Breaking Bad just ended its fourth season with an explosive finale – I am going to avoid mentioning any of the events that occurred so this will stay spoiler free – I just want to talk about how mad it made me. Being an avid fan of the show, I had high expectations for this season, but feared that it would not be able to live up to the standard set by the first three. What made me angry though, is how truly awesome this season’s episodes have been and how I now have to wait until next year for more. But that is not all – Breaking Bad’s qualities remind me of what disappoints so much about other TV shows: Vince Gilligan (the creator and primary writer) credits his characters with such intelligence and will never take an easy way out to maintain the status quo to prolong the life expectancy of the series.
In a previous piece, the schedule was such that it led to a comparison of Breaking Bad and Entourage – this time the show I watched immediately prior was Dexter – again it is an uneven matchup between the two. The Showtime series about a serial killer was fantastic to watch in the first season, but success was, in the end, its downfall. Since it became popular, the creators and network understandably want to prolong the run of the show – but this results in never changing the formula and taking no risks with character or plot development. The supporting cast in Dexter are only there to give some respite to Michael C. Hall in his portrayal of the title anti-hero – in Breaking Bad, those who first appeared to be light relief end up being complex characters and major players in the storyline (such as Hank or Saul).
If you examine the synopsis of the series without seeing any episodes, you would expect Bryan Cranston’s Walter White to be a more likeable character than Hall’s Dexter: the former, a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer starts cooking meth to provide for his family before his inevitable death; the latter, a serial killer who kills other serial killers. But the writers go out of their way to make Dexter someone the audience can get behind, whereas there are no such considerations for the protagonist in Breaking Bad. We all know what Walter has done and at this point he is a fairly unscrupulous guy, yet somehow we’re still rooting for him.
So, Breaking Bad has got me mad, for being so damn good – and soon it will end forever- which is how it should be, but why can’t other shows match its standards? Why has the only series that is better – The Wire, of course – also ended and thus I have no new episodes to anticipate? I have to accept the timely end of these shows- as they peak. If they petered out, like so many once-great shows (can you say The West Wing or 24), or if there was talk of a movie, or a new season (a la Arrested Development) their integrity would be compromised. Breaking Bad is so well written, well acted, superbly scored and keeps me guessing in all the right ways – I’m already missing it.
I acknowledge that it is not fair to compare these two shows; Breaking Bad is a serious drama, which has just aired three episodes unparalleled by any show other than The Wire, whereas Entourage is a light comedy that peaked in Season Two and has been devoid of new ideas ever since. Nevertheless, they have shared a time slot over the last few weeks and last night the contrast between them could not have been any more pronounced.
The series finale of Entourage ended exactly as everyone expected it world, with things working out for all of the characters: Turtle is a millionaire; Johnny Drama’s career is actually active and he has two projects on the go; Ari is back with his wife and they decide to move to Florence (which is now by the ocean, apparently); E and Sloane are back together and having a baby; Lloyd is a real agent with his own client; and, most ridiculously of all, Vince is getting married after one date with a woman who had previously shown nothing but indifference towards him – the 24 hour courtship completely unseen by the viewers. (For the record, I do not consider any of this a spoiler, because even the characters in the show commented on how everything always works out for them.) The very final scene, where Charles Widmore from Lost offers his own job to Ari, was just a way to reboot back to the status quo in time for the inevitable movie that will follow.
On-screen actions bear no consequences on Entourage, and indeed, most of T.V land. This is just the nature of the majority of shows; the audience demands neat, satisfactory endings for their favourite characters. The West Wing had us believe the American people would elect a President with Multiple Sclerosis, even if he had hidden that very important piece of information during his first campaign. Dexter reboots every season to ensure the same formula persists each year, with nobody figuring out the main character’s secret unless they are to be quickly dispatched. Networks are afraid to change something that is working, so they milk an idea for as long as they can and provide the audience with positive, all be it unrealistic, outcomes.
Well, not always – in the best shows, this is not the case. The Wire did not adhere to this principal, was much more true to life and showed the consequences of even the smallest action. (I could go on, but I already wrote a long love-letter to The Wire, which can be found here) Breaking Bad never forgets characters’ actions, nor does it take the easy way out. (If you are not fully up to date with Breaking Bad, watch it before reading on, Seasons 1-3 are now on Netflix Instant).
Breaking Bad’s protagonist, Walter White, is a bad guy – this much we know. He has done abhorrent things throughout the series, and I’m not even referring to the cooking of meth. Allowing Jane to die (in fact, being the reason she did) is perhaps tied with forcing Jesse to kill Gale for the worst of his actions, but the most despicable act came in last night’s episode “Bug”. Jesse stood up for ‘Mr. White’, telling Gus that if he was to kill Walt, he would have to kill him too. He has always shown loyalty, yet Walter still does not trust him, has bugged his car, and then berates him for failing to murder their boss. The fight between the two was just saddening. Jesse and Walt make unlikely partners, but they have been through so much together, and are in such a perilous position, that watching them turn on each other was genuinely painful. It says a lot about the no-holds-barred nature of the show that, at one point when Walt reached into his pocket, I expected him to be pulling out the gun he had bought at the beginning of the second episode of this season to actually shoot Jesse. The last time we saw the two of them fight, in the much missed Winnebago-slash-meth-lab, the clash ended with them checking if each other was okay. Last night, Jesse asks if Walt can walk, then tells him “get the fuck out and don’t ever come back”.
Another character’s misdeed returns with consequences in “Bug”, when Ted Beneke reappears with an investigation by the CID in tow. Skyler, who we witnessed laundering money moments before Ted’s arrival in the car wash, is now faced with being audited herself due to her connection to the Beneke accounts. Ted needs more than $600k to pay off his back taxes and is clearly unable to afford it himself. Not paying means that the scrutiny of the CID will remain and be widened to include his supposedly unqualified accountant. It is fairly certain Skyler will give Ted the money but we are left to wonder if she will tell him where it came from and/or tell Walter that she’s giving away money he has “earned”. Considering her revelations in the season 3 episode “I.F.T” (Skyler tells him “I Fucked Ted”), it is unlikely Walt will be in favour of such a move – although his pride might encourage him to be the one to bail out his wife’s former lover, so long as Ted knows he generated the money and nobody else.
Everyone is thinking on this show, and no stone is left unturned – when Hank retrieves the information from his tracking device that had been on Gus’ car, he does not retreat when it shows nothing more than a home to work commute and back
again for the entire week, Agent Schrader recognises the suspiciousness in this all too unsuspicious pattern. Further digging has led him to the distribution centre, resulting in a thorough cleaning operation for Mike, Jesse and, fatally, thanks to the cartel, another of Gus’ employees. When he finds nothing there, expect Hank to discover the existence of the laundry factory, where the super meth lab is. Hank may play the fool and sing along to “Eye of the Tiger” in the car, but there is no doubting his expert investigative instincts. He is a formidable opponent for Gus, Mike, and indeed his brother-in-law, Walter. I, for one, cannot wait for this to play out to its inevitably messy but brilliant end.
Two shows, one where all the characters make dumb decisions with no consequences, the other that credits its players with great intelligence, and leaves no action without an often horrible reaction.