Archive | 1:00 pm

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 1: Breaking Bad

29 Nov

Note:  I know I haven’t put explicit spoiler alerts on these entries for the most part, but I’ll make the extra point that everyone should go out and watch Breaking Bad.  I’ve inserted a SPOILER ALERT for the biggest spoiler, but if you don’t want to know anything about the show, watch before reading any further.  And do watch.

Oh, where to start.  There are so many things I love about this show that I’ll have to limit myself to only talking about some of them.  First, I’d like to note that this show has improved every single season it’s been on the air.  I’ve talked with people who have only seen the first season and who aren’t that into it, but I encourage them to keep watching.  It isn’t that the first season isn’t good; on the contrary, it’s merely that the show keeps breaking its existing ceiling every single season.  Almost everyone I’ve pushed through into at least the middle of the second season has thanked me later.  There’s no better way to have someone remember a show in its offseason  fondly than to end with a bang and Breaking Bad always does that – each season builds to an epic last couple of episodes, leading up to a point which could be anticlimactic and easily disappoint, a la True Blood, but instead Breaking Bad rises to the occasion, giving us all time great television episodes.  In the most recent fourth season, however, that tag is hardly limited to the season finale.  Several of the episodes are instant classics, and the last five or so each left me thinking they were the best episodes yet.

Anyone reading this probably knows this already but Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth to provide for his family after he’s gone.  He partners up with an old student now selling meth on a low level, Jesse Pinkman.  The show becomes far more than this, but that’s where we start.

So much happens in a season of Breaking Bad that it sometimes seems as if the first episode and the last are from two entirely different seasons.  The fourth season was ultimately an epic battle between Walt and Gus, and what a war it was.  What was particularly brilliant is that for a few episodes in the middle of the season it seemed like Gus, rather than Walt was the main character and instead of being angry or confused I wanted more.  The show manages to invent back story which was clearly not intended when the show began and yet still doesn’t feel forced and some of the best Gus scenes of the fourth season revolve around this back story.

There are some conceits you have to buy to get on board with Breaking Bad.  It’s a show about broad strokes rather than details, and a show which is one step away from reality; it’s main characters are superheroes who are not exactly like regular people.  It’s not The Wire.  Some things happen in the show which aren’t “real” and that’s okay.  That’s not what’s most important.  What’s most important is that the level of reality and characters are consistent within the confines of the show, and they are.

Tension is the engine that drives Breaking Bad.  No show provides more tension over different periods of time; often there are three or four proverbial shoes waiting to drop at any given moment.  The single best example of that last year may be the ricin cigarette that sat in Jesse’s cigarette pack waiting to be used at any time, which hovers over the last few episodes of season 4.  My favorite small example of Breaking Bad tension is when Walt lights up the gas tank of a car in order to destroy it.  In most shows or movies, Walt would be running away immediately after he lit the fire, and the car would explode as he dived forward, barely missing the explosion.  In Breaking Bad however, the seconds tick by with Walt well out of the way until the car explodes.  Even just waiting for a car to explode, the tension is palpable.

The tension created by Breaking Bad doesn’t disappoint.  When Breaking Bad lays out a major plot element, it uses it.  What’s even more brilliant is that the vast majority of little plot strands the show has left dangling are in a wonderful place where Breaking Bad has built up a network of potential plots (Walt’s mother? Marie’s shoplifting? Ted’s death?) to call back on, but these strands wouldn’t feel unresolved if the show chose never to go back to them.

So many scenes in Breaking Bad are so perfectly executed that they could be wonderful vignettes even outside of the larger story.  For example, the scene in which Mike hides out in the truck and kills the cartel henchmen or the scene in which Mike and Walt talk at the bar and Mike knocks Walt out.  Both of these scenes are brilliant pieces of television even outside of their context.

I could write thousands of words about this show, and I just might at another time. but hopefully this has expressed my feelings about Breaking Bad sufficiently.

Why it’s this high:  It’s the best show currently on TV and it’s only gotten better.

Why it’s not higher: It is in fact, highest


Best episode of the most recent season:  It’s so hard to choose, but it’s hard not to say the finale – there were a couple of major moments which I debated whether I liked or not – namely, zombie Gus straightening his tie and the decision to straight out show the plant in Walt’s backyard.  Even while I still can’t decide whether I think those moments were good decisions, the episode still stands as an absolutely brilliant piece of television.  I watched it late at night, and I couldn’t sleep for hours after I watched it, and I mean that in the best way possible.  One of the most brilliant aspects of this episode is the way it allows you reevaluate scenes from previous episodes.  This episode takes the scene earlier in the season with Walt spinning his gun around on the table in his backyard, which at the time looked like a scene of pathetic desperation where Walt perhaps contemplated suicide, into a triumphant scene where the plan was hatched that would lead ultimately to Walt’s success against Gus.