Tonight Breaking Bad, or The Bald Head Variety Hour as it will be re-titled in syndication, returned for a fourth season. I have some thoughts after the jump:
I think a good television series sometimes has a strange feeling of normalcy about a lot of the things that happen in it, even though the events are inherently abnormal. Films or novels – even long novels – are usually about particular, exceptional moments in a life, and often focus on the most extreme things people can do. A U.S.-type TV series, which doesn’t start out knowing when (or if) it’s going to end, tends to have more of the rhythm of everyday life, no matter how bizarre the lives it’s portraying. There will be scenes and whole episodes that turn out not to be leading inexorably to the end. Different writers, seasons and episodic approaches mean that characters may act a little bit different from episode to episode (on a good show, those differences are all within the broad general bounds of the characterization; on a bad show, they just act however the plot requires). Characters who have a particular function in the overall story, or a particular arc to their characterization, can’t always follow it strictly, especially not if they’re required to be in every episode. All of this can frustrate the ability of a TV series to be an organic whole, but it makes a TV series feel more like life, where we sometimes put one concern on the back-burner while we focus more of our attention on another problem.
This is a preamble to saying that one of the interesting things about Breaking Bad is how “normal” a lot of it feels, even in a tense episode like tonight’s. Despite the bizarre premise, despite the show’s acknowledgement that a lot of this is crazy and weird, it’s still a show about everyday concerns: work, money management, investments. The first three episodes that AMC sent out suggest that the sense of relative normalcy is even heightened a bit – partly because season 3’s ending was not quite as baroque and spectacular as some of the things that happened in the course of the season, let alone the huge ending of season 2. There are still a lot of big and violent things going on, of course. And plenty of suggestions of the big spectacular twists we will presumably be getting as the season goes on. But right now there’s a certain amount of life-goes-on, work-goes-on atmosphere.
This is reinforced by the fact that the characters are still working in the expensive meth lab built for them in the third season, and that the lab is sort of the main character of the season premiere. (It’s not a “bottle episode” like “Fly” was, but it does spend a lot of its length on a more or less continuous stretch of time within the lab, because claustrophobia builds tension, and because the key argument of the episode is who’s going to get to work in this facility; the place and the plot are completely connected.) Part of the argument that the episode revolves around is: now that there is this high-tech facility for making Walt’s product, is Walt even necessary any more? Or is he reaching the point where he is going to be replacable? (Update: I should add, I don’t think the episode implied that Victor could replace Walt. Thinking he could replace Walt was one of the many things that got Victor in trouble. But the opening scene, especially, leaves it up in the air as to just how much it matters that Walt is the Best Meth Cook Ever. It matters to Gale, because he’s a fellow chemist.)
Being irreplacable is necessary for his survival, since the current plot was set in motion by his boss’s desire to replace him. But it’s obviously necessary for his sense of self-worth, as well. The episode presents the case for Walt White as a criminal genius, which we’ve heard before, but it also seems to suggest the possibility that what he does, anyone can do – or at least that, given the business that he’s in, it eventually might not even matter whether he’s better than everyone else.
That’s a story that is, like a lot of TV stories, relatable on a somewhat everyday, unexceptional level. Like certain episodes of Mad Men, it even works if you look at it as an allegory for the world of TV writing. Walt is a hack who is also considered a genius, doing top-quality work making something whose quality doesn’t matter quite as much as he thinks it does.
It’s also a timely story, since high unemployment and replaceable skills are very much a part of world consciousness right now. As it currently stands, Breaking Bad is partly about someone who has stumbled onto a good, high-paying job that gets him some respect (including from his wife), but which he knows he’s in danger of losing at any moment. The subplot about Hank, a man who’s very much adrift without his law-enforcement job, reinforces the feeling that this show is more perceptive about the “man-cession,” and about men defined by work, than, let us say, Work It.
Anyway, that’s relatable. Not everything about the show is like that, though. The issues of good and evil, and whether we could wind up like Walt if we were put in his place, are not relatable but confrontational, an attempt to get us to look at things in a new way. (Sometimes it can be a little heavy-handed with these themes – sometimes it wanders off into familiar “the way people treat each other legally is like the way criminals treat each other” territory – but on the bright side, it hasn’t let the heavy symbolism overwhelm it as I feared it was going to at one point. It got the symbolism under control during the third season and still seems to have it under control.) But the relatability of the situations makes the confrontational elements possible. Since a lot of the show is built on making us ask what we would do if we were Walt, it’s helpful for it to set up situations where a lot of us are Walt.
Sometimes we literally have faced what he faces, like needing to pay a lot of bills without having a lot of money to pay them with. And sometimes we can recognize what he’s going through in a more figurative way, like trying to hold on to a job and climb the corporate ladder. But I don’t think the character would work the same way if he were involved in schemes that were more remote from every day experience. A movie character can do terrible things to get a woman or just to pull off One Last Heist. A TV character like Walt is at his best when he’s doing terrible things just to achieve the only real goal a TV character has: making it to the next episode. That’s a fairly common real-world goal, when you think about it.