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Friday, 25 October 2013

Breaking Bad: A Brief Analysis, And--OH GOD MY FEELS (Part 1)

Hello hello!

So, I should clarify something--I don't want TV. I really, really don't watch TV. I haven't had cable in...I don't know, at least eight years? On occasion, I will load a whole bunch of episodes for a series on Netflix, but that's it. This is fine with me, as I save a lot of time and end up reading quite a bit more.

Whenever a cultural phenomenon hits, though, I try to do some cursory investigations. I didn't bother spending time on Honey Boo Boo or Jersey Shore, apart from perhaps a basic summary on Wikipedia, but Breaking Bad was another matter. Intelligensia were flocking to the show, and a bunch of my close friends were losing their minds over it.

I waited for the series to finish, and then I binged on it, as is my preference. I really hate waiting for sequels to things I like. (And yes, the Harry Potter years were agony, thanks so much.) Breaking Bad, frankly, had me dubious. Crime isn't my thing. I like a touch of noire, and I like action, but The Sopranos and that whole genre always left me cold. Sure, I'm fond of Sherlock Holmes stories in all incarnations, and I had a childhood aspiration towards forensic science, but I prefer a nice mediaeval poisoning or a treatise on ancient weapons to a contemporary crime drama. However, writer pals kept insisting it was well-written, well-acted, etc, etc.

Well, I just finished the series tonight, and I'm still processing what I spent the last few weeks watching. I should probably stick a spoilers warning here


 Right. Now that you've had your freak-out, we can continue. So: let's talk basics.

Mechanics of the show

The acting was unquestionably top-notch, and the camera-work was quite good. The acting is, in fact, so perfect that I'm not going to talk about it. There's simply nothing to say about portrayals of characters that are so honest, you can't even see the actor bleeding through underneath .

As for the camera work, well, it was shaky when it needed to be shaky and steady when it needed to be steady. Shots seemed to be framed well, especially in the many desert scenes, and there was a lot of use of visual motifs in the shots. Use of the teddy eye as symbolism for Walter when he was still feeling moral qualms, the colour themes--there were a few times when one felt a bit hit over the head by it, such as the way the plane crash symbolized the breaking of Walter's world, but it was nice to see symbolism.

The other mechanics in the show were pretty good, too. No exploding cars, for instance. There were some factual issues and errors in the last season, but the understanding of addiction was certainly top-notch. The science of the show is something I can't comment on, because frankly, chemistry isn't my area of expertise, but it certainly seemed to be right.

Source.   Yeah, it's cheating, I know.

Literary structure and layers

 I'm reminded of Game of Thrones (which I've read but not seen) in a lot of ways. Most people are familiar with the phrase, "In the Game of Thrones, you win or you die"; Martin repeats it as often as the infamous "Winter Is Coming". The moral structure here reminded me of GoT, but mostly, I found myself thinking of Shakespeare a lot. In Romeo and Juliet, and quite a few other tragedies, there's a real emphasis placed on the accidental casualties who fall as a result of the hero's failure or the villain's machinations. However, this is no case of incompetence or madness, as in Hamlet, or mere cumulative misunderstandings, as in Othello. Rather, I think of Macbeth; Breaking Bad makes us cheer for the villain.

There are casualties and people who don't get what they deserve--the children who die, for instance, are as innocent as the princes of Richard III, and as undeserving--but most of the people who die, particularly in the bloodbath that is the final episode, really deserve what they get. Tuco Salamanca, Gustavo Fring, Todd Alquist, and Lydia Quayle stand out as examples of people who all fall by the hand of poetic justice. Others, such as Mike Ermantrout and Hank Schrader, fell because of their line of duty; then, too, all of the deaths mentioned are nicely foreshadowed and suggested as the characters commit moral crimes along the way. It's noteable that Jesse, like Horatio, does survive; he also consistently made moral choices that avoided the harm of innocents when possible, and that he showed repentance for his crimes far more than any other character.

What does draw my admiration, though, was the use of the proper five-act structure for the seasons, and especially for Walter's character. The seasons themselves--particularly most of three, apart from a couple episodes, and the first half of the fourth--were sometimes lopsided, but they still moved well. I have to complain a bit about Holly being a human McGuffin in a lot of cases, and the way certain elements from the beginning were just dropped (hello, Skyler's literary aspirations) haphazardly, but over all, most elements were tied in well and consistently. It's nice to see a story that follows most of its logical implications through to the very ending of character arcs.

Vince Gilligan, the writer, apparently intended a 'Biblical feel', but the clear themes of consequences didn't require deep analysis to discover. The storytelling was clear enough to convey his message without ham-fistedness (well, most of the time), and that's certainly admirable. Indeed, there were even winks to this--doubting Saul, for example, who hits the road, but never actually goes to Damascus--or becomes a believer, for that matter. If there's a message in Breaking Bad, it's that you must make your own redemption, and if you're lucky, it will work out.

A quick word on characters

As much as people praise the character for being a badass and scold his wife for discouraging his criminal activities (!), I also have to praise Skyler, Walter's foil. She constantly strives for the morally correct decision and actually reacts in a realistic way, the way an overwhelmed partner probably would. I have more than a passing familiarity with stress reactions--both academic and personal--and it was all handled in a very impressive way. She and Jesse Pinkman both count as foils in some respects, but they're dynamic characters, changing in response to circumstances handed to them and unwilling to take Walt's orders without question, especially as time goes on.

The use of other characters as foils for each other--Tuco, Gustavo, and Lydia, for instance--also reflects some of that biblical stuff with a trine structure. Clearly, Gilligan wasn't just sleeping through the board meetings, the way some writers seem to (which is the only way I can excuse some of Steven Moffat and Russel Davies' worst Doctor Who episodes). Mirroring was also evident, such as in Walter Jr's character--he does right by his mother, rejects the father he once adored, and becomes very independent. There are lots of quiet demonstrations of the way the son does not follow the sins of the father, which bodes well for the life of the character after the show, but also plenty of examples of mirror characterization between Jesse and Walter Jr. Even the 'foils' get their own lives and stories.

Now, I did mention feelings, and I'm going to briefly mention that this series will wreck you. It didn't make me cry, to my surprise, but it was quite evocative and disturbing. For more of the how and why, tune in next time!


Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr. More interviews and witty commentaries are coming. Keep checking back to see those surprise posts, too. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


  1. Oh! Just like you I do not have cable and watch TV erratically, and I like to watch the whole of a series in one go because I hate waiting for episodes. Breaking Bad was not even on my radar until I read this but it sounds really great. Thanks for the heads up.

    Also, Now that you have pointed out the proper five-act structure for the seasons I'll be looking out for it instead of just schlomphing out lazily and being entertained.


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