The Atlantic Wire has turned to two recappers who've never seen Breaking Bad before to put fresh eyes on what some (including the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences) have called the best show on television. Here's what the show looks like to them.
When I began this assignment I considered watching a bit of a chore. But as I settled into watch the penultimate episode in the wee hours of this morning, I realized I was actually excited. Perhaps that's because the Emmys ceremony, which I watched in lieu of the episode last night, was so frustrating. Perhaps it's because the show actually has really sucked me in. Who knows?
Admittedly, the episode was a bit of a let down after last week's crazy outing, but that's understandable. The finale is probably going to be an insane blow out and the show needed a calm before the storm. (Plus, it was helpful that for those of us who had to watch the Emmys there weren't that many people tweeting "OMG" at any particular moment.)
Where this episode struck me was where I felt it actively try to shift my sympathies toward Walt. At the end of "Ozymandias" Walt was a monster—even if the nasty phone call to Skyler was a ploy. Here, he's a sick, lonely man isolated from his family, and the rest of civilization, as he hides out from the authorities. Of course, there's no real reason to feel bad for Walt. He's a criminal—who clearly wants to continue to be a criminal, putting on his Heisenberg hat only to be felled by sickness—and his family is probably better off without him. But it's hard not to feel even a little bad for a guy who has to pay someone just to keep him company. Meanwhile, with Walt holed up, the Neo-Nazis were doing unconscionable things. (Jesse's poor girlfriend. Ugh.)
I was (almost) with Walt as he trekked to the bar to get in touch with his son, but I was quickly brought back to reality upon hearing Junior's reaction. Yes, this man wants to help his family, but look what he did to them. By the end of the episode I'm fully in the Walt is a jerk camp again.
Now my question is whether Walt goes out with pathos. We'll see next week.
Just as Skyler White appeared on-screen for the first time in last night's episode, the actress that plays the role was winning an Emmy for doing so. She was the only individual winner, though the show, as you know, took home the little trophy for best drama. Bryan Cranston lost to Jeff Daniels (hm), and Aaron Paul lost to everyone, I assume. Like normally they probably don't write who came in last, but I suspect on that one, the envelope read "Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire (also Aaron Paul came in last)." Ha ha, of course it didn't, since he won last year, and since the last four winners of the lead actor in a comedy award have come from Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, so we can feel confident that quality isn't the lodestar for these people.
Here's my question as an increasingly-not-new-Breaking-Bad newbie: Why isn't this Jesse Plemons guy (Nazi sympathizer Todd) the one being nominated? Comparing his subtle, non-obvious acting with Paul makes the latter's overwrought hamminess even more obvious. (Not to mention the woman who plays Marie, and — honestly — most of the other people besides Cranston.) He's great! Sympathetically creepy in the way I expected Walter White to be, but I gather he's past that point in his relationship with the audience. You know who should get a spin-off? Todd.
But instead the corny lawyer is getting a spin-off, as we were reminded in a little bait-and-switch from the cliffhanger last week. Walter drives off into the week-long hiatus in the back of a minivan; the lawyer pulls up outside a vacuum cleaner store a week later. "Hey, hey!" he yelled comically, "What's happening!" (laugh track) "Well, lawyer," the vacuum cleaner guy said. "You're headed to Nebraska." "Nebraska? Well, here we go again!" Flashes a quick grin, breaking the fourth wall, and the screen fades to black as we hear the studio audience doing that Arsenio woo-woo-woo thing. (N.B.: This didn't actually happen. But have we seen the last of the lawyer, until a jerry-rigged propane truck drops him off in Omaha? Eh, who knows.)
At least something happened to the lawyer. Walter White started the episode in hiding; he ended it in hiding somewhere else. Jesse started the episode imprisoned; he ended it imprisoned, minus one former girlfriend. Skyler started the episode surrounded by cops; she ended it surrounded by cops. The plot didn't advance very much did it? We were promised by the hyperactive, hyperventilating Aaron Paul that these last two episodes would be "so much more messier." Than … ? Last night's episode didn't seem to do a whole lot, did it? There was one little mess on a front porch — carried ably by Jesse Plemons, who is very good! — but that's about it. Maybe Paul meant the New Hampshire snow? I don't know. Oh, also Jesse revealed that he is a world class athlete, able to open a heavy metal grating while dangling by his hands and then somehow catapulting himself through the opening he created. That could also be a good spin-off, and would really give Paul's Twitter emoji skills a workout.
Look, Breaking Bad is entertaining. There are good performances, a nice complexity to the plots (if, at times, an excess of complexity for complexity's sake). But there's something weird about the obsessive cheerleading surrounding the show, and something tacky about AMC's back-patty, did-you-see-what-we-did insistence on it. Here's the hashtag you should use! Stay tuned for the after show! We're having a marathon all week! Don't forget to try our second-screen experience! AMC as the high school football star shortly before heading off to college, wanting to make sure everyone comes to the last game and brings signs.
It was weirdly parallel to another such farewell tour: Sunday's coronation of Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera in the Bronx. New York (well, the New York media) has been seized in paroxysms of adulation for months, selling billions of newspapers with Rivera's picture. The Yankees had a special ceremony; everyone got all excited. But this weird sort of cultural insistence that people acknowledge how great Rivera was — SAY IT. SAY HE WAS GREAT. — seems a little insecure. Likewise with Breaking Bad. It is a good show, and there aren't a lot of good shows on TV. But for God's sake, America, get a grip. The Yankees will live without Rivera, though hopefully they will win less. AMC will live without Breaking Bad, though they'll earn less in ad revenue. We force ourselves into these wringers of agreement, squeezing out every tiny bit of everything we like, breaking our favorite things into pieces small enough to dissolve on our tongues. And the advertisers are super happy to play along.
All of which is my way of saying: This is going to be a long week.