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About this book

An ambitious interpretation of the critically celebrated and widely popular crime drama Breaking Bad , this book argues that not only should the series be understood as a show that revolves around the dramatic stakes of dignity, but that to do so reveals - in new ways - central aspects of serial television drama as an art form.

Table of Contents

Frontmatter

Introduction

Abstract
This book appreciates the artistry of Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013). The series was prominent among a crop of expensive, ‘high end’ television serials from the US, the UK, and Europe that, from the 1990s onwards, drew frequent acclaim for extending and deepening television fiction’s narrative and stylistic palette and its range of related achievements. A common touchstone for this discourse was the adjective ‘cinematic’. As a term of both description and appreciative judgement, it was deployed with regularity in response to series such as, among others, The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007), Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001–2005), Mad Men (AMC, 2007–2015), Forbrydelsen (The Killing) (DR1, 2007–2012), Game of Thrones (HBO, 2010-), Hannibal (NBC, 2013-), and Top of the Lake (BBC Two, 2013). This suggested a view that the television dramas so described were aspiring to, and presumably in some cases realising, a ‘height’ of richness or sophistication of film style that had earlier been seen as the sole preserve of cinema. In Jason Jacobs’s words, the validation of some television dramas in terms of their so-called ‘cinematic’ qualities can be understood as responding to the idea that television fiction had been ‘textually anaemic when compared to film or literature’.1Readily available statements by key practitioners, among them some of Breaking Bad’s central creative personnel, do not discount intentions to work within certain cinematic traditions. As well, the following chapters demonstrate how, in the case of Breaking Bad, certain films may often provide appropriate registers of comparison with the period’s television serials.
Elliott Logan

1. Humiliation and Shame in Season One

Abstract
One notable aspect of Breaking Bad’s first season is the extent to which many of its most pivotal and engaging scenes revolve around characters facing situations in which they risk humiliating or shameful exposure. The pilot episode (‘Breaking Bad’, 1.1) introduces both Walt and Jesse through vulnerable moments of possible discovery and exposure by the police: first Walt in the opening sequence in the desert, later Jesse in the second act meth lab raid. Through cumulative instances of Walt’s diminishment, the pilot‘s first act positions Walt within his dissatisfying inhabitation of ordinary life, from his breakfast with family through his day teaching high school and washing cars to his surprise birthday party, at which he is set against the more confident self-command of his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). A trajectory of decline is also traced by Jesse’s shameful return to his family home in episode four (‘Cancer Man’, 1.4). Jesse’s unexpected and somewhat unwelcome visit reveals, in his promising childhood drawings, a past of diligent application; he tries to recover this quality of character in episode five (‘Gray Matter’, 1.5) through his self-guided attempts to meet Walt’s standard of cooking meth. In the same episode, the resentments of being surpassed and the humiliations of charity motivate Walt to reject free healthcare from a former colleague, and to affirm a sense of his dignified self-reliance by resuming his meth enterprise with Jesse.
Elliott Logan

2. Pursuing Success in Season Two

Abstract
Nearing the end of its first season, Breaking Bad promises a future expansion of its depiction of Albuquerque’s meth trade. In the penultimate episode, ‘Crazy Handful of Nothin” (1.6), Walt, undergoing what we see to be the degrading effects of chemotherapy — his nausea keeps him from work, his hair falls out in clumps — seeks to accelerate the earnings of Jesse’s piecemeal, hand-to-hand meth deals. Walt decides they should get a contract with a mid-level distributor who is new on the local scene, the fearsomely psychotic Tuco (Raymond Cruz), a Mexican whose pent-up supply of manic violence is nicely captured by the sharp fit of energy with which he snorts crushed meth off the blade of his Bowie knife. After Tuco bashes and hospitalises Jesse, Walt seizes back a sense of personal control from the ravages of chemotherapy by shaving his head bald, and — now having hardened his weak and pliant appearance — confronting Tuco. When Tuco asks for a name, Walt baptises himself ‘Heisenberg’. This not only evokes the difficulties of perception and knowledge posed by the uncertainty principle, but also implies that Walt is living-out a perhaps long-imagined fantasy of scientific recognition and fame, one tinged by the infamy of Heisenberg’s wartime nuclear research for Nazi Germany, an association heightened by Walt’s former work at Los Alamos.1 After threatening Tuco with explosives ingeniously disguised as meth, Walt extracts a favourable business contract, and the fragile promise of a new, ongoing partnership is made.
Elliott Logan

3. Taking a Stand in Season Three

Abstract
The superlab appears for the first time in episode five of season three, ‘Más’ (3.5), in a scene in which Gus shows Walt the massive underground room and its equipment. The scene marks the height of Gus’s pitch to employ Walt as his cook, which he first makes in the season’s opening episode, ‘No Más’ (3.1). The offer is ‘three million dollars, for three months of your time’. Yet Walt, after a barely concealed moment of enticement, turns it down, surely at least partly out of guilt over Jane’s death and the ensuing plane crash, but more explicitly because earlier in the episode Skyler petitioned him for divorce. ‘I have money’, Walt tells Gus. ‘I have more money than I know how to spend. What I don’t have is my family.’
Elliott Logan

4. Inheritance and Legacy in Season Four

Abstract
The force of season three’s ending stems from tensions in serial television drama between the conclusive and the ongoing. The meeting of the fatal gunshot with the season’s terminal cut to black marks Jesse’s sudden murder of Gale as a terrible act of completion. At the same time, no small weight is carried in our felt awareness of how this must deform whatever remains of Jesse’s life yet to be lived. The ending thus achieves its poise between a sense of events being irrevocably sealed and of their persisting force into a future they promise to always shape and limit. There are of course many celebrated films that similarly end by evoking the past’s sometimes inescapable restriction of what may be possible in the future. The pathos of the final moments of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), for example, depends upon, in James Harvey’s words, the characters’ shared recognition of ‘too lateness’, seen in their capacity to ‘accept what cannot be unsaid or undone’.1 Another case is Jacques Tourneur‘s Out of the Past (1947), in which the characters’ histories leave them very little, but crucially some, just enough, room to act and so to retrieve a degree of their capacity to give intentional and therefore meaningful shape to their lives.2
Elliott Logan

Conclusion: Facing Completion in Season Five

Abstract
This book has aimed to make clear an appreciative understanding of the artistry that is manifest in Breaking Bad. I noted at the outset that the purpose of my attention and writing is guided by Christopher Ricks’s summary of William Empson’s aim as a critic. Here again are those steering words: ‘The idea was not so much to show someone that a poem is good, as to go some way towards showing how it comes to be good, so very good’.1 I can comfortably predict, on the basis of enough encounters with friends and colleagues and students whose views of Breaking Bad do not line up with mine, that not all readers will find full agreement with my appreciation for Vince Gilligan’s show. Despite this, my conviction remains that the aspects of Breaking Bad that are described in the pages of this book are materially verifiable.
Elliott Logan

Backmatter

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