Breaking Up

When I wrote about Breaking Bad a couple of posts back, I mentioned that it had never bored me. That was because I hadn’t yet watched Episode 10, “Fly.” Apparently meant to evoke some sort of existential crisis or tipping point in Walter, the ep marked my first Breaking Bad attention drift ever, with long, pointless silences punctuated by a maddening buzzing of the Biggest Fly in the History of Flies. It reminded me of Jarhead, a movie about the tedium of being in the army that is itself intensely tedious. Yeah, I get it, Walter’s going round the bend and to a dark place. Yawn.

The remaining installments were good, though I was disappointed that there wasn’t a payoff on the strange procession of crawling people from the season’s very first scene. I mean, I get that too, and I guess I wanted something more literal like the great use of the teddy bear eye from Season 2. A let-down, if a small one. No prob. As for “Fly,” I figured it was an experiment, and hoped it was out of someone’s system.

Then I read that “Fly” was a so-called “bottle” show, one shot on existing sets with as few cast members as possible to keep the costs down. File that away for just a second as we proceed to the controversial part on which I have very few allies. Many friends, including Dennis, have reported that they thought Season 4’s opener was great; certainly, you don’t see a box cutter used as a murder weapon every night on TV. And while most folks have recognized that said murder was telegraphed with all the subtlety of a high school actor bellowing “A fart on Thomas Putnam!” in The Crucible, they still are giving the show love. The whole ep left me cold. The noose is tighter and tighter, the characters have fewer and fewer options, and I predict there are going to be lots of Samuel Morse commemorative moments in the weeks to come. Exhibits A, B, and C from last night: The phone call from Gus that stops Walter’s assassination attempt on Gus. Jesse’s meth party and inevitable buzz kill. Hank’s ongoing assholery and Marie throwing herself at the hot p.t. guy.

I can’t fault the actors, all of whom have done terrific work so far on the show, with a special shout out to the superb Jonathan Banks as Mike. In a way, I can only blame the writers for doing too good of a job. The characters on BB have universally been so developed and rich for what’s basically a cops and robbers show that we know them too well. We know what they’ll do, and worse, what they wouldn’t. (One reason Jonathan Banks and Betsy Brandt are doing such amazing work this season is that his character is only 1 season old and she’s had very little to do so far. When they’re onscreen, the heat cranks right back up.) The phone call above bothered me primarily because Walter would never do anything that stupid. He’s stayed, barely, one step ahead of everyone all the way through with the resourcefulness of a captured ferret. But on the first 2 eps of this season, he’s a shrill, illogical mess; I’m having a very hard time caring about him. I get it, he’s falling apart, he’s desperate. But every time Walter’s been desperate in the past, it’s been one of the pleasures of the show to see him think fast, laser focus on what has to be done, and make it work.

Additionally, part of what has fueled the show’s power has been Walter’s sorrow as well as his ultimate decency. Both are gone, replaced by a nasty self-pity that’s, at least for me, a bore to watch. In the last few eps of Season 3, I wanted, just once, for the toll of meth to be at least considered by Walter and Gail, as well as Skyler. There was some quiet dithering over why it was ok to do what they were doing, but the main concerns were about getting caught and getting killed. There was no character to give the story a heart and soul like Jane, Jesse’s doomed girlfriend from Season 2, who made only one too-brief appearance in a Season 3 flashback. Jane gave meth addiction one face, and Jesse’s hooker – the brokedown blonde who starred in the terrific opening montage to “Windy” in late season 3 – gave it another. Now, it’s all unreal. I suspect Jesse’s remorse at the end of last night’s ep is a hint that something will come. But it’s starting to feel so set up, so contrived.

Which is why I’m feeling that the entire 4th season could well be a bottle show, due not to limitations of locations, cast, or budget, but to that need to fill up another 11 episodes. Neither Walter nor Jesse can die. The show is like a maze with too many rats, who can shock themselves painfully but not fatally. Both Sundays, I felt like I had the flu afterward, achy and grouchy.

Jesse’s final line on Ep 1 of this season – “They either kill you, or they make you wish you were dead” – was beautiful. Mike’s monologue from Season 3 was as great as Robert Shaw’s classic, blood-curdling speech in Jaws, where he describes surviving a night in shark-infested waters. The show’s writers absolutely have what it takes, and I hope these first two episodes are just speedbumps that will make a little more sense with context. But that’s the thing: a great series episode can stand alone. Sure, knowing the precedents helps, but at some level, you shouldn’t need them. Neither of these make sense without the background info.

Then again, maybe I’m just mad because there was no Giancarlo Esposito last night. Holy smokes, that guy is sexy.

I only watch 3 shows: this, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Mad Men. It’s so wonderful when they’re good. I hope I can rejoice and in the end look at Season 4 as a great accomplishment. But I can’t help thinking it would be SO much better if I knew it was going to be the last one. The suspense would be agonizing. As it is, I know Walter and Jesse will make it through the 13 episodes no matter how bad things get.

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