Singing the Praises of Breaking Bad’s Michelle MacLaren

Bryan Cranston and Michelle MacLaren

FULL SPOILERS FOR ALL OF BREAKING BAD FOLLOW

It’s a very sad time for Breaking Bad. It’s not because there are only three (!) episodes left to air, or that nothing will never be the same again, but it’s because last night’s episode (titled “To’hajiilee”) was the last Breaking Bad episode to be directed by Michelle MacLaren.

MacLaren’s name might not be a main staple of Breaking Bad like Vince Gilligan or Bryan Cranston are, but she is just as important as those two. Directing many of the series’ finest episodes and moments, MacLaren has been responsible for much of the greatness that Breaking Bad is known for. She definitely ranks among Breaking Bad‘s best directors (the only two who come close are Rian Johnson and Gilligan himself), and she could make the bid for the greatest working director in television.

It’s MacLaren’s range as a director that makes her such a gifted artist. Her work conveys every emotion present in Breaking Bad, be it depravity, devastation, insanity, dread, or even glee. MacLaren can make a smaller staged scene work wonderfully, but her expertise really excel when the ante is upped. Shootouts, mass murders, car chases, MacLaren can really do it all, and do it excellently.

In some of the episodes she’s directed, MacLaren has really nailed Jesse’s most emotional moments. He’s a character who has been through arguably the most throughout the show’s run, and he has the moments to prove it. Take the time he sat in front of his mega-speakers, in “Thirty-Eight Snub.” The way MacLaren has our point of view move away from Jesse really illuminates who he has become. We don’t know him anymore, and his behavior proves it. Another moment that MacLaren stages similarly, is Jesse’s monologue from his hospital bed, in “One Minute.” MacLaren again changes our perspective of Jesse, this time zooming in on him in one of his most broken and emotionally depraved moments. Now, much of the credit is due to Aaron Paul’s wonderful performance, and Thomas Schnauz’s great writing, but the way in which MacLaren executes it really makes the scene.

MacLaren’s talent also lies in the craziness that is Breaking Bad. Her tense and taut direction of the show’s most thrilling moments are what she gets the most attention for, and it is for good reason. In the opening minutes of “Shotgun,” Walter White is in his most frayed state of mind, and MacLaren conveys this sense of feeling incredibly. Shooting from the front of his Aztec’s point of view, the viewer truly experiences what Walt is going through, dangerously weaving in and out of traffic. There really is no calm moment in the scene, a decision MacLaren made right to really embody the moment’s state of mind. This scene was almost mirrored in “To’hajiilee” and it was just as excellent (if not better) as the episode whipped into its crazy-intense gear.

Car chases aren’t the only crazy things Breaking Bad and MacLaren do well; gunfights, shootouts, and murders are among the show’s best moments. When watching the notorious, eponymous scene in “Salud,” the viewer can barely believe what is happening before their eyes. MacLaren shoots the action up close and from afar, for the viewer to see what is really happening. By doing this, the action works incredibly well, and the very fact that mass murder has occurred flies by.

Another great MacLaren directed action scene is the parking lot shootout. I think it’s safe to say that there will probably (emphasis of probably!) never be a better scene on Breaking Bad than this one. In “One Minute” MacLaren is able to make even the simplest things seem like the most tense things in the world. A digital clock changing minutes, random people walking through a parking lot, Hank’s bloodied hand reaching for a stray bullet… They’re all the most important things in our lives when watching that scene, all thanks to MacLaren. She can even make an offscreen shootout (in “Buried”) terribly tense!

Action scenes aren’t always the most tense scenes that MacLaren has directed. In “Buried,” Marie finally finds out that Skyler has been in on Walt’s criminal life, and it is gut-wrenchingly intense. From the beginning of the scene, the camera cautiously “walks in” on the two mid-discussion. The two speak in silence and in sadness, and the way the scene is staged, this sense of emotion is conveyed devastatingly. From the beginning, the conversation is shot so closely and personally, it is like we are almost there with the two sisters. This sense of closeness continues on, and makes the end result even more devastating than it already is. MacLaren stages and shoots the slap, argument, and fight over the baby so well, it makes the viewer feel like we don’t even want to be watching, but in the good way, of course.

As I mentioned above, MacLaren’s last episode was “To’hajiilee,” and boy, was that a way to go out. There were so many perfectly staged and shot moments I could write another post dedicated to the episode alone. What should be noted is the last twenty minutes (obviously). Those last twenty minutes were some of the finest twenty minutes the show has ever produced! There was a car chase except with much more emotional depth and fraught tension! There was an incredible gunfight! But the most notable thing about the episode, is the lead up to that explosive shootout.

What’s interesting is that there was silence. Silence, is something that Breaking Bad excels at, more than any other television show. The silence was totally unpredictable coming from MacLaren, but as usual, she knocked it out of the park. Instead of serving as necessary lead up to the gut-punch that followed, the moment was incredibly emotionally satisfying. It was beautifully shot, fabulously staged, and had so much to it. MacLaren made the silence the most important aspect of an already vitally important episode.

But, Breaking Bad isn’t all murder, mayhem, and melancholly. The show can be fun, especially in it’s wonderful montages. And it just happens that MacLaren has directed the show’s best montage. In the (unembeddable) montage from “Gliding Over All,” MacLaren radically changes what we about know Breaking Bad. The montage, set to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” glides through months and months of time, an unprecedented move in the universe of Breaking Bad. But, MacLaren’s direction of the montage makes it seem like a regular Breaking Bad montage, and even a necessary Breaking Bad montage. Everything about the montage is so fundamentally wrong, and goes against everything Breaking Bad stands for, but it turns out that it’s the best montage the show has ever produced. And it just so happens that MacLaren is nominated for an Emmy for her work in this episode, and there would be no greater send-off gift.

MacLaren might not seem like the key to Breaking Bad‘s greatness, but she really is. The scripts are almost always great, and the acting is often the best on television, but what makes Breaking Bad works is it’s execution. And boy, is MacLaren a great executor. Earlier I said that Michelle MacLaren could make a bid for the greatest working director on television, but I think that bid could be extended to any medium.

Here are some other highlights of MacLaren’s work on Breaking Bad:

  • “4 Days Out” was the first episode I really loved, and it just happens to be MacLaren’s first directed episode on Breaking Bad. Coincidence? I think not.
  • “I.F.T.” Enough Said…
  • The montage in “Shotgun” detailing Mike and Jesse’s car ride.
  • The montage of the prison killings may be sick, but it works incredibly well.
  • Skyler and Hank’s confrontation in the diner in “Buried” was again, almost too much to handle.
  • The shot of Kuby and Huell lying on the bed of money in “Buried”!
  • THAT SHOOTOUT IN THE DESERT IN THE END OF “To’hajiilee”!!!
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Cousins, Critically: The Podcast – Breaking Bad Season 3

CC LOGO

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 2

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 on August 11. We hope to dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner in what we call “Cousins, Critically.” The piece on season 1 can be found here.

J.T. Moore: Season 2 of Breaking Bad is an incredibly interesting season of television. Where season 1 laid the groundwork and foundation for understanding the show, season 2 operates with full force, working to cement its place within the all-time TV greats. Season 2 works in a different way than season 1 did, because it tells its story while considering an essential emotional theme within the show’s framework: fear. Don’t get me wrong, M. Liam, I’m aware that season 1 took fear into account in season 1, but in season 2, it is embraced wholeheartedly.

Right from the start, in “Seven Thirty-Seven”‘s opening shots of confounding images, there is a provocation of fear. It is clear that something bad has happened, but what exactly is it? Have Tuco or other criminals gotten to Walter and his family? Was there a deadly accident at Walt’s home? What’s important is that we don’t know, because it’s the unknown that provokes an incredibly intense type of fear.

While there is some partial closure in “Grilled,” the season’s second episode, where Tuco meets his end in an incredibly thrilling fashion, fear for Walter and Jesse persists throughout the season and is not resolved. There is a certain sense of fear for Walter, and the chance that he will be found out by his family. We also fear for who Walter is becoming, and we don’t want to see him fall as hard as he does. We fear for how Jesse is treated by Walter, and what will become of this ill-mannered kid. So in the end, fear is not only something operating within the show’s own framework, but is something essential for the viewer. Fear drives many of these characters to do what they do, but it is also important when watching, whether its the audience’s fear for the characters’ fate (in episodes like “Grilled,” “Peekaboo,” or “4 Days Out”) or the fear of the internal emotions of characters (like what Walter experiences in “Phoenix” and where Jesse is in “ABQ”).

Coincidentally, the episodes I listed are season 2’s best episodes, and some rank among the best within the show’s entire run. This brings home the fact that fear works wonders for the show. Because season 2 embraces fear and a new emotional type of storytelling, the show feels different. Season 1 was much more plot driven (which is entirely necessary to lay the groundwork) and season 2 becomes more about emotion. Now, the season’s structure may make the case for a more plot driven type of storytelling, but I believe that this new sense of emotional storytelling is incredibly more important. M. Liam, what are your thoughts on season 2? Do you think there is a new type of emotional storytelling, or am I just overanalyzing?

M. Liam Moore: Are we not supposed to do that – to overanalyze – on Aweful Writing? Criticism, pshaw. What’s not to like? “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” Enough said. Shoot, we might even land a gig at one of the daily newspapers in town.

Season 2 gives us four fully realized, beautifully complicated Breaking Bad characters. It’s a credit to the acting, but also to the storytelling, which, I agree, diverts in style from Season 1. After a furious start, the pace becomes more contemplative. Storylines expand to lend supporting characters greater depth. Episodes begin in medias res with foreboding plot clues and frightful imagery.

Scary stuff, indeed. Fear affects Hank’s character most obviously this season, as he struggles with the paralyzing post-traumatic stress of his brief deployment to police the Mexican cartel. In a scene that illuminates the reversing fortunes of these two men, it’s Walt who delivers the FDR pep talk to Hank. “I have spent my whole life scared,” Walt says. “Ever since my diagnosis I sleep fine. Fear is the worst of it. That’s the real enemy.”

Ironically, fear is the very weapon Walt is exploiting to expand his drug business into enemy turf. It’s fear of Jesse, “the blowfish,” who has developed a mean, if mistaken, reputation on the streets after an ATM machine crushed the head of an addict who stole money from him. Here, fear collides with another important theme developed in Season 2: Truth.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Truth, J.T., but also the season’s structure – and maybe how it compares to other seasons, not only of Breaking Bad, but other great TV shows as well. You are my guru, after all.

JTM: Truth is definitely something all of the characters grapple with on Breaking Bad. Marie and Hank do not want it to come out in terms of their shoplifting and fear, respectively. Skyler strives to find it in the beginning of the season, but by the end of “ABQ” she’s afraid of it, and what it will do to her family. Truth is something Jesse has an especially hard time with, and something he mainly avoids. He’s afraid that the truth about who he really is will not only incriminate him, but ruin his budding relationship with Jane. Jesse wants to see himself as this tough guy man on the street, but in reality he’s the caring soul we see in “Peekaboo.”

But Jesse isn’t the only one who has a hard time dealing the truth. Ever since the beginning of the series, Walt has had to distance himself from the true nature of his life. By doing this, he becomes the Master of Lies who is able to get himself out of every tough situation we see. Walt doesn’t only lie to his family and friends, but lies to himself. In “4 Days Out,” Walt convinces himself that something is horribly wrong with his health, and he takes part in a marathon meth cooking session. By the end of it, he makes $600,000 worth of meth, which is the high point of his career. But when he gets back, Walt finds out that nothing is wrong with him, and that remission has set in, so he’s actually getting better. By the end of the episode, Walt becomes wildly disillusioned by himself and doesn’t want to be the “guy in good health.” He’s unable to deal with the truth of his life, and at that point decay ironically sets in. So yeah, truth is a pretty big deal.

The structure of the season is also incredibly important. I’m not crazy about the intensely plotted out nature of this season, because I feel like it gets too caught up in the plot of it all. Thankfully, the series embraced its newfound emotional drive, but sometimes it has had to take the back seat in order for the plot to progress. The plane crash mystery seems to gnaw away at the season itself, and feels like something needs to be resolved, rather than progress organically. But I hope I don’t sound too down on it. It’s incredibly ambitious, and while some poor aspects may result from it (like Jane’s quick switch to heroin, or other spots of lacking momentum), it’s quite interesting to watch progress.

Two other great shows come to mind when thinking of this season. Lost‘s fourth season came off the heels of a truly great finale, which reengineered everything we thought we knew about the show. Instead of focusing on flashbacks of the characters, it switched gears and told stories through flashforwards. While we watched the characters we knew and loved live their lives in the future and off the island, the only thing we wanted to know was, “Why do they want to go back so badly?”

Game of Thrones‘ second season also built up something of a mystery. All of the characters seemed to be plotting towards something, but those who didn’t read the books really did know what it was. Not until the season’s ninth episode did we see the epic, sprawling and awesome battle of Blackwater Bay, which gave us one of the best episodes of television in 2012, “Blackwater.” It should be noted that both of the examples are from mythology heavy sci-fi and fantasy shows, which shows the extreme ambition of season 2.

MLM: I got the feeling this season’s plot was written to resemble a string of chemical reactions. Go figure, right? Otherwise innocuous elements are introduced and agitated, yielding explosive and unexpected results. What appear to be spontaneous or random occurrences in these flash forwards are, in fact, a series of reactions set off by Walt’s decision to cook meth. Those planes don’t crash otherwise. Hank doesn’t get into a shootout with Tuco otherwise, and he probably doesn’t get that fateful promotion to El Paso either. The unique narrative structure spotlights the far-reaching consequences of Walt’s single-minded crusade to provide for his family.

There are moments where Walt reflects on these disastrous consequences. Faced with death in the desert, surrounded by evidence of his crimes, Walt comes to Jesus: “I had this coming. I deserve it,” he says. You mentioned the cruel irony of learning he would not die of cancer anytime soon – a turn that prompts Walt to attack his own reflection in a towel dispenser. Later, in Episode 10, Walt becomes fixated on repairing the foundation of his house. We’ve got rot, he tells Junior, and there’s only one way to deal with it: “Just cut it out and start fresh.”

Of course, Walt is too proud – and greedy – to take his own advice. I’m curious, J.T., if these moments of remorse are enough to make you root for, care about or even empathize with our antihero? It’s a question that cuts to the heart of why, although I think Breaking Bad is brilliant, it’s a struggle to watch sometimes. In Episode 5, a smiling clerk at the radiologist’s office hands Walt a “HOPE” button with his six-page-long medical bill. Walt drops the button into the trash. There are times, for me, where this show just feels like a depressing allegory for everything that’s wrong with our society.

JTM: What’s genius about Breaking Bad is that people still watch it. It is indeed a struggle to watch all of these characters indulge in their own bad behavior, but this is what makes it so fascinating to watch. Having relatively known who Walt was before his cancer and drug life set in, makes it all the more incredible when he tells two competitors menacingly to stay out of his territory.

Walt becomes a new man when his own personal decay sets in, and that man is far from understandable. I care for him in a sense, because I want the “old Walt” to prevail. What I don’t want is for him to ruin his family life, which unsurprisingly happens in the 11th episode “Mandala” where Walt misses the birth of his own daughter.

Another definite decay point is in “Phoenix” where Walt does nothing to prevent the death of Jane. Now, this isn’t totally out of Walt’s ordinary, because he has let people be killed, and even killed someone himself before. I was able to not be incredibly disgusted with Walt at this point, because Bryan Cranston, Vince Gilligan and the rest of the writers let us know that deep down inside, there was still something left of Walt. When he witnesses Jane die, Walt sheds a tear, showing the viewer that he still feels something.

There are points when I am outright angry with Walt, and those mostly entail him interacting with Jesse. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched the series before, or maybe it’s because I enjoy some great grunge, but in the end I feel a lot for Jesse. It kills me to see Walt jerk him around again and again, because I just want what’s right for this kid. As the series progresses Walt and Jesse experience a growing relationship, one that seems to suggest Walt has paternal feelings towards Jesse. Jesse is a figure whose parents are jerks (who he once dubbed “greedy kleptomaniac douchebags”) so it seems natural for wanting him and Walt to have a more developed relationship. But whenever it seems like some growth is going to happen, Walt calls him a “dumb druggie idiot” or insults his way of life. Is it so hard for Walt and Jesse to get along?

But enough about men behaving badly. Something tells me that you have more to say about the societal allegory of it all. Being more well versed in the 24 hour news cycle than I am, is there anything in particular you’d like to take a stab at?

MLM: Poor Jane. How could you not shed a tear? If not for her, then for Jesse. Yes, Jane is a flimsy character – the Daddy Issues, the quick descent into heroin. But in a show mining the depths of what it means to be a man, who this woman is takes a back seat to what she represents. Jane is Jesse’s Daisy Buchanan, the bright green light at the end of the dock. She’s the hope Walt snuffs out.

In the moment of his decision to let Jane die, of course, Walt has no way of knowing he just shared a beer with her dad, an air-traffic controller who, overcome by his grief for Jane, will make a mistake (or was it?) that leads to a deadly plane crash over Albuquerque. Is Walt acting out of concern for Jesse’s well being here? Or is he playing God, reestablishing control over Jesse, who will be much easier to manipulate with Jane out of the picture? One thing is certain: Walt is ignoring his own chemistry lesson about the connectivity of everything and everyone. “Chemical bonds are what hold the physical world together, what hold us together.”

Breaking Bad is steeped in this very American tension between collective versus personal responsibility – a conflict central to our current political discourse. Are we better off if everyone goes it on his or her own, or do we have a basic responsibility to care for each other?

The show debuted at the height of debate around health care reform, and if Walt’s decision to “break bad” is justified, it’s because he lives in a society that considers health care (and college) a commodity available to those who can afford it. What we’re watching, then, is a sort of libertarian, survival-of-the-fittest fantasy. (Libertarianism, not coincidentally, holds a great appeal among white males.) Sure, people watch it, but I suspect a lot of fans look at Walt and, where I see a compelling narrative to support universal health care, they pull off their Ron Paul hoodies to expose one of those T-shirts I’ve seen you wearing, J.T., with the Heisenberg silhouette.

I realize I’m sucking the fun out of an entertaining TV show, but I can’t shake the disturbing notion that people root for this guy, they relate to this guy. The whole thing can be tough to stomach.

JTM: I wear the shirt because I love the show, not Heisenberg himself. What Vince Gilligan and his writers have done over the course of 62 (!) episodes just simply astounds me. I love the character study of it all and where the character has been taken, and not just the scheming, nasty character himself. But every day I wear the shirt, the vision becomes more and more construed in a weird manner. There is an increasing number of fans who love the badass, american male version of walt Walt, and hate his “bitch wife” and how she always ruins his plans. I don’t consider myself to be one of those fans, even if I continue to wear the shirt.

All of the political stuff is interesting, considering some of the comments Gilligan has made. More recently, he appeared on the new Sundance Channel series The Writers’ Room, where he said that he thinks politics are not to be mixed with television, and that he actively tries to keep it out of his work. But all of it is so readily apparent within Breaking Bad which ultimately shows how smart and layered a TV show and its viewers can be.

I may seem down on season 2, but it is really just one smart season of an incredibly intelligent series. I may look at it as one of the weaker seasons, but that’s like saying it’s one of the weaker seasons of the best of what television has to offer. The moral complexity, thematic storytelling, incredible character work… It’s all there, and it all works wonderfully.