Post-hiatus musings: Breaking Bad Season 4

After nearly a month, my fairly substantial hiatus here at TVS is over. I am happy to be back providing content for you folks on a regular basis. In my time off, I’ve missed all sorts of television, both viewing- and writing-wise. To combat that, I’ll be whipping up a number of random posts with thoughts on countless summer programming over the next few days. I hope you consider these posts fair payment for the weeks I took off so that I could work on my thesis and spend time with my significant other. 

Of all the series I’m disappointed to have missed writing about during the hiatus, Breaking Bad makes me the saddest. I strongly considered making quick returns after each of season four’s episodes aired, but I could never quite get there. Most of that stems from my schedule and the desire to have some time off. However, I do believe there is something about the first half of this season of the series that has made me less (if only slightly so) invested and interested in where things are going in the Breaking Bad universe. I’m not going to sit here and say that the series is on some sort of downward spiral or that I haven’t liked these first half-dozen episodes to start the season. That’s insane talk right there.

Yet, my feelings persist. If I wanted to forgive the issues, I could point out two things about Breaking Bad that probably exacerbate said issues: First, the series’ seasons always start a bit slow and second, season three was so damn good that it is entirely possible that everything else is going to unfortunately pale in comparison, no matter how much I try to avoid those kind of unwarranted perspectives. I have to remind myself that the way I’m feeling now is somewhat similar to how I felt last season before the middle part of the story kicked things into overdrive. It appears that Vince Gilligan and his writing staff are more interested in letting the tension build up a bit more this season than they were last season (for a quick point, we crossed the RV showdown at this point last season) and that will probably be a great decision in the end. All of that is well and good, I get it.

But I have to say that this batch of opening episodes has still left me a bit cold in spots. I have enjoyed every episode on an individual level, but the air of uncertainty (an air that is almost certainly purposeful and intentional on the writers’ part) has led to a smidgen of repetition in the beats. There was much discussion about the similarities between episodes two and three, particularly as far as Jesse’s concerned, and I see where individuals critical of the character’s story in those episodes are coming from. Personally, I’ve been more frustrated with Walter’s arc this season.

While nearly all of season three had this palpable terror and tension weighing down on it, this season sort of lacks that, even though it should theoretically have just as much of it. We in the audience knew the Cousins were coming and then we knew what Gus was planning to do to Walter and Jesse, so we could feel the thrilling and horrifying elements of the series even if its lead characters didn’t quite know the whole picture. This season, the cards are on the proverbial table. Gus made his abilities perfectly clear in “Box Cutter” and that’s left Mike, Jesse and Walt to deal with what that intense event means for their psyches and positions within the business. Jesse’s got all sorts of problems at the moment, Mike’s clearly growing frustrated with what he does and does not have to do and know as a cog in Gus’ meth machine and Walt’s reaction has been that of a petulant, egomanical mastermind wannabe.

By the end of last season, Walt had completely, fully embraced the Heisenberg persona without the immediate concern for consequences that drove him nuts earlier in the story. He did what he had to do, even thought that meant taking some seriously drastic actions. He took total control of his miserable life. And in the aftermath, that’s been stripped away. His current job, despite the pay, sucks more than teaching and probably just as much as working at the car wash. Although he’s an important member of the team, he’s without power or control of the situation. He’s a worker bee, a valuable one, but one nonetheless. Outside of the super-lab, he’s stuck answering legitimate but somewhat nagging questions from Skyler in situations that feel eerily similar to the domestic suffocation we saw him wander through in the opening minutes of the pilot. Last night, his big speech to Skyler seemed like Walt was trying to prove both the things he was saying to both her and himself. Even if he really isn’t the one who knocks (though he certainly has been), he REALLY wants to be and that might be more dangerous than anything else. He cannot show or express what he thinks are legitimate frustrations to Gus, so he’s stuck putting on a tough guy attitude for Skyler, posturing with Hank about the possibility of Gale being Heisenberg and probably indirectly causing the deaths of three cleaning ladies. But for all his posturing and maneuvering, Walt is stuck. And when I watch him, I feel just as stuck.

Moreover, the point is that while Walt, Mike and Jesse (and we can even throw Skyler into this) are at least somewhat fearful of what’s going to happen to them and this whole operation, that kind of fear doesn’t manifest itself in the same way that the Cousins or Gus did last season. Walt really wants to know what Gus is up to, but so do I. I’m just as frustrated as Walt. I don’t need answers like some spoiler addict, but I’d like to not be toiling away in an unmanageable uncertainty that sometimes feels like it’s happening just because the writers know they can screw with us in the same way that Gus screws with Walt. Last season, the threat was at least regularly visible to us. We saw the Cousins coming, we saw Gus pulling strings. This season? Gus makes an occasional appearance, but we’re (or at least I am) stuck feeling like I’m getting jerked around for kicks.

Similarly, the series’ universe is just now so suffocating. In past seasons, characters were able to move into separate spaces temporarily, spaces that contrasted nicely with the terror and danger underlying their lives. Walt went to the school, Skyler and Hank went to work, Jesse went to rehab and meetings and Saul had a larger presence. Now, it feels like the series’ world is shrinking every moment. Jokes abound about Walter Jr.’s lack of screen-time (unless it’s breakfast), Marie has faded from importance in recent weeks and there has been a shockingly disappointing amount of Saul Goodman all season long.

Again, let me just say that I know this is all purposeful. When a series can make me feel exactly the same way a lead character does, I can recognize and appreciate the strength of the writing and the performances. In fact, we could probably say that the fact I am so worked up about this means the Breaking Bad team has done their jobs very well. To that point, the suffocating closing of the world further reflects what’s happening to Walt and company. That terror and danger that was once somewhat underlying is now out in the open, so it’s as if these people have nowhere to go. Walt’s been fired from the school for his awful behavior, but his horrible decisions have also impacted the spaces that Skyler and Jesse used to frequent as well. It all makes so much sense, but I don’t know if I particularly want to love it.

Nevertheless, I think I had to get all of that out of my system anyway. I really do like this season a lot and I have found something to absolutely LOVE in each episode, but the reservations and issues are still there. I think most of my issues would be squelched if Gus had more screen-time and/or Walt actually got some sort of minor victory in his ongoing fight against his bosses. Of course, that makes me just sound exactly like Walt. Damn you, Vince Gilligan.

Other thoughts:

  • While Walt’s arc has been frustrating the hell out of me, I’m a big fan of where Jesse’s been thus far this season. I thought the so-called repetitive beats in episodes two and three were tremendous because we in the audience needed to see how pathetic and apathetic Jesse became in the aftermath of shooting Gale. The first episode of it showed us Jesse’s state, but that second episode hammered it home for real. At the beginning of season three, he said he knew that he was the bad guy, but I don’t really think he ever believed it or at least never thought that being the bad guy meant he’d have to kill. Now that he has, Jesse’s realized that being the bad guy mostly sucks. Thank god for Gus Fring’s manipulation! It sure looks like that Mike and Jesse are forging a real bond, no matter if it was crafted with devilish intentions to begin with.
  • On a similar note, I do love how this Mike-Jesse bond is getting to Walt. Gus is so smart that he knows Walt would figure out that Mike’s initial interest was all sort of a ruse, but he’s even smarter to recognize that Walt wouldn’t be able to convey the impact of that manipulation to Jesse. Of course Walt’s speech to Jesse about Gus trying to break them up to screw with Walt is true, but Walt is incapable of being sensitive to really anyone else’s perspective or importance. Despite his posturing, Walt has consistently treated Jesse poorly and often uses him as a pawn and/or punching bag. At this point, even if he wanted to save Jesse from Mike and Gus for Jesse, he couldn’t convince anyone of that fact. Jesse would assume Walt’s just trying to save his own ass and he’s probably right.
  • Skyler is a hard character to root for because of the framework of the series, but I really like the direction this season has taken her. She’s always going to feel like a nag, but unlike in earlier seasons, both the character and the series are aware of her position. The writers know how she’s perceived by the audience just as she knows how she’s perceived by Walter Jr. and other people close to her. She’s helped this season by the fact that all the questions she asks and points she raises are legitimate ones. It’s really interesting to me how in the early going, Jesse grew annoyed of Walt’s waffling and detail-oriented processes. Remember how long it took them to plan the deaths/body dumps of the guys in the RV from the pilot? Now, with the operation much larger and the risk even larger, Walt can’t help but scoff at the way Skyler is approach things — even though he approached them the same way little over a year ago. That tells us a lot about how confident and egotistical Walt’s become as he moves closer to the full Heisenberg. He eventually had to tell Skyler the truth and in doing so, he’s freed himself from having to the overly meticulous thinking. Unfortunately for him, she took the torch and ran with it.
  • It seems to me (and most people, based on Twitter and other reviews) that Gus’ organization has a mole. Is it Tyrus? Is it Mike? I feel like it can only be one of those two, unless the series wants to introduce another new character in quick fashion. I’m very intrigued by what Gus’ long-term plans are here. He’s been out of the picture for most of the season, so it’s unclear how he plans to deal with Walt, Jesse, the cartel and even Mike. It’s very possible that he wants to get rid of the three individuals by wrapping them up in cartel business, especially since the cartel knows about Heisenberg to begin with.
  • Seriously, we need more Saul. I’m having withdraws.

 

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2 thoughts on “Post-hiatus musings: Breaking Bad Season 4

  1. Nice review, welcome back. First time commenter, long time reader. I have two points.

    First, in response to your comment about the “stuckness” of season 4: I’ve had a difficult time discussing this season with other BB fans. Most of my family and friends just started watching this show through Netflix / DVDs in the 15-month hiatus the show had. They’ve never watched a heavily, heavily-serialized show on a weekly basis for 3+ months. I’m hearing comments like “Things are so slow” or “Nothing’s happening”. Even if you listen to the BB official podcast, Gilligan comments on how the show trains viewers to get used to a slow-burn of added anxiety, stress, character development, etc. It’s very much like THE WIRE in this regard. I have the utmost faith in Gilligan & Co. that this season is building to some sort of fury and anger. This show has banked enough good will that any sort of “stuckness” should be interpreted as mindful storyline.

    Second, there’s nothing suffocating about the universe of BB. Methinks Gilligan & Co. realized how fantastic this cast is, and started to expand storylines to reflect actors’ abilities. Even the Skylar thread is more interesting and natural than in seasons past. Sidebar: Does anybody else feel as if hank is going to end up like Ronnie Gardocki in THE SHIELD’s series finale? If there’s one thing Breaking Bad has taught me, it’s that the emotional payoff from Walter White’s actions are supremely enjoyable to watch.

    Dan

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