Remember the Monster: Saying Goodbye to Breaking Bad

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SCB: Last year Joe and I did a little article to talk about the end of the penultimate season of Breaking Bad. This year though there’s quite a bit more invested. This year we are here to say goodbye to what is, for my money, the greatest show in the history of shows. If you’ve not seen Breaking Bad all the way through I beg you, click off this article because SPOILERS.

I’ve been with Breaking Bad since season two came out on DVD, so I’ve had the distinct pleasure of watching the majority of the show as it aired. This makes a big difference. It is in no way better than binge-watching the entire thing because both methods have their advantages. I know, I’ve done both now, and what I gleaned from the comparison plays into my increasing interest in the ways technology has changed not only the way in which we consume media, but more importantly the way we consume “story” itself. Breaking Bad is a fantastic example wherein you can learn to understand the differences of the consumption methods. From my own experience what I got out of the story week by week was very different than what I got binge watching it a second time to prepare for the final episode.

Case in point: when watching week by week I had, even up until the early episodes of this final season, still sided with Walter White (Bryan Cranston). I’d stopped rooting for him after witnessing his nonchalant whistling mere hours after Drew Sharp (Samuel Webb) was put in a barrel, but I’d not stopped identifying with him as someone I knew, cared about and basically understood the motivations for. The distance between week-by-weeking individual episodes and then doing the seasons over the course of six years of actual broadcast television creates strange relationships with the characters. I’d imagine it’s not unlike the people in our lives – the more you’re around someone the more you are aware of their faults, motivations and deceptions. The less you see the same person a lot of those bad times or personal slights can fall between the cracks of intermittent time and become obscured by the person you thought they were. The binge watching brings a lot of the truly horrifying elements of Walt’s personality out, and especially as I binged season 5.1 last Wednesday night in its entirety I began to see how through the previous experience of distance I’d allowed Walt to retain a modicum of the endearingly awkward underdog he’d been when this whole sordid mess began. I also began to see how that was completely the wrong way to see Walt – how I had fallen for the lies that not even his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) had. By season five Walt is a certified monster, and when I posited the following question last year after watching Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) discover his secret I didn’t even really understand the half of it:

He’s done the ‘right thing’ and the ‘good thing‘ and come out the other side of disappointment, grasped the bull by the horns and become the avatar of the age. Walt isn’t focusing on right or good any longer. No, now he’s focusing on ‘perfect’ – the one thing he does perfectly and how it will help him finally transcend the flawed self-story he finds himself trapped inside.” 

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Unfortunately that perfection, once attained, was fleeting. I ended that same article by positing that everyone would be caught in the fallout of Walt’s story. I was right, but I wasn’t really prepared for how right I would prove to be. There was something about the inescapable flow of real life that undermined the truly toxic, irrevocably deadly significance of the events that had unfolded during the show up until that point. We identify with other living beings in relation to the continued air we breath – until we do not breath it anymore. That, “hey, everything will work out in the end” led me to believe – erroneously – that somehow the important people in Walt’s life would be spared. In every case I was wrong, because everyone that did not end up in a hole in the desert ended up with their lives completely ruined.

That’s the definition of a monster. Ruins all. Spoils all. Kills all.

Grez: You hit this right on the head Bakes with “how we ingest television.” Or any story format for that matter. There are not so much books anymore as there are tablets. The same goes for television shows and sporting events. Everyone knows it. Hell, athletes playing in games being broadcast live have tweeted at halftime! Now, that has since been regulated, but it’s there. It’s possible. And with the possibility comes an almost obscene amount of perspective. Oft times too much. Regarding Breaking Bad, AMC milked it – as they should and as Variety recognized and wrote about (READ ARTICLE HERE). There were behind the scenes videos (the best of which may be the one where they showed how they filmed the train heist), interactive stories and extras for your tablet, and of course the “Talking Bad” follow up interview session after each of the last eight episodes. Merchandise, commercials, public appearances, critical acclaim (including Joup’s), Emmys and the kitchen sink. A new institution. A new pop icon (multiple actually).

But really…it is the story. As you and I know Bakes, and as we touched upon in our article a year ago, it started and ENDED with Vince Gilligan.

SCB: It did start and end with Vince Gilligan and no matter how much emotional trauma he put us through via his world and his characters I stand by the statement that I have never seen anything this good before. The confluence of events that led the show to continue unmolested for the full amount of time it required to finish it story alone are astounding – successful shows are usually pushed and pulled into and out of circulation. When it’s hot the network wants it to continue ad nauseam, coercing the writers and runners to “flesh it out” until it no longer resembles itself. Sopranos I love you but I’m looking at you with your multi-episode dream sequences and what not, all those episodes in the last few seasons that were still a pleasure to watch because of the amazing cast but really did nothing for the overall story. And when that flim-flamery causes viewers to become lost and fed up then the network invariably wants the show to end. Twin Peaks is a perfect example of this equation: “Stretch out the search for the killer!” + “People are becoming frustrated so reveal the killer!” = “No one cares now that the killer has been revealed so take your larger story and hit the road!”

Breaking Bad achieved excellence on its own terms and never once wavered or wasted, when’s the next time you think we’ll ever see that again?

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GREZ: What I asked last year (to which you answered) was: “Do we define this product as perfect?” What I didn’t realize in asking (perhaps you did Bakes?) was what the “product” really was. Near perfect Crystal Meth may have been the product devised and pushed on this show but really that was just the vehicle for the STORY and it’s arc. That’s the real product. And again, it may be the perfect product (read: story) for the modern era. It’s all about the characters and their story. That is the product for the viewer and oddly enough for the characters (and the actors playing them) themselves. Quite a few of the actors on Breaking Bad (including Betsy Brandt playing Marie) said they couldn’t wait to get their hands on the next script.

But we also were referring to Heisenberg…as the “perfect” anti-hero. After the first half of season five, I was sold on him and the show as one of the best characters and shows ever written. But perfect? For me, the perfect anti-hero was always John Constantine. And not Keanu Reeves “Constantine,” but Garth Ennis’ “Hellblazer.” I mean he was dying, tricked the Devil for his life back – all while holding the world in the balance for Pete’s sake! That is the gold standard…”the bar” if you will. But Gilligan, Cranston, Paul and crew cleared that bar…easily. Why easily? Because Walter White is a character to whom everyone could relate on some level. He was real and most importantly he was real to himself when he admitted he “liked it…it made me feel alive.”

That is what separates “Breaking Bad” from “The Sopranos”: the average viewer’s relation to the characters. I’ve had this conversation with a few people including our dear friend Brother Brian of Celestial Crumb. While The Sopranos is a marvel in it’s own right, there is still a disassociation with the characters by nature. How many people do you know in a mob family? Exactly, me neither. However, with Breaking Bad I’ve known a person like Jesse (and Badger and Skinny Pete for that matter). I know family and friends that are doing their best to get by but are still struggling. I know teachers, one of which writes for Joup. This story that Gilligan has spun was never that far out of the concept of reality. I mean, there was a guy by the name of Walter White busted for cooking meth? Really, reality imitating fiction? Well paralleling at the very least.

So yes Bakes, now after it’s conclusion of 62 episodes, Breaking Bad does indeed stand above and more then likely, stands the test of time…no matter how you ingest. Hey, when you have a spin-off and a Spanish remake you know you’ve made it.

SCB: Finally, I simply must say what an amazing experience this show was – unlike anything else I have ever seen, and although I am sad to see it go, I am happy it reached it’s natural conclusion and affected my life and mind, emotions and heart like it did. Seem like a lot to ascribe to a tv show? It is, but then Breaking Bad was more than just a tv show. It was a perfect Story, regardless of how you watched it.

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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