Friday 1 February 2013

Breaking Bad: a post-traumatic masterpiece


Breaking Bad is a show that will put you through hell, but you'll never want to stop watching it. Though of us who loved Bryan Cranston in Malcolm in the Middle and as Tim Whately in Seinfeld are delighted that he's not only found a vehicle that demonstrates his claim to be one of the best actors in the world, but that such a vehicle should be the greatest drama series ever made. Anyone else should just be stunned that after someone achieved the impossible and made a TV series even better than The Sopranos, someone has now gone one further and made a TV series even better than The Wire.

Think of Breaking Bad, and you might think of that remarkable scene in series one where a man with terminal cancer pleads with his family not to have to undergo chemotherapy so that he won't spend his last days unable to enjoy a meal, or you may think of the ferocious shootout between a DEA Agent and two monolithic Cartel enforcers. Like The Wire, Breaking Bad demonstrates that TV drama (at least when it's done well - so much potential is wasted here) has inherited the nineteenth century novel's ability to combine the finest intimate psychological detail with a vast social and political canvas, exploring a whole society from domestic living rooms to crackdens

Walter White, a brilliant Nobel-winning chemist reduced to working as a high school science teacher, with a pregnant wife and a son with cerebral palsy, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. This sounds rather a depressing set-up for a drama series, and it is, but things get much worse. Walt's brother-in-law Hank is a DEA agent. Accompanying him on an excursion, Walt recognises a young dealer escaping Hank's clutches: it's a former pupil of his, Jesse Pinkman. He has a proposition for Jesse: they'll cook some better quality Crystal Meth together. They clash with other drug dealers, find a ruthless kingpin prepared to to buy their product, and try to keep one step ahead of the DEA. Then things get worse.

Breaking Bad's genius lies partly in its visual brilliance, which creates a remarkable post-traumatic aesthetic. Its pre-credits sequences - even by themselves better than anything else on television - give us images that arrest and frighten us, but are often devoid of dialogue, and make great use of sound effects. The eerie opening of the second episode of season two is a magnificent example. We hear a strange mechanical grinding, we see shell casings, blood and glass fragments strewn across the ground, and then we see the source of the uncanny noise: a car with its "lowjack" on  leaping up and down like a maddened dog. The explosive climax to this episode will show us who fired the bullets, whose car it is, where the glass came from and how the lowjack came to be left on, but for now the Breaking Bad viewer is left like those who experience violence or trauma in real life.

The terrifying sequence that opens several episodes in the second season stays with you for a long time. We see a floating eyeball in a swimming pool, and though we are quickly shown it belongs to a cuddly toy, this, as Stephen King rightly noted in his piece on the show for Entertainment Weekly is somehow much creepier than a human eye. We see bodies under tarpaulins. Isn't that Walt's swimming pool? Could that be Walt and Jesse under the tarpaulins?

As with Cormac McCarthy's work, evil is personified in this world. As Tuco, Raymond Cruz takes a potentially cliched role - the psychotic druglord capable of snapping at any time -  and makes it real. The fatal drug-crazed beating he inflicts upon one of his underlings at the end of season one is a familiar sight from gangster films, but here it feels horribly raw, from the vile sight of his bloodied knuckles to the ferocious roar of triumph he utters, to the bathos of his driving back and demanding Walt and Jesse's help in reviving the dead man. Along with the killing of Mike's dad in The Wire's fourth season, it's the most disturbing act of violence ever seen on television. Tuco's grandfather, who communicates by a bell on his wheelchairs (one ring for yes, none for no), is one of tv's greatest villains. We know that we'll be hearing that bell again come Armageddon. The image of Tuco's cousins crawling across their bellies to a shrine of Walt, or one of them crawling towards Walt in his hospital room, his stumps smearing a trail of blood behind him, drown out all thought and just demand to be watched, like the images in McCarthy or Ballard's work (even McCarthy might get nightmares from the severed head mounted on a tortoise in series 2). Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) is more frightening than any Bond or Batman villain: if Tuco is mindless thuggery at its most horribly believable, than Gus represents wickedness at its most intelligent, adaptable and calculated. His chief heavy Mike (Jonathan Banks) on the other hand, is a more ambivalent figure, allowed a monologue of lasting moral power when he is trying to persuade Walt to give up on Jessie in the penultimate episode of season 3:

I used to be a beat cop a long time ago. And I'd get called called out on domestic disputes all the time [...] but there was this one guy, this one piece of shit I will never forget [...] big boy 270, 280 - but his wife - or whatever she was - his lady - was real small like a bird - wrists like little branches. Anyway, my partner and I get called out there every weekend, and one of would pull her aside and say "Come on, tonight's he night we press charges." and this wasn't one of those "deep down he loves me" setups. We got a lot of those, but not this. This girl was scared. She wasn't gonna cross him. No way, no how. Nothing we could do but pass him to the EMT's, put him in a car, drive him downtown, throw him in a drunk tank. He sleeps it off, next morning, out he goes. Back home. But one night, my partner's out sick, and it's just me. And the call comes in and it's the usual crap - he broke her nose in the shower, that kind of thing. So I cuff him, put him in the car and away we go. Only that night, we're driving into town...and this sideways asshole is in my back seat humming "Danny boy"...and it just rubbed me wrong. So instead of left, I go right, out into nowhere. And I kneel him down and put my revolver into his mouth. And I told him "This is it. This is how it ends." And he's crying, going to the bathroom all over himself, swearing to God he's gonna leave her alone, screaming - as much as you can with a gun in your mouth. And I told him to be quiet - that I needed to think about what I was going to do here. And of course, he got quiet, goes still and real quiet, like a dog waiting for dinner scraps. Then we just stood there for a while. Me, acting like I'm thinking things over, and Prince Charming kneeling in the dirt with shit in his pants. And After a few minutes I took the gun out of his mouth. And I say "So help me, if you ever touch her again I will such and such and such and such and blah, blah, blah, blah. [...] Just trying to do the right thing. But two weeks later he killed her. Of course. Caved her head in with the base of a Wearing blender. We got there, there was so much blood, you could taste the metal. Moral of the story is, I chose a half measure when I should have gone all the way. I won't ever make that mistake again

In this monologue, a menacing thug becomes a human being, with a life of violence and conflict behind him, capable of wisdom and compassion as well as brutality. We know this is a man putting forward the case for murder, yet we grasp the complexity of not only his viewpoint but of his emotional makeup, and see how how inevitable it is that he would reach such a conclusion. It is impossible to get a firm grip on anyone in Breaking Bad - they will always surprise you - and yet they never fail to convince you.

Aaron Paul's remarkable performance as Jesse sees him create a human being whose development is never predictable, and yet always entirely believable. He has the familiar televisual qualities of a slacker: he uses the word bitch rather iconically, and his answer machine message is a wonder in itself. As Walt drags him deeper into the mire, his desperation reveals the human being behind this facade . One episode in series 3, after Jesse has been hospitalised by Hank, sees him delivering a ferocious monologue about spite and revenge, rasping a terrible promise to spend the rest of his life taking Hank for every cent he has, his bruised and swollen face leaving us in no doubt that he's abandoned the decency and warmth that we've always seen in him and is now a thug through and through. At the end of the episode, he quietly agrees to take up Walt's offer to forget about pressing charges and go back to work in the meth lab after all. This tightrope runs through all four seasons: Jesse is responsible for bringing his girlfriend off the wagon, attempting to sell meth to the members of his rehab meetings and is well on the way to becoming a full-time thug for Gus in series 4, and yet we feel his rage at the death of Tomas in series 3 and the poisoning of Brock in series 4. Series 3 begins with him declaring "I'm the bad guy," having apparently come to terms with his responsibility for his girlfriend's overdose, and yet by the end of the season we feel that so much will be lost if he agrees to kill Gael. The more this show hurts you, the more it takes you into parts of the human psyche where you don't want to go, the more characters you care desperately about do things you hate but which you find desperately convincing, the more you can't stop watching. Here I'm reminded of Paul Cornell's argument in his perceptive piece on the difference between drama and escapism (

as much as I love Studio 60 or any other Aaron Sorkin drama, I’ll hesitate before watching it, and sometimes opt for lighter fare, because I know it’s going to hurt me. That’s the contract I make with it. It’s not there to console me, comfort me, make me feel better right now, although it may end up doing that in the end. The comfort it finally affords me is that of the blues. It’s actually there to make me feel alive and connected with the rest of human experience, hopefully extreme human experience that I’d prefer to do like this rather than first hand, thanks very much.

I have the same experience with Breaking Bad. Take the scene where Walt stands by and lets Jesse's girlfriend Jane, who's blackmailing Walt, choke to death following an overdose. When watching that scene, I wish like hell Walt would move her onto her side and save her life. I'm horrified that he's doing this murderous act. But I'm totally convinced that he did do it. The finale to series four hurt me because I wanted Walt to be a moral counterpoint to Gus, to be the hero, but he wasn't: and while the revelation that he poisoned Brock in order to manipulate Jessie's grief over the death of Tomas horrified me, once again I believe it totally: no-one could have seen it coming, but everything led to it.

Another time the show hurt me was the attempt on Hank's life in the third series. Hank - brilliantly played by Dean Norris with the intimidating cocksure amiability of a man as comfortable loading a Glock or gathering friends round a barbecue - seems, like Jesse, to be an archetype at first glance: rarely without his gun, raucously cheerful. We see the pressure mounting on this seemingly indomitable figure after he is involved a traumatic shoot-out. After being posted to a dangerous new job in Mexico, he becomes increasingly uneasy, realising that outside his home turf he's less of an alpha male than he thought. When he loses it and beats up Jesse, he resigns. His wife urges him to put some spin on his version of events - to say Jesse attacked him first. Hank has no intention of doing so; he tells her he has failed to be the man he thought he was. We realise that Hank is everything Walt isn't: a man with the guts to act on his conscience, and to take responsibility for his mistakes. But, horribly, the script has already established that Hank's murder has been arranged. Hank hands over his gun and leaves his office, there's a deeply moving moment where Hank finally cries a little as his wife hugs him in the elevator. Excruciatingly, though, we still know that Tuco's cousins are coming to kill Hank to avenge Tuco's death. What happens when they corner him in the carpark is too exciting to paraphrase, but by the end of it, I had as close to an out-of-body experience as I've ever had during a work of fiction. "He's going to die!" my family and I wailed at each other as we watched, "he's actually going to die!" Only drama, rather than schlock or escapism, can hurt you like this.

This is a show as profoundly moral in its writing as it is unflinchingly nihilistic in its visual brilliance. Walt is an unsurpassable study in moral bankruptcy, cynicism and self-deception. The one thing that he undeniably does is choose: he chooses to lie to Skylar, to deal in drugs, to work with people like Tuco and Gus, to reject other's charity in favour of his own pride, to let Jane die. After the death of Jane, the next stage in his moral degradation occurs in the first episode of series 3, in a blood-curdling moment when he is asked to say a few words to the school about a plane crash that has shaken the town, and which he secretly bears some responsibility for. He makes a speech lacking any honesty or moral depth - pointing out it was merely the 50th worst air disaster, that neither plane was full, that no-one on the ground was killed, describing disasters that were much worse and pointing out how none of the students have even heard of them: "We will move on and we will get past this, because that is what human beings do, we survive, and we overcome. Yeah." It's a speech the Walt we met at the start wouldn't have made, before he made so many choices which he can only live with by abandoning morality, yet it's horribly convincing (many other TV writers would have depicted Walt's descent here too crudely, and simply had him act like an idiot because it suits the mood of the scene, the clangingly unsubtle "disastrous speeches" in Ricky Gervais sitcoms being a case in point). When he realises that Gus played a part in the attempt on Hank's life, you still hope he will be incensed, but instead he tells Gus he admires the intelligence behind this way of thinking, and would have acted similarly if he were in the same position.

At the end of series 3 Walt goes from killing two people and incurring Gus's wrath in order to prevent Jessie from having to become a murderer to offering up Jessie to Gus on a plate. Both these developments are genuinely shocking: which is to say they are convincing. They don't strike us as the result of a writer changing tack in order to do something fashionably dark. I'm thinking here of the disastrous climax of the third Torchwood season - in which the protagonist suddenly murders his own grandson even though the writers never bothered to make him morally enigmatic or ambiguous enough to make this work -  Clarice Starling turning cannibal in Thomas Harris's Hannibal and the ending to Chris Chibnall's execrable Doctor Who episode Dinosaurs in a Spaceship in which the Doctor turns executioner. The problem with all three isn't that the protagonists do something bad, but that the writers fail to convince us that they could.  McNulty and Freamon's megalomaniacal scheme in series 5 of The Wire and Tony's killing of Christopher in series 6 of The Sopranos, on the other hand, surprise us: we find ourselves going "I can't believe they did that!" with no sense of any grinding of gears as the writer contradicts or rewrites what has been established previously and a complete conviction that they DID do that, as if they were a real person that surprises us rather than a fictional character that could be made to do anything. We even find ourselves remembering all the things from previous seasons that pointed to this outcome (Tony's exasperation with Christopher, McNulty and Freamon's frustration with the system).

   The first episode of Series 3 sees Jesse at a rehab group. "Have you ever killed anyone?" he asks the leader of the group. He replies:

 I killed my daughter. It was July 18th, which is my birthday - July 18th 1992. I was high on cocaine and I was drunk. Cocaine wasn't an issue, because I had bought myself two grams the night before as a birthday present and I had plenty left, but I was out of vodka - and this is in Portsmouth, Virginia, where, instead of selling liquor in the supermarkets they have these ABC stores which close at 5 pm and right then it was like 4:42. So...I'm arguing with my wife - "come on, go to the ABC for me, it's my birthday, come on they're not gonna sell it to me. And she's saying "no, no." So I'm pissed, and the clock is ticking, so I jump in my truck. She's my 6-year-old daughter. She's playing at the end of the

How do you not hate yourself?

I did hate myself for a long time. But it didn't stop me from drinking and getting high - it just made it that much worse. Self-hatred, guilt - it accomplishes nothing.

Jesus, what a terrible, sweaty American masterpiece this is. The acting here by Jere Burns is so studied and intensely convincing, that the counsellor - in only his second scene - becomes a person with a life of unimaginable pain and guilt. All drama needs the courage to stop the clock for a second: to let us stop and consider these characters, in moments not designed to chase ratings and free of incidental music. The tragedy of drama in the UK over the past two decades and counting is that we have lost the ability to do this. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Deadwood and The Sopranos are almost the only post-80s drama series (and certainly the only post 90s-drama series) to spend time thinking about their characters, as I Claudius, Edge of Darkness, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, The Singing Detective, the Jewel in the Crown, Pennies From Heaven and Brideshead Revisited previously did.

John Delancie's performance as Jane's dad Donald Margolis also scars you: a desperately believable portrayal of the father of a recovering addict. He's an air traffic controller. The moment when this causes the aforementioned swimming pool image to finally come into the main narrative is the one of the most powerful moments of metaphor I've ever encountered in a work of fiction, poetically and emotionally, and, along with Walt's previously mentioned speech from the next episode, easily the greatest artistic engagement with 9/11 that we've yet seen in fiction. Here we must skirt around the vulgar, philistine temptation of seeing Walt's response to his cancer as an allegorical representation of America's response to 9/11 by declaring a war on terror. We don't need to reduce Walt or his story to anything else: the show's moral power and artistic brilliance mean that it speaks for itself as an exploration of human folly and tragedy. Breaking Bad does, however, dares to suggest that when bad things happen to people they behave badly, and crucially (and most appositely in this never-ending Post-9/11 era of the Patriot Act, renaming Torture "Rendition" or "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" and referring to drowning as "simulating drowning", Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Drones and the "dispositional matrix" ( ) that the bad thing was no excuse. One of Breaking Bad's profound themes is that Walt's suffering does not excuse his choices or make them less despicable, nor are they redeemed by being motivated by his desperate need to provide for his family. A desperately moving scene towards the end of series 4 sees Walt break down and sob in front of his son Walt Jr (beautifully played by RJ Mitte). The next day he apologises, but Walt Jr points out that it's the best he's been in months, because for once  he wasn't bullshitting: he was real again. Walt, however, puts the mask back on. A similarly powerful scene in series 2 sees Skylar (Anna Gunn, also excellent) demand that Walt tell her the truth. Cranston's performance here is remarkable in the layers of duplicity, emotion and calculation he conveys as Walt opts not to. "Your daddy did that for you," coos Walt to his baby daughter in a chilling scene in series 2 as he shows her the drug money.

Yet while it isn't fruitful to see Breaking Bad as a metaphor for America, it's undeniable that reality for America gets more and more like Breaking Bad every day. Just look at Joe Klein's extraordinary defence of Obama's drone attacks:

But: the bottom line in the end is - whose 4-year-olds get killed? What we're doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.

I'd call that a Breaking Bad moment. Walter White's story, like any great work of fiction, is irreducibly itself, not metaphor for something else, but we see reminders of his haggard face - so pained, yet so convinced that he can get himself out of a mess he drags himself deeper into every day - all around us. It's no wonder that Obama prefers to watch Homeland. Perhaps their Nobel Prizes aren't the only thing he and Walt have in common. We are in a Breaking Bad world and it is terrifying. Thanks to acting, writing and direction of humbling skill, the show that holds a mirror to this and shows us more horror than we could have thought possible is the most enjoyable thing on television.

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