End of Season Report – Breaking Bad, Season 3

8 Jul

It's a cookbook!

The pivotal moment in the third season comes about halfway through when Walt makes his most serious attempt, at least until the current season, to quit the meth business.  Rewatching the season, he came even closer to leaving than I remembered. Looking back from the fourth and fifth seasons, his time in the super lab seems so inevitable, but it really wasn’t.  By the later seasons Walt has made peace with being the bad guy to some extent.  But in season three that’s still problematic for him.  He’s still out largely to make money for his family, even if that motive has comingled with his enjoyment of doing something that he’s good at and his ego-fueled refusal to know when to leave enough enough.  He takes concentrated stock of his life.  He didn’t imagine losing his family and isn’t happy about it.  Maybe he’s gone too far, he thinks, and maybe it’s time to put his family first. His marriage is looking to be in pretty awful shape with the revelation that Skyler fucked Ted, but Walt isn’t ready to give it up.

Jesse, who, unlike Walt, sees himself as the bad guy now, in the wake of Jane’s death, unsuccessfully tried to talk Walt into making more meth, and when that failed announced that he was planning to go forward with a solo venture.  That succeeded in making Walt furious. What right did Jesse have to make his product, Walt thought, but it wasn’t enough to make him reconsider.  Rather, getting Walt back to cooking took the deft convincing of chicken restaurant owner and drug kingpin Gustavo Fring.  In his persuasive oratory, Gus gives one of the most famous speeches of the series, and rightfully so, when he explains to Walt that “A man provides.” Gus is a studied master in the art of dealing with people, and in this speech he plays upon all of the personality aspects likely to convince Walt.  He speaks to Walt’s ego, and his desire to be the provider.  He gives Walt an out for being the villain.  All that matters is that he’s making money for his family, because that’s what a man does.  Who cares what other people think of him?  Who even cares what his family thinks of him now – he got in the business to leave something behind when he’s gone, and he needs to do it, whether they appreciate it or not.  After the speech, Walt is in, and he’s now all in.

Season three, like several Breaking Bad seasons, takes a while to get going.  The cousins are mysterious but are more responsible for a couple of the great vignettes that Breaking Bad is so good at putting together than for any actual plot.  They’re hardly characters themselves; their primary value is in how they affect the other characters, which doesn’t come until later in the season.

I’d like to put an end to the idea that Walt doesn’t care about Jesse, which I’ve heard so many times in the past couple of years in the wake of Walt becoming more hard-headed and full of himself.  I’m hardly calling Walt an altruistic saint, but what he does in the second to last episode of season three, he does at least partly because he cares for Jesse.  It’s easy to forget that Gus and Mike wanted to kill Jesse, and Walt basically tells them that he won’t work for them if they do.  He puts his ass on the line for Jesse.  Walt kills those two drug dealers because otherwise Jesse would have, and he shelters Jesse when Gus wants him dead.  Walt may ask a lot from Jesse to kill Gale, but it’s hardly unearned.

Famous bottle episode Fly, the tenth episode, marks the second major transition in the season.  The episode itself slows everything down for forty minutes.  It’s a look back before the final three episodes move forward at breakneck speeds.  The episode itself builds; the first few minutes are paced in such a way that you feel like Jesse, thinking who the hell cares about this stupid fly, but then, like Jesse, as Walt goes forward, you get involved.  Walt, and the show, use this moment to take stock and reflect on how far we’ve come in three seasons and what mistakes were made and how the original plan didn’t turn out exactly like it was supposed to.  By the time that Walt admits it’s not really about the fly anyway, as was pretty obvious from the beginning, it no longer really matters.

The last two episodes are riveting and in and of themselves worth the slow build of the season.  I challenge someone who hasn’t seen them before to find a chance to take a breath during either Half Measure or Full Measure.  It’s remarkable how quick the suspense is ratcheted up after the comedown of Fly.  The clock is ticking for Walt and Jesse after the events of Half Measure, where Walt kills two drug dealers to spare Jesse from doing it himself. The last episode is basically a race to figure out how in the world Jesse and Walt are going to make it through the next forty minutes of TV with their lives, considering Gus Fring is a much more serious enemy than any they’ve ever faced before.

Season three marks a transition between seasons two and four.  The show becomes less about little personal moments and more about broad strokes that are intricately plotted.  The scale is much bigger.  Walt and Jesse are no longer working out of a trailer, but instead are supplying meth to the entire southwest.  Some of the small, everyday moments from the earlier seasons are lost.  Walt is no longer a regular person with a small hobby, and his family is no longer a regular family.  After my rewatching, I have more understanding of people who choose the second season as their favorite than I did the first time I watched through. However, with the loss of the small comes the gain of the big.  Subtlety goes out the window but Breaking Bad also plays well on a much more epic scale.    Breaking Bad continually breaks out twists and turns that are never obvious but don’t feel forced either.  Character motivations are extremely well-handled; the decisions made by all the major characters which lead to the various predicaments make sense within the context of the show.  Gus and Mike come into play and both are hugely welcome additions to the show.  This is the big time now.  Walt and Jesse are no longer dealing with chump change and highly unstable drug dealers like Tuco.  Walt may make mistakes, but they’re because of his greater personal flaws, rather than because of his bumbling I-can’t-believe-I’m-dealing-with-violence-I’m-just-a-chemistry-teacher attitude.

I wouldn’t leave off a Breaking Bad review without a shout out to the sheer cinematic qualities of the show.  The technique is brilliant; there are beautiful set pieces.  Even scenes that seem irrelevant to the plot are beautifully filmed vignettes in their own right that tell their own micro story with style.  No show films better montages than Breaking Bad, and I’ll leave with the montage of Jesse’s friendly hooker friend Wendy, set incongruously to The Association’s “Windy.”


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