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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