BY LOGAN ADAMS
(Note: Since all the promo makes it clear Jesse and Walt make it to season five, this is spoiler free.)
Well, on Monday morning my three-week dream ended—I watched the final episode of Breaking Bad. How I caught up with all the Breaking Bad diehards was amazing and taxing and worth it, but it also gave me a unique look at troublesome repetition in the series, the result of a weekly storytelling structure the medium is quickly outgrowing.
It really started Sunday, September 8. I’d recently been implored by a writer friend to watch Breaking Bad and that night, while watching the Cowboys beat the Giants in some opening weekend football, my Facebook feed blew up with statuses about the MASSIVE CLIFFHANGER in that week’s episode, “To’hajiilee.”
I Googled “Breaking Bad.” Without—thank goodness—any spoilers I saw the end was nigh. Three weeks until reckoning was to come to the, apparently, amazing TV show. So, as is often the case when I decide to do something, I went dangerously, stupidly, all in.
I read this weekend that Andrew Wallenstein, Variety’s Digital Editor-in-chief, labels the way I watched Breaking Bad not as binging, but “gorging.” It’s sick sounding, like I should expect some serious physical side effects. After I finished the article, I sat for a moment, looking out on my quiet Minneapolis street. Some dry, yellow leaves tumbled by in a breeze. I got up, weighed myself, drank a glass of water, and went for a long bike ride, keeping my eyes down as I peddled past my favorite dive bars.
Why was I feeling ashamed?
Before I set out on my gorge, there were 59 aired episodes, running about 44 hours—an entire workweek!—between me and “caught up.” It went like this: On Monday, September 9 I wrapped up work in the early afternoon, fixed lunch, and cued episode one on Netflix. The next six days were a blur. Like The Wire and the recent iteration of Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad showed no mercy in wresting my attention away from life.
This was a cultural event! Someday I’ll have kids and this kind of thing will be impossible! Why is it so good! What will Walt get into next!
As for what, exactly, makes Breaking Bad so fracking bad, smarter people than me have spent more time gushing about and picking apart the genius of auteur/showrunner Vince Gilligan and his series. What I am interested in, was how one particular episode, season three’s “Fly,” helped me articulate a nagging tick I noticed in the show.
For the spirit of remaining essentially spoiler free, in “Fly” there’s a metaphorical fly in the ointment, specifically, a common house fly buzzing around Walt and Jesse’s meth lab. Jesse shows up in the middle of Walt’s hunt to kill the thing and Walt won’t let either of them leave or cook until it’s killed. Walt’s driven delirious by a long fight against the fly and in his weakened state does some reflecting on his and their situation since they started cooking. Cool.
The episode won praise from the dependable commentators, including the AV Club’s Donna Bowman and Jennifer Wood at Complex (both spoilers, obviously), for putting a heavy dose of meta and psychological in the already meta, psychological drama. My beef with it is that to get Walt to reflect and to develop Jesse and Walt’s relationship in the most significant way since Walt said, “Buy the RV—we start tomorrow,” Gilligan and the other writers had to force it. The episode is the writers reaching down into the frame, locking the door, and pushing Jesse and Walt to talk after feeding them both a couple Xanax.
What the episode also does is draw attention to what Vulture’s Sarah Frank implicitly argues in this video supercut. (It seems by accident.) No worries, it’s not a spoiler—Walt yells at Jesse a lot throughout the series and the supercut is all non-descript you’re-an-idiot stuff. Their yelling at each other becomes pedestrian it’s so common. That’s a huge part of their relationship. But also the problem: it’s static characterization.
How monotonous their relationship dynamic is throughout most the series was underscored by my gorge, but also my recent revisitation and rereading of Batman story arcs in comics and collected graphic novels I’ve acquired over the last 28 years. My bedtime reading before my gorge included Knightfall, Hush, Under the Hood, Long Halloween and Dark Victory, and A Death in the Family. All were first weekly comic books that were later compiled into bound copies, presumably for immediate consumption—not to be spaced out over the original months or year it took for Knightfall.
A common annoyance in those comics mirrored this issue I have with Breaking Bad. In order to keep relationship tensions in holding patterns over weeks, Batman has the same short arguments or takes a few panels to reflect on his issues with Robin, Nightwing, or Catwoman through narration. Leading up to A Death in the Family, Batman and the second Robin, Jason Todd, have the same fight again and again. They don’t change and neither does their relationship. Jason is needlessly reckless—or foolish as Batman would describe it—and is scolded. This happens again and again from issue to issue, their relationship rarely pushing beyond that same argument, while in the outside world plotlines build, collide, and resolve. It took a fan vote to a hotline—a vote to save or kill Robin—for their relationship to change. And it did with Robin’s death.
Do you even think, Jesse Robin?
Like Jesse and Walt’s relationship, Skyler is a character left behind. She’s a victim of an episodic series—chained to an initial characterization, pulled between plot points, and a generally simplistic portrayal of her relationship with Walt. Icy or explosive. Long-lasting or quick to change—perfect for a series preoccupied with other goings on.
These issues, as I see them, come from the same place: the rationing of episodes to once a week. In their initial runs, the Batman comics, like Breaking Bad, were limited by their delivery system. Their audience needed reminding of interpersonal dynamics while the larger forces of the universe chugged on.
I’m not demanding all future television shows be released all at once like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black. But I am demanding we stop viewing television programs through the problematic lens, as articulated by Hume, of what is ought to be.
So much recent commentary about binge-watching television has been in the context of Breaking Bad’s season five, part two premiere in August. In “Stop Binge-Watching TV,” Jim Pagels of Slate argued against binge-watching televisions shows, using the summer Breaking Bad binge of the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum as an example of bad behavior. Pagels gave five reasons why what we did was wrong:
- Episodes have their own integrity, which is blurred by watching several in a row.
- Cliffhangers and suspense need time to breathe.
- Episode recaps and online communities provide key analysis and insight.
- TV characters should be a regular part of our lives, not someone we hang out with 24/7 for a few days and then never see again.
- Taking breaks maintains the timeline of the TV universe.
The problem with all of these is that Pagels and other anti-bingers are defining television shows as a static medium. Weekly episodes over an 8-, 15-, 24-week season. So those shows exist in distorted time. Everyone who watched Breaking Bad experienced it. Only one year passed between episode one, season one and episode four, season five. For Pagels and his ilk I ask: should shows like Breaking Bad trust their audience?
Breaking Bad’s cliffhangers—like all cliffhangers—are artificial. Cliffhangers still exist in storytelling beyond the weekly drama—they just demand trust of the audience, without relying on a gamed system where six days separate climax and fallout.
In this episodic TV system, art is not imitating life. We are not able to, like a compiled graphic novel or book, pick up the story and experience it at our own pace. We do not see a story without artificial manipulation to break the drama of living into 43-minute chunks. And in those chunks, writers and producers so often feel the need to interject, to make things clearer for the audience between complex or leaping plot points—and in doing so they do us a disservice.
What we see in Breaking Bad—the murders, the posturing, the arguments—those are the parts of the characters’ lives the writers show us. Two excellent and recent examples that relationships don’t need to be shortchanged are House of Cards and The Wire. The Wire is difficult to grasp immediately. We are fish thrown onto the sizzling Baltimore pavement. Characters pass across the screen, shoot, and die without authorial interjection. It’s inevitable. We are simply gawkers of a world dramatic.
And due to structure, rather than superior writing, House of Cards seems to avoid the Breaking Bad issue by being treated as a novel, with all the chapters released at once. It was built for at-your-own-pace consumption, and if the audience forgot or missed a development, they could always go back and reread rewatch. The world marches forward and the characters within lead their lives in the shadow of it, rather than in service to. The House of Cards model is where we’re going. Writers and producers will put in the time to write and film it, release it, and trust their audience. Authors do it every day. We are becoming a world on demand.
Chuck Klosterman wrote a compelling essay about Breaking Bad’s superiority over the other big three—Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire—because, he says, morality is an ongoing choice in Breaking Bad. That’s fair, but I contend that it wrong is all in service of Walt—Jesse, Skyler, all of them are just tools. And that sells short the world Gilligan and his writers shared with us for five seasons.
The singular vision of the show, while gripping and brilliantly plotted, is like wearing blinders, but that only becomes clear when the serial drama fog is blown away by the whipping wind of TV gorging.
Our future auteurs will learn and adapt to the changing medium, writing stories that are better and longer lasting and a greater sign of what or who comin’.
Logan Adams is first-time a contributor to Frontier Psychiatrist, living in Minneapolis. He’s a candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University (2013). In addition to general reporting, he reviews concerts for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and is the editor at Garage Music News.