BANG BANG is our week-long look back at 20!!, or "Twenty-bang-bang," or 2011, with contributions from all over aiming to cover all sorts of enthusiasms from film to music to words and beyond.
Breaking by Jennifer K Stewart
Even though television serials are the right medium with which to tell immersive character stories, it is still a pretty rare thing to see a show that isn’t primarily plot-driven. What I mean is that our usual (pedestrian mainstream) experience in front of the screen is to be very quickly clued into certain archetypical/idealized characters, so that we may watch said characters react to a series of events (loosely, ‘plot’). Nothing explains this better than the Hangover movies, where the whole point is to watch oh-so-subtly differentiated dudes responding to outrageous events. Note that Hangover’s reverse chronology is just the ideal cinematic contrivance for getting the audience to salivate in anticipation of immanent character reactions. We want to see that guy being that guy, etc.
And really, I shouldn’t be smug or cynical, because at the very least, all these structural conventions (i.e. beginning the film at its chronological end) are interesting, if only insofar as they get allied to other generic conventions (the dude movie, etc.) Film itself mentors us into reading character and personality as popular film conventions have conceived them. A show begins by showing us just enough characterization to clarify precisely what the character will experience and exactly how s/he will and will not change (ex: The Godfather trilogy), so that we may watch a certain stability of who they truly are prevail through all happenstance/fantastical events. This film shorthand for characterization is itself highly formulaic, though it can still be interesting or even original – think of how There Will Be Blood showed you who Daniel Plainview is through his incredibly tense and impatient dealings with Paul/Eli Sunday. The innovation being that Plainview was too horrifying to be legibly revealed all at once, and his character so graphically linked with the confusion of blood and oil (insights for another essay never written, alas).
Anyhow, that this kind of storytelling continues to prevail – namely, 1. introduction of characters 2. embroil characters in plot machine so we can see them being themselves OR turning inevitably into who we suspect they are to be – is easily explained by how much we enjoy watching eccentric, essentialized, and/or idealized personalities undergo life and its passions.
The past couple years, I’ve been thinking about how the advent of great serial television series has allowed groundbreaks from this tradition. Pretty simply, serials have the requisite time in which to do so. Even a film trilogy has such limited space within which to upset the normal character/plot formula. This is because most of the disruptive work requires defamiliarizing who it was you thought was on screen, and a two-hour film simply hasn’t the time to lay groundwork. Imagine trying to make a Breaking Bad movie capable of showing any of the central characters (Skyler, Jessie, Gus, Walt Jr, Marie, and Hank, let alone Walter). Disastrous.
Breaking Bad is doing something subtle and thrilling. Think of how cursory the ‘plot’ is – nothing just happens, all events are a precipitated by complex backmoves and antecedents between combinations of characters, and virtually all of these on-the-fly miracles of impulse in the face of struggle and resistance from others. Even Walt’s vainglorious inability to let Hank mistake Gale for Heisenberg owes to the same uncertainty principle (right?) as rashly swerving into traffic to keep Hank from Gus’ laundry. If there is anything predictable about Walt, it is that he finds himself – much to his own horror – capable of unpredictability. It is neither characteristic nor uncharacteristic, and this is what the show has been demonstrating from the start. Consider Walt’s tortured and circumambulating dispensing of Krazy-8 in the early episodes of Season One. Attempting to, oh, rationally persuade himself to murder the drug dealer bike-locked by the neck in Jessie’s basement, Walt composes a pro versus con list whilst sitting on the toilet. But it took a sandwhich, a fall down the stairs, and a shattered plate shard in Walt’s leg; committed decision not being enough, he needed a chance for reactive adrenaline.
Note how Skyler’s resolve against Walt was at first backed by steadfast principle, only to then just wear away. She seizes upon the delusion that good (paying for Hank’s rehabilitation) justifies the means. Welcomes it even, so that the war of attrition is over and she need no longer resist. On any other show, once established that her character stood for any principled stance, there’d be no need to show any more of her. Instead, she breaks, just like everyone else on Breaking Bad.
By the end of 2011’s fourth season, we can see Walt’s now refined ability to premeditate complex manipulations on equal par with Gus. Yet recall the heartbreaking scene between Walt and his son in S04E10, “Salud.” It’s the morning after Walt and Jessie’s physical fight. Junior’s calling and buzzing as Walt, disorientated, medicated, beaten, pulls back a sheet stuck to his face with dried blood. The shroud comes away for a few precious minutes and Junior sees his dad unguarded. At first Walt sticks to the story – “don’t tell your mother, I was gambling, can we just keep this between us?” – but when Junior asks who did you get into a fight with that’s the end of Walt’s posturing. Walt sees Jessie where Junior is; the possibility of relief, forgiveness. But as sobriety dawns Walt takes it all back and the layers of blood-caked cover go back on. Now Walt asks Junior not for connection and forgiveness, but to promise to not take that unshrouded image as defining; the way the “empty spray-paint can” imagine of his rasping father dying of Huntington’s disease, is Walt’s only “real memory” of his father.
W: “I don’t want that to be your memory of me when I’m gone.”
Jr: “Remembering you that way wouldn’t be so bad. The bad way to remember you would be the way you’ve been this whole last year. At least last night, you were real. Y’know?”
Walt is confusing the revelation of nothing beneath the shroud with emptiness. RJ Mitte kinda steals this scene, and Walt junior is now the character to watch in Season Five…
p.s. Jessie. No one’s been broken more than Jessie, in ways he has yet to fully discover.
Jennifer K Stewart is a philosopher and yoga instructor living in Canada. She believes in the body.