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From Under A Rock: Breaking Bad: The Complete Series

February 13, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Breaking Bad: The Complete Series  

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Before I (Michael) start, I should just say that yes, there will be spoilers, and yes, this review is of the full series (although discussion will probably veer toward focusing on the final season). As soon as I watched the pilot to this show, my life was changed. I realized there are many different approaches to writing a story and, more importantly, a lead character. This show had a difficult time selling to a network because the main character gets less and less likable as it goes along. But the show gets better and better as Vince Gilligan earned my eternal trust in his ability to tell a story. I hadn’t rewatched the show in 16 months when I viewed it for this review here, and I got the same goosebumps I had the first time. Needless to say, this show deserves all of its praise, and those who find it “overrated” are missing something in their viewing.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron infiltrated Michael’s crime family before revealing he was The Departed. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock by pelting him with fulminated mercury and “being the one who knocks” with Breaking Bad!

Breaking Bad
Original Run: January 20, 2008 – September 29, 2013
Directed by: Vince Gilligan, Michelle MacLaren, Rian Johnson, George Mastras, Bryan Cranston, Michael Slovis, and Adam Bernstein, among others.
Written by: Vince Gilligan, George Mastras, Moira Walley-Beckett, Sam Catlin, Thomas Schnauz, and Gennifer Hutchinson
Starring:
Bryan Cranston as Walter White
Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman
Anna Gunn as Skyler White
Dean Norris as Hank Schrader
Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman

Michael Ornelas: This column has been a couple years in the making. Since before we even had a column, I bugged Aaron to check out Breaking Bad, and despite his lack of interest in most television shows, he gave this a chance. It took awhile, but I don’t think I’m projecting in saying he enjoyed it quite a bit. I know I did, and, along with Scrubs, I consider this to be my all-time favorite TV show.

Aaron Hubbard: I wouldn’t even say it’s an aversion to television that kept me away from Breaking Bad when everyone else was well into it. I had a specific aversion to this show because I didn’t want to watch a show about cancer and cooking meth. Michael was the first person to sell me on the show’s storytelling and excellent characters, which is why I finally broke down and watched it. Literally from the first episode I knew I was in for something truly special. That Breaking Bad managed to not only maintain that quality, but improve by leaps and bounds is an immense accomplishment.

Characters
Walt Breaks Bad, Jesse Breaks Good, & Hank Breaks Down
Michael: While Walter White’s “breaking bad” is the catalyst for most of the show’s plot points, the character work is unrivaled. All of the lead characters have a pointed arc that they seem to always be working toward, and some of them pleasantly surprised me. For instance, I never expected Jesse Pinkman to be the moral compass of the show, proving at every turn that he’s a beacon of light in a very dark world. Conversely, Hank Schrader is a man so consumed with his end goal that he develops a “the end justifies the means” type of character, and while he doesn’t exactly fill the role of “dirty” cop by the end, he’s definitely
pushing his boundaries. Good or bad, the best thing about this show is that these three are perpetually interesting and compelling characters whose demises (or lack thereof) are something in which I’m invested.

Aaron: I don’t think I’ve ever been as genuinely invested in any characters the way I was invested in Breaking Bad’s cast. In general, most characters I simply latch onto and I enjoy their personality and want them to succeed. That’s about as far as it goes. Breaking Bad got me invested in these characters on a moral level. I think there was at least once a season where I was saying “Come on, Walt! Don’t do this, you’re a good person!” And sometimes screaming it. I never react that way to media, but this show managed to do that on several occasions. Hank managed to go from being a character I really wasn’t fond of to someone that I respected and had affection for. And Jesse… man. I don’t know if there’s a more sympathetic character to be found than Jesse Pinkman.

Michael: Every last triumph experienced by Jesse Pinkman was amplified tenfold to me as a viewer because I cared about him so much. Vince Gilligan put Jesse through the ringer, and he always held it together…barely. I worry that the final shot we see of Jesse was his breaking point, but he finally got one over on Walt, by not giving him what he wanted (for Jesse to shoot him). He got out from under Walt’s thumb, but at what price? I worry he paid with his sanity, and that would be tragic. It truly makes Walt “the devil,” as he’s referred to several times in the final season. Jesse was nothing worse than misguided throughout the series. He had the best of intentions always with fatal flaws, and I was more invested in him than any character before or since him.

Aaron: Agreed. But beyond just those three you bring up, I think the show excelled at creating memorable characters. Walter’s wife Skyler is a character that I was fully against for at least two seasons before I started to realize just how much Walter’s actions were negatively affecting her and her family. Without changing too much, Skyler managed to play both a perfect victim and a person capable of standing her ground. Indeed, by the time the last season rolls around, she’s one of the strongest characters in the show. I also want to give recognition to Gustavo Fring, Saul Goodman, and lastly Mike Ehrmantraut. These three added so much to the show and while they are more static than the leads, they are essential and provide great moments by themselves. And lastly, a nod to Walter, Jr. I thought that kid was a star and the one truly innocent character in a show where everyone is a little bit dark.

Michael: Gus may have been the biggest monster on the show. He was Walt’s dragon to slay, and with him out of the way, Walt was finally the big bad wolf. He was the remaining antagonist and had his protagonist arc completed. And Mike was that hardass grandpa whose approval you yearned for but could never quite cinch, but you knew his tough love still counted as love. I wasn’t even in the show, but I felt like I wanted Mike to accept me and like me. It’s a strange sensation, but what I’m driving at is that all of these characters jumped off the screen and were fixtures in my household for an hour every week. I felt like I was living in this world, and I was in between my best friends and family as all these dastardly, underhanded schemes were going on.

Morality
Shades of Gray Matter
Aaron: At its core, Breaking Bad is really an epic Shakespearean tragedy, not unlike Macbeth or Hamlet. It’s the story about how a good man compromises, and how those compromises affect him and everyone around him. The question is – does Walt’s darker road change who he was at his core, or simply peel back the layers to reveal what was always there, waiting for a chance to come out? It’s clear right away that Walter has an ego and considers himself smarter and superior to those around him, especially Jesse. Would he ever become “The One Who Knocks” if he was truly a humble, mild-mannered chemistry teacher? One of the first things he does in the show is lie about his cancer to his family, and quit his job at the carwash even though he and his family are depending on him. These actions are incredibly selfish when you think about it, but they are pieced together in a way that makes the audience understand, sympathize with and even condone these actions; a dangerous precedent for every decision Walt makes from then on.

Michael: And as the show progresses, there’s a moral breaking point for where they stop connecting with Walt and want to see him get his comeuppance. I’m almost ashamed to say that I as a viewer was even able to justify his inaction in Jane’s death in season 2. For me, I didn’t want Walt to go down until after he disposed of Gus Fring in the season 4 finale. I don’t know if I should be ashamed of that, or if it’s a testament to a meticulously crafted character arc with a morality decline so gradual that I didn’t even see how far gone he (and I by association) was until it was too late. Was Walt only committing to his evil deeds because he was past the point of no return? Another question you have to ask yourself while watching his ego seemingly run out of control. He certainly started the series as a man who was in over his head, but as he got a grasp on how this new world of his worked, he seemed to like it (which he never admitted to until his final scene with Skyler) and reveled in the power he had experienced. It truly is a tragedy.

Aaron: I think the close to the Season 4 finale was perfect. While I turned on Walt after Jane’s death, it was only because I realized that from that point on, he was officially compromised. He went from a man who spent hours trying to justify not killing someone in the first few episodes to someone who could make that tough call in seconds. And each murder got easier and easier for him to commit. But we can still justify most of these things. He lets Jane pass because he believes it will help save Pinkman. He kills Gus because Gus threatens his life and every person that matters to him. But poisoning a child to achieve that is so inexcusable that it was very clear that Walt truly was the bad guy. It’s interesting to me, because as gritty and complex as the show is, it is actually a perfect example of moral absolutism; what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong, and you can’t do bad things without it corrupting you as a person and compromising your and even your basic goodness. The consequences may take a long time to get you, but Walt’s misdeeds are as much a death sentence as his cancer is. At least according to the show’s moral principles.

Bear
The Creative Stylings of Breaking Bad
Michael: There’s a lot to this show that made it feel completely unique, and a lot of that had to do with distinct choices made in the creative process. Writing-wise, cinematically, and even in the way the actors presented their characters, Breaking Bad’s style was inimitable. First, I want to address the writing. This show had serious balls. They wrote their characters into the most dangerous, most exciting situations possible, and figured out an escape route after the fact. Most shows fail in this regard, as they’ll put their character in the most heightened imaginable peril, realize there’s no way out, and then settle for something less. Breaking Bad plowed through that barrier by forcing itself to put its characters on the tracks before a moving train (metaphorically, although it did that literally once) and just hoped they’d survive. It also made no apologies or hesitation when killing its characters off because that’s what needed to happen for the story to continue. The intensity in this show is unmatched because no punches were pulled.

Aaron: Especially on those season endings. I can’t imagine watching this series as it came out one episode at a time and then waiting months for the next season. Or the season 5A finale, where Hank finally puts the pieces together. This show was ruthless, delivering masterful cliffhangers on a regular basis. Very rarely did an episode feel like the plot was wrapped up, sealed in a box with a pretty bow on top of it. There was always a reason to come back to the next one. For me, the most memorable was the Season 4 ending; that episode could have easily been the series finale and I would have been happy, but then Vince Gilligan zoomed in on that Lily of the Valley for us at the very end. And I was even happier.

Michael: The other component to this show’s “style” I want to address is the way it’s shot. The landscape gets to speak for itself and provides one of the more visually stunning backdrops in recent memory, but on top of that, they get creative with where they place the camera on several occasions. There are many shots from underneath a surface on top of which meth is being cooked, one where the camera is on the end of a shovel, and many that are creative just for the sake of it. They add a layer to the show that call attention to the action being performed within view that make them stand out as important as opposed to just setting a scene. My personal favorite sequence in the series is the beautifully shot (and edited) meth-cooking montage in the season 5A finale, set to the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The creative envelope was always being pushed in Breaking Bad and it provided distinguishing attributes left and right.

Aaron: I think one thing that really stood out to me as the series went along was the strength and creativity of its cold opens. Everyone remembers the burnt up pink teddy bear, and it’s shown enough times that most people can recognize that it’s a symbol for Walter and his progression (or descent) throughout Season 2. But things like the commercial for Los Pollos Hermanos or the scene where Madrigal Electromotive executive Peter Schuler taste-tests different sauces in a factory in Europe, or a flashback to Jesse and his friends blowing money at a strip club… those are a lot riskier. The fact that the show trusts us to analyze it and we trust the show to deliver in spite of seemingly unrelated scenes is a pretty clear indicator that this show was a cut above the norm.

Felina
A Perfect Climax and A Near-Perfect Epilogue
Aaron: I’m just going to put this out there; “Ozymandias”, the 60th’s episode, is the best hour of media, television or film, that I think I’ve ever seen. In a very long, very complex narrative, it is the absolute climax of the story. Walter White is finally caught and almost brought to justice, but instead, the consequences of everything he’s done finally catch up to him and end up shooting his family in the face. From there, Walter can do nothing but run and try to save himself. There’s not a wasted minute in the narrative and all of it is compelling, shocking, powerful material that is going to stick with me for the rest of my life. And again, honestly, if this episode was the end of the series, I would almost be satisfied with it. Except that there’s one person I care about whose story isn’t over; Jesse Pinkman. That punk kid who wasn’t even supposed to be a permanent part of the show has become so important that his fate necessitates an epilogue. So we get the last two episodes. And just like the best episodes in this series, they go in totally unexpected directions and tell full stories that contribute to the greater narrative.

Michael: These last three hours are incredible. I mean, the last 18 or so episodes are almost all perfect. Metacritic has season 5 at a 98%, and they’re one of the toughest grading scales around. Now, I’ve never been one to let anyone else’s opinion dictate my enjoyment of something, but I couldn’t help but salivate over the release of the final season when I saw that number sitting there. I always knew the show would come down to two showdowns: Walt vs. Hank, and Walt vs. Jesse. I wasn’t sure which would come first and who would win. I honestly expected Hank to be the sole survivor of the trio, given how fond Vince Gilligan seemed to be of breaking our hearts. Well, he still managed to do that, but Hank got to go out in a blaze of glory that absolutely befitted his character. It became apparent that he wasn’t going to walk out of that shoot-out in the desert alive, but I was still absolutely shocked and emotionally wrecked when it actually did happen. I paused the show and regrouped for a solid five minutes before I could even bear to resume. And what’s great about the way this show is structured, is that the episodes account for that. Plenty happens in the minutes to follow, but it’s all aftermath, so you don’t exactly have to be all there, emotionally speaking. I was also a big fan of the use of the flash-forwards throughout the fifth season where we see Walt acquiring the items he needs to enact his revenge and right his wrongs in “Felina.” He gets the gun to take out Uncle Jack, Todd, and their crew. He gets the ricin to remove Lydia from the equation. And now that he’s equipped for the boss battles, we get to see the final stage. The table was set so perfectly for the finale, and honestly, I was underwhelmed upon first viewing, but ever since then, I’ve come to realize that it was the most perfect ending this show could have had. I wasn’t ready to give Walt the chance to redeem himself initially, and I desperately wanted Jesse to pull that trigger on his former mentor. But in hindsight, Jesse did what he needed to do, and after all the heartbreak he (and I) had endured, he deserved that. Jesse’s arc in the final stretch of the show proved to me that I’m not a sociopath because I empathized so much with him. I mean, not that I thought I was a sociopath until then, but it’s nice to have those reminders that I can still feel that deeply and passionately on another person’s behalf.

Aaron: I think one reason it’s a lot easier to handle Jesse not shooting Walt is that we get perhaps the most cathartic moment in the series just seconds before. Jesse killing Todd, that evil son of a bitch who murdered a child in cold blood, was exactly what I wanted to see. And I really have to give credit to the writing here; Todd was the perfect final villain because he’s so understated and unlikable. Tuco was a monster, but he was entertaining. Gus was always interesting and I was sad to see him go, even though he had to and there was no getting around it. Todd, Uncle Jack and the rest? Oh fuck them. Kill them all Jesse! But more importantly, I think that all goes back to the fact that Breaking Bad is a morality tale. It begins with one character making a bad decision that sets him on a path to Hell, where he will lose everything. It ends with another character making one good decision, and I’d like to imagine that it sets him on a much better road. He did the right thing, even when face-to-face with a man who only ever showed him how to do the wrong things.

Gus
Go Big or Go Home
Michael: This show could have been deep, incredibly written, superbly acted, and visually gorgeous and still managed to bore me. That’s what happened with Mad Men (different strokes for different folks), and I gave that show nearly four seasons to hook me. But Breaking Bad was different, because for every character moment, we got balls-to-the-wall action and excitement. The pilot episode alone is among the more ambitious episodes of TV I’ve seen, and by the end of the series, it almost feels tame. Over the course of the series, we got to see a high school chemistry teacher throw fulminated mercury at a druglord, obliterating his headquarters. We got to see two planes collide in midair as a direct result of our protagonist’s actions (or inaction). We got a manhunt in a grocery store parking lot that managed to be my favorite shootout in TV history. There was a mass poisoning through tainted tequila, an antagonist getting half his face blown off, a giant magnet tipping a U-Haul outside a police station, a train heist (which is one of my favorite episodes of TV ever), a Godfather-style slaying of multiple enemies simultaneously in three separate prisons, and an automatic remote-controlled machine gun that ends the lives of almost a dozen Nazis. For most shows, just one of these visually ambitious moments would be talked about for years. Breaking Bad had all of these and still managed to top them all with small lines of dialogue that carried so much meaning such as “Stay out of my territory,” “I am the danger,” “Say my name,” and “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself.” All those moments (and more) kept adding to the legacy of the most riveting show in TV history. Every episode was memorable in its own way because “We can’t do that” wasn’t an idea that ever crossed the minds of the people running the show. As an aspiring creator of TV myself, I have taken the invaluable lesson from this show to never compromise your big moments. Make everything else work so you can have them come across the way you intend them to.

Aaron: Something that’s been rewarding to me while watching this show has been the fact that everyone else was so far ahead of me. I loved this show from the very first episode. The pilot told a complete story and if nothing else came of it, it still would have been fantastic. But I have never seen a series where characters change so much over short periods of time. There is no such thing as status quo in this show, and a viewer really can’t afford to miss even an episode because something important happens every time out. Now sure, not every episode is going to be a perfect masterpiece, but as a whole, the show refused to compromise or stick with conventional television storytelling. I appreciate that level of ambition. With all due respect to the amazing actors and directors that worked on this show, Breaking Bad would not be what it was if Vince Gilligan wasn’t so damn determined to show us that the episodic format of television can be used to create a more complex story.

Ratings:
Michael: What more is there to say? The show is so dense with story, character, and tension while being beautifully shot, tonally unique, and emotionally broad. There’s nothing I would change about Breaking Bad, and I can’t wait to see where Better Call Saul ends up because, for my money, there’s no better writer in the television landscape than Vince Gilligan.

A+

Aaron: Honestly, by this point you’re probably sick of hearing us gush about Breaking Bad. But we gush for a reason; this may be the best television show ever made. That’s a fairly popular opinion, but sometimes popular opinions are right. It’s certainly my favorite, and I say that as a person who was not inclined to ever give this show a chance in the first place. If I gave out higher grades, I would.

A+

Michael: There is only one other show I hold in the same regard as this one, and that’s The Sopranos, which I amazingly didn’t watch until last year. I also plan on getting through all of the original series of The Twilight Zone because that’s masterful from what I’ve seen as well. TV is such an interesting and rewarding landscape, and I’m always more invested in the characters of shows I like than those from movies I’m into.

Aaron: That happens when you spend more time with them. Why do you think movies have a dozen sequels now?

Michael: Well you technically spend more time with Frodo and Sam than the cast of Firefly (if you watch the director’s cuts), and those are movies, not shows. But yes, I get your point and I’m just providing a counterpoint to be “that guy.”

Be honest, did this show cause you to consider manufacturing and distributing crystal meth, or did you not excel at high school chemistry too?

Next week:

Aaron: Well. Now that we’ve seen a nice guy become an absolutely terrible person over the course of five seasons, I suggest we cleanse our palette a little bit by watching a movie with one of my favorite heroes. It’s about time we did a Western on this column anyway.
Shane
Michael: I know virtually nothing about this movie, but I’ve been watching more and more Westerns over the past year, so I absolutely welcome it. And a palette cleanser is definitely needed right about now.

Aaron: Fun fact here; Alan Ladd, the actor who plays Shane in this movie, is the father of Alan Ladd, Jr. (duh), the producer of a little film you might know about called Star Wars.

Michael: Never. Heard. Of it.

Have you heard of Star Wars?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad

Charity!
Wigs4Kids

Wigs 4 Kids is the charity to which one of our favorite wrestlers (Daniel Bryan) just donated all his hair. It’s an excellent charity worth giving a look, especially if you’re a male because many young boys battling cancer are too embarrassed by the notion of getting a wig made of girl’s hair. That’s where you can help. If you have long hair that you’re looking to donate or even just a few dollars, it’s a truly noble cause and we urge you to give it a few seconds of your time.

10
The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
We thought this was okay. We’re leaning towards recommending it, but it’s honestly a toss-up. ...kidding. If you're looking for a visceral experience that will draw you in and take you on a ride, Breaking Bad is the show for you. Contrarians are sick of hearing about how good it is from so many people, but we promise you that it's talked about in such high regard for a reason: it's one of the best-produced shows you'll ever watch.
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