Breaking Bad: How Good TV Goes Bad

‘Breaking Bad’ is ostensibly the story of how a good, indeed gifted, man goes bad. It is also, however, a cautionary tale about the way in which good TV goes bad.

In its first two seasons, ‘Breaking Bad’ was a gripping, blackly comic tale that skilfully led viewers down an excruciatingly entertaining story path in the company of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a family man and gifted chemistry teacher who turns to “cooking” crystal meth when he learns he has terminal cancer. Over time, we see Walter “break bad” from a weak, law-abiding citizen into a focused, dangerous criminal. We see a man unaccustomed to violence assimilate the ruthless tit-for-tat logic demanded by the criminal marketplace. Now, however, by the end of Season 4, the series has degenerated into a shrill mess complete with mastermind villains and wing-nut assassination schemes that would have felt ridiculous even as off-screen B-plots in a much less grounded show, like 24. In Seasons 3 and  4, ‘Breaking Bad’ has found itself in a kind of dead-end loop, mostly a consequence of its creators first falling in love with ice-cold drug kingpin Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), then struggling to make more of this character, and latterly spending many episodes trying to free the show from the subterranean sterile lab of Gus’s omniscience.

In some ways, the handling of the show’s second lead, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)—a meth-head and former student of Walter White who becomes Walter’s partner in crime—represents another instance of what can go wrong when writers/creators fall in love with a character/actor at the expense of the story they originally set out to tell. Showrunner Vince Gilligan initially wanted to kill off Jesse to demonstrate the lethal stakes of the criminal world into which Walter had entered, but became so taken with Paul’s performance that he scrapped the idea. As good as Paul is, his character has suffered from being dragged off on distracting tangents as the writers struggle to work out what his precise function is. Jesse has at various times been : a comic Lou Costello to Walter White’s Bud Abbott; a potential replacement for Walter in cooking the perfect crystal meth; a wracked junkie; a one-man Greek chorus, ordinary-decent-criminal who sees just how bad Walter is becoming; and an apprentice killer/fixer. None of these often contradictory personae has lasted longer than an episode or two at a time.

Two things have kept the show above water as it has struggled to rediscover its purpose: the performance of actor Bryan Cranston as Walter and that of Dean Norris as Walter’s brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader. Cranston is always convincing, whether working his way through the moment-to-moment jolts to his character’s situation, or, overall, in conveying a sense of a man secretly aware of his own corruption, but still intent on justifying it, perhaps on his way to relishing it openly. Norris’s performance as Hank is even more impressive. He makes much of what may, on paper, have seemed rather straightforward. Hank fronts as a joking, beer-swigging average Joe, but his eager-to-please exterior masks a much more defined morality. Once he’s on his own, the smile vanishes, he becomes quiet and serious and his eyes flash an intelligence he is loath to advertise. While Walter is the socially awkward egghead who can rationalise his way into sin, Hank is the superficially brash fool who precisely understands human weakness, while upholding his own inflexible moral code. Everything about the show insists that, officially, Walter and Jesse are the central partnership around which the story turns, but Walter and Hank are the genuinely fascinating binary at its core.

Whereas Breaking Bad’s waywardness can be seen as internal, stemming from the development of its own story as the writers pursue eye-catching threads that emerge from the weave, it is more usual that the pressures that deform a TV story are external to the narrative. In fact, the majority of pressures could be classified as industrial.

When a story takes the form of a novel or a film it does not have to satisfy a particular length, or fill a mandated schedule of 12, 22 or 24 episodes—it simply ends when it ends. A TV show, on the other hand, has to struggle to win the right to tell its story, and, if it succeeds, its sponsors will want to profit from its success for as long as possible, regardless of how such longevity may corrupt or undermine the very story the show tells. By the time M*A*S*H ended in 1983, it had lasted 11 years, whereas the Korean War its characters lived through was over in a relatively snappy three years. Similarly, the happy days of Happy Days became torturously endless. The focus shifted from the youngsters growing up in the 1950s to the Fonz, who, by jumping over a shark while waterskiing in one infamous episode, spawned the very idiom (‘jumping the shark’) now used to describe the moment when a show lapses into an irretrievable downward spiral.

The ball-bearing-production-line approach of much U.S. television has an obvious impact on the quality and durability of a show, and has left some showrunners, including the creators of HBO’s Eastbound and Down, following the less enervating U.K. sitcom model of six half-hour episodes. Except for a first season of seven episodes (curtailed by a writer’s strike), ‘Breaking Bad’ has consisted of 13 episodes per season, a little above the 9-12 episode length of HBO’s drama series, and well below the 22-24 of network television. The show was at its best during the first seven-episode span, before things became frantic and forgettable. It may have been that the best story ‘Breaking Bad’ had to tell would have lasted just two seasons, but the downside of its success is the demand for more episodes, requiring the writers to stall the conclusion they may have originally conceived and spin out more yarn to fill the gaps between the ad breaks in each superfluous episode.

Often a series is commissioned on the strength of an impressive pilot, without its showrunners/creators having a definite idea of the plot’s ultimate destination. Lost is a fine example of this pickle. A quick ratings success that had been commissioned on the back of an intriguing, if not fully thought through, pitch, this show creaked and lurched from one hastily concocted distraction to another for six seasons, trying, and failing, to keep alive all of the colourful storylines with which it flirted.

There are, of course, more direct, but behind-the-scenes forces that can account for a decline in the quality of a show. Recently, stories have emerged about the interference of AMC—the broadcaster responsible for ‘Breaking Bad’ and a relative newcomer to the world of original TV drama series—in the creation of its two other high-profile series. In this, AMC is perhaps showing some signs of growing pains. It has enjoyed critical acclaim with ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ and, more recently, great ratings with ‘The Walking Dead’, but its understandable urge to capitalise on its newfound prestige has impacted on the very stories responsible for its success.  Director Frank Darabont was replaced as show-runner on The Walking Dead when his ambitious concept for the show struggled to satisfy the cost-cutting dictates of AMC bosses. Similarly, the contract of Matthew Wiener, showrunner of  ’Mad Men’, was only renewed following protracted negotiations in which he stubbornly resisted cutting the episodic running time to accommodate more advertisements, reducing the cast budget and increasing product placement.

Now that AMC and the show’s producers have agreed on a final 16-episode series in which to wind up ‘Breaking Bad’, it can be hoped that the writers will refocus on the original storytelling impulses behind the show. On ‘Lost’, writers/showrunners conceded that, once the studio announced a final end point for that series, it was “intensely liberating,” and the writers were “no longer stalling.” That sense of freedom did not, however, pay off in a satisfying, considered ending. Lost concluded in as shifty and unfulfilling a way as it had proceeded for seven years. Even ‘The Wire’, a truly impressive series, struggled to find an appropriate ending to its five-year anatomisation, layer by layer, of the living organism of a city. It jumped the shark with a daft plot about policemen faking serial killings, and worked a little too hard to bring its myriad story strands to resolution in what amounted to an unnecessary lap of honour. In doing so, it made the viewer suspect that old-fashioned romantic impulses lay deep at the core of what had seemed, up to that point, much more unconventional.

As ‘Breaking Bad’ sets about finding its way to an ending that befits its beginning, only two exemplars of a suitable ending spring to mind. One is the abrupt nihilistic cut to black in the final episode of ‘The Sopranos’, and the subsequent unwillingness of the show’s creator, David Chase, to explain this choice. The other example is a little more giving, but entirely accidental, given that its creators did not know this was the final end to their series. When ‘Deadwood’ ended at the conclusion of its third season, it was an unexpected termination, even for its cast and crew, who had expected to proceed to a fourth season to conclude their story of the birth of a community out of a state of lawlessness. As is their wont, fans of the show have loyally appealed and agitated for HBO to provide a more fitting ending, and, intermittently, the show’s creators have stoked such hopes. The ending they have been given, however, must count as one of the best in any work of fiction, in part because it directly addresses what we might call the problem of endings. Al Swearingen is on his knees in his saloon/whorehouse, scrubbing the blood from the floor (for the umpteenth time) on the spot where he recently murdered one of his own whores in order to placate a dangerous enemy. One of Swearingen’s lieutenants, who was in love with the deceased woman, approaches him to discover whether, in killing her, Al spared her pain. Al curtly replies, “I was gentle as I was able and that’s the last we’ll ever speak of it, Johnny.” Somehow satisfied with that absurd answer, Johnny leaves the scene of the crime. Al thinks aloud a thought that must strike every storyteller who has to cope with the demands of the listener/viewer/reader for an appropriate ending. “Wants me to tell him something pretty,” he says, disdaining the sanitising, infantilising impulse that lies at the heart of our need for a tied-up-in-a-ribbon happy ending.

That unwelcome storytelling chore done, Al resumes to scrubbing away the blood.

The end.


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