Notes from a ‘Breaking Bad’ latecomer

I came to Breaking Bad late for a number of reasons, none important, then decided to wait until the series was wrapped up to watch it straight through.

It was worth the wait.

The most Quentin Tarantino-esque character never to appear in anything by Tarantino is Mike Ehrmantraut. The scene above – which I couldn’t find in its entirety – may be the most Tarantino scene I’ve ever seen in something Quentin hasn’t written or directed. Mike releases the balloons to fly up to kill the power lines, then shoots his way through the business until his adjustment to finish off the baddie hidden behind the wall, all backed by funk music and all just screaming Tarantino. Add that to Mike’s “Half Measures” speech, and it’s amazing how Mike seems like a refugee from the Quentin-verse. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him smoke a Red Apple while chowing down on a Big Kahuna burger.

Many may not find that interesting, but if you lived through Pulp Fiction and its aftermath, you know many filmmakers spent the better part of the 1990s trying to become the next Quentin Tarantino, none with even a modicum of success. Kudos to Vince Gilligan and crew for finding that wonderful mix of danger, humor and bloodshed.

Why Breaking Bad might be the best show in the history of television. I say “might” for a reason. There are some problems with Breaking Bad, such as why a cautious, intelligent man like Gus Fring didn’t just put a bullet in Walter’s head the second Gale Boetteicher had even the vaguest clue about how to cook the blue glass. Fring’s on-going indulgence of Walter, even when he’s not being nice to Walt, makes zero sense to me in retrospect. Gus knew from the jump off what a bad idea it was dealing with Walt and ultimately paid for it with his life. It just seems out of character.

But enough about shortcomings. There’s one thing, to me, that elevates Breaking Bad to such lofty status: The end of Seasons 4 and 5. Because those two outcomes create two entirely different stories. If it ends after Season 4, Walt really is a hero. Yes, he’s done horrible things, mostly to horrible people (the main exception being the poisoning of Brock), but he accomplishes what he wants to accomplish: Keeping his family safe from his illegal activities while also creating an enormous nest egg to care for them should the cancer claim him. I’m not saying he’s absolved of his worst actions, but Walt still manages to come out a borderline hero. Season 5 changes that view of Walt entirely, as he actively jumps in to become a heavy hitter in the drug trade, not just a cook. He plans heists, he orders executions, he never thinks about taking a step back. He’s a full-on villain, even when achieving satori after his final fight with Skyler and Walt Jr. It was an amazing change in tone and a huge risk. It was also worth it, and shows a lot of guts pretty much no one else in network television has ever shown.

Why, Jesse, why? Why did Jesse stay with Walt? I understand the early attraction, the money, the drugs, getting a few laughs from making meth with a guy who flunked you in high school chemistry. But Walt was poison, period, and after a time Jesse clearly recognized that. Yet Jesse couldn’t say no to Walter until it was too late. I don’t know enough about abusive relationships to know whether or not Jesse followed that type of pattern, but it was another weakness of the show, that lack of a moment that cemented Jesse’s and Walt’s deep, unbreakable ties to each other that made Jesse cling to his former teacher until it tore him apart. It made for interesting television, to be sure, but it didn’t quite seem to make sense.

"Don't drink and drive. But if you do, call me."

“Don’t drink and drive. But if you do, call me.”

Better call Saul. I can’t wait for Saul Goodman’s spin-off. Saul was the enthusiastic if uneasy shyster, the guy who never thought anything was a good idea but was willing to hang in there in hopes of the big payday. Bob Odenkirk was the perfect choice, playing up the sense of humor to hide his insecurity about the depraved acts he was at least tangentially involved in. I think it will be interesting to see more of Saul the ambulance chaser as opposed to Saul the fixer.

I hate Albuquerque Nazis. Where Walt really went wrong: Getting involved with white supremacists. You’d think a guy like Walt who so coveted his anonymity would avoid guys with Nazi crosses tattooed on their necks, which doesn’t exactly exude subtlety. On the plus side, they made for a helluva ending.

Once again, we’re back to Pulp Fiction. As I worked my way through entirety of Breaking Bad, I kept thinking of Marcellus Wallace’s speech to the boxer Butch: “That’s just pride fucking with ya.” That could have been Walter White’s motto. Every time Walt thought about backing off, quitting, stepping away, something would anger him. Walt would perceive a lack of respect or his pride would be hurt, and he would in turn up the ante, to the point that, during the dinner scene at his in-laws, it seemed as if he might even admit to being Heisenberg to his DEA bro-in-law Hank. Walt’s only redemption is in the final episode, when he admits to Skyler that it was his pride that had pushed them to this low point. Powerful stuff, and a great way to end.

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