How Breaking Bad broke free of the clockwork-universe problem

How Breaking Bad broke free of the clockwork-universe problem

Late in Breaking Bad’s upcoming season-five part-two première, Walter White makes a leap of logic that seems somewhat ridiculous for the man to make. He has very little evidence to support it. He has no particular reason to feel the way he does—outside of one thing he should never have noticed. But it feels right for him to have made this leap of logic, at least to the audience. This happens all the time on Breaking Bad: When examining the actual elements of the plot, the show makes huge leaps that don’t always seem backed up by logic or rational thought, but they’re always undergirded by a kind of emotional through-line that ties everything together. The show, which began as a relatively small-scale domestic crime drama, very gradually evolved into a grand pulp adventure, with super-magnets and murderous, silent twin brothers, and it hasn’t always been clear how the series was able to make any or all of this work. At times, it felt as if the mechanics of the plot should have swallowed the characters whole, but Breaking Bad has succumbed only rarely, and even then, only for a scene or two. How?

If my colleague Donna Bowman places the strength of the series squarely in the tradition of Greek tragedy—of the sense that there are powerful systems at work that catch up the people of the series’ fictional Albuquerque and grind them up—then I would look a little further along in the history of drama. To my mind, Breaking Bad is structured like a great Shakespearean tragedy, complete with a hero defined more by his flaws and petty resentments than his positive qualities and a five-season plot that corresponds almost exactly to the structure of one of Shakespeare’s five-act tragedies, right down to the series’ climax arriving in the final moments of season three’s finale. Everything since Jesse Pinkman pulled that trigger and killed Gale Boetticher has been blood and horrible falling action. It’s not hard to imagine Shakespeare smiling and nodding in affection somewhere.

One of Breaking Bad’s greatest strengths is something that has been the greatest weakness of almost every other show that has attempted such a thing: It takes place in a clockwork universe. The “clockwork universe” is a storytelling world where every single character and element is meant to contribute to the overall forward thrust of the story and its attendant themes. The characters may have rich inner lives. They may seem to have free will. But the more the workings of the story are poked at and pulled apart, the more the characters are revealed to primarily be there to play specific roles within it.

For the most part, clockwork-universe storytelling works best in works of finite length. A novel or film can turn this kind of mechanical storytelling into something utterly thrilling. Think of how many great heist stories are primarily boiled down to the role each character plays on the team, or think of how many quest narratives ultimately become about how the party assembled to complete the quest was exactly the right party because its members all filled specific roles that were necessary for the adventure undertaken. The plot of a clockwork-universe story is usually at least somewhat complex, filled with moving parts and ticking time bombs, and when things resolve at the end of one of these stories, there’s often a great sense of elation, particularly if the storyteller can offer up well-drawn characters and unexpected revelations along the way. Things snap into place. Story points that seemed unnecessary make sense. Everything becomes incredibly satisfying.

It’s remarkably difficult to build a clockwork universe on television, even at a relatively small scale. Take, for instance, the one and only season of FlashForward, which set for itself an impossible task—show the finished picture of the puzzle via an unexpected time jump that everybody on Earth experiences all at once, then figure out how the characters come together to form that picture. Unsurprisingly, the mechanical nature of the plot was underlined over and over again, and the characters were never allowed to take flight because the audience was constantly reminded of how they fit into the plot, rather than how the plot was built around them. Most serialized TV shows use a sort of constant expansion. The ensemble cast grows to encompass more and more characters and settings. If it’s a show with mysteries, then more mysteries are piled on. And by the end of everything, there’s no good way to wrap up absolutely every plot thread in a satisfying fashion.

To be sure, Breaking Bad has consistently expanded with every season. In the show’s first and second years, it sometimes could feel like Albuquerque was occupied by about 15 to 20 people who kept bumping into each other in ways that touched off greater and greater tragedy. (There’s that clockwork universe again.) The show always steered into this particular skid with verve, never more so than when Walter met Jane’s father in a bar, kicking off a series of events that resulted in the apocalyptic closing moments of that season. (That plane crash, by the way, disappointed many fans at the time but now feels like one of the show’s greatest moments, a clear demarcating line between the smaller-scale domestic drama that was and the borderline religious morality play that followed.) After those first two seasons, however, it steadily expanded its world, turning guest players into regulars and creating newer and larger villains for Walter to throw himself toward, pulling conflict down around his head just to make the world aware of his existence.

What Breaking Bad has pulled off so brilliantly—that has saved it time and again from locking into the rigidity of clockwork plotting—is an intense, almost maniacal focus on its central arc and its central theme. As in Shakespeare’s greatest plays, nearly everything ties back to the central story, no matter how tangential it seems. No matter how huge the universe of Breaking Bad gets, everything that happens in it and every new encounter Walter White has is driven by that choice Walter made in the first episode to cook meth. In that moment, his fate was sealed, and everything that has happened since has been inevitable, driven by his tragic flaw. (Now we’re back to the Greeks again.) Just as Hamlet had his indecision, and Othello had his envy, Walter White has his intense, driving pride, a pride that has curdled into a terrifying bitterness after years of being locked away inside. When he cooks meth, it emerges with almost supernatural fury, and everyone and everything around him is subsumed in that fury.

In a way, this is the show simply taking the greatest weakness of clockwork plotting—a tendency to make everything all about one thing and the emptiness of character and theme that can provoke—and turning it into a strength through sheer relentlessness. With rare exceptions—Gus Fring’s origin story in season four’s “Hermanos,” say—every element of this story is about what happens after Walter makes his choice in the pilot. This isn’t a new thing to say about the show, by any means, but it’s often hard to appreciate just how thoroughly this kept the series from the kinds of goofiness that other clockwork-serialized shows have collapsed into. (Anybody want to talk about Damages?) Over-expansion made it all but certain that shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica would never answer enough questions or close off enough plot threads to satisfy everyone in their finales. Breaking Bad has always had just the one question and plot thread to close off: What happens to Walter?

This speaks to one of Breaking Bad’s least heralded strengths: its ability to make stuff it seemingly comes up with on the fly feel like part of a grand master plan. Throughout the run of the show, the writers have been masterful at finding loose ends that can connect to other loose ends in a way that increases the series’ sense of inevitability, of some sort of Old Testament-style god at work behind the scenes of the series. (The series has actually invoked this moral force at various times, most notably when Skyler keeps tossing a quarter at the Four Corners, that quarter entreating her to live anywhere but New Mexico.) Things like Jesse’s new girlfriend knowing the kid who shot Combo in season two would feel like completely strained coincidences on other shows, but because Breaking Bad’s focus has such laser precision, it can get away with these things. It is, in a way, as if Walter has somehow made the private contents of his brain terrifying reality and visited them upon everyone he knows.

This relentless, Shakespearean focus on one man’s decisions and flaws has also allowed the show to pull off a tonal and genre shift that rarely happens in television. As mentioned above, this show began as a quiet, methodical domestic drama that examined minor processes in minute detail, an externalization of the chemical reactions that produce the drugs at the show’s core and Walter White’s own internal journey. Since season three, however, the show has increasingly left that aside for larger, more grandiose adventures, taking greater and greater leaps into the abyss and becoming more and more fanciful. (Try describing that super-magnet plotline to someone who doesn’t watch the show, and they may wonder exactly why it’s won so much acclaim.) Walter’s descent has required larger, more baroque emotional and physical stakes, and Vince Gilligan and his writers have only been too happy to provide them. We don’t need to see the methodical processes anymore, because we largely already know them. What we need to see are the sorts of cosmic stakes introduced and constantly heightened, and Breaking Bad is happy to oblige. This has the added benefit of allowing the show to make leaps of logic and have them feel absolutely organic to what’s going on, without pushing too hard.

Shakespeare understood that a clockwork plot could be a thing of beauty, that the moment at the end when the tragedy arises so inevitably that the audience begs for it to never come. But it would only be so if it had characters crowded around the story center who seemed as if they might have lives outside of the story but didn’t, not really. The non-Walter characters on Breaking Bad serve similar functions, many starting out as barely sketched-in archetypes—hectoring wife, straight-edge lawman, burned-out stoner—and quickly becoming incredibly potent figures the more they try to escape the gravity of the main story. In Shakespeare’s best tragedies, the characters all seem dimly aware they’re trapped in a Shakespearean tragedy and don’t know how to get out. That’s true on Breaking Bad, too, whether it’s the goofy side characters like Badger and Skinny Pete or the show’s most important non-Walter character, Jesse (who is, in some ways, the show’s protagonist now).

It seems unlikely that Gilligan and his writers sat down every season and questioned how they could adhere to Shakespearean five-act structure, outside of the general and pronounced influence Shakespeare has had on drama in general. But over the course of the show’s run, it has inadvertently turned into what might be the great Shakespearean tale of TV history. There’s a reason so many TV writers cite Greek drama when talking about their work. Greek drama is driven more by a general sense of oppression at the hands of the gods and the inevitability of life’s futility than anything else, and oppression and futility are endlessly renewable resources when it comes to TV. Breaking Bad made the far more difficult choice of depicting one man’s rise and fall, and in so doing, it borrowed heavily from classical tragedy to make its case and tell its story. Its greatest trick is that it is a clockwork story, but it’s made the clock-maker its main character. And once all of those people struggling to break free of the gears and levers that hold them in place realize the man that trapped them there is standing right beside them, the canker rotting away at the center of everything, the universe will surely shatter.