BREAKING BAD: The Good And Bad -

BREAKING BAD: The Good And Bad


Sunday night’s season premiere of Breaking Bad sort of clarified what I like best and least about the show. It has certainly improved a ton since the first season, when it seemed to me like the ultimate generic cable show, with every cable-network-approved cliché — the dysfunctional rot at the heart of middle America, Jekyll-and-Hyde duality, labyrinthine soap-opera plotting — in place. Starting in season 2 it became a much better and more interesting show, always bolstered by Bryan Cranston’s performance (though I’m not convinced that the rest of the cast is terribly interesting). Still, my main likes and dislikes remain pretty constant:

Like: The painful, awkward, funny-scary moments when Walt, a monster who still likes to think of himself as a basically decent man doing his best for his family, tries to justify himself to “normal” people. His use of meaningless buzzwords to explain his motivations, like “it’s complicated,” is a wonderful character touch; it also helps pull the show away from cable cliché by parodying the notion of moral ambiguity or “shades of grey” or all the other buzzwords that cable showrunners use to describe their work. Walt wants to think of himself as a symbol of life’s complexity and the difficult choices we have to make, and Vince Gilligan has talked about “taking a good man and transforming him into something else,” but it could be that he’s just a rotten person who enjoys this life and has found his true calling. And when his deranged self-justification butts up against a roomful of regular people, as it did in the gymnasium speech in the third season premiere, the result is a scene that is both very funny and very frightening, which is something few shows have been able to manage since the better episodes of The Sopranos.

Dislike: The big “symbolism” scenes. Any wordless scene with Walt interacting with some symbolic thing — oh, look at the meaningful way he’s cutting that bread! — is cable formula stuff, leading to blatant overplaying by both Cranston and the director (well, Cranston directed this episode, so all the overplaying is his). The burning-money scene was the show, and the edgy cable genre, at its weakest: symbolism on a Rosebud-was-his-sled level, tricked out with silly camera angles (putting the camera inside the grill) and requiring the main character to act nothing like a recognizable human being. It’s like they look at those old parodies of bad art movies — the ones that begin and end with a leaf falling, symbolizing the transience of life — and take them seriously.

In sum: Good show; could do with fewer symbols.

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BREAKING BAD: The Good And Bad

  1. It may be that you don't really 'get' the symbols.
    Now let's quit talking about that silly air disaster and move on, already!
    That's what people do, move on.

    • What's not to get? The symbols are usually crushingly obvious. It's not at all ambiguous why Walt burns the money (he's feeling guilty); similarly, when Walt discovered last season that there was rot in the foundation of his house, that's pretty clear as well.

  2. I think Slovis (the DP) and the directors usually acquit themselves well with the over-the-top symbolism. If it's as dire as 'burning money' or 'mould in the foundation of the house' though, there's really nothing any of them can do.

  3. You probably shouldn't write about shows that you don't understand. You're clueless.

    • You probably shouldn't write about shows that you don't understand. You're clueless.

      I take it you think the symbols and the show's way of calling attention to them aren't cliché'd or over-the-top, which is fine. But I'd be interested to hear why, since that would have a chance of making me less clueless.

      "You see? You see the symbolism of it? Capital and labor destroy each other. It teaches a lesson, a moral lesson. It has social significance!" — Sullivan's Travels

  4. SSFFDD: Good points all. I don't mean to say definitively that Walt is an inherently bad guy (which is the closest I can get to explaining what I meant by "rotten"). But I do think it has made the show more interesting for me because it can be read that way, that maybe he hasn't let himself be led into this, that maybe the story the show seemed to be telling — of a man who does the wrong thing for the right reasons — might really be about a guy with much worse motivations.

  5. Good grief, Charlie Brown. Why the hell do all you people have to over think everything? Why can't people just enjoy things without picking it apart? Let's face it: Breaking Bad is pretty much the most well written show in, well, as long as I can remember. Terrific cast, but Bryan Cranston should be a household name. He has such a unique way of being pathetic and funny at the same time that I will always watch anything attached to his name. I mean, come on people. Malcolm in the middle + terminal illness + cooking meth = interesting and original programming. If you can't just sit back and enjoy that, you need to see about getting that stick pulled out of your ass.

    • Agreed!

  6. I'm of the opinion that (if I do not like a symbolic representation in TV or cinema), if I think of it instead as being absolutely literal it tends not to bother me any more.

    I'm really struggling to see why so many can't be entertained by the idea of burning $500,000 in a $100 BBQ…

  7. I can't believe no one has mentioned saul. His character might not be the most original, but boy is it delicious to watch. Too many quotes to even start. That said – I was just noticing, people really like to hear themselves think. I suppose I have to put myself into this catagory by writing my own comment, and now here again as I continue…but it is interesting how the internet has given a voice to all the lonesome people of the world that want to have their opinion heard. Before, losers of the world typically had to corner someone at a party to state their opinions about something like why or why not they did or did not like a t.v. program. Now we can just let it flow and everyone has to just sit and take it. At least at the party you can pretend you have to go to the bathroom.

  8. you sir are a bitter old coont_ what show on tv is better written or more entertaining

  9. Interesting to read other takes on my favorite show. I look at it as a morality tale for the 21st century, which makes all the heavy -handed symbolism, as well as the twists and turns, simultaneously both hilarious and meaningful. In the same way that "Pulp Fiction" made horrific violence mundane, and made me feel guilty for laughing, this show makes me squirm at Walt's ("Walter Mitty"?) rationalization of his transformation, cringe at the speedy acceptance of each new level of violence, and laugh out loud at the horrible sight gags Jesse inflicts on himself (blue footprints from the crashed porta-potty!!). As revulsed/repulsed as I am I wouldn't miss it. Name another show that does that!

  10. I think Jaime – you're just way over-analysing the show. And I have to agree with some of the other guys up here. I walked into breaking bad not knowing what to expect – what tone the story followed and was hooked from the pilot. It tells a good strong story with great strong characters, and until they decide to jump the shark – I will get my weekly dose of Walter.

  11. You make an interesting point, Jaime, about the style of visual storytelling Breaking Bad sometimes uses. Never so much as in the opening scene of each show. Gilligan has commented on the centrality of "visual storytelling" to him in what he values in writing for TV ( see… ).

    My own feeling is that the style, in the sorts of scenes you refer to, is more like a graphic novel than an art movie.

    I don't find those scenes particularly bad. But neither are they among the best the show has to offer. They do offer a bit of a change in the idiom of the scenes. They don't happen often enough to get tiresome, it seems to me. They do tend to get the point across quite quickly and strongly. And with few words. And they are often memorable.

    But I think you raise an interesting point about them being there. No one has commented on them, for better or worse.

    Breaking Bad is my favourite show on TV. I find myself trying to anticipate where it's going.

    I also have read Gilligan talking about taking Walt from a good character to a bad character. People seem to have really strongly objected to your characterizing him as a monster and your criticism of some of the elements of the show. Interesting. But Walt is indeed a pretty scary kind of a guy.

    I think of Gilligan as a TV artist. Sort of like Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) was a TV artist.