Monday, 11 July 2011

Unfinished Business: Breaking Bad first season review (Ep. 7/7)

['Unfinished Business' is a feature where I take up an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it.]

...And so my retrospective look at Breaking Bad's first season comes to an end. Whether or not these reviews continue next Monday, jumping ahead to the premiere of Season Four (which airs on Sunday night in the US) depends on how quickly I can get through the remaining episodes of the third season. Thankfully, I've been watching ahead of these reviews, which are based predominantly on notes taken earlier, and am currently four episodes in Season Three. All things being well, I'll be there to experience brand new Bad for the first time with my thoughts on 'Box Cutter' next Monday.

You can probably glean that I've enjoyed what I have seen of Breaking Bad so far. This review will sum up both my feelings on the Season One finale and the rest of the series - at least, up until 'Green Light' (S3 E4). It's fascinating and ominous thinking back to these older episodes, considering the man Walt used to be and all the tipping points and warnings he refused to heed on his diabolical path. The previous episode, 'A Crazy Handful of Nothin'' is a strong contender for my favourite of the series so far. So how does the finale stack up?
The truth is that it felt rather anticlimactic. (That's the word I've got at the top of my notes). Even though most of the season's key plot threads get a tip of the (black) hat with in some way, there's not a great deal genuinely new that's to come to the table. Walt having to change his cooking recipe and producing the blue meth which becomes his signature is the most notable development. Having Tuco deliver a ferocious beating to one of his lieutenants at the episode's end may be a warning of dark days to come, but is nothing we couldn't have already guessed from the state he left Jesse in during 'Crazy Handful' that prompted Walt's full transformation into Heisenberg.

Similarly, Walt's touching of Skylar under the table at the school conference was a reminder of how he's feeling reinvigorated by his illegal exploits and has started to bring an element of risk back home, but that's something which has been clear for a long time. Perhaps, as with his increasingly deep involvement in the business side of the meth trade, he's now taking it further than ever, just as he made an offer to Tuco in the previous episode which turns out could not possibly have been fulfilled without drastic alterations his cooking methods. After all, every previous act in his sexual renaissance has taken place at home. This is the first time he's risked himself - and Skylar - being exposed in a public place. Having watched a season and a half ahead, this might be a portent of his willingness to exert his masculinity far beyond his initial limited ambitions, yet seen purely in the context of what went before, there's not enough to see it as much more than a restatement of Walt developing the risk-taking side of his nature.

If that part of the episode falls flat, the Marie subplot is an outright mess. (Even moreso now that I know how conveniently it is forgotten about later on). If I have an ongoing criticism of Breaking Bad, one which prevents the series in my eyes from reaching its full potential, it's the tendency to throw in little narrative cheats, either to create suspense where there never was any to begin with - most commonly by showing something ominous in the cold open, then revealing it to be unimportant later on - or to make a point more for the sake of making it than to advance the story. 

That's the case here: the self-righteous Marie's own form of 'breaking bad' was relatively useful earlier in the season for making the point of how difficult it can be to hold off indulging one's bad impulses, but never ended up changing anything in the main plotline other than to give her (and Skylar) something to do. Her actions never endanger or assist Walt, and by midway through season two, it's as though nothing ever happened:  she's just Hank's pushy wife again. And even if something had come to fruition, the scene where Skylar 'convinces' the jewellery shop manager to let her go is an implausible situation played far too broadly. No-one in that office seems the type to believe her charade, and would more likely call an ambulance than just let her, a supposed thief, walk free.

Really, this episode just felt like padding. 'Crazy Handful' would have been an incredible finale, having shifted the rules of the game in the way that all good season-enders should. 'A No Rough Stuff Type Deal' felt like it was more concerned with giving its audience a last minute reminder of everything that was at stake, so that viewers knew what they'd be coming back to, rather than adding anything new.

And Breaking Bad as a whole so far? I'm still not quite loving it to quite the extent that its most ardent fans do, although there is a great deal to admire and Bryan Cranston continues to go from strength to strength. Watching the rot set into Walt, both as a drug pusher (just a 'manufacturer'? I think not) and as a family man, is grimly enthralling, whilst the role reversal between him and Jesse has been brilliantly staged, culminating in the harrowing end of the second season when Walt allowed Jesse's girlfriend to die a particularly gruesome death, in turn leading to the 52nd worst plane crash in history. As Jesse, in his sorrow and desperation, set off to be cured, Walt simply made more excuses for himself. I'm not going to talk too much about what I've seen so far in the third season because I'm less than a third of the way through it, but I don't see much salvation on the horizon for either of them, either by the end of that season or the one soon to come.


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