The Atlantic Wire has turned to two recappers who've never seen Breaking Bad before to put fresh eyes on what some have called the best show on television. Here's what the show looks like to them.
Let’s just first say: I hate babies in peril. Who likes babies in peril? That’s right, no one. If you want to make people feel emotional put a baby in peril. So while obviously this episode meant a lot for people who have been loyal to the show all these years, it got my heart racing when baby Holly was, you guessed it, in peril.
While I was shocked that Hank would not make it to the last couple of episodes—I thought there might be some way to keep him alive—what really got me riled up was the confrontation between Walt, Skyler and Junior in their home. As Walt and Skyler grappled over that knife my worst fear was that the knife was going to fly out of their hands and land in Holly's play area. Thank goodness it didn't, but it wasn't much better when Walt grabbed the baby and ran out.
A lot of my baby-related anxiety had to do with the performance of the baby in question. Because, man, did that baby act. (TV writer Ryan McGee tweeted: "Baby Holly did better work than 90% of the actors on this Fall's pilots.") The baby cried and gurgled perfectly. The baby deserves an Emmy.
Aside from my baby-related worries, what interested me about this episode was how it said as much about the show's fans as the show itself. A number of television critics pointed out that Walt's terrifyingly brutal phone call to Skyler at the end of the episode was intended to make some fans (those in the Skylar White Haters Club) realize how they sound. Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress wrote : "Walt's phone call to Skyler is absolutely a reflection of the worst of #BreakingBad fans. But it may be too late to force recognition." And Mark Harris of various publications tweeted: "Wonder if the ugly invective aimed at one Breaking Bad character tonight was the show's way of letting certain 'fans' know how they sound."
Breaking Bad is such a phenomenon, but it's remarkable how ugly a phenomenon it can be. Even the actors recognize this. Anna Gunn published an essay in the New York Times about Skyler-haters last month, and on Friday Dean Norris (Hank) took aim at those who are "rooting" for Walt:
Hey you "rooting for Walt" folks. Got some John Wayne Gacy art for sale! Retweet if you'll pay top dollar you sick fucks!— dean norris (@deanjnorris) September 13, 2013
For better or for worse, one of the reasons I stayed away from Breaking Bad for so long had to do with the fact that everything I read about Walt made him seem so despicable I couldn't imagine spending time with him. Walt's motivations here aren't exactly clear, and I really can't comment on them. But his actions here made me recoil, and I can't say I wasn't expecting that.
One of the most prominent critiques of our little experiment in watching the show has been that, having not watched the earlier seasons, we lack the sort of emotional investment in the characters that others have. This is, and has always been, a valid critique. In the first episode of this season, I didn't know who Skyler was. Why would I care what happened to her?
Last night's episode exposed that split. I recognized why people found it powerful. The family struggle, the death of Hank, the scene with the knife. I get why that's evocative, a culmination of what people have been watching for years. It wasn't as potent for me, of course, but it's impossible for me to criticize it for not being powerful, and won't. I also have longstanding personal feelings for Shelley's "Ozymandias," the poem for which the episode is named, but I will set those aside. (Who is the traveler here? The viewer?)
It also helps answer a question that has been floating around under the surface over the course of this experiment: At what point does one become knowledgeable enough about a series to be considered worthy of criticizing it in the eyes of hardcore fans? I've seen six episodes, nearly an entire season. Am I still a Breaking Bad newbie? The answer is two-fold. One: yes, when the show specifically appeals to its own history (which it doesn't always do). And two: yes, when someone wants to criticize my opinion.
That latter point is a culturally interesting one. Unless I am a robust enough fan, for subjective interpretations of "enough," even my unrelated critiques are unwelcome. I have been criticized for saying Aaron Paul is a sub-par actor and for complaining about the sound quality, both of which, I think, withstand objective scrutiny. Or will some day, when this fever over Breaking Bad has faded.
What AMC has done marvelously is to stoke that fever. The American tendency to over-exaggerate the quality of things the group likes plays into the network's hands here. Where other shows had close-out episodes, AMC intentionally split out its climactic series to create a two-month long marketing spectacle. It's been largely successful, one of the better wringing-outs of popular enthusiasm in recent memory. Good for them, I guess. It does help foster this vortex of self-assurance and over-selling that will power fans for years — "Oh, I watched the final season live. I was so into that show!" — the sort of "I was at Woodstock, too" that 1) helps perpetuate the legend of Woodstock and 2) encourages a lot of pointed indications of one's coolness. We all do this; I do this, too. It's just interesting to watch it evolve from the semi-outside.
Which brings us, as every episode does, to the deeply weird phenomenon that is Aaron Paul. He's not the best actor. We've been over this. You may disagree, fine, but again I am confident that history will bear out my opinion. What's so odd, though, is Paul's unflinching, unreflective embrace of the phenomenon of which he is a part. It's as though Jimi Hendrix got off-stage at Woodstock and started going on TV telling everyone how great the concert was and doing radio shows in which he described why he decided to play "Foxy Lady" that way as the song played in the background and sending out mailers to fans about his performance that he signed Jimi "Guitar God" Hendrix. And if, you know, Hendrix was overrated.
In addition to last's week's second-screen thing, AMC decided to have Paul live-tweet the show. Paul's Twitter feed, in case you weren't aware, is usually some combination of emoji, college jock exclamations, and the word "bitches," which has become his spastic trademark expression. Here, in its entirety, is the value Aaron Paul added to those watching the show and following his Twitter feed.
It's time— Aaron Paul (@aaronpaul_8) September 16, 2013
My heart is pounding and I can't breathe. Holy shit.— Aaron Paul (@aaronpaul_8) September 16, 2013
Bang— Aaron Paul (@aaronpaul_8) September 16, 2013
I miss you so much. I love you. I'm so sorry. I didn't know. #BreakingBad— Aaron Paul (@aaronpaul_8) September 16, 2013
Thanks, AMC. Glad I didn't miss that. I intentionally skipped over this one.
In ten years time, as people are arguing about how Breaking Bad is the best show of all time. I will show people that tweet. Not to argue against their position, but as a reminder of how swept up people have gotten in this show, despite, you know, existing flaws. It will probably also remind them that there was once a person named Aaron Paul, whose acting career thereafter suffered a sudden decline.