Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 3

I've been having trouble getting my thoughts on this season (and series) organized - not that I have any lack of said thoughts, they're just kinda scattered about. But I kinda left off on one hell of a cliffhanger (I finished up the third season before Memorial Day, and then took a break for a couple of consecutive out-of-state trips), and I'm dying to see it resolved, so I'm just gonna get this out there, so I can move forward.

Spoiler Warning: This post is going to discuss - and therefore contain major spoilers from - the third season of Breaking Bad.

This is a pretty continuous series - it doesn't break up that easily between seasons - and much can change from the beginning to the end of a season (as is the case in this season) - but I like to try to get an overall flavor of each season once I've finished watching it. And the main flavor of this season seems to be the long-term fallout from the Tuco situation, as well as Walt getting situated under the professional employment of new dealer and mastermind Gus. The highlight of the season, for me, was Hank's encounter with what I lovingly like to refer to as the "Bruiser Brothers". Although, pound for pound, Fly was a pretty tense episode, and the events leading up to and including the season finale were fantastic - more on that in a bit.

Early impressions: There's a lot of evolution from the start to the end of this season, and it's hard to talk about it all as a single entity, so I'll start with my impressions of the earlier episodes, which mostly deal with Walt and Skyler's separation. The second season left off with Skyler finally calling Walt out on his lies, but although she was still in the dark as to the nature of Walt's secret then, she quickly figures it out in the third season, and becomes an unwitting co-conspirator (mainly to preserve Walter Jr.'s impression of his father). I was kind of suspecting that she was listing toward the dark side herself, and when she goes and sleeps with Ted Beneke, that pretty much seals the deal. Walter, meanwhile, engages in some hijinks in order to try and insinuate himself back into his estranged family. It occurred to me that while in the first season, I sympathized with Walter White, and in the second season, I started to dislike him, by this point I'd kind of settled into the groove of just sitting back and enjoying the humor in his fumbling attempts to navigate his increasingly screwed up life.

"Um, Walt, there's a pizza on the roof. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

(I just have to wonder how many takes it took to get the toss just right. On the other hand, maybe it wasn't planned, and just happened that way the first time, and the director was like, "that's perfect, let's keep it like that!". How funny would that be?)

Some other things I liked in the early part of the season was Jesse's brilliant plan to get his house back from his folks, and the juxtaposition of Jesse accepting that he's "the bad guy" as part of his rehab, while Walt (who is the real bad guy, between the two) insists that a criminal is just not who he is.

But he does get himself back into the fold - this time with a fancy new laboratory courtesy of new boss Gus. I have to wonder about Walter's fabricated complaints against his new assistant Gale, though. Clearly, he needs to draw Jesse back into the fold, in order to discourage him from ratting Walter out in the likely future possibility that the DEA catches up to him (provided he stays out on his own). But at the same time, I get sort of a sense that, in spite of all the abuse Walt lodges at Jesse, he really does enjoy working with him. You'd think that Gale's professionalism would be exactly what Walter wants, given that he's always complaining to Jesse, but I wonder if he doesn't prefer having some low-life he can beat around - if that's just the kind of personality he has. Or maybe he doesn't like how polished the new business operation is - he doesn't want to get too comfortable with it. Like he needs to feel that what he's doing is not legitimate, but still a criminal enterprise. But who knows what he's really thinking.

"Good guys never get ink like the bad guys do."

Hank's encounter with the "Bruiser Brothers" (Tuco's cousins) is the definite turning point of the season - so much so that it creates a clear distinction between the "before" and "after" parts of the season. It's also one of the season's highlights - what a tense scene! I was kind of sad to see Hank in the hospital, though. As much pressure as he's been putting on our protagonists (wow, Walter was almost caught out in that junkyard!), I enjoy seeing him on his feet, getting shit done. I wonder if he'll ever walk again...

I was very surprised when Skyler started insinuating herself into Walter's business. I mean, she's clearly going down a dark path not entirely unlike Walt has, but I never thought she'd go this far. This is a development that I definitely did not see coming two seasons ago when I started watching this show. If you had told me in the first season that Skyler would eventually be begging Walt to launder the money acquired from his drug trade, I might actually have thought you were putting me on, and not actually giving me a spoiler (although I'd still be kinda pissed if you'd told me something like that).

Can we talk about the season finale now? (This might be long). Actually, let's start with the episode before it. It's not often that a TV show makes me sit up and verbally whisper, "holy shit!" - and Breaking Bad has done that a few times already. The latest was when Walt drove in and killed the two dealers who shot the kid they had working for them, who was responsible for Combo's murder. It was such a tense scene, with Jesse hyping himself up to murder these dealers. You know some shit's going to go down, and you know it doesn't look good for Jesse - with it being two on one and all - but you just don't know how it's going to turn out. And then, wham! Walt runs them over in his car, out of nowhere. Then he shoots the survivor in cold blood. After going on to Jesse about how they're not murderers, that they don't want to become that kind of people. But, like before - with Tuco - Jesse gets himself into trouble, and when push comes to shove, Walt's there to do the dirty work, no matter the consequences.

As for the finale? Oh man, it was good. I actually yelled "fuck yeah!" at the screen when Walt turned the tables just before his would-be assassination, and instantly switched from being a sniveling loser to his stone-faced, "yeah, that's right - you can't touch this, bitch!" (Well, not in those words exactly). Kudos to his mastermind intellect in figuring out where the fulcrum was from which to leverage his own life. "Production is the key," indeed. It's his brains that kept him alive this time (as it has before).

And then there's the cliffhanger. I have to say that this series does an amazing job of approaching the issue of murder. Not in all cases, I guess - considering the Bruiser Brothers' wanton disregard for human life - but with our main characters, at least, who are semi-normal people (in spite of the non-normal circumstances they've gotten themselves into). They're not hardened killers (yet?). It occurs to me that in a lot of fictional entertainment, murder occurs almost flippantly, without any consideration to the emotional impact it might have on a person. As a horror fan, that's never particularly bothered me - I live for gratuitous violence (although gratuitous sex and nudity is more fun). So it's not like violence has to be presented in this more realistic fashion for me. But I'll tell you, there's definitely a dearth of media out there that presents it in quite the way this series does, and that's definitely a side that deserves to be explored more. It helps the series' realism, and it also provides some very weighty drama. I mean, sure, everyone fantasizes about killing people now and then, but I think that for a lot of people, it's not just the heavy penalty (if you get caught) that keeps them from doing it - that'd be pretty sad if that were the only thing keeping people from murdering one another - but, at least for us generally good-willed, non-sociopathic people, with working consciences, the fear of guilt that would weigh us down, with the knowledge that we were responsible for ending another person's life - essentially taking their lives (something we absolutely don't own or control) into our own hands and snuffing it out - would just destroy our humanity. And it's not that this topic has never been approached before in other movies and television dramas, but, for whatever reason, I've rarely seen it portrayed so effectively as it is in Breaking Bad.

Also, back in the first season, there was the distinction between self-defense and cold-blooded murder, of which the first was clearly more palatable and easier to swallow. That dichotomy rears its head again here in the third season. Even the hit-and-run against those two drug dealers was an in-the-moment reactionary "save Jesse's life!" kind of thing. But showing up at some generally nice guy's house and sticking a gun in his face? Some guy who you're only killing because he happened to unintentionally wedge himself between your friend and his guarantee of staying alive? God, I tell you, the things that Walter has asked of Jesse. He's practically stripping Jesse's humanity and soul away piece by piece, and although he seems to carry some unexplained affection for Jesse as a friend (or maybe a better word is "companion", because this is not how friends treat each other), he's really been nothing but a horrible influence on him.

As to the cliffhanger's impending resolution, I'm pretty confident that Jesse did not kill Gale. He clearly moved the gun to the side before firing. The tough thing is that, really, the situation that had been set up was that either Gale dies, or Walt dies, and obviously Jesse'd prefer Walt to live, between the two (although his own affection for Walt, whatever kind of a mentor figure he sees him as, seems pretty misguided as well). But is it worth killing a more-or-less innocent human being? Is a true friend one you would actually kill for, one you would strip your humanity down and toss your soul into the abyss for? Or is a real friend someone who would never ask that of another person, much less a person they consider a friend? Someone who would sooner sacrifice themselves so that their friend can live on with a clear conscience? I'd like to believe it's the latter, but some nihilistic part of me thinks there's at least a little bit in the former that's worth considering. And I guess that's just the question this series is posing. Anyway, I think that Jesse most likely did not kill Gale, but only wounded him (in the arm/shoulder?), in some way as to make it impossible for him to continue to cook meth. But I dunno. Maybe he didn't shoot him at all, and is going to try to kidnap him or something. Or maybe he did kill him. The only thing I know for sure is that the suspense is killing me.

Here's another interesting thought: when this show started, it was all about Walt's mortality. He knew he was going to die. It was just a matter of time. Even in this season, he contemplated the fact that he lived too long, that things got out of hand, and that he should have died before this point. But here we are, with Walt not accepting the fact that perhaps his time is up, practically begging for his life, and going to even more extreme ends than ever before to keep himself alive. I guess not much has changed since Tuco, when Jesse was rebuffed after suggesting that Walt might make a "noble sacrifice" to spare Jesse's life (not that it would have worked in that instance - Jesse has always been disposable from the distributors' perspectives, and not entirely without warrant). I actually really enjoyed the suggestion in that episode that maybe Walt's cancer had metastasized, but it was dropped like a lead balloon after that episode. It may just come up again, though. I'm sure there'll be a redux and resolution to the whole cancer business before this series ends, and I can wait, but in the meantime, this show hasn't really been about cancer at all. Which is okay - it's still been one hell of a show. I didn't think the second season was quite as strong as the first, and though I really enjoyed the story that the first season told, in terms of pure television drama and entertainment, I think the third season has been at least as strong, if not stronger. And I anticipate some incredible moments to come in the next two seasons. So let's get on with it!


  1. I mentioned this last season but while I completely agree that Walt is a villain -- in fact I think he's the greatest original villain of the 21st century thus far, someone who might be up there with Magneto, The Joker, and Darth Vader -- but I still have to say, is Jesse really better than Walt? Selling drugs to people at Narcotics Anonymous has to be one of the most despicable things you can possibly do. These are weak, vulnerable people who are trying to save themselves, it's like throwing a puppy into a volcano. At least Walt goes up against opponents of stature, and people he has a reason to do battle with. I'm not a Walt apologist, but the more I think about it, the less I give Jesse a pass.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with Walt and Jesse's relationship. He needs someone that he can boss around and feel superior to, not a potential equal. I mean this is a guy who is a world-class chemist and he teaches basic high school chemistry, he prefers to be a big fish in a small pond. But he also has a fondness for Jesse, I'm in the camp that believes he comes to see Jesse as more of a son than Walter Jr., in CERTAIN ways -- namely the sense that he gets to share his true self with Jesse.

    I like that Skyler has the affair with Ted. One of the things that makes me like Breaking Bad more than The Sopranos, Mad Men, and the other artisan dramas (which doesn't mean they aren't also great, I'm exceedingly fond of Mad Men), is the fact that Walter doesn't have an insatiable sexual appetite like every other protagonist for this type of show. There's nothing wrong with having that kind of appetite but it's extremely refreshing to see a lead character who has something else on his mind, someone who's obsessed with something other than flesh. And Skyler having an affair, that's the perfect reversal and the final little middle finger to the typical trope of the ultimate womanizing we see from all the other shows in this ilk. It's also another thing that makes me relate so much to Walter White. My fatal flaw isn't appetite, I have very little of that. My flaw is ego, and inadequacy. The world of constant sex is a world I can't even concieve of, and it's certainly an extremely appealing thought, but as someone who's never been loved, I'd rather have one great companion than a million great conquests.

    Glad you're enjoying the show like I did! Also have to say I love Fly and of course Walter's pondering about the appropriate moment to die has special significance for me. Another thing that connects the two of us, I'm like Walter White but without all the good aspects. ;)

  2. "is Jesse really better than Walt?"

    I don't know, man. I've started the fourth season, and I've been thinking about that a lot. Perhaps it would be a stretch to call him a "good person", and I've spent most of the series so far not liking him all that much, but there are times when you can tell that he has a conscience, and that's endearing. Maybe he's always screwing up, but it feels like he /wants/ to do the right thing, whereas Walt is most concerned with doing the right thing /for himself/.

    "Selling drugs to people at Narcotics Anonymous has to be one of the most despicable things you can possibly do."

    True. That was pretty despicable. Although I think it's funny that he brought his friends in to help, and they ended up trying out the program themselves.

    "I'm in the camp that believes he comes to see Jesse as more of a son than Walter Jr., in CERTAIN ways"

    I was definitely getting that feeling during the talk back at the end of season 2 between Walt and Jane's father in the bar. It was a good talk.

    "I like that Skyler has the affair with Ted."

    I liked that, too. It was such a "fuck you" moment (literally), because here's Walt, trying to explain that everything he's done, he's done for his family, and then Skyler goes off and is basically like, "fuck this family, is this what you're trying to support?" Of course then later it turns out that she never signed the divorce papers, so there are layers to everything. I'm glad she got to have that moment, though - after everything Walt had done to put the family in jeopardy, she needed a chance to retaliate.

    "Walter doesn't have an insatiable sexual appetite"

    You know, come to think of it, I like that too. It does get to be a bit of a cliché, doesn't it? In spite of how much I think about and obsess over girls, I actually don't think I have a very strong libido. Most guys I know can't go days without having an orgasm (regardless of how they get it), but I can go weeks sometimes without it even crossing my mind. It's definitely interesting to see a (male) character not primarily motivated by that drive.