I enjoyed Breaking Bad, but spent five seasons waiting for it to blow me away. Everyone told me it would, but it never quite got to me. There were definitely plenty of occasions where it took my breath away. A fair few when I punched the air in righteous triumph. But it didn’t seep into my skin like The Sopranos, or to a lesser extent The Wire, did. I wanted to believe the hype but in the end I just…don’t. Also, spoiler alert for everything.
I think the reason I don’t probably has more to do with my own expectations as a TV (or now, as it is, Netflix) viewer than any real problems with the show. As far as I can tell, Breaking Bad rarely ever put a foot wrong. It probably has fewer shite episodes than The Sopranos (the only time I really thought ‘this isn’t working’ was the first episode of the second season, I think the first one Bryan Cranston directed. I’ll chalk it up to inexperience but he doesn’t get the visual style right and the acting is weirdly stiff, though he improved with later assignments) and it’s undeniably more exciting. I basically guessed that Walt and Jesse would be there till the end- it’s bizarre to me that Vince Gilligan was going to kill Jesse off at the end of season one, because they’re such an iconic unit- so it was more a case of ‘how are they going to get out of this one’, as opposed to ‘are they going to?’ Off the top of my head, the best episode for that was the one where they’re stuck in the RV and Hank comes to investigate. If Hank had got in there, that would’ve been it, but there were another three or so seasons after that, so the pleasure came in seeing how the writers wriggled a way out that wasn’t absurdly deus ex machina. By and large, I think they did a good job of never cheating the audience. If something mental happened, we were going to see Walt cope with it, even if it meant Walt was forced into yet another apparently intractable situation. That’s what I liked most about it.
But it was never binge TV for me. I think I started watching in October and finished up the other night, so that’s over half a year, maybe two or three episodes a week. I appreciated the cliffhangers but I never felt that I had to find out how they were resolved. Maybe because I knew they would be. I think I struggled with Breaking Bad because its precision-sharp structure meant that nothing, absolutely nothing, was left up in the air. Nothing relevant anyway. There was no ambiguity, no thread left untied. The last episode is the most perfect last episode you could hope for. Walt kills some Nazis then falls down dead with a smile on his face. The bad businesswoman gets poisoned. Jesse rides a sweet car onto the set of Need for Speed.
Of course, all of that was entirely intentional as creative decisions, so I’m not criticising the show for those reasons. I’m merely saying that I prefer the style of the prior generation of made-for-cable dramas. I prefer the immense, tedious longeurs of The Sopranos, the excessively specific detailing of The Wire or the lack of resolution (enforced though it was) of Deadwood (and btw, I totally forgot Anna Gunn was also in that. I probably need to watch it again). For me they exemplify what TV can have that cinema can’t- a deliberate pace that allows for the obsessive dissection of character. I’m not saying the characters in Breaking Bad were weak at all, but the show’s moral universe is much more straightforward, as is its narrative. It feels like a massively over-extended film, which is not necessarily a compliment. And I think maybe that’s why it never quite clicked for me. I wanted a stroll, but what I got was a sprint.
It’s just a guess, but I suspect that’s why Breaking Bad crossed over in a way that The Sopranos et al never quite did. Its ruthless, fast-paced plotting relied on twists and reversals, the sort of plot devices that create immediate impact. They reward a viewer who’s invested any amount of attention in the show. Anyone looking for that in the increasingly bloated (but also my favourite) later seasons of The Sopranos will be reaching for the remote (or clicking their mouse, whatever…) in frustration. That show always frustrated its conventional mobster trappings with absurdly allusive dream sequences that went on and on and on until you realised that the only way to enjoy them fully was if your name was David Chase and you were creator of The Sopranos. So basically what I’m saying is that I like it when programmes do their utmost to alienate anyone who might be watching, and like it less when programmes make an effort to appeal to their viewers. So basically I’m a cunt.
The other thing, and I’m not going to make a big deal about this, but with Walt I never felt I was watching a person. Limmy- who might actually be our most astute cultural commentator- said a thing on Twitter, that when he watched Bryan Cranston he felt like he was watching an actor acting. I read that before I started Breaking Bad and it completely affected my potential appreciation of his performance. It ruined it, in fact. Not that I thought he was bad, I think it’s just part and parcel of the show’s extremely tight structure. Walt was always a motor of the plot or on the receiving end of it. He never just was, in the way that…yeah, you guessed…James Gandolfini just was. Tony Soprano walking down the driveway for the morning paper was one of the highlights of any given episode. I don’t know what the comparison with Walt would be. Putting on his silly wee hat?
But again, this isn’t a criticism so much as a difference in taste. If you asked me to critique Cranston’s performance, I couldn’t. Everything he does is perfectly executed. It just doesn’t breathe, at least not for me. I think what it is is that every American TV show I watch is coloured by my love of The Sopranos, which I’ve marathoned twice. On a general level, they all seem to follow a basic format- a man does bad things- so I always expect that man to be a larger than life figure. Walt, determinedly, isn’t. If he was in The Sopranos he’d be Uncle Junior, the feeble, un-charismatic nearly man. It’s actually one of the bravest things about Breaking Bad that he’s the main character, although ultimately I’m not that fussed.
If it sounds like I’m down on it, I’m not really. It didn’t meet my expectations, but I kept on for the following reasons: Walt watching Jane die. The kid on the bike- both kids on bikes, in fact. Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. Saul Goodman (obviously). Fring walking out with half his body missing. Jesse lobbing dollar bills into a fat guy’s mouth. Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium- two copies. A man’s head on the back of a tortoise. Everyone dying of poison around a swimming pool. Pushing a barrel of money across the desert. Hank’s minerals. Making a really awkward speech about an air disaster. Gale’s karaoke tape. That ill-advised bathroom reading. Mike’s death.
So yeah. Decent.
Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire is another victim of my televisual prejudices. I get that Nucky isn’t meant to be a big showboating figure, but the psychological impression (scars?) left by Gandolfini mean that I just want him to be. I think I might rate Boardwalk Empire over Breaking Bad, but Buscemi has always been my least favourite thing in it. Luckily the rest of the cast is amazing.