It’s one week to the beginning of the end for Walter White! Depending on how the crystal cracks, Breaking Bad may wind up being the best dramatic TV series yet made, the tragedy of our time, or they could fuck it up royally with some kind of happy ending. I’m biting my fingers. (If you aren’t on board, you’ve got seven days to catch up. Fifty-four episodes, that’s less than eight a day! Take a leave from your job. Break up with your partner if they won’t binge along. If you have to take meth to do it, it’ll only add to the experience. What could go wrong?)
The narrative arc of the four-and-a-half seasons so far couldn’t be simpler: Good guy goes bad. Bit by bit by bit. Bad, badder, baddest. At the start of it all, there couldn’t have been a more ordinary man. This gives the show an extra oomph—we aren’t dealing with a mob boss or the king of ancient Rome. Walter White is a high school teacher, a loving husband and a good dad. He’s a bit of a loser if anything. Smart, but kind of weak. He’s like almost everybody you know. Or worse: like everybody around the edges of your life that you don’t really know, because they don’t seem interesting enough to bother with.
But, like other great tragedies, there’s a “fatal flaw” to the man. The circumstances that come along bring something out of him that may never have flourished. A few seasons in you’ll see him do incredibly evil things, but understandable things, and you’ll wonder what you or the people in your life might do in such situations. However, if you think back to what you saw about him at first (the bitterness over missed opportunities, the little resentments in his eyes, the powerlessness lodged in the shoulders that speaks to a craving for power), you’ll have to admit, you could have seen it coming. So, is there something bad in you that might break? In your friends? In that slightly boring teacher you’ve noticed working at the carwash part-time?
What happens to him? He gets cancer, and because his wife is pregnant with their second child, and because the health care system in the U.S. sucks, this nice-ish guy is in a bit of a bind. He’s going to use up all his family’s savings on medical bills, probably only to die and leave them destitute. When a former chemistry student comes along asking him for advice on how to cook meth… well, there’s saying yes or saying no. He was always a guy who said no, took the easy way out, played by the rules, honored safety and circumspection. But… there was always another possibility for him, and this dilemma, or this excuse, tugs it up from deep inside. He finds himself saying yes… and then bit by bit by bit we watch his glorious descent into hell.
What’s happening to TV? Roots changed everything. B.R. (Before Roots) television was a guilty pleasure. A TV series was something likeable you gobbled up, junk food. The characters were like friends, and their dilemmas, however engaging, were resolved within half an hour if it was a comedy or an hour if it was a drama. You didn’t need to watch episodes in any particular order. Lucy was going to start each one with some hilarious problem that she was trying to hide from Ricky, and by the end Ethyl had helped her return things to the status quo. Or some awful criminal would jeopardize the tranquility of Hawaii until Jack Lord could tell Dan-O to “book ‘em.” Either way, it was trashy fun. Nobody expected anything important from the medium. Important books and Important plays were made into Important films. Nobody with anything serious to say went anywhere near the idiot box.
And then somebody had the idea of taking Alex Haley’s fascinating exploration of his family history right back to slavery, and turning it into a “mini-series.” This was a television show you had to watch from beginning to end. And, believe me, you HAD to. It was epic. Everybody was talking about it. Everybody was glued to the television. This felt like our truth revealed, as previously, novels had done, or films, or paintings or symphonies. It was an artistic construction that didn’t just entertain us while we lived our lives; it changed our lives.
It took HBO to come along and turn this new paradigm, a well-written, well-acted, well-directed ‘novelistic’ television series, into a thing, a thing with several examples: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Big Love, Sex and the City. Sure, there were other great TV shows A.R. (After Roots) and B.H.B.O. (before H.B.O.)—mostly I’m thinking of Twin Peaks—but they all felt like one-off freaks, until cable TV, free of the constraints of network television censorship and the need to please everybody (which usually means offending nobody), could turn the thing into a recipe. A genre.
Now, great TV is everywhere. Movies are today’s guilty pleasure, the junky fun, the form that needs to please-everyone-offend-no-one and is therefore not all that artistic. The bigger palette of a multi-episode genre can give us the space to really explore something. The Wire may be the finest example. A series can give us more detail than a movie, can take in more sidebars, can flesh out more characters, can show us the world, or change the world. I think there are better and better series coming. Mad Men, not my favourite but many people’s, showed us that art direction can flourish and astonish in this new genre.
Metrosexuality, my favourite but not many people’s, showed us that transgressive lifestyles can find their place in this wonky, pliable form. Arrested Development showed us that comedy has fresh horizons in the big narrative of the new television series. The novelistic approach has even re-energized some of the old types of TV series: the new Doctor Who adds season’s long narrative arcs onto the usual episodic structure to create some really fresh, layered adventure. Even a silly sci-fi-ish cartoon show can be astonishingly brilliant: Frisky Dingo—which manages to reveal more about politics and power in America over its two increasingly good seasons than any book or film of its time.
But back to Breaking Bad. The last eight episodes are coming! Walter White is no longer anybody’s idea of an ordinary person or a good man. They could end this thing with an ironic Crimes and Misdemeanors modernist twist—don’t bad guys sometimes end up on top without feeling all that guilty? They could end this thing with an unresolved Sopranos black screen—doesn’t life just go on and on without us? They could end this thing, though, like nothing’s ended since Oedipus’s or Lear’s or McTeague’s final howls ripped out our guts—with tragedy.
Chickens come home to roost. The bill arrives. People have to face up to the consequences of their actions. Life has no tidy returns to the status quo, like I Love Lucy or Hawaii 5-O tried to soothe us into believing. And innocent bystanders aren’t safe when the shit comes down; we are crushed all the time under other people’s falls. Never in my life, have I prayed so hard (and I’m not even religious) for something to end badly. Yeah, sorry folks, even the baby has to die.