The final episode of Breaking Bad is looming over like a dark cumulus. As we are engulfed in darkness, an ominous question slivers in the background: Will it rain or will it pass?
While we wait sweaty-palmed for Walter’s final bang (or whimper), lets ponder a more encompassing question:
How did Breaking Bad change television?
Tonight's episode of Breaking Bad is likely the most fervently awaited series finale in a good long while. But what exactly made this particular show so revolutionary, and so engrossing?
Read on, baddicts, and find out …
1. Subcutaneous Aesthetics
Shows tend to decorate their characters and sets with location and context-specific items, picking out just the right clothes and set-pieces for reach particular character, and every individual scene. Breaking Bad is detail-oriented to the level of art.
In an interview with Vulture, showrunner Vince Gilligan recalls that working with Chris Carter on the X-Files taught him to “show your story, don’t tell it … it’s very much a visual medium and ... sometimes more can be said with a look between characters than a whole spate of words.” Despite the wonderful dialogue and unbeatable acting, the visuals are on Breaking Bad are what elevate it to the next level.
Much like Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, many of Breaking Bad's shots can be frozen into artwork. This is a show that speaks as much with its visuals as it does with its dialogue; the mood-reflective colors, the lighting, the shadows, the POV shots are all regulated to have a voice of their own. When you look at some of the best Breaking Bad stills, they have a similar effect to scrutinizing a great painting: you can’t help but get that feeling that there’s something more underneath.
With 62 episodes to utilize their visual prowess, Gilligan and co. have created imagery that equals, and even rivals, cinema’s most introspective shots, let alone the best of television’s cinematography.
Gilligan “sweats the small stuff,” and has a penchant for detail, especially color: “there's quite a number of man hours spent discussing color usage, and assigning colors to different characters and thinking in those terms,” he said in an interview with GQ.
Even if you don’t pay attention to show’s color scheme, it’s hard not to notice Marie is smothered in purple all the time , or the blue meth, the pink Teddy Bear, as well as Holly’s pink and white clothes, and all the beige that gets worn.
Vince Gilligan has described Breaking Bad as a postmodern “western.” Postmodernism really loves to pick apart binarisms such as good/bad, gay/straight, nature/civilization etc., because of their dangerous demarcations (black/white, holy/unholy), and the strife that may arise from grouping everything into two categories. Hence, a leaning towards to the gray area in-between. You see where I’m going with this? Unlike the righteous man and the evil man in stereotypical westerns, which divide the good and the bad into two distinct categories, Breaking Bad, as a “postmodern western,” deconstructs the notion of a purely good or bad protagonist, instead aiming for that postmodern gloryhole, that sweet spot of moral ambiguity.
There are two awesome classic western staples that Breaking Bad adopts so well: designating desert as character, and iconic standoffs.
Cinematographer Michael Slovis used a “tobacco filter” for the camera lens in order to give the show's signature New Mexican desert its unnatural tinge. But his goal was not to make the desert true-to-life; it was to give it a personality. At times a refuge and safe-zone for Walt and Jessie’s escapades, and at others a deathtrap, the desert resides in a murky gray area, just like Walt. It’s expansive, sheltering, and anonymous. But if you’re not prepared, it will turn on you faster than you can say “Heisenberg.”
And those standoffs ... oh, those nail-mauling standoffs. Who can even try and forget the fulminated mercury used to cajole Tuco out of the owed $50,000; the caustic chess game of life-or-death between Walt and Gus; Hank’s breathless conformation with Tuco in “Grilled”; when Hank, two bullets in his chest, frantically shoved that hollow-point into Leonel Salamanca’s M1911 and blew a hole in the back of Marco Salamanca’s head as Marco was about to split Hank’s skull in half with an axe (“One Minute”); the shootout in To'hajiilee that bled over into Ozymandias; and, of course, who had any fingernails left after Walt vs. a freaking train? (I’ll just quietly nudge “Fly” in there too … you saw nothing!)
3. One Hell Of An Arc
Antiheroes are nothing new on television (and especially cinema). But for all the Tony Sopranos and Dexter Morgans and Don Drapers and Omar Littles, there is but one Walter Hartwell White. Why? Because he is the one who knocks.
Walt’s development is at once subtle and exposed. While deaths blatantly caused by Walt (or near-deaths) are clear projections of the future takeover of Heisenberg, quieter, smaller moments also take their toll on his morality. Gilligan has said that Walt’s superpower is lying. Walt lies to Jesse about practically everything, he lies to Skyler countless times —indeed his entire family, along with a plethora of others. And most deceiving of all, Walt lies to us. (How could he!)
At first, he makes us root for him. After all, his initial intention is to provide for his family after he passes. He kills a few bad people, but he does it to protect his family and stay alive. And then he lets Jane die. And then he poisons Brock. And then he takes Holly away (and subsequently returns her). And just when retribution is nigh, when he’s in the bar with his Dimple Pinch after having turned himself in, he sees Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz on TV, diminishing his status with Gray Matter to simply the guy who came up with the company’s name.
It’s at cruxes like these where some viewers begin to loathe Walt, not as a character on a show, but as a human being. They wish to see him die. Some still root for him. Some are on the fence. The point is that this is not a show that tells viewers to love or hate the protagonist, but lets the audience form their own opinion, justify their own decisions, on their own terms.
It’s in “Granite State” where we get an overarching, eh, arc, stemming from first season’s “Gray Matter,” where Walt refuses the Schwartz’s help out of pride. Walter was just breaking out of his shell then. It’s in “Granite State” where he tips over the cliff, his pride and accreted malice triggered by the very people who inadvertently got him teaching high school chemistry and working at a car wash in the first place. Everything comes full circle.
It’s a beautifully complex, yet complete path, a winding transition from one persona into the next.
Nothing like it has come before.
4. It Just Gets Better and Better and Better and Better and Better
Just like’s Walt’s nearly-pure blue meth, nothing is 100% perfect.
Breaking Bad is not a perfect show. It has its lapses in quality. There are lengthy diatribes on why it’s overrated. There are whole discussions on Gus’s terrible Chilean accent, Walt Jr.’s sometimes pointless presence, some of the characters’ one-dimensionality, minor logical inconsistencies in plot, etc.
But does this mar the fact that the show has gotten consistently better in quality with every season? That Gilligan and co., instead of struggling to keep the show alive with desperate ideas and far-fetched subplots, use the mounting experience they accrete every year to produce even better content next season? Nope.
And just a look at other shows:
The Sopranos had some (highly subjective) peaks and valleys after its first few seasons; Dexter had a slow and painful descent after season two; Lost experienced season-wide troughs in its third, fourth and sixth years; even The Wire lost some steam in its final season. (Not including Firefly here since it’s only one season, and Sherlock has only six episodes so far. And Deadwood got cancelled. This is a parentheses of sadness, I know.)
Throw a dart at some of the most acclaimed dramas of the past decade (not to mention any show ever) and you’re bound to hit something that’s experienced some sort of low after its first or second season.
Breaking Bad is almost sentient in its machinations; it hones in on its weaknesses and attempts to eliminate them as best it can (sort of like this guy). And for the most part, it succeeds. Every season pits Walt against more and more dangerous circumstances, from local meth distributor Krazy-8, to local drug kingpin Tuco Salamanca, to southwestern U.S. meth distributor and chicken man Gus Fring, and ultimately, against himself. Every season the stakes reach more harrowing heights, as Walt’s meth empire and thirst for power grows, as Hank get closer to Heisenberg, as more people find out about Walt’s dealing.
And throughout it all, the show remains consistent with its acting, its symbolism, its imagery and most importantly, its entertainment value.
I could list about half a dozen more reasons why Breaking Bad changed television, but word limits are a … bitch.
See you after the finale.