Breaking Buds: Two Friends Talk TV Drama

By Killian Walsh '14 and Laurette Siler '14

It’s the eve of Breaking Bad’s final season. The last eight episodes are set to air tonight and we’ll finally get to see the story of Walter White played out to its grisly conclusion, which, knowing this show, will be especially grisly. In order to prepare for the wind down to one of the most highly-anticipated final seasons in recent memory, I’ll be discussing the show, as well as several prestigious shows that have preceded and influenced this one, with my good friend Laurette Siler. She has not has seen all of the shows in question, and this is actually her first time using Google Documents. So, be warned. Chaos and spoilers will most definitely ensue.

KW: So you just spent the last few days-or-so re-watching the first half of Season 5. Is there anything you’re looking forward to seeing resolved from that build-up, or anything you expect from the final season as a whole?

 (Photo Credit: TVLine/USA Today)

 (Photo Credit: TVLine/USA Today)

LS:  What I’ve loved from the get-go with this show is that I look forward to and dread everything.  Also, I never have any idea what to expect.  That’s a really boring answer, but it’s true.  I guess I’m the most interested to see where Walter and Jesse’s relationship will go.  Will redemption and forgiveness even come up or will this be some kind of Coen Bros-esque shitshow?

KW: And, more importantly, if Walt Jr. will be served the breakfast he most certainly deserves.

LS: That and how did the rest of Hank’s time consuming shit go?

KW: Vince Gilligan said, half-serious, that since the show is so committed to realism in a lot of ways, or a realistic portrayal of things, that they debated including a ‘poo-drop’ sound at that moment. But, you know, they figured it might take away from the dramatic impact. Not talking about the deuce drop, either. Also, I’m excited for, like, the moment Hank comes out of the bathroom. I don’t know if we’re going to see that tonight, but the idea of him making his way back to that patio party without beating the everloving shit out of Walter excites me.

LS: I think we’ll definitely experience the tension of Hank’s trek to the patio with him.  Everyone is dying to know what will happen next and the way that that first step is handled will be really important in setting the tone for the rest of the season.  I’d be surprised if we didn’t pick up exactly where the first half stopped off.  Hank’s going to have to be a cool cat if he wants to nail Walter and protect Marie, Skyler, and the kids.

KW: I’ve been reading some fan theories recently--the non-crazy kind--and protecting the White clan might not be too far off for Hank’s larger purpose this season. This particular theory noticed that, each time Walter killed someone, he took up some of their affectations and habits. I can’t remember all of them, but after Gus is killed, he buys the same make of car Gus drives, takes a drink on the rocks with Hank after dispatching Hitman Mike (when he previously ordered drinks neat, notably in the scene where Mike knocks him on his ass). So, if you’ll remember from the opening scene from last season, he’s arranging his birthday breakfast all by himself, having taken up Skyler’s maiden name. Coincidence? Probably. But I wouldn’t put it past Walt at this point to kill his wife, either by accident or in a fit of rage. One reason this doesn’t seem too far-fetched is that the show has always focused on minutiae, like Walt seeing the painting of the man rowing out to sea (which he first saw after receiving his diagnosis) while he met with the Neo-Nazis in the motel. Then there’s the whole color scheme of the show and what that says about different characters and situations, as well as the increased attention to symbolic lighting as the series went on.

LS: All of these theories concerning subtle patterns as clues to the ultimate ending of the series speaks to the brilliance of the writing in general.  I’ve also been looking around at fan theories and all I can think about is how Vince and the gang must be enthralled by the excitedly paranoid ramblings of bloggers and whatever other kind of internet talkers there are.  I mean, you just listed at least four huge thematic subtleties that could totally have a lot to do with how it all plays out, but maybe there are red herrings in there.  We’ll know in 6 weeks.  However, I like the thought of Walt as some kind of soul-eating chameleon.  At the same time, you could probably make that argument for Jesse as well, based on his disturbed personal renaissance after shooting our beloved Gale in the face.  At the end of the day, I don’t think that two or three years is a long enough period of time to grow from a worm to a super cold, Tony Montana monster.  He might feel pretty great right now, but I think Walt has a lot of lives on his hands and he’s going to have to get in touch with his humanity again or die trying.  Vince Gilligan actually recently brought up the issue of Walt’s descent into evil during a round table interview with the New York Times.  His goal was always to watch that descent and force the audience to change their minds about him, as he turns into someone no one really wants to hang out with let alone sympathize with his struggle .  Yet, a lot of people do still like him.  Are you one of those people, Killian?

KW: Oh hell no. My dad is, though, and when I watched the show with him, I got kind of scared by how excited he was getting over Walter’s climb. I think the ease with which this guy makes the transition from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” is really just him showing his true nature through success. Walt’s a prideful son-of-a-bitch, whether it’s his refusal to join up with Grey Matter because of girl troubles, or his repeated refusal to get out of the meth business altogether despite the increasingly high stakes for staying in it, and those examples just speak to the guy’s overwhelming desire for power and prestige. And to address Vince Gilligan’s excitement about this kind of discussion, he did a fantastic interview recently on the Nerdist podcast where he said that he felt like a kid on Christmas Eve, simply because he was so excited to see what would happen after the season aired, the kind of reception it would receive. He’s also mentioned that he cried writing the last episode, and that all those involved seem to think it’s a fitting end for the show. So whatever happens to Walt will likely be very satisfying--good or bad. This would be in contrast to a show whose ending tended to upset its audience, and a show which Vince Gilligan said had inspired Breaking Bad, HBO’s The Sopranos. Without going on too long, I’ve been rewatching Sopranos and seeing similar grace notes in its story carried over to Breaking Bad. Questions about the American Dream, crime, wealth, and blonde housewives have come up in both shows. Why do you think these things make for compelling TV?

LS:  For starters, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos are successful for audiences (regardless of all your standard categorizations of people) for the same reason: they take ridiculous situations that most people, unless they are involved in the business end of a massive methamphetamine drug ring or the Italian mafia, can’t relate to and make them almost approachable.  I’m also a huge Sopranos fan and I love getting into arguments about the ethics of Tony Soprano’s behavior in particular.  This is a man who has been acculturated into a very specific culture of violence and what makes him likable is his willingness to explore his past as a weakness, beginning with a series of panic attacks that drive him to delve deeper into his loss of emotional capacity (or, rather untouched emotional angst).  On the other hand, Breaking Bad’s Walter White seems to function on the opposite trajectory.  I was just thinking the other day about what it would be like to find out that my high school chemistry teacher was making more money than he could spend “in 10 lifetimes” through his journey from street cooker to kingpin.  Walter only has experience with his own version of the world of drug sales; this is not an issue of a man being trapped in a culture of violence and danger.  Instead, to borrow a phrase, he is the danger.  He becomes a violent character because of his experiences as being fearful and weak, making him a prime subject for reinvention through brutality.  Both characters hate themselves to an extent, but they differ in what they see will make them “better.”  For Tony, that’s regaining humanity.  For Walt, that’s an abandonment of weakness.  These kinds of character development frameworks have been done before (ex. Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone vs. Al Pacino’s Tony Montana), but that does not mean, by any means, that this inversion will ever become bland.  

KW: At the same time, I think both characters embody a kind of dilemma between choice and fate--Tony because of his history and obligations to Omerta; Walt because of his financial needs and looming death from inoperable cancer. Both of these forces drive each of them to make poor moral choices, and each show goes to great lengths showing that the choices they make are indeed piss-poor and have extreme consequences, despite what these men may tell themselves. Walt pushes onward because he convinces himself that however much money he makes will never be enough, and internally because his pride won’t let him. Tony deludes himself into thinking that his choices are made for him, that he’s bound by a lifestyle which has surrounded him from birth, when time and time again the show calls up other lifestyles he could have pursued: baseball, witness protection, etc. There’s even that episode where he imagines another life while in a coma, where he’s an insurance salesman with none of the tact, bravado, and power the mafioso Tony has in his real life. And the price both of these men pay for resigning themselves to a so-called fate is the loss of their family, and very possibly the loss of their life. And I think in both of these shows this conflict of character is paralleled with the pursuit of the American Dream, that more or less these men have bought into the idea that the fruits of these wicked actions are things they must accomplish, as opposed to things that they only might accomplish at great cost. This tug-of-war between morality is, I think, in addition to what you’ve said about fantastical escapism, what gives these shows a lot of their character, and it’s something the purportedly gritty Ray Donovan on Showtime has really missed in trying to replicate The Sopranos’ and Breaking Bad’s success. You haven’t seen that show, have you?

LS:  Watching a whole lot of Dexter, I’ve seen the promotional ads for Ray Donovan, but thought it looked pretty over-the-top.  I do, however, love me some Liev Schrieber.  So, maybe someday...

KW: It’s really bad. Like, crazy bad. Worse than any of the recent seasons of Californication. I mean, if watching Elliott Gould hallucinate, Jon Voight dance and do a lot of blow, and Liev brood his way around various L.A. apartments is your bag, get on it. But it makes me so mad because whoever’s writing that show is trying so hard to make Ray Donovan (Schrieber) a conflicted and seemingly amoral character like Walter and Tony. Except in Ray Donovan this is done with a lot of staring, mumbling, and punching people in the face. And they’re doing the whole ‘play a 60s R&B song over someone getting the shit kicked out of them or murdered’ thing all wrong.

LS: We can all thank Stanley Kubrick for that contrast.

KW: Alright, well I think we’ve covered a lot of ground today, grown as persons, indulged our pop culture fanaticisms more than enough for people reading this to roll their eyes out of their sockets. Is there anything else you want to add or talk about?     

LS:  Just that, for the record, I hope Jesse and Walt Jr. somehow team up or at least make it out of the show alive.  Vince has left me with two likeable characters and I really hope they don’t get fucked up more than they already have.  That’s all.

KW: Well we know that just isn’t going to be the case. This show’s got a two child body count. Oh well!