Please welcome guest writer Jen Girdish, who has no patience for even Season One Walt! -Meredith
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan drew a line in the sand after the Season 5 episode “Buyout”: main character, Walter White, is now a full-on jerk. Gilligan told Vulture, “He is really not a nice guy anymore.” That Vulture piece confirms that in five seasons, this episode was “the first time we saw his dickish side.”
Gilligan’s original pitch for the show was to tell a story that takes Mr. Chips and turns him into Scarface, a protagonist that eventually becomes so despicable that you are no longer able to sympathize with him. The premise - mild-mannered schoolteacher morphs into an evil meth lord - only works if you have sympathy for Walter White in the beginning.
People who like Breaking Bad - roughly 2.9 million people who include TV critics I respect, Twitter pals and most of my friends - have been watching “a fascinating character study of the depths one man will go to for self-preservation, even as he becomes corrupted by power and greed.”
But in the Breaking Bad I’ve been watching for the past five seasons, Walter White has always been a jerk. He’s one of those guys who lists “nice guy” on their OkCupid profiles to conceal the rage bubbling beneath the surface. The Breaking Bad I’ve been watching is more like a 24 for jerks.
No matter how many episodes I dissect or how many 2 a.m. drunken arguments I’ve gotten into with friends (so many), I’ve come to the only logical conclusion: that there are two Breaking Bad shows. One that I watch, and one that everyone else watches.
Let me introduce you to my Breaking Bad.
1. Walter White is like your annoying ex who won’t stop texting you about all the awesome things he’s done since you broke up.
If Walter comes across as a self-pitying, petulant and manipulative jerk in the beginning, then nothing about his “transformation” works. In the pilot episode, when we most need to empathize with Walt in order to see him as “Mr. Chips,” Walt blackmails his former high school student, Jesse Pinkman, into cooking meth with him under the threat that he will rat Jesse out to the police. Later in that episode, Walt kills two people by brewing a toxic gas compound. In the second episode, while attending his pregnant wife’s sonogram, he tells her to “climb out of [his] asshole.” He sets a BMW on fire in Episode 4 at a gas station in retribution for a stolen parking space. Even if this isn’t quite Scarface behavior, it’s a hell of a lot closer to the guy we spend the rest of the series with than it is to Mr. Chips.
To be fair, Breaking Bad will occasionally take a much less casual attitude towards murder. In Episode 3, Walt and Jesse kidnap a drug dealer and have to murder him much more intimately than with poisoned gas. They deal with the cleanup and aftermath over the course of the first season, and it’s not as neat as the two guys from the pilot. But the show bounces back and forth between “bad ass” toxic chemical compounds or explosive elements that are dispatched easily and the up-close-and-personal killings of more innocent characters.
Yet, even after five seasons of Walt “bad assing” himself into corners, the characters on the show keep listening to him, because he’s “the one who knocks,” and the rest of the characters on the show haven’t figured out how to slam the door in his face. Except possibly for Jesse.
2. Women be crazy!
There is a serious lack of compelling female characters on Breaking Bad. Skyler’s storylines are so limited that she exists only to react to Walt. The one characteristic they used to give her “dimensionality,” an aspiration towards writing, is dropped by the fourth episode. After that, we only know her as CPA mastermind. Unlike troubled marriages on other TV shows (Betty and Don, Carmella and Tony, heck even George and Lucille Bluth), there’s no evidence of why Skyler and Walt married each other in the first place. There’s neither lingering tenderness nor a sense that these two could ever see each other as equals.
Then there’s Skyler’s sister, Marie. Marie is only characterized by what she isn’t: not-Skyler, not-Walt, not-DEA agent Hank. Sometimes she’s the observant sister, sometimes she’s a clueless dingbat. Her purple wardrobe is more consistent than her character. It seems sometimes that the writers are using her as a stand-in for the ideal audience for the show - and they hold her in the same contempt.
The one other female character on the show (besides Jesse’s string of girlfriends who are inevitably “innocent bystanders” to Walt’s manipulation) is Lydia, a high-strung lady who works for the Houston branch of a company that supplied chemicals to fast-food-magnate-cum-meth-kingpin Gus Fring. Lydia’s character is so unstable, you wonder why someone as careful as Volvo-driving Gus - who correctly assumed that working with Walt wasn’t worth the risks - would even do business with Lydia. Lydia who wears two different kinds of black shoes when she’s being “nervous woman criminal.”
Not that a lack of compelling female characters inherently makes a TV series bad, but it makes it less interesting. Especially when there are so many shows on right now with complex and well-defined female characters. Why should I waste my time? (See #10)
3. If I wanted to watch Trainspotting once a week…
Jesse is supposed to be the vague moral “heart” of the story, but so much of his emotional process, especially in the earlier seasons, is portrayed through endless clichéd drug montages. Jesse’s reaction to being ordered to shoot Gale in the head could be good character maturation, but it’s been twelve years since Requiem for a Dream came out, so if you’re going to spend more than 15 seconds per episode on montages about drugs, despair and self-loathing, can you come up with some new tricks? After four minutes, the nu-rave montages are boring rather than insightful. If I got back all the minutes that I’ve wasted on lame drug montages since Trainspotting, I’d be 22 again.
4. There are two lines of Hollywood machismo dialogue that I could live without.
- “DO YOU UNDERSTAND,” Walter White.
- “Yeah/science/magnets, bitch!” Jesse Pinkman
5. Everyone has Homer Simpson syndrome.
Breaking Bad’s “air-tight” plotting is one of its most acclaimed features. In fact, if you Google “breaking bad plot holes” the only search results you’ll find are fans coming up with obscure “plot holes," like Skyler getting “fat” in between seasons.
All of this “air-tight” plotting comes at the expense of real character development. The characters are whatever the plot needs them to be, sometimes they’re smart, sometimes they’re clueless, like an entire cast of post-Season 10 Homer Simpsons.
Why does Gus, the ever-careful cartel guy, write down the Swiss bank account numbers in *such* an accessible place, under such a literal title as “Banc Suisse”? Why wouldn’t he at least attempt to hide those numbers in some kind of code? Why would Mike ever trust Walter to deliver his go-bag when he clearly has never trusted Walter before? Why would Pepsi not shoot Classic Coke immediately?
Gilligan cares more about the “cool” details of the show than real character definition. Marie always wears purple shirts and sits on purple chairs! The names of the episodes that begin with that weak tease in Season 2 spell out “Seven Thirty-Seven” “Down” “Over” “ABQ," so we should have known it was a plane crash all along! Real cool, bitch!
Which leads me right into…
6. Don’t be such a tease.
Breaking Bad uses the flash-forward as one of its main storytelling devices, and it’s one of the laziest, most un-trustworthy things a storyteller can do to the audience. At the beginning of Season 2, Gilligan shows Walt’s house, seemingly exploded, with a very significant purple teddy bear floating in the pool. Then, on three subsequent episodes, Gilligan teases evidence collection and body bags on the premises of Walt’s house. That goddamn Teddy Bear floating in the swimming pool leads you to believe is the result of something CRAZY going down—Walter’s house getting blown up, does the teddy bear belong to his newborn? Who is in the body bags? But instead, it’s cruel misdirection. The teddy bear is never ominously introduced. No one you have ever seen, nor will see, winds up in a body bag. The evidence has nothing to do with Walt’s meth operation. And the explosion? A plane crash that Walt (supposedly) indirectly causes. It’s like the Literal Doctor on Arrested Development:
The Literal Doctor: I'm sorry, but I'm afraid there's nothing more that I can do.
The Literal Doctor: Because Dr. Stein has been assigned to your case.
By the time we meet the kid with the tarantula in the recent “Dead Freight” flash-forward, Gilligan has trained you not to trust him. As soon as I heard the train whistle I thought, “So, the kid is going to die, or this tarantula is going to crawl up Walt’s ass, or oh god, it’s not even worth it to guess.” When you’ve trained your audience to expect these flash-forwards to relate only incidentally to the plot at hand, they stop caring. If I ask you to guess a number between 1 and 10, don’t be impressed when I tell you I’m thinking of 15.
7. Breaking Bad, ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME
Breaking Bad is about as subtle as 24. Even the quiet, pensive moments - when Walt processes his cancer diagnosis or when Skyler lulls into depression - are acted in all caps. DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW PENSIVE I’M BEING? I’M SO DEPRESSED RIGHT NOW. DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW COOL THIS IS?
But instead of Breaking Bad being played up with self-aware Chuck Norris-esque camp like 24, it’s touted as cutting-edge drama and a “character study.”
Which brings me to:
8. Walter White is no Tony Soprano.
The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood, shows in the pantheon to which Breaking Bad aspires, have large supporting casts and they aren’t afraid to let the viewer be confused. Remember how casually The Sopranos would introduce new characters to its world? Who are Bunny Colvin, Johnny Sacrimoni, Cy Tolliver, Ralph Cifaretto, and how are you supposed to feel about them? They let you figure that out for yourself. Breaking Bad is never confident enough to let you do any thinking for yourself.
With Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Stringer Bell and Omar Little, you want them to be good. You also want them to be bad, and in any given scenario, they stand a chance of acting good or bad. There's never been any hope for Walt to be good. He’s been a selfish jerk from day one (see #1). Walt isn’t complicated enough to lick Christopher Moltisanti’s stupid shoes. Walter belongs in the ranks of True Blood and 24.
24 also indulges convenient plot mechanics to write characters into corners, and the characters have to improvise highly unlikely ideas to get out of them, but though the stakes are much higher, 24 is much less self-important. And as deeply, deeply flawed as True Blood is, it still has more self-awareness, irony and acting range than one episode of Breaking Bad. I would rather endure 48 minutes of Sookie Stackhouse having sex with the whole cast of True Blood - even Jane Bodehouse - than one minute of Walter White being a “bad ass.”
Some critics have even argued that Breaking Bad is better than its network contemporary Mad Men, because it’s raw-er and shows real in-the-moment action. Because trying to melt down a dead body with acid is more real-er than cultural tension in the '60s.
“Last season, when Don strangled a former fling, it was a figment of a fevered imagination, a shocking act that was quickly and neatly stashed underneath the bed; a bad memory that didn't leave a bruise. Just like it was for most professional scribes back in gym class, the emotional always trumps the physical.”
If only Don had killed that girl IRL! Then Mad Men would be so real.
9. What will happen to the gang next year?
If Walt were a mild-mannered high school science teacher who was humble enough to work at a car wash as a second job to pay for his son’s medical expenses, we’re supposed to believe that he battles cancer, goes into remission, starts a small-time meth cooking business, kills at least ten people, half-poisons a child, watches Jesse’s girlfriend OD, indirectly causes a plane crash, buys a carwash, becomes a cooker for the cartel in a superlab and blows up an American cartel kingpin. All within one year.
10. Why am I wasting my time on this?
I believe that if you hate something, it’s really important to understand why you hate it. There are too many Chuck Klostermans and Joel Steins of the Internet, damning things that they haven’t spent enough time understanding. There’s nothing more irritating than someone who hate-writes and gets their facts all wrong.
I really want to watch the Breaking Bad that everyone else does; it sounds like a lot of fun. I would get into far fewer drunken arguments. I could have a crush on Aaron Paul like all my friends do. Maybe by the end of this half season when Walter White asks, “Do you understand?” I finally will. I keep waiting.