TROUBLE CITY

SCHWARTZBLOG: BREAKING BAD, SEASON 3

BlogsAl SchwartzComment

Links to all prior blogs I mentioned last time that I don’t think of Breaking Bad as a particularly slow show.  At least not in the sense that we usually mean when we say that, which is that the overall plot moves slowly, that entire episodes go by just spinning the wheels, and there are sections of a season where you look back and say “nothing happened” (hiya, Lost). What  Breaking Bad has is episodes that move very slowly , because it loves to let scenes play out in quiet, languid fashion.  I don’t know where I could check up on such a thing, but I’d be  willing to bet that BB averages fewer individual scenes or cuts per episode than about any show this side of In Treatment by a long shot.

But stuff is always happening on BB.  The episodes themselves may unfold deliberately, but by the end there has almost always been a significant development of some sort, and really the show goes through a tremendous amount of plot in a season without losing the feeling that it is a thoughtful character-driven piece.  What I love so much about the pace is that it is completely unpredictable; major storylines will suddenly lurch forward at times when the typical seasonal structure dictates they should be idling.  The way it consistently employs those long, quiet scenes builds tension because you are never sure which one is going to suddenly explode into a complete disaster.

But yeah, things do happen on the show.  The first season would’ve been about what I expected if Walt had gotten his diagnosis, decided to cook meth, hooked up with Jesse, cooked the first batch, met his first dealer, had them turn on him, and then he managed to turn things around and kill them.  But all that happened in the first episode.  Our protagonist even attempts suicide to boot (and as an aside, how many shows would  have the confidence to not only do that in the pilot but to play it a a comic note?).  Then Tuco gets introduced, and it seems like he will be the Big Bad for season 2.  But then he’s abducting our heroes in the premiere and dead by episode 2.  Walt and Jesse have the Heisenpire up and servicing most of the city by the halfway point, only to have it collapse by episode 10.  Skyler deduces Walt’s secret with little prompting in the 3rd season premiere, rather than at the climax as we might expect.  Gus shows up at the end of 2 and looks like he might be the new Bad Guy, but he’s actually pretty benevolent as far as drug lords go for a long time.  The Cousins pop up and we think “ah, okay, these are the new bad guys, they’ll spend the season slowly circling in on Walt and get taken out in the finale.”  Then they’re in his bedroom in episode 2 and out of the picture with 6 episodes remaining.

The unpredictability of the pace keeps you continually off guard.  Such that in any other show (okay, except maybe The Sopranos), when the scene in “Fly” comes up where a drugged up Walter looks to be on the verge of helping Jesse take a fatal fall, I would be certain that he wouldn’t do it just because if you were going to go there, that’s a season finale-sized development.  But with BB...man, in that moment, I was not sure at all.  There are rumors swirling around that the 5th season premiere has some unspecified crazy plot twist, and I’m fairly convinced that either Hank or Marie (I’m hoping for the latter, just so we can have a few episodes of her trying to keep a secret) will find out the truth about Heisenberg right off the bat.

How about them Cousins, eh?  I guess some people didn’t particularly like them because they are so arch they feel like they stepped out of a horror movie.  I don’t agree, as I found them incredibly scary and a not completely outlandish ramping up of the show’s consistent noir-ish sensibilities.  So....yeah, I guess that’s about it.  Works for me.

Also ramped up this season are the show’s undertones of black humor.  So much so that they aren’t even undertones anymore, but the basis for entire darkly comic setpieces like Walt’s confrontation and macing by the highway cop, or his hysterical, impotent attempt to confront Ted about the affair, or a sizeable portion of “Fly”, or the school assembly.  That assembly is fantastic top to bottom, but my favorite bit is probably when the principal, right after telling the students they can say anything, no judgments, quietly admonishes a girl to “keep it secular, please” when she asks how God could let this happen.  Hell, in his first scene back our “hero” accidentally sets himself on fire and tumbles into the pool along with a grill and several hundred thousand in cash. It seems like now that they know that we can accept Walt as a badass, the show has more confidence in making him a figure of fun for extended periods.  This obviously plays to Cranston’s strengths as a comic actor (his Hal on Malcolm In The Middle is an all-time classic sitcom character, imo).

As far as clean up episodes go, “I See You” is not as good as “Bit By A Dead Bee”, as it tries to build tension out of whether Hank will live, when for all of its unconventional aspects, even this show is not going to have a major character scrape his way out of a climactic gunfight at the end of one episode just to have him die on the operating table in the next one.  Also, as much as I love Jonathan Banks’ performance as Mike, it leans pretty heavily on transitioning him from a no-nonsense problem solver to some sort of utterly unflappable, paramilitary Bourne-type.  I mean, cleaning up a house after an overdose?  Sure, I can buy that a 60 year old ex-cop is suited to that task.  But when he’s carrying out one-man raids on cartel strongholds and executing cloak and dagger assassinations under the nose of an entire office worth of federal agents without breaking a sweat?  That strains credibility, imo.  Still, the episode does allow Betsy Brandt to finally stretch Marie’s characterization, and she makes the most of it.

So, I was saying last time that Walt’s moral failing is how he eschews responsibility for the various atrocities that spiral out from his actions.  Season 3 picks up on this, with both Jesse in the early going and Hank after he delivers his beatdown providing sharp contrasts to his prodigious excuse-making abilities.  Jesse flat out tells him in the premiere that you have to face the things you’ve done, to which Walter replies that there are too many variables in the plane crash for him to feel responsible, and ultimately, “I blame the government.”

Hank’s crisis in “One Minute” doesn’t confront Walt so directly, but proves him to be a much bigger man than Heisenberg.  Marie tries to convince him to lie to make things easier on himself, and it would be all too easy for him to go along with it.  Hank, though, is having none of it even if he was initially the wronged party, insisting that however he was pushed, “I’m supposed to be better than that.”  Hey, Walt, take note.  It really is exactly that simple.

This has been one of the most fascinating angles of the show; watching Hank and Walt slide obliviously past each other on the traditional scale of masculinity.  Walt began the show as an ineffectual omega-male, and as he has taken control of his life and pursued his interests more aggressively, he has turned into a massively destructive, increasingly malevolent force in the lives of all who know him.  Whereas Hank started out as a caricature of swaggering machismo, but has become more and more sympathetic as his increasing vulnerability and emotional weaknesses were exposed.  At his frailest moments, he demonstrates a strength of character that we never would’ve suspected from the blustery, tasteless fool of the pilot.  In a weird way, he is the only character on the show who has “broken good”, as they literally had to break him to find out that he is deep down a good person with honest-to-God standards for himself.

Do I need to explain how great the final two episodes are, as things come to a head between Walt, Jesse and Gus?  Probably not, as they are as thrilling and twisty and weighty as TV gets.  So I will wrap up by pointing out two smaller things that stood out to me.  One is how brilliant that final twist is, because having seen Walter’s moral decay in such intimate detail, watched him one-down himself time after time, I fully bought in the moment that he would actually sell out Jesse in a pathetic attempt to buy himself a little more time to live.  The other is that they do a terrific job of showing Skyler break bad in a believable fashion on a much more compressed timeframe than we had for Walt.  If there was any doubt that she was headed down the exact same path as her husband, it is dispelled in “Half Measure” when she insists on enacting her own money laundering plan rather than just playing dumb, saying that she’d rather everyone know she is a criminal than think that she was just that big an idiot.  If Breaking Bad is consistent about anything, it’s that bad, bad things happen very, very quickly when you stop committing crimes out of pragmatism and start doing it out of pride.

Holy shit, did I not even mention how good Giancarlo Esposito is as Gus?  Wow.

 

Estimated Profits: ~$290000 - $10000 (RV disposal) + ~1,000,000 (most of a Walt’s 3 month contract) - $20000 (est. for Hank’s physical therapy = ~$1.25 million

Murders - Emilio, Krazy 8, Jane, two of Gus’s dealers, Gale

Lesser Included Offenses - Driving with a broken windshield, resisting arrest.  Other than the murder and conspiracy and drug trafficking, Walt actually behaves himself fairly well this year.

Collateral Damage - One innocent janitor loses his job and goes to jail on a bullshit marijuana charge.  Hank had to kill a guy, giving him fairly severe PTSD.  Combo was killed dealing for Walt.  Jane’s father’s life is utterly ruined.  167 passengers on two planes are dead.  Skyler is forced to become an accessory after the fact (or take down her son, sister and brother-in-law with Walt).  3 broken Pontiac Aztek windshields.  Jesse’s RV is destroyed (I’m actually suprised how sad I was to see it go, since it’s not like it hosted a ton of good times or anything). On their mission to kill Heisenberg, the Cousins kill 9 illegal immigrants and their coyote, an old woman with a handicap-accessible van, a grocery-shopping bystander, an Indian woman and the Reservation sheriff that investigates.  Also they shoot Hank multiple times, forcing him through a long, painful physical therapy process.  Andrea’s kid brother is murdered by Gus’s dealers due to trouble Jesse and Walt stirred up.  Jesse murders Gale, crushing him with guilt and destroying his hard-fought sobriety.

Sequences To Make Hitchcock Proud:  Walt takes a shower in “Caballo Sin Nombre”, Hank tries to force his way into the RV in “Sunset” (the bullet holes casting beams of sunlight on Walt as Hank removes the tape is a particularly excellent touch), the titular sequence in “One Minute” (holy shit, that sequence!), Walt is marched to his execution in “Full Measure”

Heisenberg Certainty Principle - “Run.”

Best Lie -  Skyler’s story about Walt making his money gambling.  Even Walt is practically slack-jawed watching her spin this tale, amazed at how much of his strange behavior it accounts for, at least to a credulous person like Marie.

It’s not a lie exactly, but Gus’s speech to Walter about how “a man provides, even when he is not appreciated” is a brilliantly-calculated bit of manipulation. Walt’s pride is extremely bruised at that point, but  still a potent enough force to get him to do exactly what he's insisted he wouldn't for 4 episodes.

Official Walter Jr. Breakfast Count: 11 (“Pilot”, “Cat’s In The Bag”, “Gray Matter”, “Crazy Handful of Nothin”, “Down”, “Negro y Azul”, “Over” x2,  “ABQ”, “No Mas”, “Green Light”)

Also five dinners (“Caballo Sin Nombre”, “I.F.T”, “Mas”, “Abiquiu”, and “Half Measure”), plus one mid-afternoon grilled cheese ("Caballo Sin Nombre")

We Are Done, Professionally - Walt’s attempt to go clean at the start of the season marks the 4th professional estrangement between monseiurs Heisenberg and Diesel, who are fully at each others throats in episodes 5 and 6.  They are back together by episode 7.

It’s The Little Things - Having everyone wearing the blue ribbons to commemorate the 50th (tied) worst air disaster in history for the first few episodes is a great macabre touch.  Walt’s incredible pizza toss.  The veggie trays Gus fastidiously lays out before each of his drug meetings.  Saul’s big bin of neck-braces he keeps on hand for clients.  The stupid little dance Jesse does at the end of this clip.  The musical montage of a day in the life of Wendy the meth-ed out prostitute.