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the seasons

Matt Zoller Seitz on Revisiting Breaking Bad Season One

[Editor’s note: This is the first installment in an occasional new series titled The Seasons, in which Vulture’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz rewatches classic shows and writes about them season by season. These columns presume knowledge of the entire run of the show and are filled with spoilers, so consider yourself forewarned. First up, Breaking Bad season one.]

Every great creative work should be experienced twice: the first time to get over whatever you expected it to be and experience what it actually is, and the second time to appreciate the craft. Second viewings are especially rewarding when you’re revisiting a work that’s unabashedly plot-driven but that’s also aces at characterization, symbolism, and atmosphere. Breaking Bad is that kind of show. Like The Shield and certain other cable crime series, it wouldn’t exist without the example of The Sopranos, but it’s vastly more interested in plot machinations than The Sopranos ever was. Every time a new episode ends, you’re left with questions, but the most prominent one is “What will happen next?” It’s that nineteenth-century serial quality that others have written about — the cliff-hanger thing — and Breaking Bad does it better than any show on the air, maybe any show ever. Its increasingly preposterous (yet in context, still strangely believable) plotting is the 21st century version of a silent movie serial, with the villain as star instead of the hero.

Given all this, when I sat down to rewatching Breaking Bad season-by-season, what struck me the most was how moving it was.

I’m going to beg your indulgence and detour into personal territory, and tell you that I didn’t start seriously watching the show until I caught up with it sometime during season three. I didn’t remember it being such a gut-punch when I first watched the pilot and second episode prior to interviewing Vince Gilligan for Time Out New York. At the time, I saw Walt’s cancer diagnosis as a plot-starter, a pretext for the trouble he eventually got himself into. But it’s not that — not at all. If I’d been watching it in real time with everyone, the emotional weight of the cancer material would have hit me harder. I lost my stepmother to cancer a few months after Breaking Bad premiered, and the show was originally brought to my attention by my friend Andrew Johnston, the Time Out TV critic who died of cancer in October of 2008 at age 40. This is all by way of saying that the emotional force of this show slammed me retroactively during a rewatch, and brought back particular memories I’d repressed: my stepmother during her final weeks, a once rotund woman reduced to skin and bones; Andrew with his shaved-bald head lying in his hospital bed watching Mad Men on a laptop. 

I told a few friends about this experience, and they in turn shared with me their own stories of watching season one in real-time in 2008 with a friend or relative who had been diagnosed with cancer before it debuted, or who would die of it sometime during the next few seasons. They all agreed that Breaking Bad honors the emotions of anybody who’s been through the experience, as either cancer patient or supporter — and from my own experience, I think they’re right.

The intervention scene in which Skyler, Marie, Hank, and Walt Jr. confront Walt about his mysterious silences and absences and press him to go into chemotherapy is almost unbearable to watch, because there are no bad guys in it. You can see everyone’s point. There’s no consensus in the intervention scene, only desperate flailing about. You find yourself agreeing and disagreeing with everyone in the room, Walt included. A couple of people who initially seem to be on Skyler’s side switch their positions. During a later scene in which Skyler confronts Hank about his wife’s kleptomania — this show has a memory like an elephant; they planted that character detail early in season one! — and finally snaps beneath the unbearable burden of her own family’s drama, I wanted to stand up and applaud. I’ve never understood why anyone could dislike Skyler; she truly adores and is loyal to Walt, and up to the point where she joins his criminal enterprise, you understand, or should understand, that she has perfectly human reasons for everything she does.

“Chemistry is the study of matter,” Walter tells his students, “But I prefer to see it as the study of change.” Of course that’s what the show is about — all five seasons. But in the first season it’s about a particular kind of change: decay leading (or so Walt fears) to quick death. That presumed foreknowledge of where things are going animates every choice he makes, wise or foolish. He’s raging against the dying of the light. For all its devious narrative intricacy, Breaking Bad is simpler and more direct than some have given it credit for. Look past the scientific and metaphorical studies of morality and karma, and the tense studies of situational ethics and domestic distress, and you’re looking at the story of a guy who finds out he’s going to die soon and just snaps. He loses his mind, or his inhibitions, maybe both. He says, “Fuck it” and turns into a dark version of the exuberant narrator of “Song of Myself” (whose author, Walt Whitman, shares the hero’s initials, and of course becomes important in later seasons via his collection Leaves of Grass).  

“What I need, is a choice,” Walt says during the intervention scene. “My entire life it just seems I never ... you know, had a real say about any of it. Now this last one, cancer ... all I have left is how I choose to approach this.”

When Walter tracks down his former student Jesse Pinkman and tries to press him into helping him cook meth, he confirms his identity by saying, “It’s me. I’m alone.” That’s Breaking Bad distilled to four words. You are who you are, stuck with whatever hand you’ve been dealt, and you’re in it alone. Or maybe you feel as though you are.

Walter definitely feels that way, because of his upbringing and some horribly inflexible innate pride. He takes the American “go it alone” cowboy stoicism to sick extremes. “Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, all of a sudden at age, what, 60, he's just going to break bad?” Jesse demands. Well, sure. And while there’s some truth to the justification Walt initially gives for becoming a drug manufacturer — the need to provide for his family after his death — I suspect that deep down, it’s more about the need to exert control over a world that he’d been experiencing passively up till then: to change things somehow, if not for himself then for his family.

A few other things struck me about the first season. One is the look: Series cinematographer Rey Villalobos shoots things in a more naturalistically dark way than in subsequent seasons, when Michael Slovis took over. There are trick shots (low-angled shots through false floors made of glass) and speeded-up and slowed-down and jump-cut and time-lapse footage, particularly in establishing scenes and meth-cooking montages. But the show isn’t as rigorously stylized as in seasons two through five, with every shot striving for dynamism, color, and texture, to the point where it veers close to Coen brothers or Sergio Leone territory.

But the transformation isn’t the simple matter of swapping one cinematographer for another. It’s deliberate — part of an aesthetic plan that series creator Vince Gilligan and his collaborators clearly thought about a lot. The visual change begins rather pointedly in episode six, “A Crazy Handful of Nothing,” in which Walt shaves his head and introduces his alter ego, Heisenberg. It’s altogether appropriate that both the show’s hero and the show itself would alter their appearance and tone at this point in the tale.

I also appreciated the immense weight given to the physical and emotional impact of violence. I totally understand why subsequent seasons would spend less time on these things — every beating or killing makes a person a bit more numb to beatings and killings — but if I had to list the most profoundly tense action scenes in the show’s run, I’d probably arbitrarily decide to call episodes two and three (“Cat’s in the Bag …,” “ … And the Bag’s in the River”) as a single extended action sequence, because the bulk of both episodes revolves around the question of what to do about the body of the drug dealer killed in the pilot and the fate of his partner Krazy 8, who’s chained up in Jesse’s basement and being fed bologna sandwiches by Walt. (There’s something exquisitely sad about Walt cutting the crusts off Krazy 8’s sandwiches; I didn’t remember until this rewatch that Walt started cutting the crusts off his own sandwiches after the murder of Krazy 8. It’s perverse and yet right — as if every time Walt cuts the crusts off a sandwich, he’s somehow acknowledging the weight of that first killing.)

Oddly, here, as in the intervention scene, there are no bad guys, at least not in the sense of “people you root against.” The whole thing is just a terrible mess that happens to involve criminals. You want and expect Walt to come out on top, because he and Jesse are the heroes of the story, but you don’t exactly want Krazy 8 to die, especially after that extraordinary monologue he gives in the basement; and when Walt figures out that Krazy 8 stole a piece of that broken plate to use as a weapon against Walt, you don’t begrudge Krazy 8 at all, because he’s just trying to survive, too.

This show, like so many great shows, is about survival: survival of the body, the family, the business, the way of life, everything.

“What do you think has become of the young and old men?” Whitman asks in “Song of Myself.”

“And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”