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Matt Zoller Seitz on Revisiting Breaking Bad Season 3: A Shift Into Nightmare Grotesque

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This is the third 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. Today, Breaking Bad season three. (Read Matt Zoller Seitz on Breaking Bad season one here and season two here.)

The first two seasons of Breaking Bad had moments of eeriness, but season three is where things turn deeply uncanny, and the show becomes impossible to take literally, as a record of things that could actually happen. My friend Lincoln Flynn commented, "I think Season 3 is where the influence of The X-Files is most apparent," and he's right. Series creator Vince Gilligan was a writer and producer on Chris Carter's long-running sci-fi-tinged series, so that mode comes naturally to him.

This is the season where cinematographer Michael Slovis busts out lenses so short that they turn people's heads into teardrop shapes, and orange-brown Traffic-style filters that make Mexico look like another planet. From the first episode prologue in "No Más", which shows Mexican villagers and then the murderous Cousins crawling on their elbows and knees towards a drug shrine, season three's nightmare-space suggests different, unreal storytelling modes: German Expressionism and its American relative, film noir; a dark and violent comic book; grimy, sun-drenched 1980s crime thrillers like Scarface, To Live and Die in L.A. and TV's Miami Vice and Wiseguy; the Coen Brothers' whole filmography. (Coen-style laughable eccentrics and colorful grotesques abound; The Cousins could be the guys who clean up after one of Anton Chigurh's coin flips.)

The Cousins are, to my mind, the only big misstep in the entire run of the show — despite their tragically human backstory, they're ciphers, and I found their Terminator-esque viciousness dull from the start — but they're of a piece with this season's cannonball-plunge into the deep end of nightmare territory, and that process really started with the midair collision that climaxed season two. The Coen Brothers-style moral domino effect — one bad action leading to an even worse one, and so on — starts to dominate the series now. The parking lot shootout between the Cousins and Hank that ends with an axe somehow slicing into pavement as if it were a tree stump; Gus Fring's meth super-lab, its red floors and blue chemicals creating a Dick Tracy-style primary color balance with Walt and Jesse's yellow jumpsuits; the self-contained, highly metaphorical "Fly", which has the intimacy of a stage play and the exaggerated angles of a live-action cartoon; the office invasion in "Full Measure" that finds the fixer Mike using helium balloons, a woman's shoe, and hand gestures from a hostage to kill four gunmen; these and other elements let us know that we've left the realm of the real for something more figurative. By the time we get to the end of the season — which finds Walt saving Jesse from drug dealers who were about to kill him, then pressuring Jesse into murdering Gale, the chemist who was on track to replace Walt — suddenly we're hip-deep in comic strip country, with Walt and Gus Fring and Mike carrying on like bad guys that Batman might bust during a slow week when he wasn't busy saving the world from Armageddon. 

If the preceding season was the one in which much of Walt's humanity became submerged within Heisenberg, season three is where Walt drags other people — including Skyler, Jesse, and Hank — into the moral murk along with him. Skyler goes from being an disgusted non-participant in Walt's criminal activities to pressuring Walt to lean on Jesse to drop the assault charges against Hank to helping Walt create a cover story for his earnings (gambling) and find a credible place to launder it (the car wash where he toiled in season one). She even suggests that they stay separated without getting divorced because spouses can't be compelled to testify against each other. Hank, who's already suffering PTSD from his experiences killing Tuco and watching several men get shredded by a bomb near the Texas-Mexico border in season two, is further traumatized by being falsely made to think that his wife Marie has been rushed to the hospital (Walt's ploy to get him to leave the junkyard where he's waiting for a warrant to search the RV he and Jesse are hiding in). This cruel false alarm prompts Hank to blow his stack and beat up Jesse, which in turn leads to Hank being suspended without pay and surrendering his gun and badge while authorities investigate the beating, which in turn makes him a sitting duck for the Cousins, who shoot and nearly kill him. 

Jesse, meanwhile, grieves for his beloved Jane, goes into therapy, gets clean and stays clean, only to be written off as an unreliable junkie by Gus anyway (an opinion Walt would probably embrace if he didn't believe he could control Jesse); he wouldn't even have a cook job if Walt hadn't offered him one in the super-lab, as a payoff for not going after Hank. Jesse responds to all the trauma and ostracism by trying to become a pipsqueak version of Gus and opening up a "new market" for pilfered blue meth in his own rehab group. This profoundly dumb scheme leads him into a relationship with a new girlfriend, Andrea, who just happens to be the older sister of the kid who gunned down his old associate Combo. This in turn leads Jesse (who always had a sentimental weakness for kids, perhaps because deep down he still is one) to try to kill the two bosses of Andrea's younger brother by poisoning their daily takeout burgers (delivered by the meth addict Wendy) with Ricin. Jesse is motivated partly by a desire to avenge Combo's death, but mostly he finds the use of children in the drug trade disgusting. There's a touch of Holden Caulfield in his outrage, and it's tragically charming: "I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff," J.D. Salinger wrote. "What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

As I wrote in my season two revisit, all the misfortunes suffered by Breaking Bad's supporting characters are ultimately Walt's fault. When he doesn't cause their pain directly, through his violence or his schemes, he does it indirectly via the metaphysical domino effect. And this brings us to another distinctive quality of season three: it starts to lay out moral cause-and-effect more meticulously than before, pushing the process into the foreground of episodes and even commenting on it through dialogue. 

"Do you ever think about everything you've put him through?" Marie demands of Walt, when the extended family is waiting for word on Hank's chances for survival. "It's not his fault," interrupts Skyler, who at that point doesn't know the extent of Walt's treachery, much less that it really is his fault. In a later hospital conversation between Skyler and Walt, she tells him, "Something tells me that Hank is here because of you, and I'm not forgetting that."

That Combo's killers work (however distantly) for Gus adds a touch of "destiny" to the whole convoluted plot. From season three on, Breaking Bad became increasingly good at that kind of thing, retro-engineering "revelations" into existing story lines without disturbing or betraying them, and making the entire show seem to have been constructed with incredible patience and forethought when, by Gilligan's own admission, a lot of it was made up more or less on the fly, pun intended. Back in season two, for example, we had no clue that the two guys who killed Combo had any connection to Gus, and I wouldn't be surprised if Breaking Bad's writers didn't, either, because we didn't even meet Gus until pretty deep into season two. When you rewatch all of the series you start to notice more reverse-engineering, often in the prologues. For instance, there's a flashback to Jane and Jesse on a date at the Georgia O'Keeffe museum that includes a marvelous discussion of O'Keefe's paintings of flowers and doors that doubles as a sort of stealth discussion of television and movies. "Why would anyone paint a picture of a door over and over again, like dozens of times?" Jesse asks. "Why should we do anything more than once?" Jane replies. "Should I just smoke this one cigarette? Maybe we should just have sex once, if it’s the same thing." 

Perhaps the greatest single episode of the season is "Fly," written by Sam Caitlin and Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick). Arguably the culmination of every notable aspect of season three (stylistic as well as moral) it works as (1) a stand-alone episode that can be enjoyed even by people who haven't watched the show before, (2) a mirror of season two's "Phoenix" that addresses the moral and emotional aftershock of Jane's death on both Walt and Jesse, and (3) a foreshadowing of the plot to kill Gale. “This fly is a major problem for us," Walt tells Jesse. "It will ruin our batch, and we need to destroy it and every trace of it so we can cook. Failing that, we’re dead. There’s no more room for error, not with these people.” (For more on this foreshadowing, read Dave Crewe's short post here.)

The season also uses the prologue and other flashbacks (visual and verbal) to retroactively add depth to characters. The Cousins very nearly seem human when you see them in a flashback, with Hector holding one of them underwater to teach the other that words have meaning and power. (The boy said he wished his cousin was dead.) Another flashback to a very pregnant Skyler buying their house with Walt sixteen years earlier, reminds us that Walt was once a relatively benign and likable person, just when we were on the verge of losing all sympathy for him. The episode begins with a lovely left-to-right pan through the empty house; this same camera move is repeated later, to reveal that Walt is in the process of slowly moving back into the house from which Skyler ejected him, sitting in his living room chair doting on baby Holly. (Parenthetically, I don't think there's ever been an actor in the entire history of film or television who has worked with infants more skillfully than Bryan Cranston. If baby-handling were an Olympic sport, he could be the American team's coach.) 

I don't think season three is as structurally perfect as season two, and even after a rewatch there are some elements that don't work as well as they should (particularly the Cousins and some of the Mexican drug cartel scenes, which feel a bit like warmed-over Miami Vice). But the season is so visually and thematically ambitious that it doesn't really matter. Any series that lasts more than a couple of seasons has to change or evolve, to avoid boring both itself and the viewers, and Breaking Bad's shift into nightmare grotesque and half-figurative, half-realistic storytelling is one of the great change-ups in TV drama history, in large part because it's so gradual. When you look at the pilot, with a pasty, hairy Walter White stumbling around a realistically photographed desert in his tighty-whiteys, then check out the super-magnet episode from the first half of season five, the difference in tone and style is rather astonishing. And yet even as season three is busy building an aesthetic bridge between early and late seasons, it still gives you the beloved, familiar elements, such as Walter's clueless "reassuring" monologues that are really about denying responsibility for the evil he created while simultaneously making other people's grief about him. (I don't know which moment is more hilariously appalling, Walter's speech to the school assembly about how the mid-air collision wasn't that bad, or the scene in the hospital diner where he treats Marie's grief about Hank as a pretext to remind her of how much he's suffered.) 

More than anything else, this is a show about characters, and the small and big traumas of life. I love how the show gives every character a bit of humanity, even the arms dealer who sells the cousins their bulletproof vests while yammering on about the bondage sex he'll be enjoying soon, or the junkyard owner who engages Hank in an unexpectedly lucid argument about the fine points of search and seizure, or Mike, who emerges as a major character in "Half-Measures," delivering a profoundly sorrowful monologue about an incident from his cop days, when he tried and failed to save a woman from her abusive husband. ("Caved her head in with the base of a Waring blender" is a phrase Elmore Leonard could have written.) Throughout all the major and minor moments, we're always anchored to Walt's story: A slow descent into Hell, Heisenberg pressing the accelerator down a little flatter as they pass a new level. What a magnificent, horrible bastard he is. "You said no half measures," Walt tells Mike in the season finale, justifying killing two of Gus' dealers. "Funny how words can be open to interpretation," Mike deadpans. 

Photo: AMC