June 11, 2009
What went wrong with Breaking Bad
It's been a week or two since the season 2 finale of Breaking Bad on AMC. We don't usually spend a lot of time talking about TV and movies we don't like, but there was a little commentary on the season yesterday on Variety (by Liz Smith, who loves the show) so I thought I'd say something about it.
Season 1 was great. I love the premise of Bryan Cranston as a high school chemistry teacher who starts producing high-quality meth when he gets diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. The show had all kinds of complicated moral issues about how far you can reasonably go to provide for your family, and it was interesting to see a TV show that explored how successful drug dealers can be if they run their operation like a business and aren't moronic fuck-ups. Watching Bryan Cranston blunder through an unfamiliar, chaotic world was a real pleasure, especially when he started realizing he was actually good at dealing drugs.
Season 2 slammed on the brakes from the first few episodes. Whole weeks went by when nothing happened apart from Bryan Cranston bickering with his lovable numbskull partner in crime, Jesse, and his wife, Skyler, vacillating between suspicion of her husband's behavior and outright hostility. Week after week. Skyler also turned into the most irritating character on television this season, and didn't get much to do besides yell at Bryan Cranston and spend hours in the bathroom rubbing grooming products on her face.
The only good episode in the first part of the season was when Bryan Cranston and his partner got kidnapped by the pathological big-time dealer Tuco, and taken to his cabin the middle of the Mexican desert. The shoot-out was awesome.
But I gave up on the show for a while after noticing I could have missed a whole month of episodes and not missed a single plot development. Things picked up in the last few episodes of the season with Jesse and his new mean girlfriend and the two of them getting back on drugs together until she dies.
Then came the big finale, in which we finally find out what that charred pink teddy bear floating in Bryan Cranston's pool was all about, after seeing it over and over in the first shots of a bunch of episodes through the whole season.
It was a total letdown. A plane crash? Sure, that's dramatic if there are people on the plane that are connected to characters we know and care about. I like John de Lancie as the grieving father of Jesse's dead girlfriend, but we didn't knew his character well enough to be drawn into his flubbing up his air-traffic controller job. The end of the episode felt contrived, like manufactured drama that wasn't connected to the main action and characters of the show.
The burned teddy bear falling into Bryan Cranston's pool was like a clumsy moral judgment raining down from on high-- Vince Gilligan (the writer/creator who I usually love) actually said it was meant to symbolize "the wrath of God." The Slash Film recap calls it "fatalistically ludicrous." Liz Smith thinks the finale's events were "so dramatic, unbelievable and yet unhappily believable that they defy TV expectations," which is true if you expect that TV shows have storylines that make sense within the reality of the show.
Breaking Bad will have a third season, and I really hope more happens in each episode, instead of trying to cram all the action into an unsatisfying Biblical act of destruction at the end that hits viewers over the head with weird vengeful moralizing.
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