Sunday, March 08, 2009

Breaking Bad, "Seven Thirty-Seven": The scientific method

Spoilers for the "Breaking Bad" season two premiere coming up just as soon as I take a look at that utility closet...
"How can you suggest that we kill a man and you can't even open the gun? It's not that easy, is it?" -Walt
"Hey man, well, you did it." -Jesse
"Yeah." -Walt
"Breaking Bad" is a show about a chemist, and so it stays faithful to a good scientist's need to go step-by-step through every experiment. You don't just start pouring together compounds without a plan, without some idea of what you're doing and what the result might be. You figure out one stage, then the next, and then the next, and only after that do you get to the fun stuff. Anything less than that will blow up in your face.

"Breaking Bad" proceeds at Walt's pace. It takes its time showing all the work that comes from disposing of a body, or acquiring the raw materials to cook crystal meth, or all the other logistical headaches of Walt's new profession. It took me a while to get used to that, to see that what I often saw as things getting in the way of the story were the story. As the show's creator Vince Gilligan put it in our interview, "Breaking Bad" is a show about the in-between moments of most traditional crime stories:
We've all seen so many TV shows and movies over our lifetimes where the murder is kind of a given, and the aftermath is kind of clean and pain-free and kind of skipped over, and it's on to the next plot point. There's plenty of movies that follow that pattern that I love, but I, as a viewer have found my mind wandering and find myself thinking as I'm watching a crime movie, 'How would you go about killing someone?' The mechanics of it, or the minutiae of it, is oddly interesting to a lay-person, to a non-criminal, as is the minutiae of just about any interesting job. What's it like to be a space shuttle pilot, a brain surgeon, a criminal? These are all interesting fields. Hopefully none of us aspire to be criminals, we instead aspire to be space shuttle astronauts. But the minutiae is interesting nonetheless.

Those kind of scenes are fun to write, because I think we idly wonder, from time to time, 'If I had to commit the perfect crime, how would I pull it off?" Talking through it, A to B to C, step-by-step, is interesting to me personally, and I figured it might be interesting to an audience.
And so season two picks up right where season one left off, with Walt and Jesse realizing they've made a grievous, probably fatal, error in associating themselves with Tuco, and with the two partners trying to talk their way through a lethal solution to the problem. In one of my two favorite scenes of the premiere, Jesse proposes getting a gun and shooting Tuco, and Walt the teacher backs him up and insists that Jesse the ex-student walk him through every detail of this plan, only to realize that Jesse has no plan at all. Most crime shows, maybe all of them, don't even bother with the minutiae, but it's what "Breaking Bad" is about. And once you adjust to that frequency, it's almost shocking how engaging it is to watch an average man(*) slowly but surely puzzle out how to be a criminal.

(*) Relatively, of course. Average men don't know how to make ricin out of castor beans, or cook the finest crystal meth anyone in Albuquerque's sampled in a long time, nor do they have Walt's epic self-destructive streak. And, of course, average men aren't played by the sublime Bryan Cranston, who does double-duty in this episode as its director.

It's amazing how those Jesse and Walt scenes can be so funny and yet so desperate at the same time. They're rightly fearful for their lives, at a loss as to what to do, and yet they have such a different approach to these things, and so get on each other's nerves, that it makes me laugh even as I'm scared for them.

With the cliffhanger of Tuco holding the two at gunpoint and forcing Jesse to drive off into the darkness, "Seven Thirty-Seven" in some ways plays like it could have been the finale of the strike-truncated season one, but Gilligan said at the Television Critics Association press tour that the strike actually forced him to change his plans for this storyline -- and for the better of the show:
The strike was an awful, terrible thing. And yet, the one silver lining for us, for me personally is that if we had done our last two episodes of season one, you know, and the strike had not interrupted them, I was anxious about how the show would be received. And I wanted to have a big slam-bang season ender that would have been too much too soon plot-wise. So we did not pick up where we would have left off. I sort of took a breath and realized that I wanted to slow things down a little. And so the answer is no. In fact, the strike saved us from — from, you know, doing too much too soon.
I won't say what's coming over the next few weeks (I've seen through episode three), but obviously it's not what Gilligan was going to do, and it makes me darned curious about where he's planning to take this season (which will have the promised slam-bang season ender) now.

Walt's fear of Tuco's wrath also leads to my other favorite scene from the episode, and the one that's maybe the most amazing when you consider that Cranston had to both direct and act in it. We saw throughout the first season that Walt's cancer diagnosis and his new criminal career had woken him up from a long emotional slumber, and that included his libido as well as his mind. So when Walt tried to have sex with Skyler in the kitchen after coming home from the junkyard encounter with Tuco, I at first took it for another case of him converting his fear of death into sexual energy. But no -- it was something much uglier, and much more terrifying. It may have started out as that, but when Skyler (covered in a mud mask, unprepared and not yet in the mood) tried to slow him down, it turned into Walt trying to prove his dominance over someone, and poor Skyler happened to be the only person handy. When Skyler accuses him of taking his fear of death out on her, she has no idea how right she is -- of how close Walt thinks he is to death.

Even for a show about a dying man who becomes a drug dealer, even for a show that's spent so many different episodes dealing with murder and the disposal of human remains, this is incredibly dark, risky territory to take your main character, and it's a credit to Cranston, and to Anna Gunn, that they were willing to play it as real and raw as they did. It's by no means pleasant to watch -- really, calling it a "favorite" scene doesn't feel right -- but it also doesn't feel like something just there for shock value. It feels like what this man who we've slowly come to know over the previous seven hours would do under these circumstances, awful though it is. And the look of absolute horror and shame on his face when Skyler finally forces him away shows that he's not a monster, even though he sometimes goes to that monstrous place.

Great to have this show back, and I hope the Emmy win and the added publicity for this season (due to the strike, it got minimal promotion last year) brings some new viewers to AMC, and to our weekly discussions.

Some other thoughts:

• Another one in the sick-but-funny category: Hank having himself a good laugh at the sight of Gonzo's arm snapping off in the stack of junked cars. For that matter, I loved seeing Hank and his partner watch the surveillance footage of Jesse and Walt stealing the methylamine from the warehouse last season, and coming really really close to figuring out what these two new criminal masterminds are about.

• It's important to the overall story that Walt's brother-in-law is a DEA agent, but I have as little patience for Hank's wife as Skyler does. The scene where Skyler chewed out Hank for suggesting that Skyler -- Skyler, the one with the dying husband, disabled son, surprise pregnancy, etc., etc. -- needed to be more understanding of Marie gave Anna Gunn a strong and welcome rant (and Dean Norris a nice comic moment where he sheepishly offered to look at the water heater), but I could do without Marie herself except where absolutely necessary to other characters' stories.

• One thing I didn't get to include from the interview: Cranston and Gilligan confirmed that Tuco is, as I assumed, named after the Eli Wallach character from "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly."

What did everyone else think?

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

What an amazing start to season 2 - I had also said this felt almost like a finale episode, but I couldn't be more sucked in to this season already. One additional comment: how telling was Walt, Jr.'s reaction when he saw the mess, the smear on the refrigerator, and then just kept on going. No wonder he's avoiding being at home right now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting on this series, Alan. I think another psychological key to this show is the way the writers bring you over to Walter's side by taking you through the indignities he has suffered as an underpaid, underemployed, unrecognized genius. Season one takes the audience through that storyline so well that you really want him to succeed in whatever enterprise, however criminal, he finds himself. There are probably DEA agents watching the show and rooting for him!

I'm concerned that people watching season two without seeing season one will miss that element of Walter's character so essential to fully appreciating his story. I'd strongly recommend renting season one to anyone who hasn't seen it. This show more than any other on the air pulls me into the story so much so that I almost cannot watch an episode twice. It is too intense sometimes. Well, I said almost . . . for my money it's the best show on television.
- anonymoose

Ostiose Vagrant said...

So am I being made to understand that Mr. Gilligan planned to have Tuco meet an unfortunate end for the season one finale but for the writer's strike?

K J Gillenwater said...

I was disappointed that the burned teddy bear in the pool was left unresolved. In the past, the episodes started with the final scene of that particular show. the whole time I was wondering...so how does the bear get in the pool????? Only to have the show end on a different scene entirely.

Loved that Walter and his high school dropout partner thought Tuco killed the 2nd guy in the junkyard. Those are the moments that make this show.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I think they're taking a slightly longer view with the plotting, and I'm guessing the teddy bear pays off in the season finale.

Alan Sepinwall said...

So am I being made to understand that Mr. Gilligan planned to have Tuco meet an unfortunate end for the season one finale but for the writer's strike?

I wouldn't assume that, necessarily, but he had something big planned that he's pushed off for down the road.

Norgard said...

I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed. There were a lot of isolated moments I liked, but overall it felt a bit like "Been There, Done That"; maybe because the season starts with Walt's business arrangement going South the moment it started and Walt going through the motions of murdering his main customer yet again. I don't mind the show moving slow, but I hope it isn't going to go in circles.

"(and Dean Norris a nice comic moment where he sheepishly offered to look at the water heater)"

I loved that moment. Totally predictable, but in a good way because it came out of the character. I could do without Marie, but I really like Hank. The character is sometimes written just this side of cartoonish, but Dean Norris always makes me believe he's a real human being. Speaking of Hank, I also liked how he was the one to figure out how Gonzo died. Because we the audience know so much more than Hank, it's easy to think of him as a total doofus. But seeing him effortlessly work through that crime scene served as a reminder that he's actually a fairly good cop.

"Great to have this show back, and I hope the Emmy win and the added publicity for this season (due to the strike, it got minimal promotion last year) brings some new viewers to AMC, and to our weekly discussions."

American television is such an odd beast. I don't think there's any real danger of that, but part of me hopes the show isn't too sucessful so that it doesn't get dragged out beyond the three or maybe four seasons Gilligan sees in it.

Word Verification: "wartying", Germanglish for "waiting".

Mark B said...

I hope the over the top paranoia of the meth dealers gets tempered down a bit going forward. It is simply unbelievable that any thriving business operation, legal or not, is controlled by non-stop violently erratic psychopaths. This show needs more than a one dimensional villain so I’m hoping Tuco develops into a cunning entrepreneur. I actually thought Jesse’s gun purchase captured the normality of the criminal transaction quite nicely: here is your money, here is your product. Bye. As Gilligan points out, most of life is the quiet sifting of details between the few and far between moments of true crisis.

Chris said...

I loved this show in its first season. I mean, loved it. I thought it was brilliant, interesting, lovable, and dark. Complex is a good word for it but also sort of simple. Bryan Cranston does an amazing job playing this character.

All this being said, I am really looking forward to watching the first episode of season 2 later today. It's tivoed and ready to go. I'm really looking forward to it, but also strangely nervous about whatever path it's going to take this year. I'm interested to see what happens with his old girlfriend and how his previous life is going to tie in with what's going on currently in the show.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I think another psychological key to this show is the way the writers bring you over to Walter's side by taking you through the indignities he has suffered as an underpaid, underemployed, unrecognized genius.

Although what's interesting about season one was the way it set you up to sympathize with Walt, and then slowly but surely told you the reasons why maybe you shouldn't. You find out that he was the one who sabotaged his own career, for instance. You see Walt turn down his ex-partner's guilt-driven offer to pay for Walt's medical treatments, take care of his family, etc., all because his stubborn pride won't allow him to take it.

Walt doesn't need to be in business with someone like Tuco. He chose to do it. He's had chances to walk away and he hasn't taken them. And that's what's so fascinating about "Breaking Bad" -- that it keeps subverting my expectations for and opinions about the main character.

Jack said...

The 'rice and beans?' scene was hilarious.

Now was it just me being slow, or was the scene where Hank calls Walt from the crime scene and asks if he's been home yet purposeful misdirection? Because if it was, I liked it, and if it wasn't I thought it was and liked it anyway.

Erick Olson said...

I saw the first season and the first episode of the new season in two days. AMC just replaced HBO as my favorite network, and they only did it with two shows.

Anonymous said...

Alan, Do you know if AMC is planning on showing every episode of Breaking Bad online this season? I was surprised to find the premiere on AMC's website.

I like watching the show; it is well done. But it's really tough to watch.

Undercover Asian Man said...

The sense of dread and paranoia in this episode was outstandingly suffocating. The way that everyday happenings now have the possibility of danger in them elevates the stakes that Walt and Jesse are playing for. Suddenly, one of the best possible outcomes for Walt and his family is if he dies of cancer in a year or two as expected, because the alternative – the drug related death of Walt and the revelation of the crimes he has committed – would devastate those he cares for the most. It would not only render meaningless what Walt is trying to do to provide for the future, but would also decimate all the memories Skyler and Walt Jr ever had of their husband and father, making them question everything about him and condemning them to a living purgatory witnessed by their DEA brother-in-law and the sister who would forever savagely hold this truth over on them. Just having Walt leave big rolls of money and the gun in the diaper box out in the open, without time to camouflage it, makes me as anxious as a murdering and unstable Tuco waving a gun at him in the back seat. Either avenue has the potential to destroy the Whites forever.

It is the failing love story between Walter and Skyler that makes me ache the most. The first season established that Skyler, throughout the crushing money problems, never stopped loving Walter and supporting him, never blamed him for anything missing in their lives, and was willing to sacrifice even more just on the wishful chance of having the best oncology doctor caring for her husband. Money truly does not mean anything to Skyler compared to her family, something said in real life more often than actually meant, but so strongly portrayed in the first season as to be totally believed in the White family. Now money – Walter’s relentless and reckless pursuit of it – has made Skylar feel as abandoned and lonely as possible, and the real tragedy is that she doesn’t even know that the money she never prized in her life is now ruining her last remaining days with her husband and is driving them apart. Her psychotic sister and her well-meaning but emotionally narrow brother-in-law show convincingly this episode what Skylar has in her future for family and support without Walt in her life. That she must live that loneliness now, even while Walt is still present and sharing her bed, is such a powerful display of the cost of “easy money” and the unilateral choices Walt makes, and shows how Walt might be assaulting Skyler psychologically as cruelly and as selfishly as he did to her body in the kitchen.

Yet through it all, we clearly see the humanity in Walt, and reasons why is doing this. It is not at all lost on him what his current acts are costing him, what it has already extracted from his soul with each new death that occurs around him and even by his own hand. While there are some beneficial side effects like an increased libido and an occasional surge of macho energy, Walt’s path into drug dealing is clearly motivated only by love for his family and the finality of a legacy as being the sole provider for the White clan, to be remembered as the one who guaranteed the Whites’ futures.

Perhaps it is excessive pride that allows Walt to gamble so carelessly to achieve this goal, especially as the cost of losing this gamble becomes more and more apparent. Yet it is not difficult to see the nobility in Walt if one has ever felt downtrodden, unappreciated, compromised, or lived with regret. That group should include us all.

I would like to write more about aspects of this great first episode, but I am not clear about whether Alan’s recently posted rules endorses or discourages long posts. I remember the consensus being split in the comments, so Alan can you clarify this? I hope that less popular shows like this one would encourage more thorough commenting and discussion than, say, the Lost threads. It would be nice to build a small but enthusiastic community here for this great show.

Alan Sepinwall said...

YAM, I've got no problems with long comments, so long as the follow the other rules.

belinda said...

I really liked seeing how relieved Jesse was upon Walt's declaration of having a plan, after Walt assimilated his gun plan with his questions.

I'm also liking the fact that we are seeing more of Hank's inner workings. It'll be interesting to see all the underlying problems in that really nice looking house of theirs.

Though, also great to see scenes like Hank texting a photo of the crime scene that he found so hilarious, which shocked the hell out of Walt. I like Hank.

Anyway. Can't wait til next week. How long is this season going to be anyway? I hope we'd get more than 7 episodes.

Erick Olson said...

Belinda, the second season is going to be 13 weeks long.

Anonymous said...

You see Walt turn down his ex-partner's guilt-driven offer . . . all because his stubborn pride won't allow him to take it.

I saw the emotion or mood less as mere stubborn pride and more akin to Michel Foucalt's description of resistance and internal revolution (sorry, I'm forgetting the specific term used) - a desire to resist becoming dependent on the very people who have looked down on you with pity and standing up against that by whatever means necessary. Of course we see in season two that Walter greatly mis-underestimated the down-side of this turn much as Foucalt downplayed the negative aspects of the Iranian revolution he so oddly admired.
- anonymoose

Norgard said...

I saw the emotion or mood less as mere stubborn pride and more akin to Michel Foucalt's description of resistance and internal revolution (sorry, I'm forgetting the specific term used) - a desire to resist becoming dependent on the very people who have looked down on you with pity and standing up against that by whatever means necessary.

So, how is this different from "mere" stubborn pride?

"Yet it is not difficult to see the nobility in Walt if one has ever felt downtrodden, unappreciated, compromised, or lived with regret. That group should include us all."

I find it fascinating that both Alan and to a degree you frame Walt's drug dealing only in terms of what we see on screen: it brings him and his family in contact with dangerous people, his family would be devastated if they find out... and so on. But even if Walt were supplying the world's kindest meth dealer and Walt's family were to never find out, he'd still be selling drugs that, to quote Mr Gilligan, "eventually [trickle] down to school kids somewhere." And you just know that somewhere in New Mexico there's a Dukie whose family got hooked on Walt's stuff.

In light of that I find it difficult to see any nobility in Walt's actions. If the point of contention were only that he refuses to accept money for himself, I would probably feel differently. But the way the situation is set up now, Walt is first of all putting his pride before his family. If he dies prematurely -- say, because Tuco kills him -- his family is left with no money at all[1]. But to him it's more important that he is perceived as capable of providing for his family than actually doing it. And second, every time he sells his meth he's putting his pride before the suffering of all the direct and indirect victims of meth abuse.

In fairness, I don't think Walt is consciously thinking along this line. My memory of the first season is hazy, but my impression was that while the show may move slowly, Walt himself feels constantly on the edge, and he's never had a chance to really sit down, clear his mind of the immediate problems and think about the long-term ramifications of his actions.

[1]: Yes, Skyler could probably ask his ex-partner for support herself, and he might even offer it again once Walt is dead, but if Walt weren't so stubborn the problem wouldn't even exist.

Word Verification: "sercide", short for "seriescide", meaning a showrunner killing his own show by putting it own Fox.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding to my post. I'm afraid I don't have good answers for you; mostly people just disagree about these things. I did appreciate your thoughtful discussion of the events.

So, how is this different from "mere" stubborn pride?

There's a whole literature I read a loooong time ago on the issue of pride starting with Nietzsche and Heidegger that I don't feel competent to detail but to put it in classic comix form it has something to do with our concept and language about pride changing from an Aristotelian sense of it as saying that you would not do x because it would be beneath your sense of self-worth to do that (like selling meth, for example). The argument, which I will be agnostic about, is that Christianity transformed those and other broader notions of pride and narrowed the concept into something more akin to hubris. Anyway, some people think that literature's all nonsense, most people don't care and I'm never sure I ever really understood it. Indeed, I've already ventured beyond my brief.

But the take away is that you can think about "pride" as a mood and set of interlinking concepts embedded in language that changes through culture and time, having both positive and negative connotations along the way. I tried to describe it as a revolt against a mood of oppression felt by Walt. Of course, to misuse a phrase, it could all be false consciousness and you and Alan could be right that it is mere self-delusion arising out of stubbornness. But I choose to see it differently. Maybe I'm wrong.

I find it fascinating that both Alan and to a degree you frame Walt's drug dealing only in terms of what we see on screen.

I'm not sure why our differing on the issue is fascinating but you do go on to lay out a sense of collective responsibility that I don't really share. Perhaps I should. If a broad sense of collective responsibility leads one to community attachment and organizing to better things then it is a very good thing indeed. Sometimes it can be less noble, however, and leads to useless finger-pointing. I don't see Walt as having to bear on his shoulders the world's drug problems but I can appreciate that point of view given the business he's now in. I think we could agree he is more clearly to be faulted for risking the lives of his family and just plain breaking the law.

Anyway, very nice comments and a pre-emptive apology for the philosophical heavy breathing above. Cheers.
- anonymoose

BNCEO said...

Just caught up with this show and I will be watching the next episode live.

It's really interesting to see this transformation of Walter. It's getting to the point where in his mind, he has nothing to lose. All his life, he's been this wimpy high school teacher while his peers went out to bigger and better things. He mostly stayed in town while everyone else took risk and took adventures.

However, I'm starting to see this change in Walter where he isn't satisfied with anything. Jesse mentioning the Scarface reference in accurate in that Walter wants to take this partnership to "the world is yours" level. This will get him caught and in serious trouble.

I know Walt is trying to do the best for his family, but he really needs to learn to fly under the radar more. It's the guys who want it all that get in trouble. Moving that much meth in such little time will draw attention from everyone, including fellow dealers.

Anyone has a theory as to why Tuco is after Walt and Jesse? It's not like they crossed him or anything. Though Walt has been biting off more than he can chew.

Norgard said...

"The argument, which I will be agnostic about, is that Christianity transformed those and other broader notions of pride and narrowed the concept into something more akin to hubris."

Merriam-Webster defines "Hubris" as "exaggerated pride or self-confidence". Maybe there is something more to your argument that's difficult to convey within a comment on a blog, but I can't help but think that what you're basically doing is taking one thing and simply calling it by another name to avoid the negative connotations of the original name.

Still, it's been an interesting discussion.

Word Verification: "twist", meaning "to wring or wrench so as to dislocate or distort."

Effie said...

I agree that the Marie character is annoying but I enjoy the juxtaposition of her uputy, but quietly anti-social behaviour against the rest of the cast.

Can anyone clue me in on the meaning or relevant references to the title "Seven thirty seven"?

F

Steve said...

Effie,

Seven Thirty-Seven is how many thousand dollars Walt felt he needed to make to leave his family financially secure.

Of course, you probably won't see this reply of three months later as I'm finally getting around to this show myself and happen to be on this episode. :)