Commenting on the Critics with Simon Columb….
Breaking Bad will not be forgotten. Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris and Anna Gunn are outstanding actors and fully deserve the credit they receive for their roles. With positive press, from every corner of the online and media community, it only seems right to acknowledge a few of the interesting facts about the series in light of the closing episode. They are widely available, but a few that were collectively mentioned on The Chive ran as follows:
“2. Tio Salamanca was supposed to be the “Big Bad” of Season 3 … but after seeing Giancarlo’s work and how well he clicked with the cast, Gus became the major villain.
15. Jesse was originally supposed to die at the end of Season 1, but after seeing Aaron’s performance, Vince Gilligan changed his mind. “My career would be over,” Paul says. “I would be a sobbing mess watching week to week”
20. Mike Ehrmantraut’s part in the series was supposed to be smaller. He was introduced as a cleaner for Jane’s body after the actor who plays Saul Goodman, Bob Odenkirk, wasn’t available to film”
Read the full list here.
I have been open about my own criticisms of the show (finishing Season 4 in April, I wrote Breaking Down Breaking Bad), and in many respects, I still stand by them. But I found a new appreciation for the fifth season as it was worked towards a thought-through and satisfying closure – opposed to extending stories into sixth and seventh seasons. Reading John Wrathall’s article in Sight & Sound too, also changed my mind, whereby he noted how: “The difference is that whereas The Sopranos showed us the ordinariness at the heart of an evil man, Breaking Bad shows us something potentially far more challenging: the evil at the heart of an ordinary man”. It has many, many plus points – and I would not watch an entire run of a TV programme if it had nothing redeeming about it. It had me hooked and I’m glad.
But my criticisms have not fallen on deaf ears and many have understood my frustrations. Now Breaking Bad has come full circle, it is worth acknowledging the issues that will remain embedded in the programme – issues that relate to the decisions highlighted by this week’s article at The Chive. Time and time again, Breaking Bad has kept hold of characters for an unplanned and unnecessary amount of time – creating stories and arcs that are forced to fit around ‘The Walter White Story’ opposed to an over-arching, thematically relevant structure planned from the outset.
It goes without saying that Vince Gilligan and the casting by Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas is flawless. Sticking to their guns and removing a character as originally intended could have led to an equally fascinating actor cast to support the show. Everyone from Hector Salamanca through to Gus Fring and Jesse Pinkman are all brilliant, memorable roles – and I’m confident that had Pinkman been killed off at the end of the first season as planned, the new recruit to join Walt could’ve been as thoroughly complex and key to the central arc of Walt changing from “Mr Chips to Scarface”. Instead, the Jesse-Walt dynamic became the spine of the show – a connection that, in the first episode, was not the case.
[Spoilers in this one paragraph for The Sopranos, The Wire, House of Cards and Mad Men]…
Superior TV shows include The Sopranos, The Wire, House of Cards and Mad Men – and they are all programmes that took huge risks when removing key characters at unexpected and crucial moments. The losses only served the story as the audience realised that nobody was safe. The Sopranos shocked everyone by killing off Big Pussy in second season – using it throughout the later series as Tony felt guilt towards the murder of his childhood friend. Stringer Bell in The Wire seemed to become the most likeable character in the entire series but was still chosen to exit at the end of Season 3. House of Cards ensured that Russo would not return while Lane Pryce in Mad Men became an integral part of the Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce advertising agency – but alas, he won’t appear in Season 6. Jesse, Hank and Mike in Breaking Bad were untouchable until the final season (whereby “all bets are off”) – and how tragic that the Hank-Walt conflict that begun in the pilot episode and remained boiling until Season 5’s mid-way season closing episode, only provided six more episodes of [brilliant] narrative. Considering a Hank-Walt showdown in the final episode was not on the cards, surely this incredibly important story could’ve been utilised earlier on – and continued for much longer than six episodes. ‘Ozymandias’ is amongst the best Breaking Bad episodes because it is clear that no one is safe – and tension is created because Hank is as expendable as anyone else. But with only three episodes to go, Gilligan and Co had nothing to lose at this point.
But my criticisms are not unique. The Empire podcast, in their ‘Breaking Bad Spoiler Podcast special’ highlighted how Uncle Jack, Todd and friends seemed to create a clear villain for Season 5 – villains who Walt was required to ‘take down’. As an audience, we would cheer him on as his mechanical contraption spewed bullets across their trailers. David Chen, on ‘The Ones Who Knock’ podcast teased an idea that, in Season 5, Walt becomes the villain – and as an audience we should be rooting for his family and Jesse to take the lead character down. The protagonist becomes the antagonist has a poetic ring to it. Clearly, a well-defined “big bad” in criminals sporting Nazi Swastikas clarified how there are worse bad guys than Walt.
Let us dream a little. What if Walt became, definitively, the bad guy and became as dangerous and as sinister as Uncle Jack? He came close to this when admitting to Jane’s death – but imagine if it was Jesse who died at the end of Season 2? Imagine if our favourite underdog was taken out before he had an opportunity to change his ways? Since killing Gale, Jesse has been a tragic sad-sack of a character, spiralling further and further down in depression. I can appreciate audiences who pine after the Jesse we all knew and loved saying “Look, lady, whatever you’re selling, I ain’t buying, Yo…” – but he was gone at the end of Season 3 (Indeed, in Season 3 he had demons haunting him after Jane’s death). As horrendous as he was, Walt could’ve been so much worse – and in that regard, Breaking Bad could’ve gone much further.
Suffice to say, credit where credit is due – Breaking Bad captured the zeitgeist; it fostered many hours of entertaining conversation. Helen O’Hara, on the Empire podcast, acknowledged an article linking the DVD copies of Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium in the penultimate episode to the final episode. A key monologue in Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium begins “When King Lear dies in Act V, do you know what Shakespeare has written? He’s written “He dies.” That’s all, nothing more. No fanfare, no metaphor, no brilliant final words.”
My wishful hope for a profound and philosophical, sociological or political theme in Breaking Bad is asking too much (or missing the point completely). Since 2008, Breaking Bad told a great story; a good yarn – and judging it against that, I cannot complain whatsoever.