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.