"Breaking Bad" (returns Sunday, July 15 at 10 p.m. ET on AMC) is one of the great shows of television's Golden Age, and the first two episodes of the show's fifth season will give viewers no reason to think otherwise.
But rather than go into what transpires in those episodes, I thought it might be more fruitful to offer, in honor of the show's fifth season, five reasons why "Breaking Bad" is one of the Golden Greats.
If you like in-depth "Breaking Bad" conversations, I'll be reviewing each of 2012's eight episode of Season 5 each week -- look for those posts every Sunday night. But for now, here are five reasons I'll be sorry to see this show go when Season 5 finally concludes (with the final eight episodes) in 2013:
5. The look.
From the very beginning, "Breaking Bad" made great use of its wide-open Southwestern vistas, often to ironically comment on the constricted and cramped lives of its characters. But as the show progressed and mastered its tone (which was a bit varied in the first two seasons, but soon coalesced into a wonderfully unique and unified vision), "Breaking Bad" began to give a weekly masterclass in visual storytelling. Framing, color choices, lighting, set decoration, soundtrack, editing and dozens of other details, large and small, conveyed huge amounts of information to the audience in clear and elegant ways.
It's not that television shows before and after haven't used every inch of the TV screen to tell compelling stories, but on a modest budget (i.e., the catering budget for your average Hollywood blockbuster), "Breaking Bad" quietly knitted together all those elements and rigorously used them to give even more depth, heft and meaning to its Everyman Gone Wrong story. Think about Gus Fring: Every one of his movements was precise, necessary and controlled. That also describes "Breaking Bad's" focused approach to storytelling: Every element contributes, nothing is done to excess, and every action and creative decision is ultimately in the service of a well-defined goal. Using this graceful discipline, "Breaking Bad" has created unforgettable visual poetry.
4. The attention to the basics.
It's all very well to talk about the show's command of its visuals and the tough morality at its core (which I'll get to in a minute), but one of the greatest things about recent seasons of "Breaking Bad" is that almost every episode functioned as a taut, cannily constructed thriller, and each season shrewdly built to an inevitable yet incredibly tense conclusion. In this interview, creator Vince Gilligan talked about what he learned from Chris Carter, his boss at "The X-Files." That show gave Gilligan an education in how to get an audience hooked and keep them on the edge of their seats, and Gilligan has never forgotten those lessons. If anything, he and his writers have inventively expanded on them during "Breaking Bad's" nail-biting five-season run.
Story, character, plot: You'd think that upper-tier dramas would always pay attention to these things, but once the positive reviews start rolling in, some shows start slacking on the basics. But like "The Shield" before it -- another rare show that kept getting better in its later seasons instead of sliding into lazy ruts -- "Breaking Bad" has intelligently upped the ante for Walt and Jesse every year. Again, think of Gus Fring: Thanks to a host of brilliant narrative and visual strategies, the act of the man putting on protective clothing in the Superlab became one of the most riveting things we saw all last year.
A digression, if you'll indulge me (and feel free to move to the next point if you'd rather not): I often think an important aspect of storytelling consists of getting each audience member to subconsciously (or consciously) ask himself or herself a series of questions. If viewers are confused and asking themselves structural or procedural questions ("Why is this happening? Why doesn't this person/development/new information flow smoothly into what I already know? Why are the characters doing things that seem out of character or dumb?"), they're constantly being taken out of the narrative and can't fully absorb what the storytellers are trying to do. I find that when I'm asking character-based questions ("What will Walt do about this? Will Jesse think of a solution to this problem? Will Mike ally himself with that guy?"), I'm generally enjoying myself a lot more, because I'm within the narrative, luxuriating in its possibilities and freaking out when I understand where all the players stand but I don't know what's coming next.
As Ryan McGee and I discussed in this week's Talking TV podcast (which is below), "Breaking Bad" submerges the viewer in the narrative without drawing attention to the mechanics of the storytelling -- which, when they swing in to high gear, are as as exciting as anything on the big or small screen.
3. The adaptability.
All these things I talked about above? They weren't fully in place when "Breaking Bad" began. It took me a long time to warm up to the show, partly because Walt's journey was so dark and I thought I knew exactly where it was headed, partly because what Walt did (or failed to do) to Jane during Season 2 turned me off, and partly because some aspects of the show frankly grated on me.
But a combination of few different things lured me back to "Breaking Bad" in Season 3 (and if you want to read my episode-by-episode conversion narrative, go here, here and here). Though there were elements I always appreciated a great deal (notably the lead performances), I'm of the opinion that in Season 2 and especially in Season 3, "Breaking Bad" got better at creating consistent tension, and it also improved or added characters who greatly enriched the narrative (or stopped detracting from it). Gus Fring was a villain for the ages, the laconic Mike was another great addition, Saul offered welcome comic relief and the Mexican brothers who drove the first part of Season 3 were enigmatically compelling. Also, the more Skyler knew, the less of a drag she became. (Early in the show's run, despite Anna Gunn's capable performance, I found Skyler to be the ultimate "shrewish wife in anti-hero drama" and everything on the home front bored or irritated me.)
Humility is a fine thing not just in human beings but in entertainment products. "Breaking Bad" is a show, as the first two episodes of Season 5 demonstrate, that does not rest on its laurels or take viewers' interest for granted. The program has never stopped improving, and at this point, I have absolute trust that every single episode will be well worth my time. That's not something I can often say.
2. The acting.
We've laughed at Walter White. We've hated him. We've appreciated his canny strategizing and we've shaken our heads at his arrogance. This season, there's something new in Bryan Cranston's performance: This version of Walter White will scare you. There's a chilly certainty at the core of Walt now, an almost sociopathic self-confidence that makes him much more formidable and much less capable of self-doubt. What's impressive is not just that Cranston and Gilligan keep finding new places to take the character, but that every step in the progression of the man -- from chemistry teacher to meth maker to would-be kingpin -- has been absolutely believable. Cranston has made the journey -- from the henpecked husband who was working two jobs in Season 1 to the murderer who said, "I won" at the end of Season 4 -- not just credible but fascinating. As taut as the narrative has been, it never would have worked without Cranston's masterful, nuanced performance at the center of it.
And if Aaron Paul was less of a known quantity when the show began, Jesse has emerged as the beating, bloody, bruised heart of "Breaking Bad." In a show that focuses on what people can achieve when they ignore or kill their consciences, Jesse is the heartbreaking contrast: He can't elide or justify the things he's done, and that knowledge is slowly destroying him. Aaron Paul has made us feel the weight of Jesse's tragic destiny: He can't escape "Mr. White's" clutches, because on some level, he thinks his former teacher isn't all bad. Oh Jesse. He has no idea how very wrong he is.
I once wrote that the fate of these people would never make me cry. I think, before Season 5 is over, I will be wrong about that.
1. The moral clarity.
We're all good people, right? We pay our taxes. We pay our bills. We don't cut people off in traffic. But maybe, that one time, you got too much change and didn't give it back. Maybe you got home from the store once and realized you didn't pay for an item in your shopping cart. Maybe your neighbor's favorite tool sits in your garage, but you've found a way to justify not giving it back just yet.
We all find ways to explain away the things we do that we know, on some level, are not right. But when do we cross the important lines? Is it when we break the law? Or when is it when we violate the codes that have been implanted in us by our cultures, our communities and ourselves? How do we explain it when we do something really wrong? Because we've all done bad things and found ways to tell ourselves those actions weren't that bad.
Walter White was just a guy like us, trying to get by and not break too many of the big rules. But then, he started breaking rules, and he became addicted to those feelings of transgression and superiority -- as addicted as the poor saps who buy his super-pure meth. More than ever, he thinks he's in control, but it's his addiction to being better than everyone else that has always been in the driver's seat.
What has drawn me so deeply to "Breaking Bad" is that the show has never, ever let Walter off the hook -- the show knows, and thus we know, that his self-justifications are always suspect. He may be fooling himself some of the time, but he's never fooled us. Ambiguity is the fashion in drama these days, and for good reason -- it makes for great character studies -- but the morality of "Breaking Bad" is crystal clear: Walt is a bad person and, far from saving his family, his evil is spreading outward and endangering everyone around him. Walt himself, despite his strenuous and ultimately successful attempts to wall himself off from this knowledge, is the cancer. To become the one who knocks, he's become the one who may well get his family killed.
"Breaking Bad's" ability to be so tough on Walt and yet refrain from screechy editorializing or prim, predictable judgment may be its greatest accomplishment. The show's motto could be, "Pride goeth before a fall," but "Breaking Bad" never falls back on cheap cliches. As we look inside Walt's heart of darkness, we can never escape the feeling that, not too long ago, he wasn't so different from us.
Walt had the seeds of sin inside him before he ever got cancer or cooked meth, and the show isn't interested in making us see him as an anomalous bad guy.
"Breaking Bad" wants us to wonder, what seeds lurk inside us?