Breaking Bad: Where Is Hank?

Last week the writers of Breaking Bad wrote themselves into a corner, it was a situation with no apparent escape or hope for a good resolution. That’s why I suspected that Lydia might show up with a gang of mercenaries, or the Tribal Police would show up and scare off the neo-nazis. That’s what happens in normal TV shows, some completely unlikely element arrives to save the day. But Breaking Bad isn’t a normal TV show. The writers of Breaking Bad are above that kind of thing, and so the situation ends exactly how it should have: with Hank dying.

I admit that many a manly tear was shed when Hank made his final stand and a shiver went down my spine with his final statement to Walt:

You’re the smartest guy I’ve ever met…and you’re too stupid to see that he made up his mind ten minutes ago.

That’s the no-bullshit Hank I came to know and love, he’s telling Walt how it is. The minute those skinheads decided to open fire on law enforcement officers they had no choice but to follow through, there’s no walking away from an action like that. The only way this scene was ending was with either Hank or the skinheads dying, and with numbers clearly on the skinhead’s side, it was time for Hank to make his final bow.

hank_620x350
Goodbye Hank, it was a hell of a ride.

I admit when I first saw this episode I completely misinterpreted Walter’s reactions, probably because I was sobbing into a pillow over Hank’s death doing manly push-ups and pounding my chest in rage like a gorilla. At first I thought Hank’s death finally made Walter snap, and that instead of a redemption, he was going to become a full-on maniac burning down everything around him until someone finally finished him off. In a way I still think that’s true, handing over Jesse to be tortured and enslaved by Uncle Jack and his Nazis, fighting with Skylar and stealing his little girl Holly were all the actions of someone pushed over the edge. Everything he’s spent the last five seasons building is falling apart around him and Walter is about to fall into an abyss, When I first saw the episode I thought Walter had fallen into that abyss because of his call to Skylar; that speech was filled with so much anger and hate that I think I can be forgiven for thinking it genuine. The trouble is I only heard the speech, I wasn’t really listening.

That speech he gave Skylar was his way of saving his family in the only way left to him: taking all the blame. He’s not stupid, he knew the police were listening and he told them exactly what they wanted to hear, he gave his wife plausible deniability. He was saying goodbye. Her long pause and apology was her way of saying she understood his plan as well as her own goodbye; telling him to come home when she knows he never can.

Walter has finally woken up and now he sees what he truly is: a monster. Hank is dead because of him. He was moments away from slashing his own wife’s neck open in a fit of rage. And he was about to separate a little girl from her mother.

Do they give Emmys to babies? Because this girl deserves one.
Do they give Emmys to babies? Because this girl deserves one.

It was Holly’s plaintive cries for her mother that finally did it in (which was apparently unscripted, making it the most awesome scene ever). He was about to take this girl from her mother and brother so that she could live with him as he runs from place to place, constantly looking over his shoulder for the police or cartels to finally succeed in hunting him down. That’s not a life for anyone, let alone a little girl with no understanding of whats going on around her. Holly and Walter Junior have done what Jesse, Skylar and even Hank failed to do: they made Walt stop. They made him see that his constant pursuit of glory and wealth was turning him into something unrecognizable, he was becoming a new Gustavo Fring. So he disappears, having left his family with a way out with the cops and at least giving Marie the cold comfort of knowing Hank is dead, allowing her to grieve rather than wonder.

So Walter White truly is dead now, as is his Heisenberg alias. There’s only three loose ends left to tie up before Walter finds his redemption. First and foremost he has to undo the mistake he made in handing Jesse over to Uncle Jack and his herd (gaggle?) of Nazi wannabes. Right now he probably believes Jesse is dead, but eventually he’s going to have to find out about Jesse’s enslavement and I have a feeling that M60 machine gun is his answer to that problem. Once Jesse is freed and the skinhead’s are dead the only loose end left will be Lydia and her suppliers, who will probably be a bit upset at the fact they’re not getting the meth they were promised and no longer making millions. The only real question is whether or not Walter will live through that final confrontation?

I guess we’ll find out in the final two episodes of Breaking Bad. Be sure to check out this Friday’s post about Hank and why he was such an amazing character.

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Breaking Bad: The Death of Walter White

So Breaking Bad is coming to its last three episodes and I think its time to launch a series of articles on why this god damn show is so fucking good. I briefly made love to this show last year, but didn’t really get into the meat of what makes this show so good; mostly because season 4 had just ended on such an awesome note that I was afraid Season 5 would be a disappointment and I would be left with egg on my face when the inevitable crash came. With only three episodes left though I think I can safely declare my undying love for this series without fear of ridicule and dive into how Breaking Bad changed TV forever.

Ladies and Gentleman: Walter White. Protagonist and Villain.
Through the power of science and baldness.

First of all let’s discuss the absolutely amazing episode from last week because not only is it the major tipping point for the season and the entire series, but also a great example of excellent writing in general. Last week’s “To’Hajiilee” was a major event in the series (even though we don’t get to see the results of the shootout) because of one thing: the death of Walter White. Of course he didn’t literally die and we all know he can’t die in that scene since we’ve seen his future self preparing to do something with a big ass machine gun. What died out there in the desert was Walter White: drug kingpin, murderer, and all-around scumbag. As soon as he led Hank and Jesse to his secret money stash that Walter White died and can never return, and that’s why we see him crying behind the rock before surrendering, Walter knows its over. Even if he somehow manages to escape from this situation, even if they can hide the bodies of two DEA agents and relocate millions of dollars before someone comes to investigate, Walter White is dead.

He can never go back to the ordinary life he pretends to have; to be honest that facade was destroyed the moment Hank found out Walter was Heisenberg and this last episode made Walter finally confront that cold hard truth.

So far Walter has been able to delude himself into thinking that he’s still ordinary, cancer-ridden Walter who just so happens to have a drug business on the side for his family. Even when he’s racing across the desert and begging Jesse not to burn his millions Walter holds fast to his favorite mantra “It’s for my family!” but is it really? No, not really, it’s all about his pride. That $300 bazillion dollars (I forget the actual amount) represents the drug empire he built, his pride and joy, the one thing that’s given meaning to his sad and pathetic little existence. If he truly cared about his family he would have given up the drug business after he made the $70,000 that was his original goal, but like Walter told Jesse once (paraphrasing) “I’m not in the drug-making business. I’m in the Empire-making business.” So far Walter has been able to rationalize everything he’s done, killing Fring, poisoning a 9-year-old child, and every other horrible thing he’s done in the name of saving his family. Now the reckoning has come.

And that reckoning has hair!
And that reckoning has hair.

He’s finally come to that line he won’t cross; he won’t kill his family.  When he began yelling Hank’s name as the skinhead assassins arrived Walter had made his decision to let Walter White die; he would rather let his life fall to pieces and surrender everything he’s made than kill Hank. Of course now he finally realizes that he’s part of something larger, something he can’t control.

He once told Skylar that if he didn’t go to work “a business so large it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up” and in the height of his arrogance he believed that, but the real truth is he never had that choice. If he had decided to simply not go to work, Gustavo Fring would have come and threatened his family until he agreed to cook or the suppliers who rely on his product would have eventually hunted him down as well. In the past few episodes we’ve seen Lydia trying to run the business without Walter and it just isn’t working, she’s gone through one producer already and the skinheads are having similar trouble. Likely if Walter hadn’t been forced to agree to cook because of the Jesse situation, blackmail or threats would have eventually forced Walter right back into the game. He’s not in control here.

That’s why even though he told the skinheads not to come, they showed up anyway. That’s why when he said it was off,  they began shooting anyway. At the end of the day Walter is just too damn valuable for them to let him go, and he’s going to work whether he likes it or not.

Walter isn't nearly as smart as he thinks he is. That's why he never suspected Jesse would turn rat.
Walter isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. That’s why he never suspected Jesse would turn rat.

The death of Walter White is an exciting turning point because it means one thing: Walter is going to get his redemption. Since the beginning of this show I knew there were only two ways it could end. Either Walter chooses to fully embrace his chosen career and become a new criminal overlord, or finally see what he’s become and find a way to redeem himself. For a while there it was looking like Walter was going to go with the former and I was half-expecting him to finally send a hitman after Hank, but I’m really glad to see he’s chosen the latter because I still remember the good man Walter once was. I remember the dedicated father, the brilliant (if boring) chemistry teacher, and the polite shy man that resorted to meth cooking out of desperation. I remember the hilarious antics that Walter and Jesse got up to in those early seasons, like when they ran out of gas in the middle of the desert and thought they were going to die. I remember it all, and that good man is still in there somewhere. 

That good man will have to come to terms with what he’s done, make peace with the families he’s destroyed, and finally be held accountable for his crimes. His final months of life will be difficult, and I’m not just talking about his cancer, but he can still be saved.

You're not beyond redemption yet, Walter.
This man can be redeemed.

I’ll be doing several more articles on Breaking Bad over the coming weeks, concluding with my thoughts on the series as a whole come the final episode. My next article will cover why Hank’s call to his wife was such a great piece of writing and next week I’ll have another article on this Sunday’s episode of Breaking Bad, which promises to be the best yet. And as always, if you have an idea or specific area you want me to cover, feel free to ask!

Breaking Bad: How TV Should Be

So continuing my efforts to revisit some of my old topics, I’m going to be talking about TV writing; specifically how why TV series often fall apart in their final seasons. I mean we’ve all seen beloved shows slowly turn into an undead zombified version of the series we’ve watched for years, sometimes this only happens in that final season or sometimes it happens right off the bat moving from season 1 to 2. My previous post on this subject focused on Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives as examples of shows becoming unrecognizable slop after a few seasons, but for the sake of fairness I’m going to use some shows that I actually enjoyed this time around.

Let’s take House for example, one of my favorite shows that is right now going through the final agonizing episodes of a series finale that should have come years earlier. House was a fascinating character, which isn’t hard to do when you basically make a modern day version of Sherlock Holmes, but about midway through the series around season 5-6, the show looked like it might be wrapping up and House was going to evolve as a character, bringing his character arc to a satisfactory resolution. House begins hallucinating and is committed to a mental institution at the end of season 5, where the writers have a real chance to transform House and have his character reform over the course of the season. House had remained more or less a completely static character for most of the series, and like most TV shows, when he did occasionally break from his usual character (like when he connects with an autistic boy or when he helps a rape victim confront her emotions) it never lasts beyond that single episode. House may change over the course of a single episode, but by the next episode everything was back to normal. Here, however, there was a real chance to have the character evolve.

And for a while he does. He resists psychological counseling at first,

And if I were hallucinating this, I would resist too.

but eventually House confronts the fact that he has a problem and finally begins getting counseling with his doctor. He returns to work, kicks his Vicodin habit and he moves in with his best friend Wilson forcing House out of his perpetual isolation. By the end of season 6, House is actually devastated by the loss of a patient. Now he had lost patients before, and while he was always upset about that, it was more he was upset he couldn’t piece together the puzzle. It always bothered him intellectually, but Hannah’s death in season 6 emotionally traumatizes House, which is a huge step forward for him. He also finally confronts the fact that his refusal to cut off his leg was a mistake, and keeping a crippled mangled leg wasn’t worth the pain it brought him. For six years he held firm to the belief that he was right to not amputate, but finally he faces the truth and begins to move on.That’s what good characters do, they grow and change over the course of the story, that’s what keeps us interested in them.

Season 7 is where this show should have ended because this is where the character arc really ends. After pursuing a relationship with Cuddy, culminating in House ramming a car through her house in a fit of rage, House goes off to a nice tropical island where he seems to finally be at peace. Really, I think they could have given us a little epilogue there on the island, and we could have called the series good. He’d evolved into a reasonably well-adjusted person, still acerbic and brilliant but no longer socially and emotionally crippled, and in pursuing a relationship with Cuddy he finally reached out to someone. Even if it hadn’t ended in marriage, the fact he pursued the relationship at all was a huge step, especially after dancing around it for seven years.

But now here we are in Season 8 because Fox just refused to let House go off into that good night with his dignity intact. Oh sure, Season 8 started off okay with House in prison, but with each episode he turned more and more into a caricature. He’s back to a pill popping, socially inept and emotionally troubled man-child. They completely reset him. Probably because they were afraid a new and improved House wouldn’t get the viewers they wanted.  Now House is just a marionette, going through the motions but so wooden and repetitively that the audience can practically see the strings coming out of Hugh Laurie’s body. Instead of a series finale where we could tearfully wave goodbye to House, we’re going to be stuck watching the show slowly wither away, until the final episode comes as a complete relief because at least the poor thing’s suffering is over.

That’s the problem with writing for TV. With any other medium, be it book, movie or game, the writers go into the story knowing when and where it will end. They can plot out the entire story and the characters from beginning to end. Not so with TV, where the characters and plots need to stay more or less static because you never know if your story is going to last only a single season or be stretched out for ten years. This isn’t just true today, either, this has always been the case with TV writing. My mother introduced me to Golden Girls, a wonderful TV series from the 80s.  By the final season, every single character was a cipher characterized by a single trait. That’s how TV characters have always ended up.

But I think things are changing…

Meet Walter White:

Yeah, this looks like one dull character doesn’t he? Some average, everyday family man working as a chemistry teacher in some backwater town in the middle of nowhere. Why should anyone care about this nobody? Am I right?

No, I’m not right, not at all. Walter White is/was the most interesting character on TV, because he’s a good character. He changes over the course of the series, just like the characters in a book or movie would. Walter White is proof that you can have a deep dynamic character in a TV show and not only have that show be good, but be even better than most other shows could ever hope to be. If you haven’t seen this amazing series, you need to correct that problem right now. I know, it’s a problem you didn’t even know you had, I was the same way. But there’s hope! The first three seasons of Breaking Bad are on DVD and streaming on Netflix!  [Hi AMC, you can just make that check out to cash, thanks!] Also, I’m about to spoil this show as well, so if you haven’t seen it, you should probably wait until next week’s post!

It’s a great show though and let me show you why.

He starts off as a high school chemistry teacher, and I think we’ve all had a teacher like him in school. Somewhat shy, a bit unsure of himself, and more than a bit dull. However, when he’s talking about science (or whatever subject your particular teacher taught) he gets incredibly excited, his eyes and voice coming to life as he describes his passion. Unfortunately, also like most teachers, Walter’s students never seem to share his passion. His student’s constantly interrupt, most of them don’t even pay attention, and Walter just goes with the flow for the most part. Also like most teachers, he doesn’t make enough money as a teacher alone, so he has a second job at a car wash and is forced to work for a man with eyebrows so bushy they often scare small children.

Seriously, look at those things...

I think Dante listed that as the 7th circle of hell didn’t he? Despite only being the cashier at the car wash, mister bushy eyebrows routinely has him wash cars as well. Walter never stands up to him, but just quietly slinks away to clean cars. That’s Walter White, a meek little man who has let his ambitions and dreams slowly wither away to nothing leading a dull plodding life. And then he gets cancer. Inoperable Lung Cancer. A death sentence in other words.

He has no assets to leave his family, his pension as a teacher wouldn’t cover jack or shit, and he faces the prospect of dying as a complete failure (at least in his own eyes). He has one thing going for him though, he’s a brilliant chemist. Meth production and distribution is a multi-billion dollar industry, and Walter decides he wants in on some of that action. However, Walter isn’t a criminal kingpin and  doesn’t know how to distribute the meth without getting got. So he recruits an old, failed student of his: Jesse Pinkman. And our adventures begin.

First of all, at the beginning of the series, Walter insists on keeping stuff clean. His meth will be a pure product, refusing to use the additives that end up killing people (well killing them faster anyway, it’s still meth after all). He doesn’t want to become the Mexican Cartel that tortures and murders as easily as most people breathe, “No rough stuff” as Walter says. Well after a series of spectacularly hilarious screw ups,  Walter ends up with one dead body and a critically injured drug dealer in a basement.  Walter knows that the drug dealer, not being the most understanding of people, will probably kill them if they allow him to go free…

However, that’s exactly what he is planning to do…he can’t bring himself to kill a human being in cold blood. He’s just about ready to go downstairs and let the guy go, when he notices that a blade-shaped piece of ceramic plate that had been broken in the basement earlier, is missing. The drug dealer is planning to knife him the moment Walter let’s him go…and then this happens:

You can skip to 4:05 if you want to just skip to the killing part (you evil bastard)

Walter cries and begs for forgiveness even as he’s slowly choking the life out of the drug dealer…

With any typical TV show, Walter would always be like this, every time he was forced to kill people he would break down, because most TV executives would say “hey, people don’t want to follow a monster around!” and eventually the audience would get tired of Walter’s whinging. For instance, to drag up a video game again, Lara Croft is supposed to be a archaeologist of sorts, and in many games when she’s forced to kill someone she acts sad or horrified at her actions. That’s fine at the start, but after she’s shot and killed the 90th bad guy, it gets a bit hard to swallow. Breaking Bad avoids this common mistake by allowing Walter’s character to evolve…adapting to his role as a criminal by making killing even easier for him. Compare that above video to this:

Yeah, that’s Walter in Season 3. He plows into a couple of gang members, and then without a moment’s hesitation, puts a bullet through the head of the second gang member as he lays on the ground in agony. That is a huge difference in the character we saw in Season 1, and that’s what makes this series great. We have gotten to see Walter turn from a shy and polite chemistry teacher, into a hardened criminal able to kill people without a second thought. It’s brilliant. Even in movies it’s rare that we get to see a character descend into darkness, and even then, we don’t get to see it in this amount of detail. The two videos I showed you are on opposite sides of the spectrum, but between seasons 1 and 3, the audience gets to see Walter turn into the hardened killer you see in the second video. We see the small steps he takes, beating up a couple meth-heads for stealing from him, arranging a fixer to help Jesse after his girlfriend OD’s. Then, wanting to make more money, he goes into business with a high level drug dealer and watches as that same drug dealer literally beats a man to death with his bare hands. We see every small deliberate step he takes, until he becomes a finely honed predator ready to do whatever is necessary to survive.  He even begins to enjoy his new found power:

That look Walter gives him would make a god damn Navy Seal back off.

And this is how he describes himself to his wife:

“I AM the danger[…]I’m the one who knocks!” How badass is that?

And it’s not just Walter either…every single character in this series is important, every single one has a story, every single one of them is alive.  In so many shows the supporting cast are all just so much background noise, usually espousing a single characteristic, just shadows on the wall for the main character play off of. Not so in this series. Hank, the DEA agent brother-in-law to Walter, at first acts like your typical Dirty Harry style cop. He talks big, but when it’s time to put that big talk to the test…we see that Hank isn’t what he originally appeared to be. After being forced to shoot and kill a suspect, Hank goes into a deep depression and begins suffering panic attacks. This is compounded when he’s witness to a bombing that tears apart fellow DEA agents right in front of him, and Hank is forced to use his belt to tourniquet a man whose leg has been blow off, leaving only half a thigh.

And in one of the most poignant scenes in the film, Jesse Pinkman comes to understand what he is:

Even the bad guys in this film have character though. Gustavo Fring, who becomes the main villain in the later seasons, is so well characterized you begin to sympathize with him despite that fact the guy is a heartless killer.

So take note, TV Execs out there. This is how you make a compelling TV show. You let the characters live and breathe, allow them to grow and change throughout the show, and don’t hamstring them by forcing them to follow the same routine with each episode.

Yeah you did, Walter.

You won.