Monday, March 03, 2008

Breaking Bad: The bald and the badass

Spoilers for the penultimate episode of "Breaking Bad" season one coming up just as soon as I see what the river card is...

Now here's the first show that I can honestly say is suffering because of the writers strike. The first few episodes of "Breaking Bad" were interesting, but they were going at a very measured pace and clearly building to something, and just as we're getting there, everything's about to stop because Vince Gilligan and company only finished 7 scripts before the strike began. I'm not remotely ready to put this show in the same league as "The Wire," but the pace of this season is beginning to feel similar; try to imagine a "Wire" season being cut short just as all the stories began coming together. It's very frustrating.

That said, I thought this was easily the strongest episode of the run so far. Now, any episode that climaxes with a bald, clean-shaven Walt using explosive crystals to negotiate a fair deal with a scary meth distributor is going to be high on the "wow" factor. But the really interesting part of the episode, to me, was how Walt's finding it increasingly difficult to justify the meth-cooking plan. Sure, he's taking control of his own destiny, feeling more alive, blah blah blah, but he's already getting too sick to cook and therefore has to swap jobs with Jesse, the money is proving harder to come by then he first thought, and Hank's investigation into the ventilator mask winds up ruining the life of one of the few decent people at Hank's school. There's no way Walt is ever going to be able to wipe away the guilt of killing Crazy 8 and Emilio, but the longer he stays in this game, the more damage he's going to do to himself and everyone around him.

And, as always, Bryan Cranston is terrific. I know it goes without saying, but with only one more episode, gotta say it while I can.

What did everybody else think?


yogahz said...

I thought it was a great episode too, but I've been hooked from the beginning.

I was struck by the similarities of the assembly line chemo treatments with Jesse's assembly line selling of Walt's meth.

We also got to know Jesse a little more - his conciliatory fanning of Walt when he was overcome with side effects in the desert and his immediate recognition of the radiation tattoo due to family history. He becomes more and more sympathetic while still a meth dealer.

Oh, and Walt's brother-in-laws complete dismissal of Walt as a possible suspect. That's believable since he's a family member but definitely works in Walt's favor since he should be one of the prime suspects.

Anonymous said...

Walt's son had it right: Badass.

It did feel rushed, though, but I don't consider that a fault of the show, but of the circumstances surrounding making the show.

The one scene I didn't like was the poker scene. It just felt like such an obvious underscore to everything, especially the result of the hand (WHo takes other people's cards out of the muck? Not cool, Wife's Sister. Not cool). It is like people talking about how great they are at strategy while playing chess.

Alan: If you had to choose one actor as the most fearless on television, Jason Segal or Bryan Cranston? Frankly, I think somoene needs to write a show about them as father and son.

Mark said...

I liked the poker scene - I thought it was a tip of the hat to the Coen brothers thematically, well that and the "shafts of light" shot that kicked off the episode. The poker scene was emblematic of that perennial Coen brothers favorite, faulty induction - an incorrect assumption leads to unforeseen consequences. It crops up frequently during this episode - Tuco assuming that Walter's crystals are Meth, and Hank ruling Walter out as a suspect. Poker ends up being a wonderful metaphor for the Walter's usage of asymmetrical information on the show.

K J Gillenwater said...

That was fab! But I'm so disappointed that next week will be the last episode...for how long? I need my fix of Walt & Jesse.

I was very curious to see Jesse's growth last week. When he kept throwing out perfectly good meth because it didn't live up to Walt's high standards...even though Walt was no longer there to criticize. Jesse's finding some pride in himself...and he's not as dumb as we were first led to believe. He just never had anyone give him responsibility before...

Looks like Jesse's going to become the cooker while Walt does the selling. No way he could send Jesse back into the drug den. Walt already looks like the stronger, more badass dude.

I'm so curious to know how this will end. Walt's drug sales can't become public knowledge or all the cash will be grabbed by the DEA. How is he going to set up things for his family in a 'legal' way?

Bryan Cranston is fearless. He is just fantastic in this role. I love it!

Alan Sepinwall said...

Alan: If you had to choose one actor as the most fearless on television, Jason Segal or Bryan Cranston? Frankly, I think somoene needs to write a show about them as father and son.

I love every single thing about that idea, so much so that, if my path crosses Judd Apatow's again soon, I will try to talk him into doing it. It's too bad the HIMYM producers already used Cranston as Ted's boss in a few episodes, or else that would be an option.

As for the head-to-head breakdown, seems much too close to call. Neither has a problem appearing in tighty-whities or generally making a fool of themselves, or in playing the emotions of a scene so intensely that you're scared of and for them.

Test Pinecone said...

I liked Walt's comment at the beginningof the episode about chemical reactions/explosions...

"the faster the reaction takes place, the more powerful the resultant explosion"

Nice metaphor for what has happened to Walt's characterin just six short episodes as well as plot-important information.

Anonymous said...

How about a sitcom with Segal as a guy who just broke up with his long-time girlfriend who then moves back in with his father (Cranston) who has just divorced his second wife and is living on his own for the first time in decades. We'll call it "Wingmen" and every episode will contain at least one of them in their underwear being completely un-self conscious about it. And Segel is in a band... Maybe some foxy lesbian neighbors. And of course, wackiness ensues....

Dan Jameson said...


Completely unrelated to Breaking Bad, but since this is the most recent post I figure this is the best forum to get a response.

Is CBS currently showing Dexter season 1...or is it season 2? How many seasons have there been on Showtime so far? I missed presumably the first episode CBS aired 3 weeks ago, but have seen the 2 most recent and I can't figure out whether it is their first season or not.


Alan Sepinwall said...

Dan, CBS is only showing Dexter season one. there have been two seasons. When I talked to the head of Showtime about the editing, he made it very clear that season two won't be shown on CBS; this is a one-time thing to help fill some timeslots because of the strike and also to bring some cross-promotion to Showtime.

So it goes said...

The thing that surprises me is how Walt seems to be seeking out the thrills at this point. He didn't have to sneak attack Tuco to get his money. He could have gotten a check from Elliot this one time, instead he went with the risky play that he did. I know he wants to do things his own way but the risk to reward ratio was insanely high. Seeing him fully embrace breaking bad does make for some excellent TV though.

Anonymous said...

I have been watching the show On-Demand and they have messed up the order so I was confused, but finally got everything in order. Only complaint was I thought Tuco's gang members were over the top and would police let all those gang members set out in front of the place.


any word on a 2nd season?

afoglia said...

"I love every single thing about that idea, so much so that, if my path crosses Judd Apatow's again soon, I will try to talk him into doing it. It's too bad the HIMYM producers already used Cranston as Ted's boss in a few episodes, or else that would be an option."

And Marshall's father has already appeared, played by Bill Fagerbakke.

But it's not like shows haven't recast parts or re-used actors in other roles before.

Back to the show, great episode. It's too bad the season is so short. Alan, did the writers make the next episode something to work as a season finale? Even that seems too soon.

Anonymous said...

It was certainly a "wow" episode, but I'm a little apprehensive about what's coming. I think someone commented here a few weeks ago that the pace of Breaking Bad made it seem more like a long movie rather than a TV series, and this seems an astute characterization of the first few episodes. For every step forward Walt took in his plan he seemed to take two steps back, yielding the dark comedy of those episodes.

But this episode showed Walt making his transition from Mr. Chips to Scarface (as Vince Gilligan described has said) and I guess I'm less interested in the strictly badass elements of the show, though the associated pyrotechnics are well done. Murdering Krazy-8? Dark comedy. Blowing up KENWINS' car? Strictly badass. I also think the badass stuff lends itself to thinner characters. No offense to Raymond Cruz, but I don't see Tuco having the complexity that Krazy-8 turned out to have.

That said, I recognize that this is probably all preamble to another setback for Walt and Jesse. So maybe best to let them enjoy the moment while they can (especially if renewal is not guaranteed).

Incidentally, I think Jesse has been bettered served by his b-plots these last few weeks. His anxiety both about showing ambition in his chosen profession and about getting close to a(nother) cancer victim added some depth to his character without feeling too by the numbers, unlike the visit with his suburban family a few episodes ago.


Anonymous said...

I have got to quit watching this show during dinner. Bloody pee and spaghetti sauce do *not* mix well.

Bryan Cranston is awesome (and I love that first andrew's sitcom idea for Cranston and Segel). Is this show coming back, Alan? Please say yes.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the poker scene being poorly done in terms of technical accuracy - why would WJ and Skylar check-call Marie's bet on the Turn but then insta-FOLD (instead of just checking and hoping for a no-bet showdown, especially for Marie who bet the Turn) the River. Surely one of them had a heart to call the flop AND turn with all hearts coming on the flop. But metaphorically the poker scene works as an indicator of the upcoming mind-duel between Walt and Hank, and that Walt might have the upper hand.

Did Cranston really shave his head for the series? It looked much more realistic than a skull-cap, and his acting devotion to his character is unquestioned. I was surprised how truly bad-ass it made him appear. Is that really the dad from Malcolm in the Middle?

The chemotherapy scenes are heartbreaking. AMC might worry about the series seemingly being too pro-meth, but certainly could scare more than a few viewers into giving up smoking anything to avoid lung-cancer.

I absolutely love how the writers are not making it easy at all to become a player in the drug world. The setbacks are much more interesting than quick success. I truly admire that this series will take its sweet time examining big issues, whether it be devoting an extended scene for Walt's "intervention" last episode, or the 3-4 episode arc of Amelio and Crazy 8.

I do have a complaint about this show. It does so many things on such a viscerally real scale - despair, sickness, family, fear, guilt - and that is what I admire most. But the show also has a habit of cheapening things by going for the overly dramatic at times that takes you out of the realism.

There seems to be one of these in every episode: Jesse's sudden bout of perfectionism (dump that crystal in the desert? instead of selling it?), KENWINs car not just shorting out, but EXPLODING, the mercury crystal blowing out all the windows yet still leaving everyone inside in a fine mood to negotiate, the whore at the Crystal Palace just happening to go back to a room with Jesse in it after talking to Hank and WJ (if Jesse owns his own house, has tons of weed and meth, and had enough cash to shower Walt's pool with, would he REALLY be fine with that skank?), Jesse's younger brother being a pot head, etc...

I prefer they stick more closely to reality instead of going for what I feel at times are cheap, thrill-shocking set-pieces. Vince Gilligan seems to be a sort of mini M Night Shyamalan with his love for the big twist, and sometimes it takes away from the otherwise reality-grounding aspects of the show.

But I would still watch this show even if it continues exactly the same in the future because the acting is so good and the willingness to slowly and closely examine topics is so unique in television.

K J Gillenwater said...

Personally, I feel some of the moments you pointed out, undercover, are more than just cheap plot tricks. For example, when Jesse turned out to be the one waiting in the motel room for the meth girl, the comments DEA uncle had made about her...and then Jesse's interaction with her...were making a larger point about drug addiction and how the world views drug addicts, rather than some cheap plot thrill. And using Jesse as the one paying her for sex just brought it closer to home. Why and how these people operate.

There is some art buried in this show...and that is what I like so much about it. They manage to tell a fascinating story while making subtle points about people, their perceptions, and how they live.

Plus, I always go for the 'truth is stranger than fiction.'

Anonymous said...

Kristin: "There is some art buried in this show...and that is what I like so much about it. They manage to tell a fascinating story while making subtle points about people, their perceptions, and how they live."

I agree whole heartedly with this sentiment. It's easily my favorite show right now, and the thought that there is only one more episode left, possibly forever (I doubt that though), saddens me. And I realize that they aren't making a documentary here, and that some license is in order.

But when Jesse applies for a job, it is enough to feel compassion for his situation WITHOUT the sales boss' dramatically opening the shutters to reveal the most humiliating dress-as-a-dorky-dollar-bill-
waving-a-huge-sign job to him. They can make the point about Jesse's having little societal worth without needing to hammer the audience with it. But I get that it is 'funner' the dollar-bill way, though I've can't imagine a high level boss holding traditional interviews for that type of job.

I just feel that at times Gilligan does not trust his audience to understand subtlety, and hammers them on the head too much. Make Walt and Skyler dress in dark, shiny blue for Elliot's party, but is it necessary for everyone else there to be color coordinated exactly with each other to make the point about Walt/Skylar's social isolation? I'm just asking for Gilligan to use a pillow instead of a hammer on the audience.

Dan Jameson said...

Thanks, Alan!

Shawn Anderson said...

I don't know that Cranston had his head shaved for this... they cut away before the razor cut any hair, so that suggests not, but if that's the case then the make-up job tremendous.

This coming from someone who regularly shaves off what little hair he has left on his head.

Anonymous said...

Oh! I didn't realize that the show was actually being cut short because of the strike; I thought they'd just planned a short season. Consequently, I assume there won't be any satisfying closure in the "finale" next week. That's disappointing.

Alan, do you know how many episodes they'd originally hoped to produce?

Anonymous said...

Kensington - I believe that they were scheduled to make 9 episodes according to an interview I read with Bryan Cranston, but Alan might have heard differently.

Does anyone here have any experience with crystal meth? I'm wondering how much of a 'luxury' market there is for "glass quality" meth as opposed to regular street quality, and how much of a premium it would command. Meth, to me, seems like it would be just as easy to sell if it was average as it would if it was super-high quality. Like the customers aren't exactly connoisseurs who would hold out only for the best. But I have no experience with it. Is it like the wine industry, or as gutter as I imagine?

Anonymous said...

I think Meth is like any other drug in that some people will buy lower quality, higher quantity, and some people will prefer the better quality (read: better high) drugs. There is definitely a market for the better stuff, as Adam Smith will no doubt tell you, but supply and demand will reign.

If the good stuff hits the market at a slightly higher price, or even the same price as the medicore meth, it will bring in customers that formerly didn't care where they got their drugs. Call it brand loyalty. In response, the other dealers will drop the price of the bad Meth and the market will find a balance. Stringer Bell would be so proud...

Shawn Anderson said...

I don't know how if how large a gay club scene they have in New Mexico, but there is still a market for non-gutter meth as a club drug in gay culture.

Mr Chips becomes Scarface... then deals to Sonny (Dog Day Afternoon).

Anonymous said...

Like they say about the really good off-the-boat heroin in The Wire - "you can step all over this shit"

the more concentrated it is, the more the shady dealers/distributors can cut it.