Monday, June 14, 2010 ~ 0 Comments

'Breaking Bad' Closes Season with Bangs, Whimpers

This entry is largely spoiler-free regarding last night's finale; however, this is not the case for many of the links. Be advised.

(An admission: this is a bit of a rave.)

As AMC's grimly funny, increasingly bleak, and often harrowing Breaking Bad closed out its third season last night, a shocking sense of just how the chess game between Bryan Cranston's Walt and his employer has evolved began to set in. the gloriously ambiguous season finale saw the "Heisenberg" persona flipped on its ear, with a shrewd bit of gamesmanship coupled with a moment of excruciating weakness on Walt's part. Time has posted a solid review of the episode, though it's quite spoiler-ridden.

It occurred to me that, in this season more than its predecessor, we've finally reached the "Michael Corleone in the restaurant" moment for both of the series' protagonists. The once-meek chemistry teacher has embraced the transition from "Mr. Chips to Scarface," as we've seen noted elsewhere; the tragically soft-hearted tweaker has been pushed to become the meth-fueled Darth Vader he thought that he already was. Vince Gilligan, the show's creator, has managed to redefine the crime drama for the post-Sopranos era. In a day and age where organized crime stories are largely period pieces, part of what makes Breaking Bad so excellent is the creeping sense that the "big bad" isn't going to be Don Vito Corleone or Tony's New Jersey crew; it's the sketchy kid on the corner and the stressed-out, middle-aged guy driving a Pontiac Aztek.

More after the jump.

The show, which will return with its fourth season in the next year, has developed a gift for effortlessly transitioning from satire to tragedy often within a single breath; often, the horror of what is happening is offset with a blackly funny coda. The truth of Walt's fall from grace isn't made any less powerful- it's underlined and heightened by some of the series' nuttier touches. When Walt's alter ego, the "man in the black hat" he calls Heisenberg, becomes a player in the drug scene, the series brilliantly opens an episode with a narcocorrido about his exploits. When a professional, mild-mannered supporting character is unveiled as a figure more menacing than the previously-encountered thugs, we get a funny (and entirely believable) commercial for his public face, juxtaposed against the true source of his wealth. We get a kick out of these segments as they play out, often in the show's cold opening, but they begin creeping into the edges of our thoughts as the episode plays out.

Los Pollos Hermanos (mild spoiler)

Much of what made The Sopranos, Bad's only competition for best hour-long of the past ten years, so watchable was the strength of its supporting players; Gilligan's crew have developed that same depth. The third season especially has generously given the supporting cast room to breathe and develop.While there has been much talk of series co-star Aaron Paul's Emmy prospects for this season (and rightly so), the performances turned in by Dean Norris (as a PTSD-suffering DEA agent), Bob Odenkirk (as the awesomely slimy lawyer Saul Goodman), and especially Jonathan Banks (the hardboiled "Mike the Cleaner") have all handed in work that should provide good healthy competition for the Best Supporting Actor statuette.

This speaks to the show's greatest, quietest strength: within the confines of an hour-long program set almost entirely in Albuquerque, NM, the producers have managed to create an entire universe. The aforementioned characters, the way the sun-bleached imagery burns out any preconceived thought of how the American southwest should look, the bland suburban sprawl and malaise that contrasts with the vibrant, explosive underworld Walt and Jesse submerge themselves in: there's not a single detail that feels wasted, let alone "throwaway." Nothing seems to depend on any awareness of anything beyond the confines of its universe; everything you need to enjoy Breaking Bad is present and accounted for.

It's been suggested by both Gilligan and Cranston that the show will last for at least four seasons, if not more. If they can keep up this level of quality, our cultural landscape will be the richer for it.

The AV Club has an excellent interview with Gilligan. An excellent, though less in-depth, interview is up at The Hollywood Reporter. Also: HitFix has an interview with Cranston.

BONUS: Check out last night's showcase for supporting player Mike the Cleaner (mostly spoiler-free regarding the main plot; still a spoiler if you want the whole thing to be a surprise.)

The music is "Shambala" by The Beastie Boys (from Ill Communication).

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