October 10, 2011

THE SKED: “Breaking” Spectacular (Except In the Ratings)

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Creatively, last night’s season finale of BREAKING BAD was extraordinary in almost every way (how long till the final 16 episodes start airing?).  In the ratings, according to TV By the Numbers it did quite well, but not quite up to the mark of its season premiere (around a 0.9 rating as opposed to a 1.1).  AMC does note, though, that the season as a whole set a new high for the series, which was up an impressive 24% in 18-49s from Season 3, and a truly remarkable 42% among 18-34 year olds.
Spoilers after the break…

In her review of The Godfather Part II, Pauline Kael famously asked “Is it our imagination, or is Michael [Corleone]’s face beginning to rot?”  Breaking Bad, which has become a story of moral degeneration worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as Coppola’s masterpiece, is posing the same question about Walter White.  Last night, in the stunning season finale (written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan), Walter won his 2-season war with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, and how sad are we to see him go?), but along the way, he discarded what was left of his humanity.  Walter deliberately poisoned–and nearly murdered–a child, and not just any child, but the boy most cherished by his best friend and partner Jesse (Aaron Paul).  All in order to manipulate Jesse into abandoning Gus’s camp and join him in wholeheartedly planning Gus’s murder.  With this, Walter passed from being a criminal into becoming a monster.
While it’s hard to believe that Walter, who used to be a mild-mannered high school science teacher, could have fallen (risen?) to this level of evil, it’s equally remarkable that Gilligan has carried us along with Walter on this dark journey.  Even more astonishing, Gilligan made us believe last week that Walter was absolutely innocent of this terrible crime, and then turned our own gullibility back on us this week when we found out that we had been conned as badly as Jesse was.   (One nit, for the record:  the final shot of Gus, while certainly technically impressive and conceptually in keeping with the show’s dark humor, was a little too showy–a bit too much of an in-joke crossover with AMC’s Walking Dead.)

All of this, of course, could only be accomplished with the amazing work of Bryan Cranston, who should probably clear off space on his mantel for a another Emmy.  The entire cast has been superb, but Cranston, Paul and Esposito tower even over the rest.
Breaking Bad has been both the most nailbiting thriller of this year–even though we all pretty much knew Gus wouldn’t see next season, who saw the wheelchair bell bomb coming?–and its most provocative drama (its moral ambiguities make Dexter look like Glee).  We know for certain that the next 16 episodes–probably spread over 2 seasons–will be its last, and the question is just how much farther it can go.  Clearly, Walter is no longer acting out of mere self-preservation, much less to earn money for his family–he’s as addicted to crime as his customers are to his perfect meth.  Can anyone doubt, after last night, that Walter would let his wife be killed in order to save himself?  (Arguably, she even deserves it, for her idiot schemes to avoid the IRS.)  Not to mention Jesse, not to mention his brother-in-law or lawyer.  Would he stop if his own children were at stake?  Could he?
AMC has taken plenty of heat the last few months for its very public contract and budget battles over its shows, but let’s give them the credit they deserve:  this network, which barely existed a few years ago, has given us 2 of the best shows in the history of television in Mad Man and Breaking Bad.  Even if they can’t get out of their own way sometimes, that’s a hell of a record.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."