Friday, June 1, 2012

Breaking Down: Season Two of Breaking Bad - Part Two

Ever dream of spending 4 days in a broke-down RV cooking methamphetamine in the middle of a sweltering desert? That's where we left off with Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse whip up 41 pounds worth as Walt plans his exit strategy, only to find out that his cancer is nearly gone and has become operable which will force him to live with his actions for awhile longer. Saul introduces the crew to the chicken fryer, Gustavo Fring, who eventually agrees to pay $1.2 million for the batch, causing Walt to miss his daughter's birth. Jesse finds the dark spoon of heroin through his conniving girlfriend Jane, and she threatens to blackmail Walt. After a random chance meeting in a bar with Jane's dad, Walt decides to console his partner Jesse. He finds Jesse and Jane incapacitated from the obligatory "last time" shot of heroin. Jane begins to choke and Walt chooses his own protection over Jane's life. Bad, bad things happen following Jane's death.

Stan Earnest:  The latter half of Season Two brings us the mysterious Volvo-driving, mustard-button-up-wearing chicken man by the name of Gustavo Fring, so very calm, calculated, demure. What was your poker read on the first appearance of Gus?

Craig Scholes:  Slow down there, turbo. We haven't even covered the epic episode where Walt and Jesse get stranded in the New Mexican desert for a couple days, and Walt crafts a battery McGyver-style out of a sponge, some Doublemint, and a tennis racket. I also can't imagine how Walt didn't even tell his own Mom about his impending lung doom.

Cranston as Walter of Arabia
SE: I thought it was a watermelon, an ice pick, and a snorkel. It does seem as though AMC tends to have series with writers that throw a character-building episode in once a season. Most shows totally derail the series doing it [*points finger at The Killing*]. Breaking Bad does it right. We need to know the time Walt and Jesse put in together, the time that is missing in the White household. That episode also answers some questions about Walt's genius, which helps sell the fact that Walt's cooking skills are the best around. I want to know what the hell they were going to do if the RV didn't start? That is how most criminals get busted: lack of planning.

CS: When we were kicking around the idea of writing about a show and I threw out the idea of thrashing a bad show, I had The Killing in mind. That show is so bad. The RV-stranded-in-the-desert episode is also the one we find out that Walt is in remission and that his cancer has shrunk by 80%. Walt and Jesse spent four days in the desert on the brink of death and cook an ungodly amount of blue heaven, which Walt figures will net them roughly $672,000. In all honesty, there aren't many things I wouldn't do to earn $672 grand over the course of four days, and this is where I think the real genius of the show comes in. Where do you draw your line? You are a family man. I’m not gonna lie, I have actually weighed the pros and cons of doing what Walt does. Of course, my list weighs much more heavily on the con side mainly because I am so risk averse, and I do not have the mad Chemistry skills that Walt has, so perhaps I'll just start brewing my own beer instead.

SE: It would be awfully hard for me to dissect The Killing. I wanted to like The Killing so much, but every twist just kept making less and less sense. It really is hard to explain why The Killing went so badly (I've yet to even contemplate touching the second season), but I am much better at explaining why Breaking Bad goes so well. There was a chance at one point in time for The Killing to transcend the whodunit genre, but they just kept running in circles. The first couple of episodes of that show were haunting though. I know Weeds would be a fun one to look at just because it is so frustrating. There are places where it is clear the show needs to go to be great, but Jenji Kohan seems perfectly fine staying put, floundering in mediocrity while ratings remain high. Which brings us back to the "4 Days Out" episode of Breaking Bad. A lot more happens in the last half of Season Two than I remember from the first viewing. Remember, I watched eight episodes in a row during that stretch, a mad case of what-happens-next syndrome. "4 Days Out" refocuses the show on the how and why Walt has ended up in this place he is at, a man nearing the end, just looking for a way to provide his family with the money to survive without him. He has lied and even killed his way to this point to keep his vision of his family's future intact, and that is what I love about Breaking Bad; it makes the viewer really question what steps could, would, or should be taken in those situations. Would a real-life Walt take those steps? Most shows never touch on those concepts: the contingencies of life. As a psychology major, I've researched many phenomena of human behavior, and one of those intricacies that people often don't realize is how differently they can--or are able to--act from their "version of self" given a certain situation. Would you shock someone to death if a scientist told you to? Surely, nearly 100% would say no, but Google the words "Milgram experiment," and you might question your assumptions about yourself. Which is the pickle of the entire show: can Mr. Chips really become Scarface?

So, when Walt finds himself riddled with lung cancer, back against the bricks, he cooks meth for money. He starts the trail of lies and deceit. He "breaks bad" for the sake of good, and finds out that--regardless of intent--there are extensive, dire consequences. Walt isn't morally confounded by any means. He knows what he has done, and that is why one of the all-time genius scenes of the show is when Walt finds out that his cancer is better and that he might live for much longer. Upon hearing the magnificent news, he destroys a mirror image of himself in the hospital restroom. Whereas, when he decimated Tuco's lair, he was in full-on Heisenberg mode, and he let out a menacing growl of glee. In the restroom scene, we see Walter White, the chemistry teacher, the family man, the consummate professional, and that person may admire Heisenberg's gusto, but he hates what Heisenberg has done. Pure genius, I tell ya.

CS: I struggled through The Killing to the end, HATED the way it ended, and pretty much refuse to watch Season Two. I've also never even seen a minute of Weeds.

I kinda think Walt had his fit of rage, because he realized he was going to have to live with the things he had done. At first he was like, "Fuck it, Im dying," but now he's like, "Holy Shit, I've done a lot of Bad, how am I going to live with this?"

Moving on, nothing says, "Life is good, and fuck cancer!" like the song Dance Hall Days by Wang Chung. What a fantastic remission party. Did your old man ever let you drink before you were of age?  My dad slipped me a beer once when I was maybe 16, and I remember being repulsed by it. Of course, it was Bud Light... How awesome would that party have been if Hank and Walt actually broke into fisticuffs? I can't imagine how badly Hank would have killed Walt.

SE: My parents drank Busch heavy, not exactly the world's greatest beverage. I didn't touch a drop of alcohol 'til I was 18; I was really focused on that permanent record BS in prep for college. I do remember using a can to cook beer brats at 2:00 a.m. when I was like 14. When I did have a few, I think my parents were relieved that I was "normal," which is why I love the Walt, Jr. tequila debacle. It was one of the few times Walt, Sr. has showed his hand to Hank. Of all the coincidences that involve Walt, that may be the one time Hank looks back and sees Walt in a different light. Walt's so pissed he isn't as cool as Hank in "Flynn's" eyes that he pulls the old if-you-are-gonna-smoke-you-are-smoking-a-whole-box-of-cigars routine. I can't think of a more embarrassing scene. Oh wait, I once tried to order a beer at age 18 while eating with my parents and their friends at a Red Lobster and was carded and denied. What a brash idiot I fancied myself.

CS: I wouldn't want to play Walt in a game of chicken, that's for damn sure. I love how Walt changing the water heater turns into an all day event. It went just like the last time I changed a bathroom faucet: a small fix that turned into a four-day debacle where I changed everything but the actual sink.  Episode Ten ("Over") has one of my favorite scenes in the entire run of the show too. When Walt chastises the guy in the hardware store for buying the wrong matches. It's absolutely hilarious to me, continuing to scold him for buying it all in one location. This also reminds me of a situation I had whilst working at Home Depot. Some college kids came in looking for a funnel and some plastic hose. By the time they left, I sold the splitters, ball valves, and about 12 feet of 1/2" tubing. They were well on their way to making the most epic beer bong conceivable.

Heisenberg, if he were in Baltimore. And not white.
SE: I always get this sickly déjà vu feeling when I enter the local hardware store because I just know I will be back two, maybe three, times to finish the project. Yes, the hardware store parking lot scene is perfect for a lot of reasons. We get Walt in the store and Heisenberg in the parking lot. The writers timed it perfectly to happen after we know that Walt has to continue with the mess he has laid out for himself. I love that he tells the potential meth cookers to get out of his territory as if he were Avon Barksdale. All of the other times--up until that scene--I had thought Walt was acting solely out of respect for earning money for his family, but after that I realized that he was really going into beast mode.

CS: The scene where Combo gets gunned down slinging rock reminds me a little of a minor pizza delivery incident of mine. The town I am from has a sketchy apartment complex where Pizza Hut doesn't deliver; however, the pizza joint I worked for did deliver there. This apartment complex had speed bumps everywhere, and one night when leaving this little kid on a bicycle rides up and demands me to give him money. I tell him no, and he gets really agitated, responding with a very agitated: "GIVE ME SOME MONEY!" I started to speed off and yelled back: "Ask your dad when he gets out of prison!" In hindsight, the kid could have shot me. Having said all of that, having children gang bangers is a pretty fucked up business plan.

SE: Time for talk of the Chicken Man. Bring it.

CS: Yep, Gus is awesome. Next topic.

SE: Ok, I deserved that. You know, Gus doesn't appear much in Season Two now that I am re-caught-up. Before we get into the last two episodes where all hell is let loose, I want to touch on something I have never thought about: from the first day working for Beneke, was Skyler planning on replacing Walt when he finally succumbed to the cancer? And Jane snubs Jesse in front of her dad, but once money and drugs are involved, she gets heavy-handed with the process. I am now seeing an interesting dichotomy between Skyler and Jane, or more so the show's depiction of women's interaction with criminal men.

CS: I don't think Skyler started taking a fancy to Beneke until she found out he was single. She doesn't seem like the home wrecker type. Jane, on the other hand, kind of had her hand forced when her dad walked in on her and Jesse. I really liked Jane. I would have liked to have seen her character more. It's funny, if Jane's dad hadn't told Walt to not give up on them, Jane would probably still be alive, not that Walt did much to prevent Jane from choking to death on her John Bonham-colada. Having never done any illegal drugs, doing heroin looks like it's a lot of work.

SE: The first time I saw the scene where Walt lets Jane die I thought I was done. It was a turning point for me. I had been rooting for Walt's adventures all along, waiting for him to break full-on bad and planned to celebrate the occasion. When it finally happened, I was disgusted. Gilligan and Co. really threw the ole Wakefield knuckleball there. It was at that point that further contemplation was required. It was only after that episode that I fully understood the purpose of the show and developed an admiration for the art of episodic fiction, hearkening Dickensian times.

Where The Killing just drags the viewer along, meandering to some unknown end point, throwing in filler episodes in order to snag the commercial money for the magical 13 episode season, Breaking Bad understands those premises and looks to work within them and around them. I've read some Vince Gilligan interviews, and I like his style. He seems humbly cryptic. He knows that the outside constraints of episodic TV are the money made from commercials and DVD sales. He also knows his television show isn't like other shows, it has a set beginning point and a set end point; and it's up to him to steer around the iceberg, to make Breaking Bad believable and unbelievable at the same time. He has a story to tell, bit by bit, with the premise that a the viewer has to be thrown a bone once in a while. The Killing doesn't seem to get that point. The Breaking Bad writers don't toy with filler episodes; if it doesn't fit it gets chucked. Is Walt going to really, really break bad? Well then, watch Walt let this woman die, and then watch some airplanes explode. You like that? The writers are just having fun with us in Season Two.

CS: How pissed were you when you found out how anti-climatic the teddy bear was? In the outside world, it's a bigger deal. Within Walt's smaller world--the world that matters--it really is pretty minor. One thing that is common among AMC shows is that you are just waiting for the bad thing to happen. Mad Men has me trained to just dread what might happen next. With Breaking Bad, I was expecting that teddy bear to be a gift of his new born and that the whole family had been gunned down by a Mexican cartel with the tattered remains of that bear being the only thing that survived. Obviously that didn't happen. The Killing is just a trainwreck all the way around. Who gives a shit about finding out who killed a character you never got to know, a character that the more you find out about, the more you don't like?

SE: I know I just got done doing what the Wolfman advised adamantly against in Pulp Fiction; but, to the contrary, I will say I was initially disappointed in the ending of Season Two. A lot of zaniness went into the setup. I love the boldness to foreshadow the end of Season Two in the first scene of the season. That was ballsy: Who was in the body bags? Walt and Skyler? Somebody Walt killed? But what really was up with the pink bear? But the surprise ended up not really being a surprise. And then there were the coded titles of the episodes that eventually spelled out: 737 down over ABQ.

The Wolf of Albuquerque
I am trying to recall my original feelings at the end of Season Two. I remember being a little let down in the same vein that several seasons of Weeds had done to me, tapping the iPod near the end, realizing not enough time remained for a reasonable conclusion, being left in need-more-now mode. A lot of time was spent seeking the reason for the plane crash, for the intertwined web in which Walt found himself speaking candidly with Jane's father, wondering if the writers wanted us to believe that Walt is literally creating the reality he lives in or that he exists in that reality solely out of circumstance. Is he going to find out that he created this mess, the terror he has--in a weird way--both intentionally and inadvertently caused? Then Season Three arrived and turned Breaking Bad from "my show" into the best damn show on television.

CS: HOT DAMN! Sweet segue action. I wanted to compare Mike to the Wolf in Pulp Fiction. I guess we don't actually know his name is Mike yet (but his name is Mike).  Mike didn't have to give instructions on how to clean brain matter off the interior of a Chevy Nova, but he does serve the same purpose of cleaning up a precarious situation.

I'd say Season Two is my least favorite of the seasons, and that's probably because of how much stuff could really just be cut out without affecting the story; however, one of my favorite scenes is in the next season, referencing the airplane crash. I still really like Season Two though. It's just not as good as the others. Especially Season Three, which is my favorite season by far.  Season Three of Breaking Bad is probably second only to Season Four of Dexter with Trinity.

2 comments:

WordyG said...

I think you've sussed out the key hook for me: the petri dish that is Walt's character. Genius move on Gilligan's part to make a "drug" drama centered on an everyman Chem HS teacher. Much easier for viewers to identify with Walt and his various moral choices than Tony Montana, or your garden variety movie drug kingpin. Even more interesting is Walt's fascination/loathing of what he's gotten himself into. Bravado fueled by possible cancer death sentence, or unleashing his inner man via being naughty? I wish I still had some notes from my Paradise Lost classics course back in college, seems like Gilligan might be referencing some of those themes here. Curious if you are aware if he's ever made that acknowledgement? Good recap. I'm about 3/4 thru season 3, interested to see what you two have to say about my favorite sharkskin suit stylin', pimp boot wearin', nearly mute, assassin brothers.

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