Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Down Breaking Bad's Greatness

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This post will contain a tremendous amount of spoilers if you've yet to see Breaking Bad in its entirety. I suggest you do so now. Not for the sake of this post, but your own. (You'll thank me later.)

A damp, filthy crawlspace. one of the many moments in which Walter Hartwell White almost bit the dust. He always slipped away though, staving both off the threat of lung cancer and his own cancerous megalomania. But Walter was diagnosed terminal from day one, and we all knew it. Yet the Western rule prevails, and the outlaw's side finally found its bullet. Ultimately the day we all dreaded and clamored for arrived, leaving our anti-hero to finally 'get what he deserved,' lying face up in the Neo-Nazi meth lab he himself created during his stint with Vamanos Pest.

Dying with his one true love by his side.

Over the course of Breaking Bad's run, we've seen Walt constantly preparing-- readying his next stroke against whichever adversary had dared cross his path to Meth Kingpin-dom. The rockiest roads are the ones we remember, and plenty of rocks were thrown in the way of Walt's plans-- causing him to scramble and come up with those glorious Hiesenburg moments. Tuco. Gus. Hank.  Walt crawled his way out of every corner his adversaries backed him into. The only foe he couldn't stop was his own pride, and ultimately death. The reaper had always been the one foe Mr. White was fully prepared to face and was willing to surrender to. As long as it was on his own terms, of course. He'd been "sleeping like a baby" from the moment he received his cancer diagnosis. Death woke him up. The cancer made him truly alive for the first time in his life. Not only for the rush that his criminal enterprise brought, but for the pain... the sorrow. The realness. Walter lived more life in his last two brilliantly tumultuous years than he had in the half-century preceding them.

Alas, Walter White is dead, and he's taken our beloved Breaking Bad with him. I feel compelled to say a few words, grieving as I am. I'd like to kick this eulo-nalysis off by spouting out some praise to Breaking Bad's writers, actors, directors and the rest of the outstanding talent. I hear plenty of-credit being thrown at Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston--and it's WELL deserved-- but here's to all the unsung heroes. The amount of detail put into each scene... it drops my jaw. A tip of the black pork-pie hat to each and every one of you.With that out of the way, let's break down the chemistry of the show's success.

Breaking Bad itself, much like Walter White, ended up accomplishing the goal it set for itself at the show's start. Walt aspired to go out providing for his family, an act he ultimately accomplished--at least for the non-Shraeder half-- via a clever manipulation of Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz of Grey Matter. His own son, Walter Jr., vehemently rejected his help, but Walt found a way.  He provided. Albeit without respect or love, but he fulfilled his duty as a man-- staying true to the wise words of Gustavo Fring. Vince Gilligan's mission was to take a character, start with an innocent and end with a villain. Mr. Chips became Scarface, just as Vince predicted. Not once did they get distracted... and that's a beautiful thing. Watch the pilot and then watch the episode "Gliding Over All." You can feel how much Walt has changed within minutes of watching.

Real smiles. Perfect chemistry.
Yet there's so much more to Breaking Bad than the arc of Walt's Jekyll embracing its Hyde. If I had to capture the essence of Breaking Bad's success in one word, that word would be... depth. Walter is but the nucleus to the highly sophisticated-- and volatile-- particle that is Breaking Bad. Jesse Pinkman, the comically misguided underachiever with a brittle heart of gold... Skylar White, the ABQ's most devoted mother who happens to find herself pitted against the devious genius of the DEA's most wanted. (aka her husband.) Hank Shraeder, the wise-cracking DEA agent who uses his job to keep his unnatural supply of hatred, fury and obsession away from his family... Gus, the meticulous criminal mastermind with a secret score to settle. Todd, the merciless Hitler youth with chilling politeness... I could go on, but I'd end up writing a book rather than a blog entry. Each character has been crafted with such care, played with such passion... It'll be a long while before we see another cast this great. It's not perfect, nothing is... but it's 99 percent pure. A new gold standard. The "blue" standard. It's "Hiesenburg level" as Lydia would put it.

Sometimes a 'ding' is worth a thousand words. 
As a writer myself, I can tell you that a character is only as good as its strings-- nothing but lifeless marionettes without a plot to move them. A ventriloquist, no matter how convincing his act is... is only as good as his routine. This play's unseen puppeteers, the Breaking Bad writing team, put on a show that blew us away night after night. Explosive moments met us at every turn, keeping us guessing and clinging desperately to the edges of our seats. I swear a parallel reality opened up after every episode, hinging on my wrong predictions. But they didn't get twist-happy. No matter how great a boom is, it stands the risk of depreciation when fired off in succession. Without the lulls of the slower, less action-oriented episodes like "Grey Matter", "Breakage", "Fly", or "Granite State", we wouldn't feel the impact of of those frantic gut-punches-- like "Half-Measures", "Face Off", "Ozymandias" or "Salud." Like the twins' menacing silence, some times what you don't hear is more important than what you do. Any musician will tell you that timing is key. It's what keeps music from just being noise. We all love a song's catchy choruses, but the refrains would be nothing more than pointless jingles without the support of the lyrics. A story is the same way. The intricate yet subtle plot framing is laid out meticulously throughout each season. Each seed planted is a Chekov's Gun that WILL be fired eventually. Even the show's pivotal red herring, the ricen, finds its use by the end of the show.

This is truly the work of geniuses, made greater by the chemistry of their combined brilliance. As Walt puzzles with Gretchen Schwartz in a flashback to his university years, a human being is comprised of a myriad of separate yet equally integral elements-- as well as that missing je ne sais quoi. There's so much at work here. A perfect diamond needs all of its facets to shine, and, in truth, I lack both the time and the ability to cover them all with the appropriate justice. But there's another plotting triumph here that I have to mention. A key yet largely invisible quality that breaths life into its 99% pure chemical formula. Is it Breaking Bad's soul? (Cue a laugh from young Walter.) Nope. It's the simple yet powerful--and many times VISUAL-- symbolism delicately weaved into each and every scene.

Don't blink. You might miss something beautifully symbolic.

Grey Matter. A metaphor for the show's premise of moral ambiguity-- a pun of Walt's own making that playing on both his brain and chemistry itself. Los Pollos Hermanos, the name of both a drug fronting fast food chain and a tale of two brothers that serves as perfect allegory of the season's theme of a bloody dedication to family. Who can forget the pink bear and its all seeing eye? Breaking Bad doesn't hold our hands with its powerful and effective theming and symbolism, yet at the same time it keeps its humility and likes to be obvious. A perfect balance between being simple and 'artsy-fartsy.' There's no fat, just meat, and highly detailed meat at that. The symbols makes sense. The themes are clear. Joe Everyman can debate and spot the those crazy details. You don't need to be a  French film critic to enjoy the show's depth. All the fun without the pretentiousness.

Hiesenburg, your epic lines will never die. 
There's a reason Breaking Bad has limitless T-shirt potential. It's a Mona Lisa. A legendary, lasting work of art with an iconic presence. A feeling, an air... an ambiance of its own. It's distinctly Breaking Bad, and nothing else. Unique and unable to be compared. ABQ, entire town... now world famous just for being the show's setting. The powerful lines... Oh, it has those in spades! "I am the danger." "I'm the one who protects this family from the man who protects this family." "If you want to make more money and keep the money you make... Better call Saul!" "There are no half-measures." "Tread lightly." I'm not one for quoting shows, but god damn, these lines just stick with me. The color blue, yellow haz-mat suits, black pork-pies... methamphetamine itself. We will never see or hear of those things again without thinking of Breaking Bad. Hell, it's even taken ownership of a curse word... bitch!

Breaking Down the pure chemistry of Breaking Bad's formula is impossible. I'm novice in the creative world, not worthy of the task. The greatest works are lost on even the creators themselves, dwarfed by the majesty of their own creation. It's like Hiesenburg and the blue meth. It's monster so fantastic that it cannot be controlled. I'm sure Vince himself doesn't fully understand how he managed to compile such a near perfect formula, and I bet he would be hard pressed to recreate it without following the same exact formula. But as Walt often boosted, only the initial creator gets the credit. Other shows can following this formula and reap Emmy gold, but they'll only be students. A Jesse, Todd or Gale. Maybe even a Declan... using blue dye to imitate. Breaking Bad is the blue meth of TV dramas... and it's gone. The problem is... we're all still addicted.

We 'don't want to live in a world without Classic coke,' do we?  

Whew... I think I need a beer.

- B

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