Great Stories About Storytelling: Breaking Bad 101 Review

Stewart Gardiner thought he was out of Breaking Bad, but Alan Sepinwall’s critical companion pulled him back in.

In his foreword, Damon Lindelof addresses two fictional ‘yous’ who have bought Breaking Bad 101: The Complete Critical Companion. There’s the you that loves Breaking Bad as much as him and wants to dig further under the surface with ace television critic Alan Sepinwall. The other you has, however, never even watched Breaking Bad and Lindelof has therefore just spoiled episode three for you. “Okay,” he says, witty as always, “I clearly don’t understand why you would buy a book about a show that you’ve never seen. I also may have a little disdain for anyone who has never watched Breaking Bad because it is so utterly brilliant that I refuse to take anyone who hasn’t seen it by now seriously.”

Perhaps there is a third you. And by you, I mean me. (He says, stealing a joke used by Lindelof in the foreword.)

The Third You

Breaking Bad 101

I’m puzzled by the idea that someone would dismiss an entire show based on their reaction to its final episode, despite claiming to have loved it up until that point. Of course that’s great material for entitled fanboys to work into their angry internet routines. But for the rest of us it’s a little, well, extreme. There would however seem to be a cultural aversion to endings that effects quite a number of people. It’s just that reasonable human beings don’t tend to act with unchecked hostility when a story doesn’t play out like they’d imagined. Disappointment is instead the reaction of choice. Mystery elements are particularly susceptible to disappointment in the face of closure. The feeling of being inside of a mystery is a beautiful thing and the solving of the mystery brings an end to that feeling. “Oh, that’s what it was,” shrugs the viewer, pulled out of the story and back into real life. However, challenged with no solution at all and that previously calm individual might get angry. “What? No answers! That was a waste of my goddamn time!”

Frenzied cries of “no answers” is often someone’s way of translating ambiguity. Because as much as some people hate endings, there are a lot more who detest ambiguity in all its guises. Since David Lynch is my favourite director it’s safe to say I am not one of those people. I’d go so far as to say that the great television shows owe their audience a perfectly ambiguous ending. Better to anger a percentage of the audience than make them shrug their shoulders. Think The Sopranos, Mad Men, or The Leftovers, each of which delivered bold, artful, and masterful finales that were utterly surprising yet true to what had preceded. Heck, The Leftovers as a whole could be described as perfectly ambiguous; no prizes for guessing that’s my favourite of the bunch.

Quietly Slipped Away

Breaking Bad 101

Which brings me back to Breaking Bad. There’s something about that finale that subconsciously nudged me towards those crazies who will dismiss a show they loved because of how it ended. I was excited by the Breaking Bad finale when it aired and indeed considered it a textbook example of how to land an ending. Praised it to the skies for a few days and then… I stopped thinking about it. Not just the ending, but the show itself.

It wasn’t as if I jumped on the internet and started shouting about how I’d wasted years of my life watching Breaking Bad; of course I hadn’t. But the show quietly slipped away from me. It just didn’t have that extra magic to place it among the all time greats.

The ending of Breaking Bad is neat; too neat for my tastes beyond the initial satisfaction. And what does being satisfied have to do with a great ending anyway? Give me ambiguity any day. Which is something that Breaking Bad had, right up until those last two episodes.

No Authentic Humanity

Breaking Bad 101

It’s no wonder that the Rian Johnson directed (and third last episode) “Ozymandias” is considered the finest hour of the show, even by creator Vince Gilligan. That’s where Breaking Bad peaked, in all its harsh glory. Part noir, part western, it has the sort of dark resonance of The Searchers cranked up to eleven.

I had vague notions around these ideas, but I left them unexamined. It was therefore difficult to pinpoint my faded appreciation of Breaking Bad. Thank goodness for Alan Sepinwall then. Through the course of Breaking Bad 101, Sepinwall helped me reconnect with what I loved about the show in the first place and clarified why it had fallen out of favour with me. I didn’t even need to rewatch any of it (although he made me want to), because his words alone were gateways back into the heart of the show.

Words such as these: “Walt in extreme close-up is a collection of dots and lines that approximate a human being, but which contains no authentic humanity.”

Or his assessment of the finale: “ ‘Felina’ is the way Walt intended to conduct his business; ‘Ozymandias’ is how he had to actually do it.’ ”

Why It Happened

Breaking Bad 101

As Damon Lindelof puts it, Sepinwall doesn’t just recap TV episodes: “He helps us understand them. He doesn’t just tell us what happened. He tells us why it happened.” Then the kicker: “He is a storyteller, telling great stories about storytelling.” Which is what separates the good critics from the great.

Breaking Bad 101: The Complete Critical Companion by Alan Sepinwall. © Abrams Press, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.

Stewart Gardiner

Unreliable narrator. David Lynch nerd. Star Wars fan. International assassin. Arthouse and classic film. Co-editor-in-chief at Future of the Force. Writer at 25 Years Later.

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