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'Breaking Bad': Breaking the Rules of Television

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Jul 14, 2011 | 10:51am EDT

Breaking BadA monsoon of adrenaline will overtake us all this Sunday night, as Breaking Bad is returning to television for a fourth season. Now, everyone and their meth-dealing science teacher knows that Breaking Bad is fundamentally awesome: the absolute best drama on television. And sure, it’s got great writing, excellent acting, top-notch key grip—all the usual reasons why anyone would love a TV show. But ‘usual’ is not a word you’d use to describe Breaking Bad. In fact, this ingenious series, created by writer/director/producer Vince Gilligan, makes an art out of breaking the usual rules of dramatic television.

Let’s begin with something relatively simplistic: casting. Breaking Bad is about the darkest and most severe show I have ever seen. The storyline is attached adherently to the struggles of main character Walter White with some top-heavy desperation. Walt’s battle with cancer, the show’s hook, obfuscates the genuine internal war he has going on with his own need to feel worthwhile, which he finds, unexpectedly, in the creation and distribution of the finest methamphetamines in ABQ—Walt comes to protect this identity without hesitation; we’ll cover the details of that later, but let’s just say, it gets pretty damn dark. Walt might be the most humorless character in the entire program. And who, pray tell, did the show get to portray this overlord of the underworld?

The dad from Malcolm in the Middle. The goofy, whiny, omniphobic cartoon-of-a-manchild Hal that all but completely fails in raising his five (and perpetually counting) sons on the screwball sitcom that ran for seven seasons on Fox. Clearly, Vince Gilligan saw some potential in the secret weapon that is Bryan Cranston, be it from his Malcolm role (in which—despite my above devaluation, which was solely for effect—he was actually terrifically funny), or maybe as the re-gifting, religion-switching, patient-molesting dentist, Tim Whatley on Seinfeld. In any event, it is no common practice to place the controlling stake of a series which in its lightest moments could be called painstakingly dire in the hands of a man who did… this. But thank God he did, because Mr. Cranston has proven to be the most compelling figure on TV today. I know I haven't exactly held back on the superlatives in this article so far, but I defy you to find me someone more adept at conveying human turmoil than Cranston does as Walter Hartwell White.

But let's move on to some of the more interesting ways that this show battles the status quo of the drama formula. For my next example, I'd like to pose a question: Who's trippin' down the streets of the city, calling a name that's lighter than air? Everyone (who watches the show, at least...or just happens to be a fan of The Association) knows: it's Windy. "Windy Wendy," as dubbed by Hank (Dean Norris), is a meth-addicted prostitute first introduced in a Season One episode in such a minor appearance that I was shocked to realize halfway through her second appearance in Season Two that I had seen this character before. Her second stint on the show offered her a little more screen time. Wendy, played by Julia Minesci, furthered the plot as a potential alibi for Jesse Pinkman (the crescendo of a thespian Aaron Paul), who claimed to have been shacked up with her all weekend (thus incapable of being associated with any drug distribution or related felonies). But this revival of the character did not prepare us for the significance of her third appearance, over a season later: towards the end of Season Three, the show provided us with what was practically a Wendy-centric episode. The rationale behind this was her involvement in a ploy mastered by Walt and Jesse, but it was still surprising to see what was once a one-line super-extra become a fully formed character. We got a genuine taste of what Wendy's life was, by observing her morning drug- and prostitution-related routines. She is only one of many characters, albeit perhaps the most intriguing and significant example, that the show has amplified from minor-to-the-point-of-forgettable to scene-stealing. Jesse's friends Badger, Combo and (of course) Skinny Pete all began as mono-dimensional burnouts, but each was afforded his own backstory and conflict in the long-run. Another prime example would be Tuco's uncle, whom I never thought we'd hear from again after his first appearance as the handicapped geriatric who nearly cost Walt and Jesse their lives by attempting to inform his nephew of their deeds against him. Who would have predicted that this man once ran the drug cartel, OR that we'd get to witness his retrospective glory days? Now, obviously, dramatic shows through twists at audiences all the time. The point is, that it is far and away more unique to introduce characters in such seemingly insignificant or one-shot roles, only to bring back the characters (and the original actors who played them!) for a fleshing out of their histories, much later on in the series' run--over a season or two later. Oh, and speaking of Wendy, did I mention she had her own theme song? Natural segue to...

This show has a very unorthodox relationship with music. As stated above, Wendy, the meth-head hooker, got a theme song (the alluded "Windy" by The Association) that played over her decadent morning routine. In addition to this, upbeat music has been attached to Jesse's drug deals. In an outstanding and twisted scene, the heroin trip that has Jesse floating above his own body and, later that night, results in the death of his girlfriend, is teamed with "Enchanted" by the Platters. Although this type of device has been experimented with in cinema, rarely does dramatic TV take these kinds of artistic leaps, musically or otherwise. And who could forget the Mexican music video about the rising threat that is Heisenberg... Tell me the last time you saw anything like that opening up an episode of a show labeled as a crime drama.

If you watch Community (which you should; it's the only show on TV that I'd venture to say may be better than Breaking Bad—but that's like comparing apples and oranges...although, honestly, just how different are those two things? A better phrase would be something like, "comparing apples and carburetors, wildebeests, stratus clouds, the intangible phenomenon of 'envy'...what were we talking about?) then you are likely familiar with the phrase “bottle episode.” If you haven’t heard it, I maintain that anyone familiar with American sitcoms in general will still recognize the concept:

Two or more characters in a TV show become stuck in an enclosed location together—broken elevator, meat locker, bank vault—for the duration of an entire episode and are forced to deal with things. Emotional things. Usually, the first act of the episode establishes a conflict between the characters. In better shows, it’s a conflict that has been established prior to the episode, either in a story arc or through the pair’s status quo relationship. MANY shows have ventured this route, and they all have one thing in common: they are all, and I mean all, comedies.

Except for Breaking Bad.

As a rule—and don’t try and refute this, because I’ll assume any evidence you present has been doctored—hard dramas do not attempt bottle episodes. Why would one? It’s a lame and battered device used to force a breaking point that wraps up nicely. That’s not good writing—it’s just typical sitcom writing. But Breaking Bad, in its infinite and chilling wisdom, didn’t think it was such a bad idea. First of all, the real conflict at hand existed within Walt, as opposed to between Walt and Jesse (albeit, the two weren’t really enjoying a consistent friendship around this time in the series). The entire series measures the shift in Walt’s psyche from even-keeled and well-intentioned to... this. The metaphor of the titular fly trapped in the meth lab with Walt and Jesse in this episode was likely meant to symbolize this loss of control, as Walt is, at this point, still not completely honest with himself about what he is becoming.And what exactly is he becoming?

Another ample segue into the most prominent rule-breaking that the show does; this is, in fact, the life blood of the show itself, and is exactly why it stands out as so much better than everything else (not just on TV... EVERYTHING ELSE). Many dramas take advantage of the notion of "anti-heroes." They are far more interesting and fun than regular heroes. Think about Dexter Morgan, Nucky Thompson, Nancy Botwin, James "Sawyer" Ford, Archie Bunker, The Brain... they're all fun to watch. But all of them, sooner or later, get a little bit better. Even so-called sociopath Dexter, or hardened professional criminal Thompson, or the biggest of the bigots Archie Bunker! They all had, well into their careers, sympathizing moments wherein we were reminded, "These guys may have their problems, but we (the people behind the show) want you to like them. So here's a reason." And then we give them a dog, or make them stand up to the Klan, or tell their stepdaughters they love them. Not only does Breaking Bad go to no efforts to decriminalize Walter White, but it makes abundantly clear that the Walt we met in the pilot and the Walt we know now are like apples and stratus clouds. Walt started out with some understandable desperation and the intentions of providing for his family...but now, that's not what he's in this for. He's in it because he wants this life. It validates him. He wants the money, the power and the respect. His family is his second priority. He is willing to do more than what is necessary to preserve his desires. He has manipulated his friends and family and killed the innocent. Walter White is no longer an antihero. He's a villain. And the show does nothing ostensible to provoke us to "feel" for him, other than to portray him as completely and utterly raw as possible. And we eat it up. Not just because Walt is badass, but because Walt is humanity. We're desperate, selfish, prideful, constantly seeking validation. Breaking Bad isn't ashamed of a sincere, despicable, flawed humanity; it embraces it. And that is the biggest rule that this show never stops breaking.

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