Sunday, June 1, 2014

Endgame And Chess Match: Breaking Bad’s Split Final Season!

The Good: Good plot progression, Moments of character, Moments of performance
The Bad: Much more predictable than prior seasons, Fewer impressive performances than in prior seasons, All of the characters end up unlikable
The Basics: I start with the end with Breaking Bad’s final season, which is engaging as it progresses towards its end, though the characters almost universally become unlikable.

Days before the complete series Blu-Ray set of Breaking Bad is to be released, my wife has been doing a binge viewing of the new (to us) series. We do not have cable and neither of us had a huge interest in the series. One of my wife’s friends, who seems to watch whatever is trendy at any given time, bugged her for years to watch the series and she finally decided to take his advice. She’s been hooked since episode one and I’ve generally enjoyed what I’ve seen of the show, but I’ve had to do things like go to work over the last few days (while she has stayed home and watched Breaking Bad and done things around the house). Thus far, ironically, the only season I have seen in its entirety is season five.

Season five of Breaking Bad is a sixteen-episode season of AMC’s highly-acclaimed, fan-beloved television series. The final season of Breaking Bad represents the longest time period in the entire series; over a full year of the two years that Breaking Bad’s story occurs over. It is impossible to discuss the final season of Breaking Bad without revealing some important plot points from the fourth season of the show (though I’ll mention the “what,” I won’t delve into the “who” or “how” to preserve it for those who are still watching the series for the first time). That said, the story of Walter White, a high school Chemistry teacher who gets lung cancer and sees the likelihood that his treatment will bankrupt his entire family leads him to manufacture crystal meth in order to pay the bills, reaches a climax that is not unlike that of Nancy Botwin from Weeds (reviewed here!). Like Botwin, at this point in Breaking Bad Walter White has the opportunity to go legitimate and leave the drug business behind, but his own character flaw leads him to take over the empire left by the prior season’s bloodbath.

Following the murder of Gus, there is a power vacuum in the Albuquerque, New Mexico drug trade. Walter White, indebted to Jesse for some final expenses involved with clean-up, decides to continue his meth-making operations. That leads Walter, Jesse, and Mike to go into business together. Rather than find a single location for a new meth lab, Walt strikes upon the idea (when Saul Goodman is showing the trio around to various potential locations): keep the lab mobile by partnering with a bug fumigation company. While the residents of a house are out, the team plans to enter the tented homes, set up their crystal meth-making equipment and make a batch of Heisenberg’s ultra-pure blue meth. Using a young man from the fumigation company, Todd, the newly-formed mini-cartel robs a train of a thousand gallons of methylamine. But the train job has an unexpected consequence and in the wake of Todd’s actions, both Mike and Jesse want to be bought out. With pressure to keep Gus’s network of imprisoned dealers from talking growing on Mike and Jesse’s desire to move on to a line of work that no longer involves potential casualties, both men try to get Walter to sell his share of the methylamine for a fraction of its worth. After Walter takes extreme actions, which is par for his course, he and Todd partner to refine the methylamine into crystal meth and the financial gains they make are extraordinary.

But when Walter gets out of the business after Skyler finally convinces him that he has enough to survive on and provide for his family, Hank discovers the truth about his recent past. With his cancer reasserting itself and Hank hounding him to try to expose Walter as a criminal mastermind, Walter begins to burn every bridge in his life. As his life spirals out of his control and the body count rises, Walter abandons Jesse and his family and flees to New Hampshire with a new identity. But when his former business partners – both legitimate from Gray Matter and illegal, represented by Lydia’s international cartel – take all that he built, Walter feels pressure to return to New Mexico and take back all that he has lost.

In the final season of Breaking Bad, Walter White becomes a thoroughly unlikable character. Unlike Weeds, Breaking Bad makes a compelling-enough argument for White (who has essentially gotten out of the business alive at the season’s outset) to get back in the game for just a little longer. White’s previous fortune has been spent by Skyler (to pay the IRS debt of her former boss), he has some debts and with the camera evidence of Gus’s shady dealings on a hard drive in police custody, Walter has some new expenses he needs to take care of. In other words, he is back at square one, looking at his family’s finances being threatened. But as his friends and allies peel away from him, Walter becomes obsessed with ruling his own little meth empire and that plays poorly, even after he remakes his fortune (and then some many times over). Breaking Bad continues the degenerative arc of Walter White by having the character continue to get deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld as a result of his activities. Part of what makes the final season so troubling is the viewer is expected to empathize with a character who is using the services of neo-Nazis to carry out his will and the show never quite addresses that a “good guy” would have issues working with hate-mongers (on top of their being killers and drug dealers). Working with such unsavory people makes Walter White into an unsavory person himself, a man who kills, shoves his wife around and is willing to kidnap a toddler in order to further his own desires.

Walter White has long been selfish, but in the final season of Breaking Bad, his fatal flaws are revealed to be obsession and, of course, hubris. His history with Gray Matter leads him to refuse to undervalue himself and his business, which makes sense, but he misses a number of far simpler solutions than the ones he ends up taking. For example, Mike and Jesse are both willing to sell their share of the methylamine for five million dollars each; Walt never proposes that he buy both of the men out using his first round of profits. This is a vastly simpler solution (especially with Lydia in the mix) than the convoluted plan that leaves one man murdered, Walter’s arm grossly burned and the feds in possession of most of the money from the buyout!

Like all worthwhile television, Breaking Bad is about characters, not just the plots they hatch. In the final season of the show, the essential characters of Breaking Bad are:

Walter White – Now the top of the crystal meth-manufacturing chain, he has the chance to get out with his life, but he chooses to start making meth again. With a train job planned to get the key ingredient he needs, Walter is poised to restart his business with a potential $300,000,000 inventory of meth. But when his partners abandon him, he allies himself with neo-Nazis, Todd, and Lydia’s international exporting network to create a new cartel. When he gets enough money for his family, it is all put in jeopardy by Hank learning that he is Heisenberg. That leads to a fracture in his family as Marie and Hank try to keep the White’s kids after Walter and Skyler finally reconcile and in the fallout, Walter fights viciously to protect the millions of dollars he has made. Trying to keep Hank at bay when his cancer comes out of remission fails and that leads Walter to a predictable bloodbath that leads him to sacrifice everything,

Skyler White – Deeply depressed over how Walter has the opportunity to get out with his life and does not take the opportunity, she becomes despondent. Not wanting her son and daughter around Walter and his lifestyle, she sends the children to her sister and brother-in-law’s. She launders as much money as she can through her car wash before she realizes that Walter is making far too much to make that a feasible plan. When she shows him her storage locker of cash and reconciles with Walter, her family is brought back together before Hank finds out and tears everything apart,

Jesse Pinkman – Learning of the methylamine on the train, he is the one who comes up with the plan to take the fluid without any casualties. But when Todd makes the job go sideways, he wants out. That puts him at odds with Walter yet again and that leads him back into the drug-abusing lifestyle. But when Walter gets out of the business, he wants nothing of him or his money and Jesse is enslaved by Uncle Jack’s new cartel,

Hank Schrader – Following the death of Gus, he becomes obsessed with cleaning up the loose ends left by the cartels Gus created and destroyed. When none of Gus’s lieutenants talk in prison, his obsession grows, even as he is promoted to the head of Albuquerque’s DEA office and ordered to leave Mike alone. When he finds the inscription in Walt’s copy of Leaves Of Grass, he has the epiphany that puts him on the right track to find Heisenberg! Desperate to get a confession out of Walter (given that he has remarkably little physical evidence tying Walter to Gus’s operation), he tries to extort Skyler until he finds an even more useful asset who is motivated to get revenge upon Walter,

Marie Schrader – Hank’s wife tries to help Skyler out when she becomes despondent. But when she learns that Walter is the man Hank has been searching for for years, she pushes Hank to bury Walter. She tries to take Walter and Skyler’s children, but Hank stops her. When Walter goes on the run after he is entrapped by Hank and Jesse, she becomes obsessed with finding Hank,

Walter White Jr. – He is the last person in the world to believe in Walter and trust him . . . even as Walter lies to him about new cuts and bruises to his face (which he passes off for being an effect of exhaustion from his chemotherapy),

Mike Ehrmantraut – He is drawn back into the business following Gus’s death because of his knowledge of Gus’s operations. In an uncharacteristically human move, he spares Lydia’s life, though he does not trust her at all. He takes responsibility for the business operations of Walter’s new empire, even as he tries to keep the nine members of Gus’s operation who are imprisoned quiet through payoffs. When his lawyer exposes him and Hank harasses him (even after he is retired and just wants to spend time with his granddaughter), he is forced to run,

Saul Goodman – The lawyer finds himself in peril yet again thanks to Walter White. It is his contact who helps Walter disappear. Much to Walter’s chagrin, he is the one who quietly suggests offing Hank and Jesse throughout the season,

Todd – A young man who is eager to learn Walter’s business (as opposed to continuing to fumigate houses), he has an uncle who has prison connections that can execute Walter’s will (and enemies). He reveals his willingness to do whatever it takes to get into Walter’s good graces when he kills a witness to the train job. He starts cooking the meth for Lydia after Walter gets out of the business and leads Uncle Jack to spare Jesse’s life when Jack wants to make more refined product than he is able to,

and Lydia – Gus’s exporter, she was integral to building Gus’s empire through the company that owned Los Pollos Hermanos. Paranoid in the wake of Gus’s murder, she tries to extort Mike into killing the nine people who could rat her out from prison. When she puts a hit out on Mike, it puts her in Mike’s crosshairs, but Walter quickly discovers her usefulness. Building a meth empire in the Czech Republic with Walter’s blue meth, she is dismayed when Walter leaves the business. She starts working with Todd and accepts his imprisonment of Jesse in order to keep her new empire alive.

The final season of Breaking Bad is surprisingly unremarkable on the acting front. In fact, the only truly remarkable performances this season come from Anna Gunn, who plays Sklyer. Gunn is given the chance to actually display some range in this season. Gunn plays despondent well and when she has to play her character with an undertone of rage when Walter takes the baby, she is incredible. Instead of playing cold and without any chemistry in this season, she brings a new feeling to her character for much of the final season of Breaking Bad.

The rest of the cast of Breaking Bad is adequate in the final season. Bryan Cranston is consistent as Walter White, as is Aaron Paul as Jesse. Laura Fraser (Lydia) and Jesse Plemons (Todd) gel well with the established cast of Breaking Bad, though neither are truly superlative. Fraser plays Lydia as nervous well, but Plemons plays Todd with a youthful, eager quality that makes him seem initially like an ambitious workaholic . . . instead of the psychopath that he is (apparently) supposed to be. Even later in the season when his character’s actions make him more clearly into a heartless sociopath, Plemons does not play the role with any real depth to emote that level of complexity to his character.

Ultimately, though, the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad is a surprisingly fast-paced season of television that is devoted to tying up the loose ends of the prior four seasons. It does that very well, even if it is essentially two very different arcs making a fractured season with split stories. Walter White’s brief empire and his fleeing from it makes for a satisfying end to all the unlikable characters of Breaking Bad.

For other works with Bryan Cranston, please check out my reviews of:
Total Recall (2012)
John Carter
Little Miss Sunshine
Clerks: The Animated Series


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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