walt met with Gretchen about the situation and in the meeting he was typically condescending.  He made the conversation about everything but his mistakes and said terrible things to her.  And none of this came out of left field, none of this was simply stuff that seemed to be occurring because Walt had started cooking meth; nothing in the show has made me believe Walt is anything but a bad guy and that makes it hard to invest in the drama with Walt and his family.

So the verdict so far.  Breaking Bad is a slow burn.  It’s a show that does tension amazingly well, but spends a lot of time on relationships it has not given me a reason to really care about.  The entry of a citizen into the drug game has been interesting television and the character of Jesse has been handled at a top notch level.  I’m excited to keep watching and see where the series goes.  I hope it lives up to the lofty expectations everyone has given me, but as of right now my issues with Walt make me somewhat skeptical.  Still I hear the best is yet to come. 

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