(This post is probably the last I’ll put up based on BB-related e-mails, and probably my last post on BB at all. ((The e-mail discussion was with Scott Smith Miller, a once-upon-a-time TV writer who’s gone straight, now a master yoga instructor far from Hollywood, also a former contributor at this blog. Scott’s never explained to me why he abandoned these environs – though I of course have my guesses.)) Though my correspondent and I started out from generally opposing stances on the show – me fan, him not – we did reach some agreement both on the last episode “FeLiNa” and on what it revealed about the show as a whole, though I still will never prefer House. This post also expands on my response to Don Miguel in the comments under the prior BB post.)
The humility and openness with which Vince Gilligan and colleagues have discussed their creative process has helped us de-mystify their work, while also, of course, providing exploitable content for multiple publicity and distribution platforms. ((Symptomatic examples can be found in Gilligan’s post-finale commentaries, such as his discussion of ideas for alternative endings and earlier paths not taken.)) It seems to be taken as something of a given that such de-mystification is harmless and intrinsically valuable. Instead of waiting decades for scholars to un-cover hints about what the artist was thinking or intended – or thought he or she intended, not always the same thing – we find out within minutes during a talk show, if not simultaneously via a “two-screen experience.” No one seems to consider whether a thoroughly de-mystified work of art would not necessarily be inadequate to the mysteries it refers to and exploits.
Walter White’s final confrontation with his own fate is undergone by one man alone. The fictional realization of such a particular story as simultaneously a universal story might have been accomplished by a single artist simultaneously articulating his or her own unique yet parallel confrontation for each of us, but a TV show, as the voluble Mr. Gilligan and company remind us, is not a poem, or book, or play. In this way, they tend to confirm that the incidental excellence of Breaking Bad, as of The Sopranos, The Wire, and other exercises in novelistic or epic television, point to artistic aspirations that their collaborative, industrialized production and distribution necessarily frustrate. Such products at their best offer a serviceable, diverting, and discussable, but finally disposable imitation of what an audio-visual art worthy of the name might be like. As such they remain a substitute for something that perhaps ought to, but seemingly cannot exist.
As others have noted, the scenario of Breaking Bad as it developed over five seasons depended on a fantasy, or perhaps a certain kind of science fiction, concerning a refined methamphetamine whose uniqueness and purity drove criminals, sociopaths, and OCD geniuses to extreme lengths. In mastermind mode as “Heisenberg,” our anti-hero manufactures Blue Unobtanium or the Meth of Power, but 99% pure meth is not or would not be a 99% holy grail for super-criminals to kill and die for, since “crank” of a much lower purity is adequate and possibly preferable in the drug trade. In the meantime, as Malcolm Harris pointed out, methamphetamine of 99% purity is a known quantity. It goes by the trade name “Desoxyn,” a pharmaceutical used for “the short-term management of exogenous obesity,” and is marketed by Lundbeck, Inc., to doctors, not by appendages of Los Pollos Hermanos, or successors, to meth heads. Yet, to an extent underestimated by Harris in his critique of Breaking Bad and other “White” narco-fictions, the artificiality of this premise allowed Gilligan and company to expand the social and moral range of a rather banal original idea apparently taken from the newspapers: High School teacher cooks meth to pay for chemo bills. In this sense a finale episode busily tying up loose ends without much thought for believability might be considered truer to the narrative as a whole than individually superior or at least more credible episodes, but, if so, then the effect may be of a broadened indictment, both of its creators and of the audience, the real inhabitants of the vast social and moral territory absorbed by an unusually successful television enterprise.
This mechanism, sacrifice of believability in exchange for a wider effective range – and ratings, too – operates in Breaking Bad well beyond the story idea and general development. ((As we have previously noted, the appearance of unlikely or very hard to believe coincidences in key Breaking Bad episodes often reveals the presence of the miraculous or destinous – of themes to be taken with high seriousness. Walt the scientific rationalist openly observes the pattern from the edge of madness, in his “Think of the odds!” speech from Season 3’s “Fly” episode, as he ponders a seemingly incomprehensible coincidence that we know has implicated him indirectly in the deaths of 167 people:
The universe is random. It’s not inevitable. It’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That’s what science teaches us, but what is this saying? What is it telling us, when on the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who’s having a drink with him? How can that be random?
Gilligan himself has been quite direct on the matter, as when, in an interview with Alan Sepinwall, he described the plane disaster caused by the grief-stricken man, an air traffic controller whose daughter Walt had for his own reasons allowed to die, as “a rain of fire coming down around our protagonist’s ears, sort of like the judgment of God.” (In the same episode, confined to one setting due to budgetary considerations, dialogue-heavy in a way that may have induced writerly confessions, Jesse also gives the lie to the Blue Meth concept, insisting that Walt’s quest for purity is senseless, since they are serving “the least-discriminating customers in the world.”) The familiar parallel could hardly be more clear: Acting as “creator,” Gilligan sought to convert or reverse his narrative’s own artificiality into the sign of deeper necessity, in the mode of miracle (…or what Alastair Roberts, in an appreciative review of the finale, identifies as “moral providence.”), since what makes a miracle a miracle is not its alteration of known natural laws, but its confirmation of higher ones, its verification and realization of prophecy or revelation. (In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Miracle confirms and reveals the movement from Creation to Redemption. TV writers are frequently asked to determine what is possible in the story’s “universe”: He or she in short must play God, and how one chooses to play God is a statement in relationship to faith and belief, of essential self-definition.) )) It is a type of ironic reversal or inversion – already integral to the “anti-hero” genre and to its major precursors ((…especially in the Christian tradition: every anti-hero is a version of Christ)) – that sometimes yields a laugh, sometimes a sense of awe, and usually both at once to some extent, but the devices on which it depends, when over-used, will turn around again. Rather than being converted by the naturalism of scene, dialogue, character, and logic into an image of “fate,” the next obvious improbability may begin to subvert the narrative, under the sign of “fake” – a danger all but the most naive viewers understand instinctively. Put simply, too much contrivance refers us to TV writers at work, and their revealed presence “breaks the fourth wall” or all the walls, cracks the flat screen. We may re-join the story immediately after each such break, reflexively re-forming identifications and re-awakening sympathies at the first opportunity – as when, watching a musical comedy, after whatever latest absurd twist or song-and-dance, we instantly resume hoping for love to triumph – but emotional involvement being newly built or re-built is not involvement gaining force and at last overwhelming us. In realistic drama especially, or in regard to the real-dramatic element of a mixed or partly satirical work, any over-accumulation of improbabilities risks falsification of the whole, and threatens to turn the complex, self-sufficient fictive world into a flat artifact, a collapsed assemblage of meaningless gestures.
In “FeLiNa” every major sequence is faked forward to whatever needed plot point. Walt’s first big problem is solved by the kind of device that appears on “worst cliché” lists next to the Doris Day Parking Spot: car keys in the visor-flap, right where the fleeing or chasing hero needs them. (Did anyone in our world ever really put their keys there, even in rural New Hampshire, even 50 years ago before it was done one too many times in action movies?) Now, we may be perfectly aware that Gilligan, credited as writer and director as well as creator on “FeLiNa,” is perfectly aware that many of us are perfectly aware that he is perfectly aware that we are perfectly aware that this device is a cliché, but such self-reflexive complications are merely amusing at best: What registers as remote from the real world will not register as emotional except in those necessarily rare instances where it refers us to a “grand scheme of things” higher than the schemes of a TV pro – where it evokes what a god would be, not what a Gilligan is.
BACK TO SCENE: Needed device in hand, Walt proceeds to utter a prayer – “just get me home” – to an unnamed higher being: “No problem,” responds his real Creator, if not in so many words: All it requires is a “CUT TO:” and a new slug-line, probably “EXT. GAS STATION – DAY” – or some such. If we want to know how Walt, literally on his last breaths, gathered his money, eluded a dragnet, made his way back to New Mexico, while acquiring a machine gun and ammo and the rest – that’s how. He traveled cross country and achieved every other necessary preparation, evasion, acquisition, and so on, via a few keystrokes: There is no other answer.
As clichés go, Walt’s ensuing successful impersonation of a journalist registers on about the same level as the car keys that fall into his lap, and Gilligan soon reaches into the bag of old tricks yet again, pulling up a REVEAL of Walt’s presence across from Skyler, just after Marie on the phone has finished comically over-emphasizing the extreme unlikelihood of his somehow evading surveillance and showing up. How did he manage it? See above. A contrivance that is as phony as any of these, but climactically plot-critical turns up near the end of the episode, when arch-villain Uncle Jack yet once again ((The most important prior instance was sending Walt off with a handshake, dangerous knowledge, ample resources, and exponentially magnified ill will, instead of killing him)) acts perfectly irrationally in a way that just so happens to solve the hero’s and of course the writer’s main problems: For no other reason than to prove an unnecessary, partially face-saving point, Uncle Jack delays Walt’s impending execution to have Jesse summoned from his dungeon – and so fully populate Gilligan’s shortly to be depopulated mise-en-scene.
Whether the main fault in any of these scenes and sequences is chiefly in concept or execution is not always easy to say, but the overall effect is that of the usual TV and B-movie product, not of the legendary, ultra-pure Bad stuff. Taken separately, none of these writer-forced moves would necessarily destroy the seriousness of a story. We can supply explanations for Uncle Jack’s unreasonable acts of cooperation with Walt’s/Gilligan’s plans, or for Walt’s ability to evade the police, or for his ability to predict Lydia and Todd’s actions precisely, or for his ability to convince the foolishly cringing Gretchen and Elliot Schwarz of the credibility of his ludicrously pulp hit-man scenario, or even for the keys in a visor-flap in rural New Hampshire in Winter. Typically for the episode as a whole, the Schwarz sequence seemed to be played for satirical laughs, but may simply have been clumsy, even before Skinny Pete and Badger show up for unfunny comic relief, awkwardly announcing moral qualms of a type that never figured into their conduct in previous episodes. Even when in as brief and trivial a form as Todd’s “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” ringtone, showy but character-inappropriate moments can undermine a story as much as obviously unlikely plot developments do. Crammed together one after another in different mismatched sizes, such excesses build an atmosphere of pervasive un-reality rather than of something somehow serious going on.
Sympathetically inclined critics will set aside the small stuff, or weigh the hits over the misses, and may otherwise focus on the larger story of Walt’s transformation from normal man to 99% pure super-villain: By the finale of the finale, Walt is wholly Heisenberg, the Professor Moriarty of the American Southwest. That the fakeness of it all is at least true to the story, if not to life, is certainly arguable, but, if Walt completes his conversion into elemental force of justice in human form, or, alternatively, into a generic villain, or both at once, we cannot, unless we are mad, identify with a force of justice or a generic villain. A related side-note to many discussions of Breaking Bad concerns when it “really” ended or where it should have ended or how else it might have ended. As a story about recognizably human human beings, it may have ended somewhere before the halfway mark in “FeLiNa” with Walt’s confession to Skyler that all he has done was never really for his family, as he has been saying all along, but for himself. The confession, coming on top of attendant sympathetic offerings (chiefly the location of Hank’s burial place, to be traded for leniency from prosecutors), clearly pleases Skyler, who stops crying, and, granting Walt’s request, subsequently looks on tenderly as he views and touches his infant daughter Holly for a last time. We are invited to maintain sympathy for him at least through the end of this sequence with his distant observation of his son: Walt has finally brought together his two linked yet conflictual projects – the family project and the ego project, as originally conceived in the face of his own impending death. The achievement is necessarily paradoxical, since his confession to Skyler is simultaneously denial and affirmation: In openly divorcing his ego from his family, as Skyler demands, he re-gains access to the latter, at least for a gratifying moment.
The rest of “FeLiNa” is applied tele-writer science of killing bad guys, emblematically remote-operated, mechanical, and incredibly contrived, with Walt’s last loving inspection of a meth lab his coda – FADE OUT. The wave of responses on twitter, the blogs, and e-mails were dominated by congratulations to Gilligan for wrapping things up so neatly. Wrapping things up neatly means, in this instance, efficiently reducing too much of something 99% of the way down to nothing, the formal equivalent of moral nihilism. As to the latter, many will agree with Gilligan that at least Walt “went out on his own terms,” another cliché, and one whose emptiness contradicts everything good about all the bad that led up to it. It felt good, Walt tells Skyler. It felt good, so he did it, and kept on doing it. Even then, he tells her, “I feel good.”
In other words, he was a moral imbecile.
If the finale imparts, at least for some of us, some feeling of regret over time wasted thinking about a TV show, it also whispers a conclusion that Gilligan and staff implied, but in the end lacked the will, ability, or courage to state openly, and instead hid under Walt’s or rather Cranston’s demented death-grin: That a more believable or at least coherent story would also have evinced an understanding that the imposition of death on others in hopeless denial of one’s own mortality is evil. I suspect that a Breaking Bad that embodied self-understanding, that was therefore capable of an authentic humility in relation to its own invocation of questions beyond us all – of mysteries – could not and would not have rewarded Walt with so much personal victory, so delightful to his and our petty vanities, to the tune of inane Oldies; would not have granted a murderer, accomplice to murder, and supplier of morbid addiction so many times over a finally peaceful death: all demons banished; his criminal genius and defiant courage commended to eternal renown; self-satisfied euphoria after rescuing and even reconciling with his wife, ensuring his children’s futures, compelling his treacherous ex-colleagues to do right, protecting the world from the sociopaths he had enriched and empowered, and liberating his suffering partner from bondage.
The unlikelihood of Walt’s victories, one impossibility piled on top of another in a thoroughly impossibilized world, turns them into their opposites, but we have been left to supply those ourselves, even while being encouraged to look the other way, as broken as ever.