I think it may be a consequence of the relentless downward spiral into hell of the last half of the fifth season, but I had never really paid attention to the deep conservatism of Breaking Bad before. It isn’t really a problem that Vince Gilligan is a really nice, apple-pie, aw-shucks small “c” conservative kind of guy; the series spins on his storytelling flair, the twists and turns he and his team pull off with such effortless style that you’d believe it was fully mapped out in advance if he hadn’t told us otherwise.
So when I level the charge of conservatism, it’s not so much a complaint as a means of emphasising that the brilliance of the show is in its construction rather than its message. I’ve heard Breaking Bad referred to as a morality tale, although I don’t think the series is ever delineated quite so starkly. But it definitely had a very clear idea for where Walter White’s moral path should take him. And that place very clearly conforms to a traditional idea of punishment for one’s actions. Much as I found the season finale (more than) satisfying on a visceral and sheer popcorn entertainment level, I can’t help thinking that it took Walter to a place that wasn’t very interesting morally and ethically. It more than serviced our yen for punchy dramatics, but offered no lasting resonance.
There’s only been one conversation from the start; how morally (un)justifiable is Walt’s behaviour. Much of the debate since has been about the audience examining their identification with him (which flip-flops from scene to scene, if we’re honest). More recently the discussion has become overwhelmed by a perceived either-or empathising with Walter or Skyler. It seems, if you don’t particularly care for Skyler, that it’s everyone’s fault but the writers’. Indeed, to dislike her is tantamount to hatred of all women. The tone of the intercourse has become so mangled that any comment must be prefaced by a statement that no, you never had a problem with Skyler throughout the series; just in case you might leave yourself open to charges of latent misogyny. If some viewers have gone overboard in their decrying of Skyler (and, it seems Anna Gunn), it’s not for Gilligan to start wagging his finger without first examining his role in such reactions. He’s the expert manipulator, the cunning provocateur.
Perhaps his soundbites concerning how he really didn’t like Walter White by the end of the show are a recognition of this to an extent; guilt over the monster he has manufacture. The conversation about Walter is a great conversation, and Gilligan’s push-pull of like and loathing for the character has been as masterful as that of a comedy writer who in one moment makes you hideously embarrassed for the protagonist and in the next still rooting for him. I’m not confident there is anything terribly deep here. And I think I really realised this when Walt’s cancer came back. Perhaps it only came to exist in the first place as punishment for the crimes he would later commit, like some physiological manifestation of the Grandfather Paradox.
Perhaps the “from Mr Chips to Scarface” reference was an unintentional noose, as in Felina Walter literally unleashes his little friend and then dies from a bullet wound. It might have been equally too obvious a reference if Walt had ended up without the very thing he wants most, but alive and healthy (like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III). I say that not because I’d prefer Walt to have survived, but because the moralism felt too simple in the final frame; I just don’t think Gilligan would have bee able to justify Walt succeeding financially, even if had cost him in all the important ways. Obviously the series never went for realism, but it could have attempted something that felt more emotionally complex. As it is, I’m left with the sense of a rollicking good ride, and a hugely compelling central character, but also a tale that was kind of shallow. Or rather, without any of the depth that the debates it provoked might indicate. I think that’s more to the point; the discussion, as is invariably the case with hype, over states the case.
It seems that Conservatives do embrace the series, which is not to suggest this is any more indicative of its quality than David Cameron being a fan of Radiohead. The argument goes that “The show might not be explicitly conservative, but the underlying moralistic and conservative themes are undeniable”. Of course, the idea that right wing thinking is the last bastion of correct and true societal values remains a peculiarly broken-backed one given how fixated most of its advocates are on ensuring that caring and sharing are not available to all. There’s no reason to think that Walter living by his own rules is aligned with liberal thinking, other than the idea that liberal thinking is inherently corrupted thinking; indeed his behaviour might arguably be construed as a warning against the evils of libertarianism. There’s a broader, unpartisan parallel here; that the more powerful you are the less shackled by the norms of society you become. There are many at the top of the tree who consider themselves to be as untouchable as Walter, just without the mess that dogs his footsteps. Which is rather the point I’m after about Gilligan’s scales of justice). It is embraced by those of a Conservative bent because, “That moral compass might not show us virtue and what to emulate, but it clearly shows us vice as vice and as something not to emulate”.
It’s interesting how Gilligan pulls back in the last episode, offering us a series of classic Walter moments we can get behind. It seems like a shrewd move in terms of series longevity (if he had crashed and burned everything, the same way as the way the rest of the last half of the season had gone, would we want to revisit such a downer?) He plays it safe, as Walter’s cunning saves the day for the last time and very neatly does for him too. But, after so unequivocally showing that Walt is the villain in recent episodes, in particular the chilling confrontation with Skylar and Walt Jr, one wonders if he mightn’t have copped out. There’s a nagging feeling Gilligan didn’t have the courage of his convictions in the final moment.
For Gilligan, the master plotter, the construction of Felina is akin to falling back on a couple of classic party tricks (oh look, ricin). The manoeuvring required to place Walter and Jesse in the same room again couldn’t help but feel contrived, but it was more than worth the slightly stodgy set-up. He achieves one genuine surprise with Walter’s visit to his old colleagues (with the lovely visual cue of only his feet showing on the shadowy porch); it’s just that type of scene that seems so perfect in retrospect. But it seems he had pulled all his rabbits out of a succession of hats during the previous seven episodes. I watched those over a couple of nights, and they were riveting viewing; a torrent of exposed wounds after the plastering over the cracks of the previous four years.
It was perhaps a surprise to see Jesse so sidelined in the finale, his supreme act of revenge aside (and Jesse Plemons’ Todd is easily the unsung star of the season). The decision underscored that this is Walt’s show, but the horror show Jesse endured, in particular the murder of Andrea, felt beyond the pale and that it was building to something more substantial; indeed, Andrea’s murder was the point where I thought Gilligan might actually be intending to stretch the limits of the format, pushing towards something truly calamitous that no one had countenanced.
In contrast, Saul’s unremarkable departure seemed about right. The demise of Hank was somehow appropriate, although the character’s highpoint was his adverse physical reaction to realising Walter’s identity in Blood Money. Elsewhere, the sparring and tensions between the Schraders and Whites made for many of the best written scenes of the season. True, some aspects seemed a little undercooked; if Plemons was great, his cohorts made for undeveloped stock thugs. And Jessie’s realisation at the car stop concerning the ricin felt as much of an “Oh, we’d better get along to that now” as Hank’s toilet-time read.
I don’t think the show is likely to rank as one of my all-time greats, and ultimately its cultural cachet during the last year has rather overshadowed its true merits, but the standard of plotting has been remarkable throughout. Gilligan is a master of the rug-pull, and the pullback realisation. Whatever he goes onto next (and he’s already got something brewing – an old idea called Battle Creek) is sure to be arresting. Cranston has already assured his afterlife with a string of big screen supporting roles. The only question will be if Aaron Paul can make good. Not with that Need for Speed, he won’t.