Breaking Bad’s bad habits

Features, FILM
When plot takes precedence over all else. Plus, its much-needed antithesis, Rectify.

In years to come, will there be another swansong to a television series as widely discussed as Breaking Bad’s? Quite likely, although for now, it’s the show that’s on everyone’s lips. Slow on the uptake, I happen to be amongst the stragglers still catching up with the final season, and its infiltration of everyday life has proved vexing to say the least. At the height of the Breaking Bad fervour, the Internet could easily be ignored. The problem was that the conversation didn’t end there—it continued from the water cooler to the water closet. The names Walt and Jesse were overheard at the urinal. Commuters, co-workers, the guy at the bakery—they were all talking about ‘Ozymandias’. Just the other week, two people mutually masturbated over their love for the show outside my office. In the lead up to its impossibly anticipated finale, there really was no escape.

Putting aside the feeling that I’ve already lived vicariously through the highs of a show the consensus is calling “the greatest ever,” and that by virtue of its pervasiveness I’ve received bits and pieces of its concluding storyline second hand, I’ve been trying my best to dodge any sensitive information on how it all ends in case I ever get around to finishing the damn thing. As anxious as I’ve been to preserve the virginity of the viewing experience, though, I did wonder if having the climax of Breaking Bad revealed would matter in the scheme of things. For one, its plot trajectory always seemed telegraphed from the outset: a straight line of escalating amorality, with the endgame for its cancer-stricken, meth-dealing anti-hero either life or death. And if all this talk of greatness is legitimate, then shouldn’t the series hold up based on more than just the outcome of its narrative arc?

What the best television series all have in common is great writing, great characters, and by extension, great character actors, and if Breaking Bad in its entirety is as great as the chorus say it is, then those are the qualities it ought to be remembered by. Come within earshot of one of its rabid followers, though, and you’ll more typically hear them rave about the staggering violence or unbearable tension the show is famous for. When Breaking Bad fans revisit its five-season run via the collectable money barrel boxset, will they binge on it with the same slack-jawed, edge-of-the-seat excitement they felt the first time around? Not withstanding all the other reasons to watch it, probably not. If a great television series can also be defined by its ability to stand the test of time and up to repeat viewings, then the jury is still out on Breaking Bad given it is almost exclusively plot driven and hinged on shock value and suspense. In contrast, certified great television series like The Wire and The Sopranos have only improved with age because they’re about so much more than what happens next.

The pertinent question, therefore, is not whether a viewer can still find Breaking Bad rewarding knowing exactly what’s around the corner of each episode, but whether a show predicated on cliffhangers and plot twists can be considered canonical in the long run. In the midst of the Golden Age of Television, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I still value cinema more, even though many will have you believe that there’s now parity between the two mediums. Television’s trailblazer, HBO, is the frequent recipient of praise from filmmakers whose pursuit of originality has been stifled by the movie studios (“the great migration” Film Comment dubbed it), and along with the blurring of the traditional line between writer and director, the rise in the standard of television drama since the late nineties has been, well, dramatic. However, in looking back on the cable network’s influential The Sopranos as a benchmark that paved the way for virtually every serious dramatic series in the past decade, I find it a little disconcerting that Breaking Bad has become a standard-bearer for how far the medium has come. The show is widely regarded as the pinnacle of television at the moment, and yet there’s scant recognition of how one-dimensional the writing is in terms of marching the action forward. Too single-minded to deviate from its narrow path, I’d hasten to call it unsophisticated if it wasn’t so brilliantly performed, perfectly calibrated, and at times astonishingly executed.

For all the progress dramatic television has made since HBO’s first strides into original programming, the impulse to deliver on surprise, incident, and circumstance—to keep the hamster wheel turning—remains ever present, either as a shameless ploy designed to simultaneously hook and confound its audience (like Lost and its imitators), or the undoing of some promising starts (Homeland and Deadwood come to mind). That Breaking Bad committed so wholeheartedly to the setup and payoff formula explains its sustained success with viewers; not so much its critical acclaim as a “ground breaking” show. Breaking Bad is addictive precisely because it is an exercise in cause and effect—a stack of dominoes that can only fall in one direction, whatever the sequence or arrangement, with unfailing momentum. How that qualifies it as “innovative,” I don’t know. If only watching Breaking Bad was like playing through an installment of Grand Theft Auto—you have the murder, the villains, the scheming and one-upmanship, plus the freedom to roam and go off-script. Even its much-touted flash-forward structure holds little cachet: mere glorified teasers that advance the “next week on…” montage to abstract levels so that the emphasis stays strictly on the “what” and the “how” as opposed to the “why.”

I once read a blogger’s suggestion that Vince Gilligan and David Simon, creators of Breaking Bad and The Wire respectively, should collaborate on a new television series—a ludicrous thought. When stacked up against The Wire, Breaking Bad is noticeably bereft of insight or subtext, in part because the writers don’t moralise the drug business or, apart from an occasional reference to the struggling economy, engage with the real world. Their tunnel vision means they only have eyes for Walt and his choices, and those choices propel the plot. Even so, an apolitical stance doesn’t have to mean a disconnect between the characters and their universe: all it takes is a film like The Master to give us grand narrative with rich subtext and complex personalities, achieved despite the fact that, like Breaking Bad, it is hands off when it comes to its judging its subject matter. Of course, there are current exceptions in the realm of American network and cable TV, both popular and underrated—Treme, notably, and to a lesser extent Orange is the New Black, Girls, and Bunheads are all fine examples of shows dedicated to characters and communities—while Mad Men, a pop culture icon in its own right, certainly doesn’t play to type. And then there are the singular auteurs who’ve created television series with the continuity of vision you’d expect of their film output (admittedly, more of an international trend than an American one, which can be traced back to a production like Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz). All these things considered—including the fact that movies can be just as monotonous, generic, and predictable—when I reflect on the sheer diversity of cinema, its seemingly limitless potential as an art form, and its allegiance to the director above all, television has some way to go to bridge the gap.

When Jonathan Rosenbaum, in defence of spoilers as a film critic, writes, “the whole concept of spoilers invariably privileges plot over style and form, assumes that everybody in the public thinks that way, and implies that people shouldn’t think any differently,” he’s observing the marginalisation of non-narrative cinema, and in television there’s even less provision for contemplation and experimentation versus the urgency to move the story along. Shows like Mad Men and The Wire are praised for being novelistic and rightly so, but there are many kinds of novels, not the least of which the ‘airport novel’, which is what the relentless Scandi-crime genre (The Killing, The Bridge, et al.) might as well be modeled on. (Along those lines, Breaking Bad resembles a comic strip.) Whether channeling hardbound literature or a dime store paperback, if long-form television is so conducive to novelistic storytelling, it still has nothing on the poetics of cinema, and examples of formally interesting series are as rare as hen’s teeth. (The high-end production design evident in the likes of Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey hardly counts—the vogue for lavish costuming and art direction being a superficial substitute for visual imagination.) Recently, it was with some dismay that I watched Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake—the most cinematic entry in a long while—surrender to the clunky mechanics of plot when its surreal atmosphere and imagery was more than enough to sustain a level of intrigue.

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To be sure, Breaking Bad is a show that’s unapologetic about its brand of storytelling, and its writers are out to entertain—after all, the garish drug world they have conceived is so enjoyably cartoonish that it could not be mistaken for anything other than escapism. Its immense popularity is impressive, if innately tied to the critical mass of consumption and discussion of television series online. One of the major websites this takes place on is the A.V. Club, and as a sidenote there’s a telling discrepancy between the form of their TV write-ups and film reviews. Whereas film reviews on the A.V. Club fall consistently in the region of 500-600 words, TV reviews regularly exceed 2,000 words. And that’s per episode. Because of this word cap their film critics, when also accounting for the preoccupation with spoilers, are prevented from a full and open discussion of the film in question. Their TV reviewers, on the other hand, write without any such restrictions—it’s assumed that you’ve seen the episode they’re critiquing, while the discussion is allowed to stretch into fine detail, elaborate on the context, and raise many more points. Why this isn’t the norm for film criticism is another essay, however on the A.V. Club at least, the misalignment speaks volumes of the seismic shift towards television as the new preferred mode of entertainment. If it’s true that consumers are disillusioned with Hollywood’s big screen output—or are all too quickly bored with the conversation—then they’re clearly seeking refuge in small screen content. Bombarded as we have been by speculation on the fate of Walter White, it’s not just Breaking Bad that’s a phenomenon; it’s modern television as a whole.

So Breaking Bad is riding the crest of a wave, both of its own creation and the industry’s, and invariably because—rather than in spite—of its clockwork plotting. It boils down to a triumph of commerce over art insofar as that story sells and all other arguments, either for or against its ascendancy, are mere footnotes. Conveniently overlooked is the lousy quotient of women on the show, no excuse when the male-centric environments of The Sopranos and The Wire accommodated numerous strong, if equally flawed female characters (or in the case of Mad Men, their disenfranchisement became an overarching theme). Directly related is the hatred of its only major female character, Walt’s long-suffering wife Skylar, whose misunderstood storyline (and all the related domestic drama) is despised for reasons owing to an underlying misogyny, or perhaps more plausibly, the impatience of viewers who are superficially wrapped up—as the writers have dictated—in the excitement of her husband’s illicit deeds. As the one wearing the pants, he gets to have all the fun, and when there’s cooking and killing to be done, never mind that it looks like a dog’s breakfast, shot in a dreadful acid-bleached style that only Tony Scott could be proud of. And then there’s its tendency to overstate its themes and motives: in one episode alone, it gives us a monologue from Walt explaining the duality of a chemistry principle to his class; later, a scene where he scribbles out a pro-and-con list after being confronted with the first of his many adversaries, who Jesse, his partner-in-crime, reasons must die; and finally, a metaphoric coin-toss just in case we didn’t click that the show is a morality tale.

There are genuinely ambitious and inventive dramas, and then there is Breaking Bad, which is a slave to old habits. If the overwhelming enthusiasm behind the show means that, for the time being, it has the limelight, it also means that praise for every progressive television series out there is being displaced. Which brings me to a modest, but no less important series deserving of Breaking Bad’s attention despite only claiming a fraction of the viewership. And if there’s a show at the moment that can hold a candle to cinema’s commitment to artistic license, Rectify is it. Produced by the Sundance Channel and created by actor Ray McKinnon, Rectify gives us a week in the life of an acquitted death row inmate in a measured, idiosyncratic, highly sensitive form that is completely off the grid in terms of what dramatic television has presented us with to date. Crucially, it also subverts the criteria of the crime genre—even more so than The Sopranos and The Wire—giving us, in relation to Breaking Bad especially, a completely antithetic way of looking at the world through the small screen.

Renewed for a second season, so unproven for now, the show’s mesmerising first six episodes at least deliver on the rare promise of reconciling the best of both mediums. You’ll find the slow, introspective rhythm curated by art cinema auteurs here; a likeminded fascination with the quiet and the quotidian; and a palpable sense of ambiguity and ellipsis that, rather than being hindered, is in fact nurtured by the episodic format imposed. (In this culture of binge viewing, it’s easy to lose sight of the merits of breathing space and pauses between episodes, which in the case of Rectify, only enhances its existential approach to time.) Some familiar tropes remain—a few episodes conclude with iffy musical montages—but through the boldness of its vision alone, it must be seen as a radical departure from the ingrained storytelling process. Indeed, I can’t think of another show that dares to devote so much time and space to the dazed, meandering behaviour of its unmoored protagonist, such as in one whole episode where he hides out in his bedroom, becomes transfixed by feathers inside of a pillow, dawdles around the family home rummaging through closets and junk, before getting reacquainted with some old possessions in the attic: a green army jacket, a mixtape and a Walkman, an old Sega Genesis console.

If Rectify has a kindred film spirit in this instance, it is surely Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger is Dead. Like that late-sixties sui generis, there’s a distinctive quality of strangeness to its sense of memory and subconscious—all within a housebound setting—that’s unique and, in the shadow of Breaking Bad’s forceful storytelling, admirably incongruous. In the episode ‘Modern Times’, we’re presented with an apt reminder of what we should expect of long-form storytelling: namely, the capacity to wander, digress, and divert from the main throughline. Rectify’s enigmatic lead character, Daniel (played with heartbreaking intensity by Aden Young), is also emboldened with the subtly of silence, and the writers give us every opportunity to read the narrative from his face, such as in the episode’s final scene, where the camera tightens on his eyes as he works his way through a level of Sonic of Hedgehog, something seeping through the hard stare. Based on this and other still moments, “soulful” is the adjective most often attached to Rectify, and fittingly, it is the ineffable substance, not the routine spectacle, that makes it the most satisfying drama since The Wire. The irony in all of this? That Rectify is brought us by the producers of Breaking Bad.

Filed under: Features, FILM

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.