You guys, Breaking Bad (one of the all-time greatest TV shows ever, which I'd argue is second only to Mad Men) aired TEN YEARS AGO TODAY. What are some of your favorite episodes? My top six are as follows (don't worry, no spoilers ahead):
#6. "...And the Bag's in the River" (S01E03)
This is the first episode that really, really sold me on the show. I had heard the oft-quoted phrase "Mr. Chips to Scarface" (indicating Vince Gilligan's plans for what the transformation of Walter White would look like throughout Breaking Bad's arc), and I was worried at first about whether they could pull off such a transformation. How seamless would it be? Would the character's decisions make sense? Or would silly, arbitrarily convenient plot points ruin my ability to immerse in the story and in the decisions of its main players?
At the time, when I was first watching Breaking Bad, I was also doing research for Dr. Dennis Packard, a Philosophy of Film professor at BYU, helping him publish some work about Biblical storytelling, Aristotle, poetics, and screenwriting. One of the things I kept discussing with this professor was this notion of "character" versus "plot." There's an old (and quite reductive) argument in film/TV criticism about whether character-based drama is "better," or more compelling, than plot-driven drama. The answer, of course, is more complicated: character and plot need to develop at the same time. They're the same thing. You don't get to know what kind of personality a character has unless they are pushed into a difficult situation by the plot--because people show who they really are when they're put under pressure. You can't just have your protagonist pet a dog in the first act, and then expect your audience to accept it as shorthand that he or she is a "good" person: you have to give your characters real choices to make. So, in a sense, asking which is most necessary--characterization or plot--is like asking "which blade of a pair of scissors is most necessary" (this is a C. S. Lewis quote, but to be fair I'm drastically re-purposing it; in the original context, Lewis was talking about the false dichotomy between works and grace). So, needless to say, through all of my research and writing I had developed a sort of critical and impatient eye for the ways in which too many cinematic and televisual stories tended to take "shortcuts" when it comes to plot/character development.
All of this hesitation notwithstanding, once I finished watching "...And the Bag's in the River," I was convinced that Breaking Bad knew what it was doing with Walter White. I was convinced that great care would be taken to depict his slow, subtle descent (from mild-mannered, fumbling, overqualified chemistry teacher to cold-hearted, prideful, violent drug lord) with emotional honesty and narrative efficiency.
#5. "Fly" (S03E10)
Expertly directed by Rian Johnson (known for Brick, Looper, The Brothers Bloom, and The Last Jedi), this is an incredible budget-restricted episode in a confined, claustrophobic space; it's a dialogue-heavy but almost inexplicably gripping exploration of character motivations and relationships; and it's one of the first truly deep dives into the personal-but-mythic significance of the complicated and tragic father-son / employer-employee / abuser-victim / addict-enabler dynamic between Walt and Jesse.
#4. "Full Measure" (S03E13)
The ending of this episode--which caps the third season--is incomparably heart-wrenching. Shot/reverse-shot editing contrasts close-up images of two character's faces: one holds a gun, crying and slightly trembling with an awful combination of fear, trepidation, determination, and preemptive guilt; the other desperately pleads for his life, with an dawning understanding of the hollow futility of his words. "Don't do this," he stammers. "You don't have to do this." But that's precisely it: Breaking Bad is very interested in asking questions about what we must do, about what we mustn't do, and about the narratives we tell ourselves to try to figure out the difference.
#3. "Pilot" (S01E01)
What an opening! With most shows, the pilot is a little weak, or a little meandering, or a little tonally inconsistent with what's actually in store if you commit to watching the rest of the show. Not so with Breaking Bad. This pilot perfectly sets the stage, letting you know that you're in good hands. The episode begins with a three-and-a-half minute cold open (which turns out to be a flash-forward), starting with one of the most perplexing images in TV history: the serene (yet haunting) deep blue of a desert sky, and some anonymous brown khakis floating, falling from seemingly nowhere; there's the diegetic sound of these pants blowing in the wind (mixed with some eerie non-diegetic ringing, almost like music but not quite), and there's a sense of ephemerality and fantasy in the air. That is, until a split-second later, when we're taken out of the literal clouds and shoved into the gritty, disorienting groundedness of some sort of chase scene.
A man in underwear and a gas mask is driving an RV (we hear sirens in the background, but we don't yet see his pursuers). He's frantically breathing, and unconscious characters are sliding around in the vehicle, which looks to be quite a mess. The soundtrack accelerates to match the cinematography, echoing the energy of the moment with increasingly intense, atmospheric percussion. There's no melody--only rhythm and chaos. And the RV eventually crashes into a bush. In these first 54 seconds, between the floating and the crash, we can't help but wonder what we're supposed to feel.
Is this some kind of experimental art piece? Is it a dream, a nightmare, a tragedy, or a myth? Is it an action adventure, a fugitive story, an absurdist comedy of errors, or a cascading cacophony of violence and destruction? Throughout the rest of the hour, some of those answers are gradually, smartly answered--and the show, as it turns out, is a little bit of all of the above.
#2. "Blood Money" (S05E09)
Wow, wow, wow. This is such an incredibly bold episode. There's the ominous Godfather/Sopranos reference in a dropped bag of oranges ("hello, Carol"). There's the breathtaking imagery (congrats to Bryan Cranston on some truly inspired directing; the image of Aaron Paul's reflection on a filthy glass table is particularly beautiful and troubling). There's the juxtaposition of the excruciating emotional stakes and the coy, sometimes oddly humorous script (the amazing Badger / Skinny Pete conversation about Star Trek is one for the ages, not just because it's funny, but also because of the way in which it's contrasted with Jesse's numb, traumatized silence--speaking of which, when I re-visited this episode to write this blurb, Aaron Paul's performance almost brought me to tears again, even in fast-forward. He's so damned good). There's the deeply satisfying montage of Hank working in the garage. And there's the crowd-pleasing, fist-pumping triumph in Skyler's moment confronting Lydia ("Never come back here. Do you understand me?").
But most importantly, to me at least, are the ways in which the episode plays with time and temporality (more on that here), starting with an extreme flash-forward and then immediately re-immersing in the slow, subtle, moment-by-moment cat-and-mouse dynamic that "Gliding Over All" had teased one episode prior--only to then suddenly ramp up the pace by significantly and shockingly skipping past what many assumed would be several hours of buildup.
Holy cow, you guys.
#1. "Ozymandias" (S05E14)
This episode, again directed by Rian Johnson, is the most emotionally exhausting, terrifying, bleak, troubling, and beautiful hour of television I've ever seen. Ever. (And yes, I've seen Black Mirror's "Be Right Back" and Game of Thrones' "The Rains of Castamere").
To say that this episode takes you on a "roller coaster ride" would not only be an understatement and a cliche, but also a fundamental mischaracterization of what "Ozymandias" accomplishes. It's not really a thrill ride of ups-and-downs. It's not a shockingly twisty kaleidoscope of feelings, thoughts, and reversals. It's a descent into Hell. It's a punishment. It's a grueling, uncompromising meditation on the inertia of violence, the practical meaninglessness of "good intentions," the price of pride, the brutality of consequence, and the disintegration of the family. In this episode, Vince Gilligan is a vengeful Old Testament god.
But no matter how ugly this episode gets (and it gets really, really rough), it never comes across as gleefully perverse, thematically unearned, or, well, gratuitous. Instead, the feeling we're left with is the acknowledgment of the damned: "how else could this have gone down," we ask ourselves, knowing full well the answer. We are forced to confront the unflinching reality that this sort of destruction has been inevitable for a long time, that really we had no right to expect anything more optimistic. To (mis)quote Sartre: L'enfer, c'est nous.
Of course, not every episode of television should feel this way--it wouldn't be sustainable. And not every episode of Breaking Bad feels this way, even. But the willingness in "Ozymandias" to really go there, to immerse in the dark implications of everything we've seen so far, is powerful and vital. It lends a sense of gravitas and theological weight to the epic story that otherwise perhaps could have been dismissed as just a pulpy, over-the-top fable. And by so doing, it cements Breaking Bad's role as something more than just a visually arresting, wonderfully acted, and insightfully written crime thriller. Because of "Ozymandias," Breaking Bad is simultaneously both ideologically "bigger" and more intimately personal than all of that. It speaks to our souls, like a work of scripture. And, like some of the best works of scripture, it's really, really hard.