Breaking Bad lost me in season 2. We fell out over a small thing, perhaps, but it irked me, and I never could shake it. Season 2 of AMC’s acclaimed drama series, you may recall, ends after the meth-dealing protagonist, Walter White, deliberately allows his sidekick’s junkie girlfriend to die from aspirating vomit. This creates a frightful butterfly effect when the girlfriend’s grieving, distracted air-traffic-controller dad suffers what the crash-investigation hotshots call a “loss of situational awareness” on the job. Two airplanes collide in mid-air over the series’ picturesque setting of Albuquerque, N.M., punctuating Walt’s descent into evil with a deluge of aluminum scraps, loose luggage and body parts.
It is not the world’s best argument against building a secret business empire on one’s talent as a synthesizer of super-pure crystal meth. There was certainly a time when a flaky controller could cause a mid-air collision over U.S. soil—a time before modern transponders and warning systems, before civil and military radio communications were unified, and before strict rules were adopted separating small planes operating under “visual flight rules” from big ones. Basically, that time ended 40 years ago. An inattentive controller can still cause plenty of chaos on takeoffs and landings, and other countries are not quite as devoted to airline safety as the United States, but . . . basically, the big finish to season 2 was pretty darn preposterous. Noticing this is not really a matter of knowing aviation history. It might have occurred to any Breaking Bad fan that we don’t have planes plummeting out of the sky every time some air traffic controller loses sleep. And, really, this wasn’t just a meaningless, transitory abuse of artistic licence. The plane crash was foreshadowed in every episode of that season, as if creator Vince Gilligan were feeling particularly excited and smug about the payoff he would eventually deliver. Within the framework of a show renowned for supposed moral nuance, that mid-air collision smacked of Old Hollywood, of the days when screenplays had to be passed through the descending colon of the Production Code. One could too easily imagine a Hays Office functionary looming over Gilligan’s shoulder, making damn sure every viewer could taste the weed of crime’s bitter fruit.
There is no Hays Office anymore, and Vince Gilligan has as much freedom as any television showrunner has ever enjoyed. He has shown admirable courage—perhaps the word is chutzpah—in giving the American public a memorable, popular fictional protagonist who is not only a murderer, but a cowardly, self-pitying, sometimes very stupid one.
How Breaking Bad will age is another question. Let the record show that the season 2 plane crash is hardly the only troublingly flimsy component in this narrative machine. In the show’s final days, as Gilligan is celebrated by critics in language normally reserved for statesmen and war heroes, one is increasingly tempted to snicker at moments like Walt’s “My brother-in-law is the real meth king” home video, or at bodyguard Huell blowing his cool after literally seconds of police questioning. Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle pointed out that the whole series is founded on the highly amusing idea that a public school teacher and a cop—a federal agent injured on duty, no less—both just happen to have really terrible health insurance.
You can tell I have picked up the thread of Breaking Bad again as it approaches its culmination. Sometimes I think I am having more fun in its home stretch than most. Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walt invites a sort of extreme emotional involvement, kindles a species of anguish and horror, that is impossible to entertain once you have tuned into the show’s fundamental hokeyness.
Gilligan has said he increasingly sees the show as a “modern western.” It is certainly modern in the sense that it shares a darkness of tone and outlook with Unforgiven or Deadwood. In its plot mechanics, it is more like an old-timey frontier melodrama or a ’20s movie serial, complete with the contrived cliffhangers. As for the southwestern setting, so central to Breaking Bad’s mood and look, that was chosen—after season 1 was written—entirely for the purpose of snapping up tax incentives from the state of New Mexico. Genius plays the hand it is dealt, I guess.
On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh