Is Breaking Bad the Best TV Show of the Past Decade?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 7 2011 11:11 PM

Breaking Bad, Season 4, Episode 4: "Bullet Points"

[Caution: There are spoilers ahead! So if you haven't yet watched "Bullet Points," come back when you have and share your thoughts and theories.]

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Photograph of Aaron Paul (as Jesse Pinkmanl) courtesy of Ursula Coyote/AMC

 

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Jess:

June, whatever this episode’s flaws, can we both agree that the opening sequence—stalwart Mike staying utterly calm while getting shot at from outside the Los Pollos Hermanos truck, as mass-produced chicken batter rains down on him—was one of the best action scenes ever broadcast on basic cable?

OK, now that Mike’s badass credentials have been certified, we can get onto the meat of this episode. (Or should I say the poultry?) After the thrilling opening minutes, the extended conversation between Walt and Skyler about the tall tale they were going to tell Marie and Hank about their newfound fortune was a huge letdown. I almost started flipping channels before it was over, that’s how bored and irritated I was by Skyler’s needling.  A generous reading of this scene would be that the writers wanted the viewers to feel as trapped and awkward as Walt did. A less generous reading: The show is dragging out its story lines as the series goes on because it can’t all be death-defying moments and meth cookery.

What did you think about Skyler’s fiction—that Walt has been profiting from card counting and is now in Gamblers Anonymous? Her descent into the moral underworld has gone more quickly than I had imagined it would. The lies seem to delight her, and give her a sense of control. Walt had been making so many life-altering decisions without her knowing about it, it almost feels like she deserves this bit of solace.

Speaking of solace, it’s good to see Hank in better spirits. The detective work he’s been doing has clearly reinvigorated him. But I thought the scenes with Hank and Walt were a bit much. Watching the video of Gale singing was over-the-top and unbelievable. What did you make of it?

Back to Mike, who is quickly becoming one of my favorites. It’s mainly because of his no-nonsense attitude and lack of hypocrisy—unlike Walt, he knows that what he’s doing is wrong and doesn’t try to justify it to anyone.  Jesse’s become reckless and a liability, and Mike is taking care of business by … well, we don’t know what quite yet. Here’s where I’m going to make a bold assertion: Jesse’s going to die this season. I know what you’re thinking, “They’d never kill off such a major character!” To that I counter: Stringer Bell. What say you?

June:

Talk about a cold open—that was downright frosty. As well as re-establishing Mike’s TCB bona fides (and confirming that absolutely everyone looks cute in an ear-flap hat), it was a useful reminder that Gus is facing foes far more fearsome than Walt and Hank. I’m guessing the attack on the battermobile came from the narco-trafficking organization that Tuco and his cousins were associated with. They want Walt dead, and knowing Gus’ hatred of mess and drama, taking out the truck and its driver should get him to reconsider his loyalty to the nebbishy chemist. (By the way, what do you think the shooters’ endgame was? If they hadn’t found Mike in the back of the truck, would they have fished the meth out of the batter containers? No, surely that would be far too time-consuming, not to mention messy. So was it just to draw police or DEA attention to Gus’ business?)

I’m SO with you about Skyler’s tiresome tale. Back in Season 1, we learned that she was a writer of novellas. Let’s hope she’s a better car-wash manager than she is an author.

I did not find Hank’s show-and-tell remotely credible. However, it did give the show’s writers a chance to have a little more fun at Gale’s expense—and the light relief was much appreciated. (Actor David Costabile is a darned good sport to reprise the goofy role.)

I simply can’t believe that they would kill Jesse. Knocking off a central character is the kind of shocking move that prestige shows use to keep fans guessing and gasping. But there’s a key difference between Breaking Bad and The Wire or Mad Men: the size of the cast.  The Wire had a massive, sprawling cast of characters drawn from several distinct “worlds.” In Breaking Bad, Walt and Jesse are really the only primary characters. Skyler, Gus, Mike, Hank, Marie, etc. could all disappear for weeks, and we’d barely notice, but it’s hard to imagine an episode without the two main men. That said, it seems that Jesse’s already dead inside.

One last question for you. In the comments on last week’s post, reader Gamma said of Skyler’s treatment of Bogdan: “To me, cold bloodedly scamming a hardworking small businessman out of his livelihood is much worse than palming a couple of trinkets under the influence of kleptomania.” Gamma was responding to another commenter who thought I’d been too soft on light-fingered Marie, but it made me wonder: Is Skyler the most morally bankrupt character on the show? Sure, Walt and Jesse have killed, but their victims have all been members of the drug underworld. Skyler defrauded an obnoxious but, as far as we know, honest man.

Jess:

I appreciate Gamma’s provocative moral theory, but I counter that with: Jesse shot Gale in the face! What’s more, according to the eagle-eyed commenters on AMC’s website, the collected body count of Walt and Jesse’s meth business is nearly 200 at this point (counting the plane crash that ended Season 2, which they arguably indirectly caused). Defrauding a possibly honest jerk is peanuts compared with that kind of death toll, regardless of the motivation behind Skyler’s actions.

You make a good point about The Wire having characters to spare. I’m still not going back on my Jesse death prediction. However, your mention of Mad Men and The Wire in this space reminds me of a Grantland column by Chuck Klosterman from earlier this summer, in which he asserts that a) the four best television shows of the past decade are The Wire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad; and b) that Breaking Bad is the best of the lot (or at least the one he likes best). Klosterman makes this assertion because of the show’s handling of morality:

Breaking Bad is the only one built on the uncomfortable premise that there's an irrefutable difference between what's right and what's wrong, and it's the only one where the characters have real control over how they choose to live.

Another provocative argument. I am with Klosterman when he names those four shows as the four best of the last 10 years, but like many of my fellow Slate-sters I believe The Wire is the strongest, and not just because there were enough characters so that a major player could be killed off and not hurt the story.  The Wire is the strongest—or at least, I prefer it to Breaking Bad—because each season there was a new, yet inter-related, set of problems to grapple with, which allowed for much more narrative freedom. We’re both feeling the limitations of Walt’s story this season. It seems like the writers are a bit trapped, and hence are throwing in time-sucking diversions like Skyler’s gambling story, which is sure to fall apart pretty quickly.

Readers, I leave you with Klosterman’s prompt: Is Breaking Bad the best show of the last 10 years? Or would you make arguments for the other shows mentioned above?

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