Breaking Bad – How Does It Hold Up?

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It’s mid-summer. We’re in a lull. Spoiled by this, the ‘Golden Age Of Television,’ there’s a lot to look forward to, but not a whole lot to indulge in, other than second viewings of our DVR’d favorites and bingeing on Netflix – and ‘Mr Robot,’ of course. Recently, I’ve started burning through all of the old ‘Breaking Bad’ seasons, not only because I’m a fan of the show, but because I’m curious as to how well, even just a couple of years after its finale, the show really holds up.

‘Breaking Bad’ raised the bar, but it definitely does feel a little dated, which I hadn’t really expected. Coded character archetypes and narrative patterns that have been emulated by countless television series, the treads on ‘Breaking Bad’ are surprisingly thin. It’s still an enjoyable show, but I suspect it will fade quickly, as did other hit shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Shield.’ It broke new ground, but it isn’t a stand-alone triumph. Rather, it raised the stakes and motivated other series to ‘up’ their game, raise their standards, and push forward.

When all is said and done, only period pieces manage to capture an ageless, timeless quality. ‘Rome,’ and ‘Deadwood,’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ aren’t anchored in contemporary culture and modern life, so they will never age so terribly as many other stories. Flip phones are already a thing of the past – sorry, ‘Breaking Bad,’ but your age is showing. And there was a three-season story arc in ‘The Shield’ revolving around the protagonist’s child being diagnosed with autism and a class-action lawsuit against an MMR vaccine that his daughter’s autism was blamed on – but the science is in on that one, too.

For anybody looking for a fight: the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. Hit me.

It’s risky, trying to anchor story-lines in the present; things in the present change very quickly. Dangerously so when you’re a screen-writer.

The music-video jump cuts of ‘Breaking Bad’ are also slowly disappearing. Audiences recognize these montages for what they are: near-effortless attempts to kill time and compensate for a script that doesn’t quite fill the forty-two minute run-time of the episode.

‘Breaking Bad’ broke new ground, along with a few other of its contemporaries. It will be forever remembered as an innovative leap in long-form television story-telling. And I will always be a fan. But watching the shift from ‘Breaking Bad’ to ‘Better Call Saul’ has been interesting. The deliberate pace of ‘Saul’ has alienated some viewers, but it demonstrates how the show-runners and executives understand the medium, and the changes the medium has undergone. I’m very much looking forward to what Vince Gilligan & Co. have up their sleeve for seasons three.

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Break That Bad – Waiting For Gus

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The architecture of story is important, and consumers are educating-up. ‘Breaking Bad’ wasn’t the first major television series to elevate the medium, but it certainly perfected the craft. For fifty years, audiences were passive consumers of story-telling, and there are several examples of master storytelling in television – from ‘X-Files’ and ‘Law & Order’ to ‘The Office’ and ‘The Wire’ – but the tide began to turn about ten years ago. I would argue that the FX flagship series ‘The Shield’ really sparked a new flame in long-form serial storytelling, a program of anti-heroes that paved the way for ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Deadwood’ and ‘Breaking Bad.’

Now we’re up to our necks in amazing content. Netflix jumped into the realm of original programming with hit series like ‘Daredevil,’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ on HBO has been one of the most successful – and amazing – series of all time. We live in a remarkable time, with thoroughly literate programming that has broken from the four-camera sit-coms of the past. I’m currently catching up with ‘Preacher’ and ‘Mr Robot.’ There’s more good television out there than feature-length film. A ten episode run, simply stated, lends more time – ten one-hour episodes, on average – than anything that can be achieved in a two-hour feature film. And audiences want character development.

I’m a photographer and I’m an artist, and I love all of these amazing stories. Raised on Stephen King novels and comic books and Saturday morning cartoons, I can’t help but be super-excited by all of the amazing storytelling we’re seeing today. We’re halfway between the conclusion of ‘Better Call Saul’ season two and the premier of season three. And Gus Fring – expertly portrayed by actor Giancarlo Esposito – is destined to reprise his role in the opening episode. Fans of ‘Breaking Bad’ already know how he died, but now we get to learn more about how he built his drug empire.

I know that I’m not alone. It’s going to be a rush to see how “Slippin'” Jimmy McGill and “troll under the bridge” Mike Ehrmantraut first make contact with the calculating crime lord Gus Fring. The show has been a slow burn, boring a lot of viewers, but good story-telling takes time. I expect things to really heat up with the season three debut.

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Breaking Bad – Say My Name

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Many folks herald Breaking Bad as the greatest television show in the history of television. I wouldn’t go so far. It was successful in developing a narrative that rewarded its audience and grew along with its popularity. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, it’s a show that began slow. It certainly managed to enhance its narrative velocity throughout its five-season run, but there was an undeniable lull during the earliest episodes. Its biggest success rested in the show-runners – and creator Vince Gilligan – outlining how they wanted the story to end. The network had no opportunity to milk the show – keep it on life support while the numbers were good – until it fell into relative obscurity (think Dexter or True Blood).

Sure, we would all have gleefully sat through an additional three seasons of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman dodging bullets and escaping the guillotine, but a poorly-resolved narrative condemns a story to the realm of ‘the forgettable.’ We remember Breaking Bad because the story respected its audience. It was designed to be a complete story, not a money-maker – and that’s why it’s such a profoundly successful money-maker. The competition between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ destroys most shows, most books, and a lot of popular art. Focus groups and ratings have a direct influence on the direction many of our stories go – seeking to please audiences rather than impact them.

Focus groups are as effective as the SAT’s in measuring success – which is to say, they don’t measure success. In many cases, they destroy it. Breaking Bad is one of the greatest examples of long-form story-telling specifically because it didn’t allow itself to be influenced by outside, disaffected parties. It took risks. It reminded audiences that creativity and ingenuity can allow a television show to achieve as much – if not more – than feature-length films. Breaking Bad inaugurated the wave of cinema-quality television we’re now experiencing.

And hindsight is 20/20. If we can be genuinely objective, Better Call Saul is better at the job of character development and story-telling than Breaking Bad ever was. Artists – and the writers in their ranks – evolve. In Saul, nothing is taken for granted in it’s production. Breaking Bad, the early years, has the tainted film of “this might not be picked up for another season” written all over it. Better Call Saul is infinitely more confident in it’s story-telling – in a way that audiences have never seen. Sure, it could be canceled at any time, but it’s obvious that the writers know precisely where they’re going with their characters. They have to be, because half of these characters already exist in the Breaking Bad series.

With the ultimate fate of the principle characters an already-known quantity, the writers of Better Call Saul have been working on – and achieving – a heightened level of story-telling, the likes of which we have never, in the history of books, movies, or television, ever seen. It’s pretty damn cool.

Keep your eyes open. Look at the quality. And please: Say. My. Name.

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Better Call Saul 2.06 – Bali Ha’i

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“How about your payment is that you get to live?”
“Not enough.”

Mike is once again confronted with certain dangerous elements, and on two separate occasions on this week’s episode of “Better Call Saul.” What is truly fascinating about the construction of the character is that, given an event where any reasonable audience member would fear for his certain doom, we already know that Mike is going to survive – he’s already in a chronologically much-later sequence of events in “Breaking Bad.” Knowing beforehand that he’s going to make it through, the suspense is remarkably just as palpable here, as we wait to see exactly how the plodding old man manages to wriggle free from closing nets.

Mike’s apparent disregard for his own life, it must be noted, allows him to battle beyond his means. Bravery and intellect help him compensate for ‘bad knees’ and age. And his devotion to what remains of his family makes him easily the most sympathetic character of the show’s entire ensemble (he assumed the throne once Saul quit making ice & food deliveries to Chuck). The total of Mike’s written dialogue for any episode of “Better Call Saul” could be scrawled on a note-card, but a tremendous amount of his thought process is acted through body movements, eye rolls, facial expressions. What’s most interesting about Mike – a character I’ve already insisted is the most interesting character in the whole of the Gilligan-verse – is how his character seems to very closely mirror the trajectory of Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” He is a man with little or nothing to lose, willing to go to any length for his family, loses himself, and dies in the process.

It’s just a bonus to us, I suppose, that the circle finally closes with Mike dying at Walter’s hands. It’s an almost Shakespearean way for the character to die.

The connections to “Breaking Bad” have been steady over the past several episodes, including cameos of Krazy-8, last week’s introduction of Hector Salamanca, and now this week’s reintroduction of “The Cousins.” The arrival of The Cousins was like something out of a horror film, a startling moment in a television program that, thus far, has been noted for its deliberate, slow pace.

Speaking of those connections, it has dawned on me that Nacho Varga isn’t a character in the “Breaking Bad” series. I thought long and hard about this while he sat in the background at the shop at the end of this week’s episode, overseeing Mike’s meeting with Hector and The Cousins. Nacho is still stuck in the middle of all of this, and when Mike hands a conciliatory $25k bundle of bills to the side-dealing Latino, I began to immediately speculate what kind of untimely and grotesque fate awaits the man. At this point it’s just conjecture, but I suspect that Nacho isn’t going to survive the series.

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This week also finds Kimmy and Jim running an almost identical series of professional mishaps and frustrations. Kimmy suffers under the lunch-denying thumb of Howard Hamlin. Jimmy struggles under the constant and corrective watch of Davis & Main’s 2nd year stickler, a role expertly and irritatingly played-off like the most loathsome of teachers’ pets. Jimmy is miserable and resentful and Kim becomes increasingly aware of the tenuousness of her position at HHM.

In a brilliant sequence, we watch Jimmy unable to sleep in his king-sized, well-adorned corporate palace. He wrestles with the bed-sheets, kills time bowling with condiments, and eventually gives in, returning to the cramped office at the nail salon. I’m reminded of the Brooks character from “The Shawshank Redemption.” The aged criminal, finally released from his concrete cage, can’t adjust to life in the real world. He has nightmares, forgets where he is when he wakes up, and daydreams about committing a crime just so he can get back to the life he was used to at the penitentiary. In many ways, Jimmy is so used to his hand-to-mouth former life, all of the rewards of the corporate life are actually more of a burden. He’s Tom Hanks from “Cast Away,” preferring to sleep on the floor rather than the comfy pillow-top bed in his hotel suite.

This effectively illustrates how ill-suited he is to his new life, and suggests to us that he is beginning to realize he needs to find a different, more independent path.

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Up to this point in the series – and in this episode in particular – what has been accomplished is a thorough setting of the table – all the chess pieces are in place. Mike’s conflict with Hector Salamanca and the Juárez Cartel, Kim and Jimmy’s parallel dissatisfaction in their respective workplaces, and an eventual statement of purpose between the two.

All of the loose ends appear to have been trimmed, and we’re ready for the mad-dash to resolution. I don’t think that Jimmy’s coffee cup – “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” – is just a throwaway joke. Every time he sits in his fancy new car, he gets angry that it won’t fit in the cup holder. Even though the car is nice and new, and represents everything Jimmy thought he would want out of a career, it just doesn’t fit – literally. So how does he solve his problem? He breaks it. He breaks the cup-holder to make it fit. Just like he breaks any law or rule that prevents him from getting what he wants, or what he thinks he wants.

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