What’s the right way to watch Breaking Bad?

What’s the right way to watch Breaking Bad?

Back when Noel Murray was writing his epic Lost recaps, he used to end each post with a section titled “Clues, conspiracies, and crazy-ass theories.” Here he would note new tidbits of information revealed in the episode that might end up making a difference in the series’ masterplot, and engage in some Lost fans’ favorite pastime: figuring out the one, unifying mystery behind all the polar bears and hatches and weird giant statues. Lost was a show that encouraged this kind of behavior; at every turn, the creators seemed to be urging us to obsess over how the dots were connected and what picture would be formed once all the lines were drawn. 

Lost, from this perspective, was a murder-mystery dinner cruise writ large, a puzzle presented, in teasing tidbits, to be solved. The creators provide the pieces, one by one; we examine them minutely, speculating whether that blob is a donkey ear or a building corner, with nothing else to look at until the next piece is revealed. At the end, we trust, we will have a complete picture, but a picture of what? Why, of the Rube Goldberg machinery of plot that starts with the Dharma Initiative (or with a primordial struggle between personified good and evil, or something) and proceeds through interlocking gears of cause and effect to the end result. The viewpoint of clues, conspiracies, and crazy-ass theories is that each piece, each bit of information, has a function within the whole. Moreover, that function is singular; each piece only fits in one place, and only has one definitive meaning, to be discovered in relation to all the other pieces. The fun of a jigsaw puzzle or a murder cruise is that satisfying “click” when a piece falls into place, that “aha!” moment when you realize what must be true, giving you a bit of solid ground to stand on as you continue searching.

To Noel’s credit, he and plenty of other fans of Lost didn’t think that was all it was about. Because what is that Rube Goldberg machine supposed to do, in the end? Presumably, since this was a serialized drama about people that spent a good chunk of time in its best episodes exploring their, you know, feelings and changes of heart and stuff, the plot machinery of Lost wasn’t meant to churn along for its own sake. It’s intended to illuminate the nature of these characters and prompt them to grow somehow. But once variables are introduced into the jigsaw puzzle, puzzle solvers will inevitably become frustrated; if the final picture leaves some pieces unplaced and scribbles new outlines on some others, people who have been collecting clues will feel cheated.

Even as Breaking Bad has been hailed as one of television’s greatest achievements in corners from the tweedily critical to the geekily feverish, there remains an intense disagreement over how to watch it. Week to week, some fans rush to compile clues, conspiracies, and crazy-ass theories about what’s going to happen next, while others turn their backs on speculation and instead meditate on the people who populate these cul-de-sacs and RVs and chicken joints. One group ponders: How did Walter give Brock the poison? The other: Has Walter finally lost his soul?

It’s a divide that the serialized drama, as a television genre, creates fairly regularly. One way to categorize it is along the continuum with plot-driven at one end and character-driven on the other. Plot-driven shows are like rat mazes. Creators set up characters within a situation where they have a clearly defined goal and negotiate unambiguous obstacles to reach it. The pleasure of watching a plot-driven drama is to feel the tension and danger of the situation (watch out, they’re after you!) and appreciate the clever or heroic ways that escape is effected (science, bitch!). 

Character-driven shows are like Skinner boxes: Creators place characters in a setting where things will happen to them. The pleasure of watching a character-driven drama is empathizing with the way the people on the screen as they try to find freedom, fulfillment, revenge, love, control—whatever drives them—within those constraints. In a plot-driven show, the goal is provided by the situation (survival, escape, victory); in a character-driven show, the characters choose their own goals, and much of the interest comes from our sense that they could have made other choices and gone down very different paths. 

Most serialized shows aren’t at one extreme or another. There’s a long tradition, for example, of shows with a fundamental rat-in-a-maze premise that week to week serves as merely a backdrop, so that self-contained stories can be told within the context of the overall quest (The Fugitive, The Incredible Hulk, Cupid). And as we’ve seen, puzzle or mystery serials (at least the successful ones) almost always have some interest in treating their characters as people with inner lives and free will. Nonetheless, creators usually give viewers plenty of cues about how they are supposed to approach and enjoy the show—about what kind of pleasure they should expect from it. Lost layered its episodes from the very start with inexplicable machines and shadowy initiatives. Enlightened, to name a counterexample, births its quixotic quest from the rather damaged psyche of a woman in search of a purpose. One invites viewers on a scavenger hunt; one prompts them to feel for a person.

So which one is Breaking Bad? Put another way, which group has been watching it wrong? Anyone who’s read my recaps of the first four and a half seasons will find me firmly in the character-driven camp most of the time. Maybe I’ve even aired my frustration with the “clues, conspiracies, and crazy-ass theories” camp occasionally, like when everyone was trying to predict the end of the Gus Fring arc in season four. But as the series comes to an end, and the anticipation of what that end might look like (or what we want it to look like) intensifies, the question of aligning the viewer’s perspective with that of the show’s guiding minds becomes more urgent than weekly fan infighting. Nobody can stop you from watching this or any other piece of entertainment any damn way you please, at least in the privacy of your own home. Close your eyes and treat it like a radio play; yell out MST3K-style riffs at the screen; decide whom you love and whom you hate. You’re completely free. But the show’s creators do want viewers to approach it a certain way. Defy them as much as you like, but be prepared to be frustrated. Especially when it comes to conclusions.

Those, like me, who gravitate toward character are going to have to admit it: There’s plenty of plot to drive Breaking Bad. For those who want to enjoy Walter White getting out of scrapes, staying one half-step ahead of his pursuers, going mano a mano with his enemies, there are not only dozens of episodes with that structure—think “Sunset” from season three, with Walter and Jesse cornered in the RV at the junkyard—but also entire seasons, like the aforementioned epic battle with Fring. These arcs put Our Heroes in danger and prompt us to root for them to find a way out. If Vince Gilligan didn’t want us speculating about what the pink teddy bear meant, or what happened to the ricin cigarette, then he wouldn’t have put the characters in that rat maze and sprinkled it with telling details to begin with.

But if that’s the way we’re supposed to approach the series, then an episode like “Fly” in season three, or “Phoenix” in season two, makes no sense. (I’m aware that many plot-driven fans are loudly agreeing with me.) In those episodes, the model is Greek tragedy, and in Greek tragedy, there is no exit to the maze. We are cued to understand that these characters are trapped in the world they made for themselves, and to feel the pity and fear that comes from recognizing ourselves in them. Yet even though this way of seeing Breaking Bad is in some ways at the opposite pole from the plot-driven thrill of the chase perspective, the two viewpoints do have one thing in common: They both presume that the only proper role of the creator is to be omniscient and omnipotent. Whether viewers thinks Walter White is a badass or a sad sack with delusions of grandeur, they’re probably pretty sure that Vince Gilligan agrees, and could marshal plenty of evidence to prove either point.

Here’s a hypothesis I’ll bequeath to the next decade of Breaking Bad scholarship: The real genius in this show’s construction lies in its embrace of both plot and character as drivers. Because of the way Gilligan and his writing staff decided to approach keeping the process fresh (writing their way into and out of dead ends in season three, giving their super-antihero a super-antivillain in season four), the show turns out to be plot-driven in microcosm and character-driven in macrocosm. Many individual episodes, and sometimes a half-season or season-long arc, are indeed puzzles that we as viewers race with Walter to solve. But because of crucial choices not only in what Walter does, but more importantly in how he sees himself and those around him, the interstices between arcs and seasons marinate the show and its viewers in a character stew. The much-discussed thematic posters for each successive season are less about setting the tone for what’s going to happen,  and more about suggesting possibilities for who Walter will be.

That mix of character and plot as motive forces arises from the show’s unusually self-contained premise. Think about some other badass antiheroes of TV fame and the circumstances that shaped them. Tony Soprano didn’t invent the Mafia; the Mafia invented Tony Soprano. Our interest in his story isn’t how he got in or might get out of this life, but whether he can be some kind of self-assessing human being within its bizarro version of honor and duty. The Shield’s Vic Mackey might have assembled the Strike Team and carved out a lawless space for it to operate, but the line between cop and corrupt cop is drawn by the nature of the job itself, and always has been. As with Tony, we join Vic in medias res, already deep into the contradictions and temptations of life in the shadows. We don’t see how he turned dirty; we’ve seen it before and can fill in those blanks ourselves. And while The Shield ended with a nightmarish vision of Vic’s living death in a cubicle, we were never watching it to see how Vic got out; we might, on the other hand, have been watching it to see how Vic got punished. For both men, the perennial nature of their criminal milieus means that character trumps plot. We follow their stories to see how their box pushes at them, and how (and how long) they can push back.

By contrast, the central premise of Breaking Bad always felt like a high-wire act. Walter doesn’t adopt a badass role that already existed in his Albuquerque suburban, marginally middle-class world. He has to invent his own persona, cobbling together a bit of the misunderstood genius scientist he’s been been nursing for years, a quality-controlled version of Jesse’s “Captain Cook” lifestyle, and the business savvy of Gus Fring, with delusions of Scarface kingpin grandeur. We saw Walter climb onto that wire, and for many viewers, almost the whole of the tension is watching him repeatedly almost fall then recover, and wondering if he can build a landing platform in mid-air, like Bugs Bunny defying the law of gravity because he never studied law. Walter’s enterprise has a feeling of improvisatory, entrepreneurial impermanence. As it was born in a moment, so, when one of the many potential pursuers catches up to him, it could also die in a moment.

And that Jenga-block suspense—the undercarriage of the Heisenberg edifice seems more riddled with holes as the tower rises higher—illustrates the most surprising, and to my mind the most often missed, lesson behind this monumental show. Along with the widespread heralding of a new television golden age in the last 20 years has come a powerful desire for television auteurs. Showrunners have been slapped on magazine covers and lauded as Midas-touch geniuses, like CEOs used to be—and for much the same rationale. Hire the right showrunner, give a season order to the right creator, and ride the lightning, baby! Now, I’m a huge admirer of these storytellers and have no interest in cutting them down to size. But along with auteur appreciation often comes Kubrickian levels of assumed control. Everyone assumes that the creative mastermind has it All Planned Out, that every detail and detour of the journey will pay off in the finale, that Vince Gilligan will pull the lever and we will hit the clues, conspiracies, and crazy-ass jackpot. And in order for this to happen, he has to already know everything

When did he have to know it? Well, probably always. In this monotheistic theory of creation, nothing can have meaning unless it was intended. And this is the aesthetic rabbit hole of auteur approaches run wild. If somebody wasn’t exercising control over that thing you’d like to find significant , if it just happened? If it was an accident, happy or unhappy? If it was an accommodation to some extra-story reality? Then the story is diminished. It turns out to be insufficiently hermetic and complete. And the creator, whom we are so eager to worship for the perfection of their universe, turns out to be muddling along in some way like the rest of us.

What makes Breaking Bad so astounding is that it was produced by people who deliberately enjoyed and employed their lack of omnipotence in its making. That’s why it was able to stun us with its storytelling, not in the deployment of twists (those plot 180s designed to recontextualize what we thought we already knew), but in its exhilarating freedom from expectations, including those that the creative team brought with them as baggage from their previous endeavors. What happened week to week was not the effect of the previously dramatized instrumental cause, nor what would serve as an incremental step to a predetermined end, but whatever was needed to push Walter toward another self-defining, irrevocable choice. The only place where a masterplot to Walter’s life exists is in Walter’s head. And it’s full of blank spaces and question marks, scribbled-out sketches and desperate do-overs. 

Walter faced it back in season two’s “Four Days Out,” when he learned that his cancer was in remission. The irony of what has happened since is that Walter has taken “not getting killed” as his framework for decision-making, an attitude that has allowed him to claim success. But as we saw in that moment, the defining issue faced by Walter White is continuing to live—an existential problem with no solution, not a quest with a victory condition. Walter’s dormant cancer could be the mission statement for Breaking Bad’s pushmi-pullyu approach to the plot/character dichotomy. And Walter’s all-consuming drive to impose his will on everything that could potentially threaten him, from his enemies to his allies to his family, suggests that the creative team has faced down the allure of their omnipotence and made a conscious choice to critique it.

So when the show is over and the complete picture is before us, what are we going to remember? What will we look forward to recreating—or will this be a story we’ll want to have told to us more than once? For me, it will be the dramatic experience of following Walter up, down, in, out, to New Hampshire and back again; a summary won’t suffice, and spoilers won’t serve as shortcuts. For 54 episodes now, I’ve been dogging his footsteps, sometimes waiting patiently for him to move, sometimes flat-out running to keep up. As the final season approaches, what I hope for the last eight hours of Breaking Bad is that it will be Walter I’m still following, all the way to the end. The greatest compliment I can give to Gilligan and the other storytellers behind the scenes would be this: I’m not wondering what they’ll say and do next. I’m waiting, filled with fear and dread and excitement, for Walter White’s next move.