Fargo is the Perfect Chaser to Breaking Bad

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Last night, FX’s Fargo wrapped up its 10 episode run in a wholly satisfying way. The stakes were set against the show from the very beginning, being that it is “inspired by” one of the greatest movies of all time, but somehow, someway Fargo stuck the landing. In all actuality, Fargo really shouldn’t have been this good. Not just because it was working off the unassailable legacy of the Coen Brothers’ classic, but also because it has become increasingly difficult to end cable dramas of the antihero persuasion in ways that are actually good. A prime example of this is Breaking Bad (though I’m also looking at you, True Detective). AMC’s juggernaut drama wrapped up its final run last fall, and looking back at the finale, it feels largely unnecessary. (For those keeping track: my feelings on “Felina” have gone from “perfectly fine while somewhat masturbatory” to “full on masturbatory.”) After years of being badass, Walter White never faced his true punishment and got the last say in his own endgame, riding things out in a storm of bullets. Fargo, on the other hand, managed to craft an ending that wasn’t only satisfying, but also true to its world and characters. In the shadow of Breaking Bad, Fargo shows what a morally satisfying ending should look like, and just how far the antihero genre can be taken in 10 episodes.

The differences between Breaking Bad and Fargo extend further than their Southwest vs. Midwest settings. The main difference between the two shows is how they treat their characters, most importantly the ones who make bad decisions. Obviously, both shows have very complex and differing depictions of the distinction between good and evil. In Breaking Bad, there is no black or white, just gray. In Fargo, the universe is deeply rooted in mythology, spirituality, folklore, and legends that help us learn more about good and evil. But, the most significant difference between Fargo and Breaking Bad’s moral compasses is Fargo’s fundamental understanding of one thing: bad people who make bad decisions are idiots.

From the moment Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) kills his ball-busting wife with a hammer to her head, Fargo makes it clear that this is a very, very bad decision for Lester to make. Lester was introduced as a simple and mild-mannered man (like someone else we knew), but at the moment he decides to break bad, it’s clear that he’s an idiot. Lester calls for help from the ambiguous Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton) but ends up with a bigger problem than what he started with. Instead of helping Lester with his wife’s dead body, Malvo shoots and kills the Bemidji chief of police (who has already called for backup) and flees the scene. This leaves Lester to act on his own wits—which he has none of—so logically, he decides to run headfirst into a brick wall, leaving him unconscious for when the backup unit comes.

Instances like these became frequent throughout Fargo’s 10 episode run. Instead of depicting Lester as one step ahead of everyone else, Fargo showed him only making one bad decision after the next. Each lie that Lester told only made us hate him more, and nothing was left up to ambiguity. Where Breaking Bad showed us Walter White consistently getting away scot-free in that “Yeah science! Yeah Mr. White!” kind of way, Fargo made a point of always showing us Lester at peak horribleness. What feeds into this even more is the violence at the forefront of Fargo. While the excessive amount of violence that occurred throughout the show’s run might be a misread of the Coen Brothers’ film on creator Noah Hawley’s part, the violence at least served some purpose in showing us the countless innocent casualties of one man’s idiocy.

Fargo also helped make the case against Lester by making him one of the only living assholes in a world full of saints. What made Fargo bearable was how Hawley took the term “Minnesota Nice” to heart and filled his world with an overwhelmingly amount of goodness. There was Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), the Bemidji cop who was determined to serve justice, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a good cop, even better father to his daughter Greta, and soon to be Molly’s husband, and Molly’s father Lou, a preserver of good throughout the ages. These characters put the good in good guys, and helped keep hope and justice alive in wasteland of Minnesota winters.

So, when Fargo came to close, justice was indeed served. While Lester didn’t suffer legal punishment or anything of the sort, he did suffer a horrible death only fit for the idiotic monster he had become. The show even hinted at Lester riding his fugitive status out, à la Walter White, but in the end consequences awaited him, and he drowned in a frozen lake. And even better, the good guys won! From what I’ve read, there seems to be a general dissatisfaction with Fargo’s finale. While recognizing that “Morton’s Fork” was at least satisfying, many have noted that it lacked payoff for Molly’s arc in the story. While I at least somewhat understand that dissatisfaction, I think it’s necessary to realize that Fargo was not Molly’s story. People seem to be confusing FX’s Fargo with the Coens’ Fargo, which truly is Marge Gunderson’s story. Since it was a 10 episode miniseries, I don’t think Fargo could just be one character’s story, because it instead built a rich tapestry of distinctive characters and unforgettable mysteries that created the general idea of Fargo.

I don’t want anyone who reads this to think that I am not a fan of Breaking Bad. Even though it suffered from having its weakest episode ever be its last, the whole of Breaking Bad is remarkable television that will undoubtably rank among my favorite shows of all time, (I’ve written nearly 7,000 words about it, for god’s sake!) I do, however, want anyone who reads this to think about what Fargo says about the antihero genre, and the radical changes it made to the genre in 10 episodes. The show was about good guys who prevailed until the very end and bad guys who made idiotic decisions, and it remained utterly compelling throughout. Fargo did the impossible: separated itself and became its own distinct entity from the Coen Brothers’ film, stuck the landing, and, most remarkably, found a new place to take television’s most tired genre.

Politics Have Never Been So Boring: On House of Cards and the Banality of Frank Underwood

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When House of Cards premiered last year it was clear that the show was a game-changer. Netflix’s first original series showed what was clearly the future of television. By releasing every episode of the show’s first season at once, Netflix singlehandedly changed the television landscape and House of Cards became something revolutionary. However, this can only be said of House of Cards’ release model and not of the show itself, because House of Cards is, plainly put, a qualitative failure.

Why is House of Cards, one of the most critically lauded and big-name awards nominated shows of 2013, a qualitative failure? Well, it’s mostly because the show isn’t saying anything about anything. I guess to be fair I should say that with regard to Washington D.C. and American Politics House of Cards says about as much as its opening credits do on the subject matter. Which, again, is nothing. The only point of view that House of Cards takes on is one that is terribly uninteresting, and that is all thanks to the show’s main character.

The problems with Frank Underwood arise from House of Cards’ narrative construction. Right from the get-go, it’s made clear that Underwood is the only important thing about the show. Frank Underwood is the disgruntled, middle-aged white male (more on that later) who is guiding us through his world. (Sometimes Underwood guides us quite literally when he speaks directly to the camera in lazily written asides.) Nothing else besides Frank Underwood matters in the world of House of Cards. Every other character that exists in Underwood’s ecosystem is just a bland and expressionless cog in his machine called life. Everything goes Underwood’s way, and always without a hitch. Now, this all wouldn’t matter so much if Frank Underwood was an actual interesting and compelling character, but sadly, that doesn’t happen to be the case.

The most interesting things about Frank Underwood are that he plays video games and eats ribs. One could say that Underwood’s ability to kill a dying dog, or go against the President of the United States’ orders, or manipulate everyone around him, or even compose himself in an old-timey way are the most interesting things about him, but they are not. The problem is that these exact things are what Netflix and House of Cards think are the most interesting and compelling aspects of Frank Underwood.

What’s exactly wrong with these aspects being the most important ones that make up who Frank Underwood is? I have a very scientifically calculated answer to that question:

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As you can see in the very accurately calculated graph pictured above, there is very little that makes Frank Underwood distinctive. He’s a character continuing on the stock type middle-aged, white male antihero that the cable drama once championed. The SopranosThe ShieldThe WireDeadwoodMad Men, and Breaking Bad are all great shows with great main characters, but they have thoroughly covered the middle-aged, white male antihero and taken him to his extremes. What’s problematic is that House of Cards is built on these shows. Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Tommy Carcetii, Al Swearengen, Don Draper, and Walter White are all deeply embedded into the character of Frank Underwood (one might think Underwood himself was created by an algorithm, like House of Cards was), and what’s left for distinctiveness isn’t much. I’m all for ribs and video games, but it simply isn’t enough to make a compelling and satisfying character.

Without Kevin Spacey playing Frank Underwood and earning his Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe nominations, House of Cards would be unwatchable. And without the prestige of being Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards would be dismissed and belong in a class of other subpar cable dramas continuing on the tired trend of the middle-aged, white male antihero, like Ray Donovan or Low Winter Sun, to name a few. I’d like to have hope that someone behind House of Cards can realize its narrative problems, but with the level of popularity it’s at now, that’s just not going to happen.

On the micro, there’s really nothing obscenely wrong with House of Cards other than its misconceived narrative issues, but on the macro, House of Cards presents huge and troubling problems for television’s future. There’s nowhere for television to go if one of its most high-profile shows thrives only by supplying setbacks and problems for new and original ideas. Netflix might be the future of television, but House of Cards is clearly living in the past.

American Television’s Horror Story: On the Wildly Stupid (and Wildly Insensitive) Coven

AHS

This is what it felt like to watch American Horror Story: Coven.

On all counts, American Horror Story: Coven was a failure. I should rephrase that. Calling something a failure suggests that it made an attempt at doing something, or simply tried, but it turns out Coven did no such thing. The third season of FX’s “anthology” series had a hard time barely existing on a week to week basis, and floundered about at every chance it got. So, on all counts, American Horror Story: Coven was some of the worst television to ever be put on the air, and was a fucking abomination, to say the least.

The only thing that kept me watching Coven week after week was the prospect that it could surpass American Horror Story‘s first season’s awful, horrendous, and often times excruciating terribleness. Spoiler alert: it did. This was a surprise to me because I really hated the series’ first iteration, Murder House, which was just about as dumb as its title suggests.

It might seem like I’m some sort of AHS: Hater who has way too much free time on his hands and uses it to write obsessive amateur blog posts about how much he hates the show, but I do have some affinity for Asylum, the series’ second iteration. Asylum was smart and knew exactly what it was doing. It didn’t matter that there were Aliens, Nazis, Werewolves, Nymphomaniacs, and a murderous Santa Claus all in one place, because it was simply set in an asylum, where the rules of storytelling could be stretched by any means necessary.

This gets me to why Coven worked so poorly. On a storytelling basis, Coven was absolutely horrible. In what seemed like every episode, one character would be killed, another turned into a ghost, and another brought back from the dead. Coven‘s muddled and convoluted mess of a plot never really advanced, and NOTHING. EVER. HAPPENED. The only thing that kept Coven (barely) afloat was the bizarre possibility that Stevie Nicks, a witch herself, would appear on the show and sing a song, and when it actually happened it was so inexplicable that it had no impact on anything that had to do with the show.

This is all to say that Coven was a disaster. The structural rules of the show’s universe were constantly being broken and consequently rewritten. Nothing was ever coherent, and everything that defined Coven became completely and utterly pointless. The titular Coven was supposed to be an organization that enforced rules and brought order, but everything the show presented contradicted that fact. Why would an institution break the rules week after week without any consequences? And why were there no consequences anywhere in Coven?

This lack of consequences became especially disheartening as Coven explored race and its significance within the show’s universe. From the start, one could say that Coven functioned as an examination of power, and how factors like gender, race, age, mental illness, and class affect that power. As Coven‘s plot became more incomprehensible and eventually utterly unimportant, somehow the show’s primary focus became race relations in contemporary America. This shift in focus resulted in some predictably bad television, as Ryan Murphy (a genius, according to Derbil McDillet Dylan McDermott) and Brad Falchuk, the show’s creators, “explored” the issue of race in the most ham-fisted way you cold imagine.

The following is a list of actual things that happened during the run of Coven.

  1. A Black man was tortured and consequently reconstructed as a Minotaur. On top of being reduced to a monster, the man’s status as an animal was fetishized and glamorized by the show.
  2. Said Minotaur became sexually involved with the only Black teenage girl featured on Coven.
  3. The primary conflict of Coven became between the Voodoo community and the witches of the Coven, and this conflict stemmed from each community’s race. Essentially, the primary conflict of Coven became a Black vs. White race war.
  4. A historically racist white woman (the real-life Madame LaLaurie) was reduced to a head, and during her time as a head learned to stop being racist merely because she watched the 1977 miniseries Roots.
  5. Almost every single member of the Voodoo community was massacred in a highly stylized action scene set to none other than the civil rights anthem “Oh Freedom.”

That last item on the list is particularly problematic. While it might serve as a relatively smart story beat (uniting the two groups and ending the race war was necessary and provided one of the few sources of momentum in Coven‘s story arc), the actual sequence of Black Americans being slaughtered set to a historically significant anthem was executed in the worst way possible, and is one of the stupidest things American Horror Story has ever come up with. The only thing that can be said for the sequence is that it is offensive, disgusting, and shameful.

But this should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever watched American Horror Story. In every moment, the show sets out to shock and horrify its viewers. There’s really no thinking behind the notion, other than the fact that it will get people talking. To constantly do this, American Horror Story exists in a hyper-reality where there are no rules, nor consequences. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk think they have the liberty to treat real-world issues, like race, lightly, and play around with them with no consequences whatsoever. This became entirely and painstakingly clear throughout the run of Coven, and it could be just as easy to get fervently upset about the show’s understanding (or lack thereof) of feminism or mental illness, for example. To truly enjoy American Horror Story (or any form or art, really) one must suspend disbelief. But to truly enjoy Coveit became clear that one must suspend their very own notions of cultural awareness and basic human decency.

I love television because of its profound ability to make one feel something over the course of many weeks. But when watching American Horror Story: Coven I only felt ashamed. Ashamed of those who were involved in making it, ashamed of the channel that aired it, and ashamed of myself for watching it. I don’t think television gets much worse than this.

2 Angry Men: The Postmodern Realities of Mad Men and Breaking Bad

What you call love was invented by guys like me… To sell nylons.

We hate to say it, but postmodernism is everywhere. It’s been in our books, plays, movies, criticism, and plainly put, art for decades, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. More recently, postmodernism has found itself in American scripted television. It’s been extremely apparent in the meta, fourth wall breaking sitcoms like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Arrested Developmentand Community, but postmodernism has been much more important in what’s been called our most recent “golden age of TV.”

Starting with The Sopranos in 1999 and ending with Mad Men in what will be the spring of 2015, this so-called golden age has been strung together by one thing: control (or the lack thereof). Whether it’s the crazed showrunners who work behind the scenes, or (to use a term coined by Brett Martin) the difficult men who find themselves as protagonists, control is an essential theme that embodies these shows and concerns their postmodernism. Some of the easiest examples of this lie within the last two shows of the golden age: Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

In Mad Men, nothing is really defined. Everything in Don Draper’s world continues on without question, even if Don  asks one himself. When the series started in 2007, the primary question it asked was “Who is Don Draper?” Mad Men answered that question at face value early on, and what’s important is that it responded with a simple “Who cares?” As the series went on, it went against the natural instincts of a television show and asked more questions than answering them. As viewers struggled to figure out what Don Draper was and what kind of world he was living in, he himself showed that he had no control of his life and even asked those questions too.

Throughout the years, viewers learned more about the world Don Draper was living in, but somehow it still remained indistinguishable. Don Draper and the eponymous Mad Men were seen to be manipulating everyone around them through their work. Happiness, love (see quote above), safety, and above all, life in Don Draper’s world were all proven to be fake, and even if the Mad Men themselves were creating these lies, it was evident that none of them had control over their own lives. Mad Men showed that there were no fixed rules, values, or meaning in its world, making it the ultimate postmodern reality. As Don Draper said himself, “The universe is indifferent.”

Like Don Draper, Walter White might be under the impression he has control in his life, but he really doesn’t. Walter White made the choices that brought him from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to meth manufacturing kingpin, but that doesn’t mean he has any control over what happens to him. It’s not Walt’s choices that advance him in his life, but the reality of Breaking Bad that jerks at and propels the man into the wild and intense situations he finds himself in so often.

Throughout the entire run of Breaking Bad, Walt never figures out that it’s the postmodern reality he’s living in which leads his life. The man has no control over any decision in his life, and every instance that he finds himself in flies right by before his eyes. Breaking Bad flies by so fast that Walt (or any of the given characters) are never given a moment to breathe. There is no definition or meaning to Walt’s life, as he finds himself without any control in any given situation, ultimately living a life directed by postmodernism. One moment, Walt might be having breakfast with his wife and child, and the next speeding through the roadway with gun in hand.

Both Don Draper and Walter White live in postmodern realities. There are no rules, values, and no one has control. Yet, no one does anything about this. In both Mad Men and Breaking Bad the realities keep on advancing, without any of the characters’ say. Perhaps it’s this acute sense of postmodernism that makes these shows so golden.

Cousins, Critically: The Podcast – Breaking Bad Season 5 Part 1

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It’s time for the second installment of Cousins, Critically: The Podcast!

Cousins, Critically: The Podcast is the podcast version of a column known as “Cousins, Critically.” J.T. and M. Liam got together (in person!) to discuss what they thought of Part 1 of Breaking Bad’s 5th season, and this time it’s structured.

From 0:00 to 2:32 we give an intro to what we talk about
From 2:33 to 14:24 we give a recap of the season
From 14:25 to 18:07 we talk about what we liked
From 18:08 to 21:50 J.T. takes a chemistry quiz
From 21:51 to 33:17 we talk about what we didn’t like
From 33:18 to 36:14 M. Liam takes a chemistry quiz
and From 36:15 to the end we give our predictions to what the end of the show will be.

Be aware that parts of the Podcast (and definitely the last segment) includes some general spoilers for Part 2 of Season 5.

Again, the podcast is not on iTunes so please make sure to download the mp3 file directly from Soundcloud to listen to the whole 40 minutes (or whichever parts you choose) later. It’s fun, we promise!

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.


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):