Cousins, Critically: Breaking Bad Season 1

Today I am joined by my cousin M. Liam Moore who is another amateur television enthusiast. We have been rewatching Breaking Bad in anticipation of its final season’s return on August 11. We hope to dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner in new feature we call “Cousins, Critically.”

J.T. Moore: Let me start by saying that I think that Breaking Bad is one of the greatest television shows of all time. Walter White’s journey into badness is one of the most compelling tales to ever grace the medium, and I think it will stand the test of time. The writing, direction, and acting of the show (among many, many other things) all combine to make something so entirely great I am sometimes unable to fathom it. But the question I always seem to ask myself is if the first season is as good as Breaking Bad is able to be. The pilot is a very good pilot. It catches the viewer’s interest, establishes what needs to be established, and ultimately serves as a window into the show’s quirks and rhythms, which are entirely necessary to understand the show itself. Written and directed by Vince Gilligan, (the show’s creator and showrunner) the pilot effectively shows who Walter White is, and what his intentions are. Bryan Cranston also gives a very good performance in the pilot as Mr. White (which he won an Emmy for) and there are also some good spots of Aaron Paul’s Jesse.

The biggest problem I found with the pilot, and with most of the first season is the rest of the supporting characters, because they aren’t incredibly well defined. Dean Norris’ Hank rubs off as a douchey, meathead brother-in-law. Betsy Brandt’s Marie is the standard, passive aggressive sister. Anna Gunn’s Skyler seems like a fairly weak and oblivious housewife. I know this is a pilot, and it is very hard to create great and convincing characters (which most of Breaking Bad‘s supporting characters have turned into) right off the bat, but something about them seems off… Maybe this is essential for Walt’s story, and he has to stand up to his brother-in-law, and sneak around his oblivious wife, but throughout the season they didn’t seem like the characters I know and love.

Otherwise, I didn’t find that much wrong with the first season. There are some standout episodes (“…And the Bags in the River,” “Crazy Handful of Nothin,” “A No-Rough-Stuff Type Deal”) in the abbreviated 7 episode season. I don’t think it’s Breaking Bad at its best, but it is still very, very good television. I remember when I first watched the season, I expected greatness because Breaking Bad was BREAKING FUCKING BAD, and this may be why I think so highly of the season. Or maybe it’s just great television… M. Liam, what are your thoughts of the season as a whole? Did you like it as much as I did, or just feel bad afterwards?

M. Liam Moore: It feels awfully good to be guest blogging on Aweful Writing. Thanks for including me, J.T. I’m already enjoying our Breaking Bad binge, and I’m excited to swap reactions with someone else who doesn’t mind sucking all the fun out of TV by overanalyzing, deconstructing and contextualizing it episode by episode. TV rots your brain only if you let it, right? Or if you watch The Big Bang Theory.

Speaking of science, am I the only one who thought the season we just watched got a little too MacGyver-ish? Twice, by my count, our man Walt gets himself out of impossible situations by throwing around chemicals. I was half expecting Crazy 8 to get loose in Jesse’s basement so we could watch Walt kill him using nothing but an empty beer can, his nausea meds and the uneaten crusts of a bologna sandwich. “Yeah, science!” as Jesse would say.

This season strikes me as a very BREAKING FUCKING BAD season of Breaking Bad. It doesn’t drag or mope. It’s jam packed with violence, drug use and action. And how many times to we hear testicles referenced? On the surface this is fist-pumping, engine-revving, loogie-hocking TV that – let’s call a spade a spade – is probably only on TV in the first place because it appeals most obviously to men 18-49. (You’ll get there soon enough, kid.)

Of course, it’s also jam-packed with thematic material, most of which Vince Gilligan offers up with all the subtlety of a one-liner from Hank. (My favorite so far: “Does the Pope shit in his hat?”) This is the reason you’ll get no argument from me when you say Breaking Bad is among of the greatest TV series of all time. It’s clear from the pilot onward that this show has something to say, and the writers are skilled enough at their craft to say it and tell a compelling story at the same time. Breaking Bad is standing on the shoulders of those weighty, Big Picture cable dramas – like The Sopranos and The Wire – that deal in themes and ideas, mythology and morality. This show has depth. I’m anxious to hear what you think about how the first season sets up that Big Picture stuff.

JTM: There is definitely a lot of big picture stuff set up in the pilot. One of my favorite lines from the pilot is when Walt is teaching in his chemistry class. When introducing the topic of chemistry he states that, “Chemistry is the study of change. It’s growth, then decay, then transformation.” I think this line sums up perfectly what Breaking Bad is going to be, as it serves as an introduction to where Walt’s character is headed. 

From what we have seen so far there is certainly a lot of growth which has occurred in the first season. Walt started out as this pathetic, middle-aged and sad man who could barely keep up with his life. Then everything changed when he found out he had cancer. Now, the cancer itself may technically be “decay,” but I think it is actually the catalyst needed to start Walt’s growth. A lot of this growth happens in the season’s 6th episode “Crazy Handful of Nothin” which is a seminal episode of not only the season, but the series as a whole. Walt gains more confidence by shaving his head, and going out on the street to strike a masterfully handled deal with Tuco. After he does this in a very exciting fashion, Walt celebrates and there is obvious growth. There are also other signs of growth throughout the season, such as a strengthened relationship with Skyler, and more confidence when interacting with Hank.

I think this precise and set out character journey will be very interesting to follow. Having previously watched the entire series, I know the definitive point where “transformation” sets in, but am nervous to see where decay really starts. M. Liam, do you think I am overanalyzing a simple line from the pilot, or do you think this is true? Does any of this really constitute as growth?

MLM: If Mr. White offers a chemistry lesson, I bank on it being a metaphor for something. The second episode’s lesson in chirality – two molecules looking the same but acting as mirror opposites – illuminates the duality that defines Walt’s character. He’s Mr. Chips and Scarface in the same body. I also loved the flashback that opens Episode 3, with Walt and Gretchen flirtatiously putting together the puzzle of elements that make up the human body, that are essential to human life. The scene is echoed so brilliantly when Walt, putting together the pieces of Crazy 8’s broken plate, realizes an “element” is missing and he’s going to have to take a human life. (Random question: Do houses in Albuquerque even have basements?)

Your theory that “growth-decay-transformation” is the big, beautiful, overarching path for Walt’s character is spot on. I’m definitely going to keep that in mind as the series unfolds. Here’s where I disagree with you: While I see some growth from Walt in the first season, I see much more character decay. You say Walt gains confidence; I’m not sure Walt ever lacked confidence. I think what he lacked before the cancer was control. When it’s finally his turn to hold the talking pillow – and that was, for me, the best scene of the season – Walt says, “My entire life, it just seems like I never really had a say.” Walt’s growth in Season 1 (beyond the cancer that is killing him) comes in seizing control of his life, whatever is left of it.

What he does with that control, however, does not constitute growth. You say Walt’s character is pathetic and sad at the start of the series. I see a guy living up to his responsibilities within the legal and societal confines of his community, a guy trying to set a positive example for his son, a guy living in an equal and honest partnership with his spouse. Boring, sure. But pathetic? (Please don’t tell me what you think of my life, J.T.!) I’m equally clueless as to how Walt’s relationship with Skyler – beyond some lustful sex scenes – could be growing stronger during Season 1. If I were going to start cooking meth, my wife would expect to be consulted … and rightfully so.

No, Walt’s decision to take control of his own destiny begins the process of character decay. It turns him into a compulsive liar, a murderer, a thief and a drug dealer. What’s worse, Walt fully understands the devastating societal impact of his actions. “I don’t want to see them,” he says to Jesse of the addicts who will buy his meth. But Walt can’t avoid watching as Hugo, hoisting the American flag, is arrested on suspicion of the crime Walt committed. Even when confronted with the wake of destruction his new path is leaving – the “chemical reaction,” so to speak – Walt fails to change course. I suppose that’s what makes our protagonist an anti-hero?

JTM: Walt’s decay has definitely helped streamline the process of becoming an anti-hero. What makes him one is that, like you said, he knows what he’s doing and what the impacts of his actions will be, and doesn’t stop them. Yet, we can’t help but feel for him in a sense because he’s acting from a somewhat relatable point in his life. As Walt takes control (through both of his meetings with Tuco) he knowingly descends into darkness and decay. On top of all of this he has to live a “normal” family life at home, which forces him to deal with his wife and kid. I said that Walt’s relationship with Skyler had been strengthened by the end of the season because of the fact that they started out distant from each other. Now that Walt is forced to come in contact with her, their relationship might not be “strengthened,” but something is clearly different (even if it comes from him lying to her face).

As Walt becomes badder throughout the season, his story becomes all the more compelling. To see a man who was previously being bossed around by a jerk manager working at a car wash transform into a ruthless figure who can go face to face with an even more ruthless drug lord is incredible. What is even more incredible is that this happens over the course of seven episodes. Compared to most serialized cable dramas, the amount of ground that is covered in this first season is unbelievable.

MLM: Indeed, I’m imagining some very difficult decisions in the writers’ room. Someone must have insisted on letting us see Walt telling Skyler he has cancer, right? But we never do. Better to be concise and impactful than lengthy and exhaustive.

I know we’ll have plenty to say about Skyler and Walt’s relationship in coming seasons, but it’s important to note the shifting balance of power. Walt, by making unilateral (criminal) decisions, has seized all the control – a point driven home by his newfound sexual aggressiveness. Gender is so key to a critical viewing of Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan’s protagonist is becoming a “man” in the most regressive, American sense of the word. He’s John Fucking Wayne. “I just tried my best to be a man,” Darondo sings as Episode 4 ends. “Grow some fucking balls,” Walt sneers at Jesse in Episode 6. This show is very much about the archetypal American male, and it’s not a flattering portrait. (That goofy black hat doesn’t help.)

I also think Breaking Bad might be the most politically subversive show on TV, but health care reform is a kettle of fish perhaps best left for another season’s review.

I’ll leave you with this: Have you seen Goodfellas? Because the season-ending scene in which Tuco kills his bodyguard struck me as an awesome homage to Joe Pesci’s “funny like a clown” scene from the classic gangster flick. Never break a wise guy’s balls, yo.

JTM: Ah, yes the gangster movie influence. It’s something essential to Breaking Bad‘s DNA, and will become much, much clearer in the coming seasons.

But all in all, this is a great start to a great show. You have found so many things to latch on to that I never would have thought of. The show has so much built into it, only in its first seven episodes! On many occasions Vince Gilligan has stated that he’s glad The Writers Strike cut the season short because the writers didn’t think they had a handle on the show. But I can’t imagine a bad episode of Breaking Bad. I’m very glad this show exists, and that we can talk so much about. I’m even gladder to start rewatching the second season, because if memory serves it’s really damn good. As Tuco himself would say, this show is tight, tight, tight!

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Taking Care of Don Draper: The Essential 6th Season of Mad Men

Now that season 6 of Mad Men is finally over, we are now able to fully understand what it means. At first, it seemed like the season was droning along, focusing on boring subplots about Don Draper and another woman, and nothing really seemed to happen. Then, SCDP and CGC merged into a super-agency, and things started to pick up. By the time the season had ended things weren’t great for the characters. The merger had created failed relationships, bad pitches, and even perplexing drug trips. Season 6 may have been unpleasant to watch unfold, but in the end it turns out that it is absolutely essential to the series as a whole.

One of the most important things about Mad Men is its themes. Matt Weiner (the show’s creator and showrunner) has found a way to master storytelling, and build incredible amounts of thematic subject matter into each episode. As always, theme was incredibly important in the 6th season. The most important theme of the season was that the world is a circle and that history will always continue to repeat itself.

The most apparent example of this is Bob Benson, who in the beginning of the season was a mysterious figure, who always kept popping up with coffee and gleefully wearing spectacular shorts. He seemed like he could cause no harm, but as the season continued things became clear about the character. In the season’s penultimate episode “The Quality of Mercy,” Pete Campbell found out, yet again, that a coworker was not what they seemed to be. Yes, Bob Benson turned out to be Don Draper 2.0 and Pete realized that he could do nothing about it, again. This realization of Bob shows the true thematic nature of the world, which is that bad things are always going to repeat themselves, no matter how one tries to break the cycle. For the most part of the season, Bob emulated the very early Don Draper which we saw in season 4’s “Waldorf Stories.” Don was a go-getter who actually cared about his job, but he soon became a sad, manipulative Mad Man. Bob showed signs of this change in “In Care Of” the 6th season’s finale, where he forced Pete to try to drive the Chevy, only ending in failure and misery. Again, Bob has made us see who Don really is. In “The Quality of Mercy” Don manipulates Ted and Peggy in a pitch, in the same cold manner Bob did to Pete.

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There was even more circling in repetition in season 6, when Don became involved with his neighbor Sylvia. Many viewers complained about this subplot and found it boring, redundant or unnecessary, but in reality it is the most necessary plot within the entire season. Sylvia had a very specific purpose within the season, which was to show Don and the viewer (if it wasn’t already clear) that he was a monster. From the beginning of the season’s opener “The Doorway” until the 11th episode “Favors” Don had some form of a relationship with Sylvia. A very important part in this relationship is found in the season’s 7th episode “Man With A Plan” where Don forced Sylvia to stay in a hotel room alone for an incredibly long amount of time. This showed the ugliness of Don’s true character to not only Sylvia, but also the viewer.

As Sylvia and the audience started to distance themselves from Don, things didn’t get any better. As suspected, they got worse as the two found each other again in “Favors.” Not only did the two find each other, but also Sally found them both together. This emotionally destroyed Sally and her trust in her father, which eventually destroyed Don himself. When she told Don that he made her sick, some sort of realization started to come alive in him. This was furthered when at the end of “The Quality of Mercy” Peggy (the second most important woman in his life) told him that he was “a monster.” In the long run, Sylvia was absolutely essential to Don’s self-realization. Without her, Don would still be lost in his cycle of awfulness, causing harm to all around him.

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Don continued to learn more about himself throughout “In Care Of.” In the last pitch of the season, Don tells a nostalgic story about the Hershey’s bar. Immediately this story echo’s his Carousel pitch from the first season’s finale “The Wheel,” but it later becomes clear that it is fake. Don realizes that he is a fake, and is selling lies like a monster, so he decides to tell the truth about his childhood. This results in some of the most powerful minutes of television in 2013, and one of Jon Hamm’s shining moments in his performance as Don. Instead of continuing his cycle as living life like a monster, Don tries to break it and cleanse himself. The initial sweet pitch for a sweet candy bar soon becomes very upsetting for the Hershey executives, the viewer, and Don himself.

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Don’s self-realization is aided by many more things throughout the finale. When he steals Stan’s idea about moving to California and setting up shop, Stan tears into him showing him his true outrage. Don is also torn apart by Meagan, a wife who once used to feel something for him. In the end, Don is left with various broken relationships. His daughter feels disillusioned, his protegé feels used, and he is one broken-down man. To top this all off, Don finds that his plan to escape from his problems and flee to California has been denied, and he is ultimately forced to take time off from work. By breaking down and punishing Don, he is left to only do one thing: live his life in a new way.

By forcing Don to change, Matt Weiner has retroactively changed the course of not only Don’s character, but Mad Men itself. When Don decides to take his children to the whorehouse where he grew up, he shows signs of growth and change. This is something completely unexpected of the series, and has only made it better. Season six has not only defined who Don Draper is, but has defined the world he is living in. Weiner has shown both sides of Don’s life and his world, taking the good with the bad. Now that Don is emotionally destroyed, the character and the show only can go up. None of this would have been possible without season 6, and even if it was unpleasant to watch at times, as a whole it is incredibly gratifying. One can only imagine what Don the series would be without this season, as it is absolutely essential. Maybe something like that house?

Hannibal is the Most Important Show on TV

In today’s modern television landscape there are far too many shows which focus on violent crimes and serial killers. Every channel has their own spin on the genre, being CBS’s Criminal Minds and CSI‘s, NBC’s various Law and Order‘s, Fox’s recent hit (a horrifying fact) The Following, and even AMC’s The Killing. The bottom line is that violence and murder are everywhere on television today, which is a problem, to say the least. These types of shows are deplorable because they are set out to a specific track within their run. First, they provoke the viewer with their subject matter. Then, they sensationalize that subject matter. And finally, they end up exploiting the viewer. However, there is one show which is focused on serial killers and violence that is different from all of its counterparts, which is NBC’s Hannibal.

At the time when Hannibal premiered, it seemed like television needed anything but another serial killer show. After the show premiered, that perception was changed drastically. What became apparent after the pilot aired was that the show really knew how to approach its subject matter. The show did indeed provoke, (the pilot’s first crime investigated was a series of young women mounted onto stags’ heads) but it did not sensationalize. The crimes and images shown were extremely disturbing, but instead of glorifying them, the show used them to their advantage. With conscious awareness that the show’s subject matter was extremely disturbing, Bryan Fuller (the show’s creator and showrunner) approached the subject matter in a wildly different way than expected: with empathy.

Hannibal’s main character, FBI Special Agent Will Graham (played wonderfully by Hugh Dancy) has what the show calls an empathy disorder. With his empathy disorder, Will is able to put himself in the place of the murderers he is investigating and empathize with them. By doing this, Will figures out who they really are. Because of this unique approach to storytelling, the show is able to investigate its subject matter through an unflinching perspective and present it in an intelligent way. As Will is forced to investigate more and more crimes, he begins to hurt. Through this depiction, murder and violence is shown to really have an impact on a person. Instead of being a crime-fighting machine like one you would see on CSICriminal Minds, or The Following, Will shows signs of stress and uneasiness as he continues to be hurt by the cases he is investigating. This ultimately demonstrates that he is a real human being with real emotions. Instead of treating the subject matter lightly, the show is aware of its thematic weight and uses it to its advantage.

As Will begins to hurt more and more by the things he is experiencing, the viewer hurts with him. From the first episode on Will is damaged. Throughout the entire first season he is plagued by visions of Garret Jacob Hobbs, a man he killed in the pilot. The more and more Hobbs appears in visions the viewer hurts more for Will, because it is clear that he will not be getting better. In the first season’s 5th episode “Coquilles” (known as the infamous “skin angels” episode) Will remarks that it is getting harder for him to look at the crimes. This statement is one that resonates very much with the viewer because we feel exactly the same as he does, and it shows the amount of pain Will is really in. Will hits his most damaged point in the first season’s 10th episode “Buffet Froid” (one of the most unsettling episodes of television I have ever experienced) which gives acute insight into what damage has been done to Will. As the viewer finally sees this damage we are extremely hurt and disturbed, and consequently provided with an immense amount of thematic weight.

Of course, none of this thematic weight would be achieved without Hugh Dancy’s performance as Will Graham. The writing on the show is particularly good, but the performance is what really sells it. Because Dancy is such a talented actor, his performance as Will translates the raw emotion which the character is feeling beautifully. With this performance, the viewer is able to really see what has been done to Will, and ultimately ends up empathizing with him. It’s hard to find real characters who feel real emotions in network dramas (especially crime procedurals), but somehow Dancy has given us one.

It’s not only Dancy himself who is doing terrific, Emmy worthy work on the show. Lawrence Fishburne (playing Jack Crawford, Will’s boss) and Caroline Dhavernas (as Dr. Alana Bloom, a profiler for the FBI)  especially resonate with the viewer through their performances. Both react to everything which Will is experiencing in nervous and cautious ways, as the viewer would. Dhavernas’s performance in particular is a beautiful piece of understated and subtle acting, and throughout this performance she shows how the world around Will has been impacted.

It would be very remiss of me to not mention the man himself, Mads Mikkelsen playing Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Even though Mikkelsen is giving a truly great and sinister performance, the show isn’t really about him. Even though the show’s name is in fact Hannibal, Dr. Lecter is more of supporting character in Will’s journey. This truly brings home the fact that Hannibal is not a murder obsessed serial killer show, but instead a complex and emotional journey of one man who has been deeply affected by violence.

Because of all this, Hannibal is probably the most important show on TV. When other shows take a heavy-handed and exploitative approach to violence and serial killers, they demonstrate how good Hannibal really is. Hannibal does feature instances of extreme graphic violence, but instead of glorifying it, it uses it to its advantage. There is real thinking which takes place within the shows creation and the characters themselves. The show cares deeply about its intelligent characters, and their complex emotions. Hannibal knows how to approach its subject matter, and has executed it successfully every chance it has gotten. In the end, nobody really wants to watch a show about serial killers and murder, but if these types of shows are going to be so damn popular, we’re going to need one like Hannibal.

Cherishing the Good Old Days: How to View a Sitcom

It’s no secret that in the entire history of television, shows have overstayed their welcome. Most sitcoms hit their prime in their early years or midpoint, and their quality finds a downward trend from then on. This creates something very bad, which is a poor perception of the show as a whole by the viewer. A show’s early, golden years will be undermined by the more inferior years, and viewer will think less of the show as a whole. This is something that should not be done, because a show’s legacy should not be able to be tarnished by its later and poorer seasons.

The prime example of this is The Simpsons. The show has been running for around 24 years, hitting its 25th this upcoming season. Everyone who has watched the show can agree that within the show’s first 9 to 10 years, it was at its best. These seasons of television contain some of not only the show’s, but the mediums best moments. However, paired with those great moments are 14 or 15 seasons of The Simpsons, whose quality ranges from good to mediocre. This may seem like an insurmountable quantity of mediocre television, but really, it takes nothing away from The Simpsons as a whole. Just because there are 15 seasons of Homer getting into unamusing situations, doesn’t mean that “Homers Enemy” isn’t a great episode of television. Poor Marge-centric episodes from more recent seasons will take nothing away from “Marge vs. the Monorail.” The Simpsons is an incredible achievement in television, and just because it is unable to churn out great episodes like it used to doesn’t mean that it isn’t one of the, if not the greatest comedy series of all time.

Another great example of this is the U.S. version of The Office. From seasons 2 to 5, this show was one of the best shows on TV, but like all sitcoms, it fell off a cliff in its 6th year after the great “Niagara.” Post “Niagara” episodes were spotty at best, but there were spots of greatness, particularly found in “Goodbye Michael.” When “Goodbye Michael” showed the show’s center out the door, the show came to drag on for 2 more years. Those two years really, really sucked. There was Robert California, Andy’s transformation into a unlovable monster, and the show even threatened to destroy its emotional core: Jim and Pam’s love for each other. But even if these moments of television were really bad, they take away nothing from The Office as a whole. In its prime, The Office reached extreme highs, finding a new source comedy every week. Seasons 2 and 3 are all time great seasons of television, and even if the characters we knew and loved were slightly weakened in the later years, the show’s legacy remains intact. Say what you will about the show’s 8th season, but to this day I will put “The Injury” up against any episode of television you name.

There are countless other shows which are all-time greats but recently have gone past their prime. The Dan Harmon-less 4th season of Community takes away nothing from that show’s legacy. Regardless of what you thought of Arrested Development‘s 4th season, it will still go down in history as one of the greatest shows of all time. 30 Rock hit some rough patches in its later years. The 9th season of Scrubs? Please forget about it. How I Met Your Mother went of a cliff quality-wise around season 6 or 7, but “Slap Bet” is still a really great episode of television. The lesson here is that most sitcoms (save the canceled/unresurrected ones) tend to have poorer quality in their later years, but as a whole turn out great.

As a viewer, we have to focus on a show’s better times. Instead of remembering the good old days, we have to cherish and preserve them. Viewers cannot let a show’s later, inferior years creep up and undermine the show’s quality and legacy as a whole. TV shows are anything but stable; they are close to a living and breathing entity whose quality fluctuates as its life continues. We have to focus on and remember what we as viewers truly loved about the show instead of focusing on its negative aspects. The viewer has the power to remember a show and determine its perception, so why let some bum later years tarnish what we really loved?