What I Learned from Watching Breaking Bad while Procrastinating from WritingJuly 9, 2014
I’ve spent most of my professional life working for or with the public radio program This American Life in some capacity. These days I’m a contributor, meaning I do my own stories for the show, but for several years I was a producer, and part of the job involved hiring interns. Often the prospective candidates’ applications would mention their history with public radio. It wasn’t uncommon to read of childhood weekends spent spooning sugarless cereal out of bowls while Prairie Home Companion wafted from the kitchen radio.
These childhoods sounded nice but were unfamiliar. I grew up watching television while eating cereals so sugary that my favorite color was simply artificial. I had a television in my bedroom, which I just assumed was the case in every household. It wasn’t, but my family did fit some general templates: my mom was depressed; my dad didn’t know how to use his words; it was the eighties. By then, most parents had figured out that smoking while pregnant wasn’t the greatest idea, but there were still lots of specifics to be ironed out when it came to childrearing do’s and don’ts. I read the novel Room last year, in which a mother and her five-year-old son are held captive in a twelve-by-twelve-foot room. He was born in the room; it’s the only world he has ever known. His skin is nearly translucent from a lifetime of being deprived of vitamin D. And yet his mom limits him to only one hour of television a day. That’s how prevalent the idea of too much screen time being bad for a kid is these days.
Back then I watched everything and thought it was all brilliant and enchanting. I have this vivid memory of lying awake in bed when I was five, seething over the injustice of my parents getting to stay up late to watch Mork & Mindy but not me. It still feels strange to think of them watching it as adults, of them taking it seriously. It wasn’t the 1950s or anything—we were no longer apes gathered around the glowing box—but every show that came out was still such a new experience. I might not have gotten all of Mork & Mindy’s dirty jokes, and I definitely believed that Jonathan Winters had never been on any other show, but when I look back, I think my parents and I were watching the show for the same essential reasons: comfort, familiarity, faint strains of narrative.
The best shows are also the most entertaining. They’re both a meal and an indulgence.
It’s different now, though. Television is good, as in we-can-all-agree-on-it good. Almost every writer I know is trying to be involved with television. It’s become the end instead of the means.
For so many years, television was dismissed as being just junk food. Now there are all these great shows that have transcended the medium while maintaining its original spirit and lack of self-consciousness. My favorite thing about this new golden era of television is that the best shows are also the most entertaining. They’re both a meal and an indulgence. Orange Is the New Black understands that in order to knock out as many gender, race, and ageist stereotypes as it has, it needs to package its agenda into two addictively watchable seasons of pure entertainment—the television version of cherry-flavored cough drops. And you never hear Jenji Kohan or Matthew Weiner or Vince Gilligan or Louis CK claiming they don’t want their shows to be popular. They’re not trying to go over their audience’s heads or to obscure themselves in a ratings abyss. Instead of dumbing their shows down in the hopes of attracting mass audiences, they smartened television up in the belief that quality is what the masses have actually craved all along.
Of all the good television that’s come out in the last decade, Breaking Bad was my favorite. It changed the way I think about how to tell a story.
Breaking Bad was about a man living on borrowed time. The first episode begins on Walter White’s birthday, and the last one ends on it, with exactly two years in between. Aside from these opposing markers—tamping down the past on one end and the future on the other—the show removed all traces of the passage of time. The weather never changed. Holidays didn’t roll around. Walt’s teenage son’s school never let out for summer break. This illusion was intentional. Scenes that were shot in the winter were made to look like they weren’t. Snow was hosed off sidewalks. Leaves were affixed to the bare branches of trees. Desert scenes shot in January appeared as just another sweltering day. A few times, though, you can see the actors shoving their hands into their pockets to keep warm. It was as though the characters existed inside a plastic dome.
Generating suspense is all about the choices you make: when to release information, when to add a character, when to get rid of one. I’ve never seen a show put more care into the creation of its world or exercise more restraint in its destruction. Breaking Bad revolved around the same core characters until almost the very end, thinking long and hard about when it killed anyone off, like the proper chess game that it was. The show understood that its pawns weren’t just anonymous soldiers but vital components of the whole. There weren’t any throwaway lines. Even the tiniest role was memorable.
Endings are tricky. There’s so much pressure resting on them. A bad ending can erase everything that came before, as unfair and irrational as that is. The way Breaking Bad ended not only didn’t ruin the show for me, it forever changed how I think about what an ending can be. It opened up a whole new range of possibility, like one of those dreams where you suddenly discover another room in your apartment.
Spoilers are about to fall from the sky like toads during the plague, so if you haven’t seen the show yet and don’t want it ruined, best to look away during this next part. During the whole series, people had been speculating about the final beat of the show. Mainly it came down to three options: Would Walt go to jail, die, or get away with it? The same basic elements of poker, of all game playing, really: bet, fold, or draw. Walt does eventually die, in the final moment of the final episode.
The truly interesting part, though, didn’t actually come during the final episode but instead two before. Walt’s brother-in-law Hank gets shot and killed by the Neo-nazis Walt called to bail him out. Walt gets away but the battle has been lost: Hank’s death costs Walt his family and his soul. He realizes this the second the bullet enters Hank’s brain. Walt falls to the ground, his mouth this perfectly round, anguished O. The blackness of his throat fills the screen. The effect is haunting. It’s the kind of scene you wake up the next morning still thinking about. It’s also the kind of moment that usually serves as a final image. Instead, the show did something I’ve never seen done before. It kept going.
With two episodes remaining, Breaking Bad suddenly switched from being a show about a criminal trying to avoid getting caught to a show about all the dreary practicalities that a life on the run entails. Walt holes up in a mountain cabin that he can’t leave. He’s brought supplies every month by a man he pays to keep him hidden. The two have no prior relationship with one another. The man just sees Walt as another wanted man. There are long, sad scenes of Walt being given chemo by the man, offering him money to stay for another hour to stave off the crippling loneliness of his new life.
The way Breaking Bad ended forever changed how I think about what an ending can be.
When I was a kid, I loved the very end of Back to the Future, when you see how the changes Marty made in the past affect his own present day. It was just one scene—Marty waking up in his own bed, thinking it was all just a dream and then walking into the living room to see that his time trip changed his whole family. His dad George is suddenly a successful sci-fi author. His brother is a stockbroker. His mom is thin. Date-rapist-turned-comic-relief Biff is a cowed little puppy, excitedly announcing that the first shipment of George’s new book has arrived. I found it so satisfying to watch all this, but I hated the journey it took to get to this point, the stress of waiting for George to finally curl his quivering hand into a fist, punch out Biff, and infuse himself with a sense of self-worth. If I’d had my way, I would’ve expanded that last scene. If the newly confident McFly family had just sat eating their breakfast in real time, I would’ve watched every second.
The final episodes of Breaking Bad, while obviously different in tone, basically took that approach, offering an alternative to the formally rigid definition of what it means for something to come to an end. In all the speculation about how the show would conclude, I never heard anyone suggest that the ending could be moved up, the way you adjust the margins on a document. The show had been going at a steady pace, the same world so carefully preserved for so long, and suddenly that world was no more and we were living in a new one. Everything about it was different, including the weather. For nearly five seasons, we’d seen nothing but sun, and suddenly we were surrounded by snow. It felt so off-kilter and disproportionate and fragile, like balancing a house and all its contents on a glass of water. But it was the lopsidedness that felt so original, that made it work. The shift made me realize that we’d been asking the wrong question all along. The story wasn’t about how or if Walt would die. It was about what it felt like to live with the consequences of what he’d done. It wasn’t about the very end. It was about the aftermath that came before.