23/05/2014

Breaking Bad Season Five

The mesmerising finale of the most compelling TV drama of recent times.



There is a satisfaction to reaching the end of Breaking Bad, the feeling that you have watched something truly classic. When I first started I was of the idea that while I thought it was brilliant, it might not appeal to everyone particularly due to its subject matter. Yet like the best television drama it is about so much more than any paragraph of synopsis might suggest and has many layers to discover some of which, I suspect, may only reveal themselves second time round. Prior to starting on Walter White’s story I’d seen the first two seasons of Weeds, an initially nor dissimilar premise but one that lacks Breaking Bad’s dark heart. Weeds seems to go nowhere riffing off a basic –admittedly strong- initial idea and never taking it further. Breaking Bad on the other hand evolves very quickly taking you on a journey that is as fascinating as it is shocking, as involving as it is strange. When you reach the end you realise the time frame of events depicted spans just two years but somehow you believe it. Interestingly show runner Vince Gilligan has said that if he had been aware of Weeds earlier he would have stopped development of Breaking Bad. Now nobody would really compare them. Most people who watch Breaking Bad will be doing so after it was originally broadcast which has built the show’s reputation over the past two years and it is already spoken of by many as the best TV drama series ever. For the moment at least I’m not about to contradict that.

Warning- The rest of this review contains major plot spoilers including how the series ends. If you don’t want to know yet stop here for now because this review is the danger!


One of the (numerous) things that Bryan Cranston has perfected by this point in the series is the look. He stares straight ahead and though it initially seems as if his face has no expression at all, the more you look the more intimidating this look becomes. It is this look that dominates the opening half of what we will call season five. When originally broadcast and on DVD / Blu Ray it was chopped in two with the latter eight episodes billed as `The Final Season`, a money spinning division of resources Walter White himself would surely approve of.
These final 16 episodes promise to bring the story to a close because there is nothing worse than a show which outstays its welcome. From the start Breaking Bad has been a series that controlled it’s resources refusing to sprawl and as perfectly calibrated as the crystal meth cooking it depicts. Not a step along the way out of place. Despite this precision the series still somehow manages to retain spontaneity and an emotional heart. Yes, it is dark, brooding, black humoured and often immoral yet there we are rooting for these characters, interested in them whatever they do. Apart from its obvious assets like the high calibre of acting, writing and direction, the thunderbolt moments when things take a sudden turn and the sheer inventiveness that has been wrung from the scenario, a key reason for its success is that it remains rooted in family.
The disintegration of the White’s family life- and Walt’s attempts to keep it together- form key moments in each of the seasons. There is also a pseudo father / son dynamic between Walt and Jesse. Since we saw his estrangement from his parents early on Jesse has been on an unconscious search for a parental figure which is why he has responded to Walt from the start. It is why last season he moved under the wing of Mike and there are several scenes this season where he appears to be- and is often framed by directors as- the child watching his parents fight when Walt and Mike argue. Whatever they have done, Jesse has flourished under both of their tutelages but it is also why we (unlike Jesse) can see how easy Walt now finds it to manipulate him.
There is a cracking scene in episode 6 when Jesse finds himself at dinner with the now barely communicating Walt and Skylar and after it has become clear even to him what is happening Walt plays his cards and tells him the meth business is all he has left; “and you’re trying take it away from me.” It is enough to convince Jesse not to quit with Mike. We also see how, just like a child, Jesse is eager to please and on two key occasions it is he who comes up with important ideas that move things forward. Far from simply running around after “Mister White”, Jesse has become an essential ideas man too but his approach unlike his two partners is upfront and open. His ideas are like those of a brash teenager- a giant magnet, a train heist but Walter’s intelligence allows them to become reality.
Walt’s cunning is all over this season; we’ve already seen him fool Hank- who has now been promoted- by telling him of his marriage woes but this is a ruse to enable him to plant bugs in the office. This is quite a change from earlier seasons in which Walt was at the mercy of others, often desperately scrambling to cover his tracks. Now, as he so eloquently put it last season and which has become one of the classic quotes from the show; “I am the danger.”
Season 5 opens immediately after the death of Gus and sees Walt and Jesse setting up their own operation alongside Mike whose expression of weariness grows as matter progress. Jonathan Banks has turned what could be a standard henchman role into something far more interesting. Mike is fairly old to still be in this game an indication of his prowess but also how he can’t entirely be trusted but they accept him as the third partner anyway. This time the cooking is mobile, setting up in a different house each time under the cover of a genuine pest control operation. As well as his covert manipulation it is here that Walt’s increasing confidence and control shows its full hand as he becomes more forceful in getting his own way. The tone of the opening episodes is brisk and efficient as both Walt’s new operation gets into gear while Hank’s investigations start to edge closer particularly in the case of Mike who is being constantly tailed- and as Banks’ superbly droll expression demonstrates knows it! 
The domestic backdrop is Walt’s increasingly strained relationship with Skylar personified by episode 3’s riveting argument in which her defiance is worn down in one scene by Walt’s dominance. When he tells her Gus was the danger, she replies; “I thought you were the danger” and her every look shows she believes this now. While her reasons for wanting to keep their kids away from the house are couched in the prospect of outside attack you know it is her husband she wants to protect them from.
Of course things can’t trundle on too smoothly and it is during episode 5’s audacious attempt to siphon
methylamine
from a train that matters come to a head. Director George
Mastras brings a real urgency to this sequence and the gang appear to pull it off just as the train is moving off only for their presence to be observed by a child whom their helper Todd promptly shoots dead. Watching this it is one of those amazing tone changes the series does so well; one minute we’re wiling them to succeed as if was a conventional cliffhanger; we’ve almost forgotten why they are doing it and what they are taking. Then when the kid is shot we are as shocked as Jesse. This action sets off all sorts of alarm bells, especially for Jesse, leading to both his and Mike’s decision to sell what they have stolen and get out of the operation.


The fracturing of the trio’s working relationships is displayed over two pivotal episodes which straddle the spot where the original broadcast split the season into two. It feels as if developments are tumbling towards us with increasing speed. By the time we reach the end of episode 9, Mike is dead, Jesse is throwing bundles of notes out of his car window and Walt has learned his cancer has returned. The biggest surprise comes on part 8’s cliffhanger which is where Hank realises that it has been Walt all along. The moral here is be careful what you leave lying around in the bathroom; all it takes is a book for him to piece together the disparate fragments and realises his nemesis has been nearby all the time. There is a terrific scene which in other shows would be hedged but here Walt and Hank square up; though the former is in full denial role. Walt can lie so convincingly now; as we’ve just witnessed when he assures Jesse that Mike is still alive.
Whereupon the series twists and turns like a very clever snake! Ingeniously wringing many strands of the narrative to date, the final run in wrong foots the viewer at almost each devious turn. You sit there thinking you know how it will go and then it goes the other way! What the episodes play most on is the implications of everything each character has done. Hank for example soon realises that if he unveils his discovery to his colleagues, questions will be asked of his credibility, about how he managed not to notice his brother in law was the man he has spent the past year looking for. While Hank dithers at home, Walt is able to engineer an audacious blackmail in which he threatens to expose his pursuer as the `real` drug lord. Marie, who spends an episode acting holier than thou suddenly realises that the money she used to get her husband the best treatment for his recovery…came from Walt! Skylar reacts differently than you’d expect too. Having spent the past months loathing her husband it is now she who tries to goad him into killing Jesse, as if her default mode has become to cover her tracks.
All of this happens at what is a dazzling pace for an episodic drama; developments some shows would spend a season on are done and dusted in an episode or two. It is exhilarating stuff but in the end it all starts to point towards a final showdown between the two central characters.
Jesse’s ongoing guilt, anger on learning of Walt’s poisoning of Brock and frustration that Walt always wins leads him to finally agree to give evidence but to some extent this comes as a result of Hank playing him just as much as Walt did. Jesse finally seems to have become determined to destroy Walt leading to the latter finally deciding to take up the option he has so far rejected which is to kill his wayward former cooking partner. When he states his intent over the phone at the end of episode 12 it suggests a sort of modern version of the epic tussle between two resourceful antagonists. The viewer should take sides but this is not easy to do because however much we can empathise with Jesse- who in retrospect seems to never have been quite in control of anything much- there is still this tingling wish for Walt to win! Why this is, I have no idea. We should hate him as much as Jesse by now but we don’t.
Perhaps it’s Bryan Cranston. It is only now at the end we can look back and see what an astonishing performance this has been. Writers and directors have of course created and fuelled this character but I can imagine other actors playing it, saying exactly the same things, doing the same things and it only being half as good. Cranston has always had form- his performance as the harassed father in Malcolm in the Middle is a master class in superb physical comedy – but this is something else. What has Walter White done? He’s lied, cheated, killed, manipulated and more yet we remain fascinated by him because of Bryan Cranston’s performance. Even when we have occasion to hate the character as the series heads towards the end there is always some subtlety in the acting that keeps us fixed on what he is doing. Every so often we are lucky to witness an actor playing the role he or she was born to play and this is the one for him. It’s like we don’t want the series to end now because that will be the end of the performance. It takes time but thirty, fifty years hence, you can bet Bryan Cranston’s Walter White will be talked about still.
If Hank’s realisation is the game changer the pivotal moment signalling the end turns out to be a harsh stand- off in the desert engineered by Jesse, any lingering loyalty to Walt well and truly gone.  This plays with classic Western film iconography in its dusty shoot out from behind modern cars rather than barns and a masterful cliff hanger that keeps us guessing till a good five minutes or more into the following episode. Hank’s demise serves to emphasise how Walt’s influence has waned and signals the final dissolution of his family and of Jesse too. The latter ends up a prisoner of the exceptionally right wing gang (who previously executed Walt’s astoundingly bold multiple murder plan) only because Walt gives away his hiding place. There seems no hope for their former partnership now and for the first time our sympathy for Walt dissipates.
However much violence we have seen in the show it has been out on the streets, in isolated locations or public places. The subsequent vicious and physical argument between Walt and Skylar occurs inside their home and is brutally performed and directed as well as being difficult to watch. Why this shocks us more than all the guns and explosions is because it means the world that Walt has found
increasingly hard to keep away from his family has now crashed into his home like a tornado.
The sense of everything unravelling takes us through the last four episodes where Vince Gilligan’s plan appears to slot effortlessly into place. In interviews the show runner has always said he didn’t plan half as much as we imagine; the machine gun in the boot of Walt’s car in this season’s opener for example had no specific purpose when that episode was written. The fact that nonetheless it does appear to be so well planned is therefore even more impressive. A number of significant (and less significant) plot developments feed into the denouement with references abounding whether in dialogue or actions.
You also get a sense too of how the criminal world moves on as the gang who formerly helped Walt turn out, in a far less melodramatic or hand wringing way to be far more efficiently ruthless. Their signature style is defined by the brutal yet casual murder of Andrea on her doorstep; Jesse is made to watch this as punishment for an escape attempt and at this point you wonder how much more this character can take. Holed up in his snowy exile Walt declines physically but his trademark desperation is what seems to keep him ticking and in the finale takes him back home. Both characters appear to be at their lowest ebb so you wonder what the last 50 minutes can do about that.
Ending a series is probably as hard if not harder than starting one given years of expectation and Vince Gilligan does not flinch when faced with a last episode, maintaining the show’s style and avoiding anything that either comes over as too syrupy, unlikely  or out of tune with the previous 61 episodes. All the major shocks have been and gone and there is an appealing symmetry to the way matters play out.

In the end Walt has two key moments of honesty. He admits to Skylar that everything he’s done in the past couple of years was for himself, that he “liked it”. This is confirmed in his last moments later on when just before he dies he proudly inspects the lab equipment as if it is the thing in his life he is most satisfied with. Secondly he saves Jesse’s life even if it is in a hail of bullets he has himself rigged to
pepper the shack where he has arranged a meeting with the gang. The decision seems instinctive as it is clear he intended Jesse to die with the others and in saving him he takes a fatal bullet himself. Justice you might say.
I don’t think anyone who watches the series would begrudge Jesse either his opportunity to kill the malicious Todd, or to be able to literally escape. We hope he has a better future. While Bryan Cranston gets and deserves barrels of praise, Aaron Paul is also consistently brilliant as well. Jesse’s escape is a necessary chink of optimism to finish a show that has always been capable of bringing some humanity to even the bleakest of scenarios. Like all the best endings you start thinking how the remaining characters will fare though it is to be hoped we never have some sequel to show us, much better that we each have our own ideas.
With far more people watching Breaking Bad after it finished its original broadcast there is increasing focus on the series as a phenomenon as opposed to the series content. This often happens- the Harry Potter franchise is an example- and it can obscure the original by turning it into an easily quotable property. Already merchandise has started appearing even though you’d imagine this was an unlikely series to inspire that sort of thing though admittedly at least nobody has had the gall to produce toy meth crystals yet! There are probably people who now go on about how acclaimed this series is or use iconic from it without having actually watched it. So rather than believe reviews like this and quote wildly about Breaking Bad the best thing is surely to see it for yourself.
I’m sure Shakespeare scholars and the like would be aghast at the suggestion but this series does have the heft of a great play and may eventually be seen in that way.  It is the story of an ordinary, flawed man who confronts mortality by doing extraordinary things. Like some failing Middle Ages King he is mostly desperately trying to hold on to what he has achieved; the series never allowing him to coast successfully for long. Vince Gilligan’s stated intent was to follow a character who over the course of the narrative evolves “from Mr Chips to Scarface” flying against the tradition of many ongoing shows where characters rarely change whatever happens to them.
In Walt and Jesse there is a brilliant study of the mechanics of partnership, of how greed intercedes and also how funny two characters can be together. The series has also shown none of its key participants are as virtuous as they seem except the children. The adults on the other hand are shown to be flawed in different ways. In this last season particularly the scripts repeatedly draw on past misdemeanours that come back to haunt different characters.
The series challenges the assumptions of right and wrong and why we do things. However much we imagine it is for others, is it the case that a lot of what we do is for ourselves perhaps even though we don’t realise it? The scripts constantly challenge our view of good and bad. Given that the actual chemistry is reportedly as well essayed as the personal you could also say that Breaking Bad serves as an entry level course on cooking crystal meth though that is definitely not why I’m clearing some stuff out of the way in my garage!
Subsequent viewings will ultimately decide on whether Breaking Bad is as classic as we think it is at the moment but it seems highly likely that even without the visceral thrill of developments for the first time viewer, this is a series that will grow in depth and reputation in the future. For now it is a work of distinction, something very special and the most compelling TV drama of recent times which is enough to be going on with don’t you think. Even Walter White would smile to know that.
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