Monday, 26 September 2011

Ha Ha Ha: Breaking Bad review


BREAKING BAD: 'Crawl Space'

I know that there are still eighteen episodes of Breaking Bad to go. At this point, the arrival of each new one is as much a joy as a tragedy: a joy for the phenomenal quality of the series, a tragedy for the knowledge that every passing hour moves us closer to the series' end. I suppose that's true of anything, but when you know when that end is, it changes your perspectives a little bit. Walter White discovered that to his considerable cost back in the Pilot.

It also changes a viewer's relationship with a programme. Especially for serialised dramas such as this one, strongly revolving around a single character, a viewer can reassure themselves that no matter how bad the conflict becomes, the main character will survive until at least the end of the season. I can't think of any television programme which has had the courage to completely dispatch its lead, let alone in mid-season - classic Doctor Who has a case, but regeneration is a bit of a get-out clause. The trick is to get viewers thinking 'how on earth is [the character] going to get out of this one?'

Some of Breaking Bad's greatest moments have come when posing that question. Last night may have beaten them all.
As a writer, there's a part of me which dissects the storytelling mechanics of each new episode as I watch. It's not something I'm ashamed of, not least as I think it has given me plenty of strong material for these reviews, because when you have such an incredibly refined example of the art you are seeking to master sitting in front of you, it would be ridiculous not to want to understand how it works and what makes it as great as it is. I do the same with Mad Men. There are a number of lessons I have taken away from both, even though my writing tends towards a very different genre, with a different set of rules.

One of the most valuable lessons I have drawn from Bad is about wrapping up loose ends. This is a programme which has none, where the end of every storyline only opens up more possibilities. Who could have imagined that the car wash Walt worked at for less than half of a single episode in season one would later become so important, for example? When you do a degree in English or take a writing class, you are told about the three-act structure of beginning, middle and end, plus all the conflict points in between. That's important, but Bad has repeatedly shown how stunning and unpredictable storytelling can be when ignoring the formula. On a grander scale, the series may roughly adhere, but on a season-by-season basis, it mostly comprises of beginnings and ends - the question being how long the beginnings will last and when the ends will arrive, and whether they are really ends at all.

With two episodes to go until the season finale, Bad pulled out the endings that any normal series might have held back until its final night. Thank goodness it didn't, because having to wait almost a year to see how that jaw-dropping conclusion played out would have been torturous. Even for a series with such a renowned history for powerful finales, 'Crawl Space' would have been a more than worthy addition had Vince Gilligan made that choice.

Any reviewer/writer worth their salt should be wary of hyperbole, but I don't know if I have ever seen anything on television, or anywhere for that matter, quite so horrifyingly unsettling, so pitch black as last night's final scene. Since a fair percentage of my readership comes from outside the US, where (let's say) extraordinary measures have to be taken in order to keep up with Bad, I'm loath to actually say what it involved. Though a study came out a few weeks ago saying that spoilers didn't matter, there are some cases where you have to see things without warning. That final shot was one of them.

I'm itching to take the scene apart frame by frame, but viewers who have seen it will know what I'm talking about when I say that the danger of spoiling the impact of the moment is too great. Needless to say, it was quite possibly Bryan Cranston's finest moment on a series where he has had nothing but fine moments, and the culmination of Bad's unparalleled expertise at handling narrative. If you leave a comment - and please do - I would politely ask that you also refrain from revealing anything from that last scene.

Everything leading up to it is fair game, as incredible as so much of it was. The shot of Walt, on his knees in the desert as Gus finally found strong enough ground in their battle to sever him from his employ, was stunning both as an enormous turning point for a long-running story, and also as a moving image. Who knows whether the cloud moving overhead, as Walt desperately played his last vanity card in a needless attempt to claim a Pyrrhic victory (that suicidal pride again), was something the crew had planned for, or whether it was just happy circumstance? It might even have been brilliant CGI, though that would seem out of synch with the programme's philosophies to date. Either way, it was a darkly beautiful reflection of the nature of these two characters and their relationship, slipping all too easily from light into darkness.

If 'Crawl Space' had Bryan Cranston giving one of his greatest performances, Giancarlo Esposito was not far behind. Invigorated by his success at the slaughter of the cartel, this was a Gus raging with vengeful pride. Did he need to make a final visit to the crippled Hector to let him know, in person, that the Salamanca name would die with him, leaving him alive to suffer that knowledge in the prison of his paralysed form? Of course not. But he could, and far from the rational and emotionless Gustavo Fring we have seen to date, this was a man cashing in his chips after a massive win. The cartel are off his back. His need for Walt is over, meaning he no longer has any reason to let Hank live, either.

In his hour of victory, the true nature of the man we have only seen in flashes - who allowed his lieutenants to recruit children to the meth trade, who cut Vincent's throat to prove a point - burst to the surface. All that rage, bottled up for so long in order to keep his head clear and negotiate the safest route to victory, unleashed. When he tells Walt that he will kill his wife, son and infant daughter should they cross paths again, it is the truth.

Skylar, meanwhile, takes another step towards the abyss when she convinces Saul to send muscle (of a sort) to Ted's house in order to intimidate him into paying off his debts. Compared to what was going on elsewhere, these scenes were a little more low-key and, truth be told, clunkier - the incident with the carpet was foreshadowed far too bluntly to be surprising - but ended up playing such a terrible part in the episode's end-game that such quibbles were immediately forgiven. They also had one of the biggest laughs of the season, with a majestic delivery of the word 'reasonably'.

They were also valuable not only as part of the narrative arc and Skylar's fall from grace, but in revealing the key to Saul Goodman's success. He shares a fair bit in common with Gus Fring: both are highly intelligent, rational men (although Goodman's clownish fa├žade can be supernaturally convincing) who have found the best position for themselves and their talents to make the maximum profit in a very dangerous business. It's those two who have made the right decisions all along - every time Skylar or Walt have deviated from their lawyer's advice, things have gone pear-shaped - and though Saul is not driven by the same rage as Gus, he has managed to stay clear of responsibility or danger in any of this debacle while making a huge sum of money. Saul's A-Team may not be all that impressive and his manner not exactly inspiring, but every sign points to him coming out of the ongoing Fring-Heisenberg war with his life, his money and having never stepped over his 'moral' (cough) boundaries to do so.

I could end this review by speculating about what will happen next, as I usually do at some point, but after that sucker punch of an ending, to do so just seems ridiculous. A second writing lesson I have learnt from Breaking Bad is that, as much as Hollywood would beg to differ, outlandish twists and explosions are about as far from the key to successful dramatic escalation as is now possible to imagine. What showrunner Vince Gilligan has done so superbly, perhaps his greatest of many achievements, is grounding every one of his programme's most astonishing moments in outcomes that were completely unpredictable, yet irrefutable in their cause-and-effect logic. I doubt anyone could claim to have guessed what and when the events of last night would happen, yet by the end, there was never a whisper of doubt that it could have turned out any other way.



W. I. Boucher said...

I find the evolution of Gus and Walt very interesting. Gus seems more alive than we have ever seen him. His voice is more resonant and his bearing is stronger. Gone is the mask of bland meekness. We see him for who and what he is. Walt on the other hand has become a man on a downward spiral. Physically he is bearing an ever increasing collection of wounds and age lines. His mental state has become more unhinged each episode. We see a growing sense of impotence and frustration as Walter's mask slips away. The lies he tells himself and his family are no longer believable. The question is will he now tell the truth.

Kot789 said...

Maybe it's a bit out of place, but this episode again mentions Germany as the origin of Gus' business. In previous episodes it was stated that Gus arrived in Maxico and then moved to the US in the eightees.

The cartel flashback scene mentions that he was an important/respectful figure in Chile. Pichochet's right-wing junta came to power in 1973 overthrowing the communist government. Chile returned to democracy in 1990. My bet is that Gus had little to do with both goverments. If he was red, he'd either be dropped out of a plane, fled from Chile right after coup-de-etat or leave Chile in the 80's like a rat with little dignity left. If he was important in the Junta, why leave in the 80's when the Junta had been still up and running?

My theory is as follows:
When Germany lost the II WW many Nazis fled to South America. Gus' father was one of them. His Nazi ideas slowly evaporated from his head, enough to marry/have sex with a Chilean black woman and accept his son. With a little of gene's fart, white + black turned out to be black. It's not that common but totally possible. That II WW Nazi heritage made Gus (and probably his father too) very influential without putting him much in the spotlight. Former Nazis are known for their loyalty towards each other and their cooperation (e.g. ODESSA). Also note Gus' name: Gustavo -> Gustav, Fring -> Frings (Frings is quite a popular German surname).

So that's my theory about Gus' origins.

Xander Markham said...

That's a very interesting idea, Kot789. Despite the German connection seeming a bit incongruous (especially with a company name like Madrigal), it never occurred to me to relate it back to Gus' past as you did. I love how many great theories this programme inspires!

Thanks for your comment, and yours too, W.I. Boucher!

Kot789 said...

There is a trap in the way the word "Madrigal" sounds. Here is what aunt Wikipedia says about Madrigal:

"A madrigal is a secular vocal music composition, usually a partsong, of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Traditionally, polyphonic madrigals are unaccompanied; the number of voices varies from two to eight, and most frequently from three to six."

"n Italy, the madrigal was the most important secular form of music of its time. The madrigal reached its formal and historical zenith by the second half of the 16th century. English and German composers, too, took up the madrigal in its heyday."

There even was a German linguist by the name Theodor Frings, who studied origins and history of German language. Madrigals must have been part of his study material. No mention of the Nazis there, though.

Also think about erasing Gus' past. If he was a Commie, he'd have his records all over Secret Police archives, impossible to erase if he had opposed the Junta.

If he was a Junta member, why be ashamed of it in the US, as it was the government US installed and supported. Being a Commie in Mexico wouldn't be that of a problem.

Being a Chilean drug lord big enough to be respected by the Cartel is unlikely. Coca doesn't grow well in Chile and Chileans were to poor to extort enough money from them to become cappo di tutti di capos or anywhere near. The Junta was hard on drugs and effective in combating drug crime. Of course, there were people involved in drug-related crimes but nowhere near the Pablo Escobar's level.

On the other hand, Nazi heritage would be something Gus wuld like to erase before going to North America.

So I think that German connection is quite congruent, especially if you play Hank Schrader a bit and dig the Internet.