I’m finally all caught up on Breaking Bad! What a show. It’s exciting, scintillating, and the perfect mix of rapidly moving chaos and slow, day-to-day minutia. With only two episodes left in the first half of season five, I’ll wait until early September to write anything about what has aired this summer – but I’ve really enjoyed it, including the heavily debated train episode.
For now, though, let’s discuss season four. There’s a lot to dig in to.
I recently read an interesting piece by Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker on Breaking Bad, the evolution of Walter White’s character, and who viewers are meant to root for on the show. It’s a great read, but only check out the full article if you’re up to date on the show – there are, of course, “spoilers”.
Nussbaum makes many of the same points as other reviewers, including myself. That what Vince Gilligan set out to do was take a sympathetic figure and turn him into a full-fledged villain. The Walter White of season one was a man who struggled with the decision to kill a man who he knew, if released, would kill him and his entire family. The Walter White of season four is a man who was willing to poison a child in order to manipulate an associate – and the Walter White of season five is even darker.
But what Nussbaum looks at that I’ve been unable to notice is how viewers react to what we’re seeing. I’ve watched Breaking Bad in a bubble of isolation. I’ve ingested the whole thing in a short period of time, well after others have consumed it. I’ve been largely unaware of the opinions of my fellow viewers. Basically, I had no idea that people are still rooting for Walter White.
I’ve included a couple of excerpts from the Nussbaum piece below that speak to this point without going beyond the plot points of season four:
“Each season, Walt has made far less justifiable choices, each one changing him, with a throb of arrogance here, a swell of egotism there. We’re deep in the Scarface stage; the hero of the show is now its villain.”
“Walt’s rationalization is that he is protecting his family, but his most memorable targets are other people’s children: first, Jesse’s junkie girlfriend, whose air-traffic-controller father ended up crashing a plane in his grief over her death from an overdose, and then, last season, Brock, the son of another of Jesse’s girlfriends … When Brock was near death in the I.C.U., I spent hours arguing with friends about who was responsible. To my surprise, some of the most hard-core cynics thought it inconceivable that it could be Walt—that might make the show impossible to take, they said. But, of course, it did nothing of the sort. Once the truth came out, and Brock recovered, I read posts insisting that Walt was so discerning, so careful with the dosage, that Brock could never have died. The audience has been trained by cable television to react this way: to hate the nagging wives, the dumb civilians, who might sour the fun of masculine adventure.”
This is the point that fascinates me. Skyler has been a largely unlikable character. She’s made decisions that have led to her current position, particularly the decision to stay married to Walter. Her character must be held responsible for those choices. Yet, she is married to a sociopath. She deserves our sympathy, but never gets it. And while Hank has certainly become a more heroic character as the seasons pass, are we ever truly rooting for him to catch Walter? Do we want him, the DEA, The Man, to be victorious?
Still, I think most viewers would argue that we’re rooting for Jesse now. For him to get out, get away from Walt. Take off with a decent amount of money, maybe his girlfriend, and whatever pieces of a soul he still has.
All along it has seemed like Walt has grown to love Jesse and wants to protect him. Walt has gone to great lengths to keep Jesse not only alive, but in the business, when it might have been easier to cut ties. Yet he never stops hurting the people Jesse loves, and therefore hurting Jesse himself. He allows poor Jane to die and then, much much worse, he poisons the son of Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea. The child survives, barely, but ending the season with the shot of the Lily of the Valley plant in Walt’s backyard felt very much like the show saying “Yep, he’s definitely, definitely evil now.”
It was interesting to watch Jesse’s loyalties shift from Walt, to Gus and Mike, and back again throughout the course of season four. All Jesse has ever really wanted was to be loved and respected. Walt was like a father figure, and at the end of season three he killed for the guy. He murdered someone for Walt. But as season four evolves, he isn’t getting that respect from Walt and is getting a sense of pride, and a feeling of being respected, from Gus and from Mike. And when his loyalties eventually shift back to Walt, it’s because Walt has manipulated him. Walt made Jesse think that Gus tried to kill Brock and used a child as a pawn, but it was Walt that did that. Knowing that, I find it hard to believe anyone could continue to root for Walt to succeed.
Walter’s motivations have clearly changed, and that’s something that I’ll want to discuss even more in my review of the first half of season five. When he first struck out as a meth cook, he wanted to make around $700,000. He’s not only gotten greedier as he got deeper into the business, but he’s started to get a sense of worth and pride out of the gig. When he took Gus down at the end of the season and told Skyler “I won”, it wasn’t just about protecting himself and his family from a threat. Walt has started taking joy from winning. And that means he’ll never stop. There will never be enough. That’s dangerous.
When I think about Breaking Bad, I often consider another anti-hero show I watch, Dexter. (I’m sure others frequently draw comparisons to The Sopranos.) I’ve watched a show about a serial killer for years, and I still root for the murderer. I don’t want Dexter to get caught, and I often actively root for him to kill someone. Because the someone is almost always also a murderer. Dexter has a code, and that allows us to root for him without feeling too guilty. In Breaking Bad, Jesse is like Dexter – of course, yes, he’s not a serial killer. But what I mean is that Jesse follows a code, albeit a more abstract one than Dexter’s. There are lines that Jesse does not want to cross. There are no more lines for Walter. I believe he will do anything if it’s for his own advantage. Jesse may also be a criminal, a killer, a drug pusher. But he has limits.
Gus provided a fantastic adversary for Walter because he also had no limits. He was willing to use or kill children. Everything he did furthered his own needs, everyone around him was a pawn. I loved watching it all play out, I appreciated getting more insight into Gus’s past, and I thought the Mexico episode was brilliant. The nursing home bombing, and the way Walter outsmarted Gus, that’s a big part of why I watch Breaking Bad. To marvel at the evil genius of it all, even when things skew towards the unrealistic. I don’t expect realism like I saw on The Wire from Breaking Bad. While I had a hard time believing that Gus would actually be able to stand up and walk after the explosion at the nursing home (what an excellent use of that old man bell character, by the way), it was interesting that his face kind of resembled the burnt pink teddy bear from the plane crash.
Alright, I think that’s enough for season four. Head down to the comments and let me know your thoughts on the epic season. And don’t forget to keep an eye out for a review of episodes one through eight of season five in early September!