There are two conflicting needs we have from every piece of narrative art we witness. The first is that it offer a sense of realism. The other is that it provide us with a sense of something deeper whether it be emotional catharsis, cheap thrills or a highly analytical journey into the dark heart of man.
Most artistic endeavors attempt to tackle both of these mutually exclusive needs but are often far more successful at one than the other. “The Wire” is correctly lauded as the best TV show of all time, but even it wasn’t immune to tipping the scales too far towards realism over satisfying drama. “The Wire” was so realistic that 20-something privileged white kids such as myself watched it and thought that we immediately understood more about the urban black experience in America better than Cornel West.* But this often meant sacrificing the emotional catharsis of a major Hollywood movie and having to dig a lot deeper than we’re accustomed to to find the overarching theme of the show.
*Having visited Baltimore for the first time this summer I can confidently report that no, suburban white people, no we don’t understand the inner city life.
Conversely Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” (I know this is a wild diversion from “The Wire” but roll with me for a second) sacrificed much of its realism to support its own allegorical themes. The bad guy’s name is “Chillingsworth,” for Christ’s sake.
What’s made “Breaking Bad” so remarkable over it’s five-season run thus far is its ability to honor both realism and drama. “Breaking Bad” has given viewers more adrenaline-pumping moments, near-attack moments than almost everything that’s ever appeared on the medium combined, all the while plumbing that pesky human heart of darkness to unheard of depths. More importantly, it’s been able to pair those unqualified dramatic successes with a stunning sense of realism.
It’s always been able to achieve this realistic feeling through show-runner Vince Gilligan’s O.C.D., like his attention to detail. Gilligan has covered Walter White’s ascension from chemistry teacher to drug kingpin so completely that its a shock no dissatisfied chemistry teacher has attempted to copy the blueprint yet.
Think of what we’ve witnessed in terms of the nuts-and-bolts: the “how to create a meth empire” front this season. Where most shows would have been satisfied to begin the season following Gus Fring’s death with Walter White firmly in charge so it can get down to the nitty gritty of “heavy is the head that wears the crown” bullshit, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have had to:
– Destroy the last bit of evidence linking them to the Fring administration
– “Take care” of nine former employees of said administration
– Bug the DEA to make sure they’re okay with continuing
– Find a way to manufacture meth sans Fring’s laundromat front
– Find criminals to participate in running new front
– Treat with Fring’s old head of distribution about finding more sources of methylamine and keeping the blue stuff rolling
– ROB A GOD DAMN train to get that sweet, sweet methylamine
There’s your “heavy is the head that wears the crown” bullshit, English majors – right there in the text for you all to see instead of heading in the subtext. The series, this season in particular, has been so thorough in showing the practical side of the meth industry while still finding time for the, you know, entertainment that we all seek.
Unfortunately, however, this week’s midseason finale, “Gliding Over All,” glides over so many of the little practical details that we’ve come to know and love from this series. The excitement is still there (Godfather-style violent murder of nine thugs in prison? Check.). The little thematic rhythms for fans to obsess over is there (Walt enters a “cancer machine” and it literally rotates him 180 degrees? Check.) And even the mind-bending, dramatically satisfying, pulse-pounding ending is there (Hank of the shitter? Check.) But in the muddled middle of the episode, we miss out on so many of the little details – the consequences to Walt’s decision to retire.
Aren’t there like, four to five very violent people who truly depend on the services he provides? Why does the man who had absolutely no problem murdering people to satisfy his prideful needs for an Empire suddenly abandon that Empire so easily. Sure there are little clues with which we can conjecture but it’s unlike “Breaking Bad” to pass up exploiting the glory of those little details. And without those details, they’ve sacrificed a lot of realism for the emotionally cathartic moment of Walt telling his wife that “he’s out.”
I have no doubt that “Breaking Bad” will fill in a lot of logical blanks when it comes back for season five but it’s a little cruel to abandon that sense of realism for almost a year for viewers who have become so accustomed to it. And I’m sure it will lead to many arguments amongst fans.
Witness the following Facebook message conversation between myself and Loop‘s own beloved “Girls” reviewer, Shane Barnes as proof. Shane chooses to view Walter’s decision to quit through a more practical lens while I choose the dramatic explanation and promptly lose my shit on a poor, unsuspecting Shane when he disagrees.
I loved it but if I were to review it I’d point out how weird that time jump coupled with Walt’s decision to leave was
the nymag write up deals with that better than avclub’s
i also think walt maybe used up all of the methylamene (sp?)
Yeah but thematically, they wouldn’t let that stop him from cooking if he still wanted to
Yeah. I mean, they’ve left too much of the motivation up in the air
There are clues. The mention of inertia with Jesse—maybe the methylamene ran out, and so his inertia was gone and he had a chance to think
I feel like they were two ambitious.
Todd is a question mark. Or just a poorly written character. Poorly written because he was just too odd to not have something else going on, I think
I really don’t think it had anything to do with the methlamene
Don’t care about spelling hahaha
That would be disappointing. It has to be an emotional decision, not a practical one
Dude has killed so many people to do this and he runs out of methlamene for the second time and is like “Well, I guess I’m done.”
I think he was doubting it
And the methlamene gave him a chance to step back. Actually, this is all conjecture. Which is why the episode was flawed
I can assume from his body language, after he killed mike, and was sitting in that office, that he was kind of jarred at that point
but, given his steadfastness in that fight with jesse just before, about the empire, and not wanting to quit. it shouldve been spelled out for us more
I have no idea why you’re so obsessed with the methlamene. hahaha
what else couldve happened?
Why else stop at all?
The train hijacking was a major ordeal
Because he wanted his family back!
Or some other emotional decision
It is certainly up for conjecture but I am 1,000% it had nothing to do with methlamene. hahaha
The train job was a pain in the ass but this is Walter fucking White we’re talking about here. He nearly burned his hand off to get his way not to mention poisioning a child. If he wanted to get the methlamene, he’d get the methlamene.
That’s the thing though. I’m not saying he was like, “Oh, methlamene is a drag. I quit”
But why not use it as a stopping point—even if for a week? And he realizes “oh I’ve got to organize this annoying ass shit. For what? Etc. etc. long road of emotional philosophizing”
The three months that he was pumping shit out seemed like he was on autopilot. There’s no explanation given for that going to shit.
All I can say is that the inertia ran out.
And he was given time to assess his situation
At this point I’m saying why is it even important whether the methlamene runs out? Clearly one way or another it won’t be the deciding factor.
He was pumping the shit out because it was his job
Haha, okay. You’re the one making too much out of it
And it looked like it started to feel like any other job
hahaha I’m borderline mad about this for some reason
Since Vince Gilligan decided to leave the practical, realistic reasoning for Walt’s decision by the wayside, it led to more wild conjecture than I’m sure even he intended for the episode. Which all leads me to say: I’m sorry, Shane. It’s Vince Gilligan’s fault I used my outdoor voice with you.
(photo courtesy AMC)