Sunday, 23 December 2012

How can Breaking Bad produce the blockbuster ending it deserves?

*Spoiler alert - this article contains information up to and including Season 5 Part One

Few TV series have translated a high concept vision into a gripping, well executed show in the way AMC's Breaking Bad has. The multi award-winning series follows the exploits of Albuquerque- based high school chemistry teacher Walter White who, on discovering he has cancer, uses his skills to make crystal meth to earn funds to support his family after his death. A great idea but hiring the cast and creating the plot twists to develop a five series show was to be no easy task when the show first launched in 2008.

The casting of Bryan Cranston was to prove a masterstroke. The transformation of the middle-aged Californian actor from Hal, the bumbling dad from Malcolm in the Middle to a violent, at times psychotic, drug lord defines the core of the show's progression. Creator Vince Gilligan carefully adjusts Walt's character in the early series where the viewer's reaction is one of pure empathy for an intelligent man getting to grips with an unfair, lawless world to help his family while keeping his secret firmly hidden from wife Skyler (Anna Gunn). In later series, Walter's actions become increasingly hard to predict and get the viewer screaming at the TV in anguish as he takes difficult or illogical decisions. 

Skyler herself also develops from a supportive wife and mother to a hard-nosed, cheating co-conspirator simultaneously scared and galvanised by her husband's lucrative, dangerous and illegal exploits. Where The Wire excellently honed in on characters already in The Game trying to formalise the process of drug dealing to create business plans, Breaking Bad looks at how an ordinary individual enters the chaotic world of the US street drug industry. 

Perhaps the most important relationship in a programme dominated inter-relations is that between Walter and Jesse Pinkman (Aaran Paul), Walter's ex-pupil in whom he seeks a help and advice to assist cooking up meth in a recreation vehicle (RV) and distributing the pure product which is quickly snapped up by a market used to buying product made by amateur chemists. The quality of Walter's drugs earns him both unimaginable sums and notoriety as he creates an alter-ego, Heisenberg, picked up by the market and cops alike to make him infamous. 

As seasons progress, Jesse's attempts to escape the trail of destruction brought about by his involvement with Walter - including destroying his parents home by turning it into a meth lab and drug den to the death of girlfriend and fellow user Jane - become more and more futile. Walt and Jesse's relationship is simultaneously reflective of a father-son, best friends and worst enemies as short-lived highs and lows dominate their partnership. 

A further central relationship lies between Walter and brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a Drug Enforcement Agency agent firmly on the tail of the 'blue' product Walter is producing. This cat and mouse chase brings moments of great suspense and subtle humour to the show. Whether it's when Hank has his prey trapped in a junk yard inside the RV only for Walter to use his contacts to fool Hank into believing his wife has been rushed to hospital or when Hank frequently confides his thinking on the case to what he believes is simply his slightly awkward high school teacher brother-in-law, scenes involving both crackle with tension. It also displays one of the show's greatest attributes, to create seemingly insurmountable cliffhangers only for Walter to engineer his way out of it by creating masterplans.

Which is why it is vital that the final part of season five - which has been split into two with the second half due in summer 2013 - doesn't puncture all the good work done so far. There have been intimations that the show could continue beyond S5Pt2 but they appear to be largely hopeful internet rumours. The hype around the final eight episodes heightened yesterday after Norris tweeted a photo from one of the final shows. In the final scene of the last episode, Hank discovers a book gifted to Walter by dead drug lord Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) appearing that the chase to find Heisenberg is over. Many shows could've ended there, with the repercussions - Walter's arrest, his assets impounded, death row - implied. But Gilligan has the unenviable task of continuing the show's high standards to a satisfactory end. 

In truth, the first part of season five lost some of the pace and vigour of previous seasons, not least the climax of the blockbusting previous season. Some of Walter's drive to protect his family appears to have abated while his disabled son, Walter Junior, has become a peripheral character rather than the inquisitive centre of Walter's efforts seen in earlier seasons. If Skyler's discovery of Walter's activities defined seasons one to three then the revelations of his endeavours to his children and wife's family will provide compelling viewing in the show's conclusion. Meanwhile, the conclusion of Jesse's journey from low level drug user to, well, drug user still has some mileage. Ultimately, total annihilation of all the main characters, while spectacular, would prove unsatisfying after a long and committed journey by the viewer.

Breaking Bad is a show about entering a world out of your control. As events unfold in the final part the show's creators need to ensure the realities of that world are married with its incessant desire to twist the tales of its finely-crafted characters. 

Defining moments of Breaking Bad
- Walter and Jesse get stranded in the desert after the RV breaks down and have to walk back home
- The death of Tuco
- Walter shaves his head and dons the pork pie hat of Heisenberg 
- Jesse's girlfriend Jane chokes to death on her own vomit as Jesse sleeps and Walter watches on
- The plane crash and the pink teddy bear floats across the pool
- Hank points his gun at an RV containing Jesse and, unbeknownst to him, Walter
- Gale's murder
- Hank is shot in a showdown in a car park after being signed off work
- Skyler discovers Walter is a drug manufacturer
- Gustavo Fring murders his Mexican contacts
- Gustavo Fring is blown up by Walter
- Walter and Jesse rob a train for methylamine

Don't agree? Feel free to comment below.