Cousins, Critically: Breaking Bad Season 4

Cousins, Critically

Again, I am joined by my cousin and frequent contributor to Aweful Writing, M. Liam Moore. We have been rewatching Breaking Bad in anticipation of its final season’s return. We hope to dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner in what we call “Cousins, Critically.” We have written about season 1, 2, and podcasted about 3.

J.T. Moore: In last week’s installment of Cousins, Critically (in podcast form, no less) I stated that Season 3 was my favorite season of Breaking Bad to date. But, Before this rewatch, I was always of the state of mind that Season 4 was the best season of Breaking Bad. It turns out, that I wasn’t far off, because season 4 is a real close second. I love pretty much everything about season 4, starting from Gus’ silent beginning in “Box Cutter,” to his loud finish in “Face Off.” Yes, there’s something in every episode of season 4 that I could mention, because it’s just that great.

But the reason why it’s not the best season of Breaking Bad (but still an incredible one, nonetheless) is what makes it different from every other season: a lot of surface level fun. I don’t mean to use the term “surface level” to disparage this season, because I think that it works in its own great ways. The entire season is an incredibly tense, perfectly plotted out, breakneck paced cat and mouse chase between Gus and Walt (Vince Gilligan prefers to equate it to a chess game). It’s just so fun to watch the two try to one-up each other, think ahead of the other, or even try to kill the other. It’s a thrilling story to watch unravel in 13 episodes, and as a whole it’s a great season of television.

What’s interesting though, is that for the reasons I listed above, distinguished critics and devoted fans alike have discredited season 4. It’s not like the season is all surface level fun; there are some on the series’ best character moments and even more reinforcement to already incredibly defined characters. It’s just a very odd feeling when some of your favorite television critics throw one of your favorite seasons of television ever under the bus. M. Liam, what do you think of season 4? Is it as good as I am saying it is, or am I just overrating it?

M. Liam Moore: I wonder which network Vince tunes in to watch chess matches. One that also televises poker games, maybe?

Breaking Bad begins to frustrate me in Season 3. (No, I didn’t exactly articulate that opinion in our podcast last week. Yes, that pretty much sums up my performance as a whole.) And like poker on TV, Season 4 is a snooze fest.

Let me first offer the usual caveats. That Season 4 disappoints is, in part, a credit to the promise the series already has shown and the prestige associated with the brand. It’s also a result of problems inherent to any TV “rewatch.” Season 4 has its warts, sure, but it would undoubtedly hold my interest from week to week.

The foundational arc of this series is one character’s transformation from sensible-if-cautious high school chemistry teacher to daredevil drug kingpin. It’s a show about Walt taking control. But does that mean every other character has to give up control? Walt’s change is paramount to the story. But why do the characters who inhabit his world lack that same ability to change?

What’s worse, some of the characters seem not only to stop growing, but to regress. Jesse becomes a zombie, then finds a new “teacher” to please – haven’t we seen this before? Skyler does Walt’s financial laundry (care to consider the social symbolism there?). Marie goes back to stealing. And Hank’s character just lies there “like third base.”

I think of all the story time and emotional investment that went into crafting and realizing these characters. There’s nothing new they can do, nothing new we can learn about them? Why do we stop unpeeling the onion now, J.T.?

JTM: Saying the characters “lack the ability to change” might be attributed to the aforementioned surface level fun that is ever apparent in season 4, but I think it’s something entirely different: transformation.Transformation is an incredibly important and integral theme to season 4 and Breaking Bad as a series. These characters are always changing, even if the change isn’t plainly laid out for us like breakfast is for Walter Jr. The characters will change, for better of for worse, but being Breaking Bad it will probably be for worse. And being Breaking Bad it will also probably be a hard time getting to the transformed state for each of the characters, and the change might just be subtle enough to make you (and plenty other viewers) think otherwise.

Each character is put in a position that is often times hard to watch in order to highlight just how much they have changed. Being bedridden sucks for Hank, but it gets him engaged in the Fring case, which shows us how smart of a cop this guy really is. Often portrayed as the bright and supportive wife, Marie starts to crack, and we get to see the strain that her marriage and she herself are really undergoing. Jesse was once just a dumb kid, but now he is a shell of what he once was, and emotionally destroyed. Skyler is a victim and active participant of her husband’s engulfing crime lifestyle, which only makes her a more complex character. And this transformation for all of these characters is because of that husband, Walter White.

Walt goes through his own decay and transformation, and as we mentioned earlier, he has a tendency to take others down with him. He is responsible in one way or another for every characters’ strife and eventual change. But Walt’s journey is arguably the hardest to watch. Walt was once a capable meth cook and business associate, but when put under the pressure of Gus Fring, he’s incredibly weak. Initially in the business for the money, Walt now finds himself (and his family) at risk, and completely in over his head. Walt is really never on top this season, and it’s really hard to see the once badass Heisenberg jerked around by his employer. This strain forces him to change, and it’s definitely not for the better, but it’s fascinating television.

All of this occurs in season 4 because it’s the season is where Vince Gilligan becomes David Chase. Chase (the creator of The Sopranos) was famously upset with his viewers’ attitudes towards Tony and his crimes, so he forced the viewers (who were watching just to see who would get whacked next) to really see how horrible of a man Tony really was. We’ve discussed how sickening the Breaking Bad fanbase can be, and it’s obvious that Gilligan felt the same. So he put Walt in a corner which resulted in some (divisively) great television.

If you don’t like the show’s central characters in season 4, what do you think of the villains? Gus Fring and Mike are great, right? Right???

MLM: Where you see subtlety, J.T., I see self-indulgence. Yes, Walt’s transformation is brilliantly conceived, gripping TV, but it’s coming at the expense of the lushness and profundity of the series as a whole. And it doesn’t have to be that way, as series like David Chase’s have demonstrated.

Let’s talk transformation. Walt does things in Season 4 we never could have imagined him doing when this show began – things that would have seemed way out of character. That is, indeed, a transformation unprecedented, to my knowledge, on the small screen. It’s a real feather in the cap of Vince and the gang.

On the other hand, I have a hard time identifying anything Jesse, Skyler, Hank or Marie does in Season 4 that would have seemed terribly out of character when this show began. Skyler is an active participant in her husband’s life of crime, yes. And it’s true she’s carved out a little area of autonomy in her affair with Ted, though its resolution is done very little justice by the writing staff. (Tripping on the rug? Come on.) It’s also true she gets Walt to spend their money in ways he wouldn’t on his own (typical wife, I suppose). But she’s never shown any ability to challenge Walt when it comes to the overall direction the family is taking – and she still doesn’t.

Jesse, meanwhile, can cook meth but still can’t act for himself. We’ve always known Hank is long on police skills but short on emotional availability. Transformation is a major theme in Season 4, but not for these characters. Skyler, Jesse and Hank (almost literally) are left paralyzed in the wake of Walt’s transformation. No one of consequence in Walt’s life is granted agency to challenge – or reject – the protagonist’s course of action.

What’s worse, the storytelling suffers as a result. You brought up the Sopranos. I haven’t watched that show as closely as I’m watching Breaking Bad, but I remember thinking among its strengths was an ability to stray away from the lead and still produce great episodes. The supporting characters enjoyed arcs much more interesting and enriching than those in Breaking Bad, arcs that granted them much more ability to act – rather than merely react to the protagonist. Adrianna snitched to the FBI. Paulie and Christopher jockeyed for Tony’s affections. Even Tony’s relationships with his antagonists were so much more nuanced, from Johnny Sack to Tony’s own Uncle Junior.

Mike and Gus, conversely, are mere variations of who Walt might become. Mike is Walt without the ambition, greed and smart mouth. Gus is the businesslike drug lord Walt idolizes. That’s a nifty twist, sure, but it also limits the scope of the show’s thematic interest. Like Ted Beneke, with whom Skyler has an affair, the characters afforded the ability to challenge Walt’s transformation are motivated by control, money, legacy, power. They offer a different shade of Walt, but very little contrast.

Also missing in this season, J.T., are the vignettes – the storytelling and thematic ideas that would emerge from episode to episode in prior seasons. You said yourself that we’ve crossed the bridge from family drama to blockbuster thriller. Does a TV series have to be one or the other – action-packed fun or character-driven drama? Isn’t that a false choice?

JTM: It’s not the TV series which chooses to be whatever type of show it is, it’s the viewer. While I may see this season as a more action oriented one, it definitely can be read as the character driven and moral drama that Breaking Bad really is. Now to say that the season is only one specific thing rather than another thing is a pretty stupid thing to say, so maybe the best way to characterize season 4 is to say that it is primarily a blockbuster thriller-esque season of television. But it’s obviously more than that.

The character driven, moral stories bleed through season four’s action packed exterior, as they do throughout the rest of Breaking Bad’s run. However, in the case of this season, they are more self-contained and standalone stories rather than the episode to episode stories we have seen before.

While we don’t really see the complete narrative of Jesse’s fraught emotional journey, we do get to see very distinct points. In “Open House,” we see the devastating lows he experiences. Eventually, he explodes in “End Times” (an episode in which Aaron Paul won his second Emmy for) which is truly magnificent to watch. However, the most important point in this story (and what I would argue to be Paul’s strongest moment in the series) is in “Problem Dog” where he asks the important questions.

While it might not be the most cohesive way of telling the narrative, I think it’s an entirely effective way of doing so. Another important standalone story emerges in “Hermanos,” the only Gus-centric episode of the series. Gus was a fairly mystifying character throughout out the series, but once we saw what made him so mystifying everything about the character changed.

The last stand-alone moment I’ll point to occurs in “Cornered.” After hearing the infamous “I am the one who knocks” speech, Skyler is horrified by what Walt has said and become. So she takes Holly and ventures off to the four corners to have her fated decided by the unknown. Now this moment might be in and of itself a little schlocky, but being that it caps off Skyler’s story in the whole episode, it is an excellent ending point to an excellent story.

Four corners

So, where you, M. Liam, might see a more tersely told story in season four, I try to see the self-contained nature of it all. This series has shown us repeatedly that its means of interpretation are literally endless.

MLM: Tersely told? Season 4 is about twice as long as it needs to be! I mean, if there’s no going back across that bridge to the action-adventure genre, could we at least … speed … up … the pace … a little?

The glimpse into Gus’ past, for example, strikes me as an entirely unnecessary indulgence. (So does the scene at Four Corners Monument – for much the same reason – but I’ll just stick to Gus for brevity’s sake.) The back story – that Gus watched as the cartel murdered his partner – would suggest some sort of revenge motive is in play. But if that’s the case, why has Gus waited until the cartel has his back to the wall, demanding either Heisenberg’s life or his only remaining meth cook, to take his revenge? No, Gus is not the type of man to allow raw emotion to cloud his judgment. The flashback, then, does little to illuminate Gus’ character, only his connection to Hector Salamanca – a plot requirement that could have been satisfied in 30 seconds of dialogue. I may be reaching (because there is so little else to latch onto in this season, perhaps), but I sensed some suggestion Gus is gay. If developed, that would have been the type of character shading sorely lacking in this season – and in this show, so very preoccupied with manliness. Instead, the most you can say about Gus, beyond being Walt’s idol, is that he’s “mystifying.” In other words, he’s boring.

Yes, Jesse’s A.A. kiss-off is a really good scene, as is the scene where Walt scares the crap out of Skyler. It’s interesting, seeing them juxtaposed like that, to watch Walt, in his lowest moment, cling to the self-affirming attitude Jesse rejects. It’s hubris, yes, but also a willingness to “be OK” with the collateral damage of his decisions that separates Walt from Jesse, Skyler and the rest of the civilized world.

I’ve got to say, J.T., “Cousins, Critically” is a little more fun when we’re at odds! We could probably go back and forth on this season’s merits forever. Here’s my bottom line: I gleaned less out of a rewatch of Season 4 than I did previous seasons. There seemed fewer thematic ideas to mine, and I grew weary of watching the people in Walt’s world spin their wheels. A universe that once seemed lush with characters and as limitless as the New Mexico landscape now seems narrowly focused on one man’s epic rise and fall. There is no love, no sex, no hope. There is increasingly less humanity to contrast and illuminate our antihero’s decay.

JTM: I think you might be the only person I know who watches Breaking Bad in order to find love, hope, and humanity. While the show might have its little corners and spaces that provide some sort of positive feeling, it is overall as barren as the deserts of New Mexico. The show makes itself clear that it is a dark, disturbing, and sorrowful show… It’s name is Breaking Bad, after all!

You yourself said in our first “Cousins Critically” post that when we watch Breaking Bad we tend to “suck all the fun out of it by overanalyzing, deconstructing and contextualizing it episode by episode.” Maybe in this case, it’s best to not do this, and just let season 4 fly by before our eyes. While you may have your qualms about the depth, justice and direction of season four, I think it’s best to take it at face value. It is meant to be some for of entertainment, you know.


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Cousins, Critically: The Podcast – Breaking Bad Season 3

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It could only come to this… It’s time for the first ever Cousins, Critically: The Podcast! CC:TP will act as a podcast form of the column that runs at this blog known as “Cousins, Critically.”

Joining me in podcast form is frequent contributor to Aweful Writing and co-creator of Cousins, Critically, M. Liam Moore. In the first instalment of CC:TP, we discussed Breaking Bad‘s 3rd season (timely, we know). Moving at our established glacial pace, we talked for over forty-five minutes (the driving discussion really ends around the 38 minute mark, but we keep going), so if you make through the whole thing, good on you. The topics dissected and analyzed in this installment range from the greatness of season 3, Aaron Paul and Jesse, the episode “Fly,” sympathy for Walt, Walt and the other characters’ decay, the show’s portrayal of women, Skyler, our favorite episodes, the pizza on the roof, and many, many other topics. And in all that, we failed to compare ourselves to THE COUSINS of Breaking Bad, but it’s the first podcast, so give us a break.

Stay tuned to see if we make it to iTunes.

Here is the Soundcloud link (where you can download the mp3 format):

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!