‘Full Measure’: Thoughts on the ‘Breaking Bad’ finale

BB_313
I knew I could count on “Breaking Bad” to supply a feel-good season finale.

There’s much more about “Full Measure,” the Season 3 finale of the AMC show, below. But first, some news: AMC has renewed “Breaking Bad” for a fourth season. The press release on that renewal is at the end of this post. 

By the way, my previous posts on Season 3 of “Breaking Bad,” which I watched in a marathon burst this weekend, are here and here.

So, “Breaking Bad” has finally lived up to its title in a big way. Walt and Jesse have broken bad, there’s no going back from what they’ve done. They’re both murderers. They can’t have any illusions about their lives getting better from here. Survival is all they can hope for — but at what cost?

The definition of insanity, as the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Walt and Jesse may not be insane, but some part of them is broken. Walt can keep telling himself he’s doing all this to ensure his family’s security, but all he’s done lately is infuriate Gus — a man who does not like loose ends and disobedient employees. How can any of this possibly end well for Walt’s family?

And yet Walt has remained consistent — as he accepts one truth (i.e., for him to live, Gale has to die), he strategically ignores another truth (i.e., Skyler getting involved in his business venture can only end in catastrophe). As always, Walt tells himself what he needs to hear to get through the current crisis.

The fact is, Walt could just kill himself (or get the hell out of town for good) and his family would probably have the security he allegedly wants for them, at least financially. But he won’t deny himself the chance to be Holly and Walter Jr.’s father. He does what he needs to do in order to get what he wants. He’s learned so well from Gus that maybe he’s becoming the new Gus.

Still, given what he’s done, what kind of father will he be? Even if he killed those drug dealers to save Jesse and engineered Gale’s death to save himself — even if he can supply logical reasons for what he did, will logic be enough to save him from crippling guilt? Will he be able to enjoy that sliver of family life that Skyler is willing to give him, knowing that the consequences for what he’s done have to be, at some point, catastrophic? 

Then again, Walter is the king of rationalization. He’ll find a way to live with this, as he’s found a way to live with everything else he’s done. No reason to stop now deluding himself now, right? He’s survived this long, hasn’t he?

But if this show follows the path it’s been on for the past three seasons, and there’s no reason to think it won’t, the damage will just keep on spreading and contaminating everything and everyone around him. I fully expect a future season of “Breaking Bad” to end with Holly shooting half a dozen cartel minions. As always, it’s not hard to see where this show is going, generally speaking. Nowhere good.

And yet the ride has been so much more interesting this season, for me, anyway. I may not approve of what Walter and Jesse do with their lives, and the choices they make aren’t always easy to watch. But I’m interested in where the road to Hell is leading them these days.

I did a little checking on IMDb.com, and I realized that many of the elements I like best about “Breaking Bad” only became part of the show toward the end of Season 2. Gus may be my favorite character of Season 3, and Giancarlo Esposito is a relative newcomer to the show — he entered the picture in the final two episodes of Season 2. Mike (Jonathan Banks) turned up in the Season 2 finale. Saul (Bob Odenkirk) made his brash presence known in the last four episodes of Season 2. And Skyler (Anna Gunn) found out Walt’s secret as the second season came to a close, a discovery that led to all kinds of interesting complications this year.

All those elements made “Breaking Bad” a lot more interesting and entertaining for me this year. I simply love watching those characters (and I most definitely did not enjoy Skyler and Marie in the first two seasons, given how one-note most of their scenes were).

This year, the show’s ensemble cast clicked on a whole new level, and the writers played to every actors’ strength really well (I must also mention Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt; their characters got excellent material this season, and like the rest of the cast, they did a fantastic job with what they were given).

The show has always mixed in some black comedy to leaven the bleakness, and there were some deft examples of that this year. The finale scene of Mike shooting the cartel guys was oddly amusing — the whole thing with the Chinese man raising his arms to ensure that Mike would get a good angle on the cartel guy was somehow (and I feel vaguely guilty for saying this) hilarious. 

As good finales do, this one mixed action with character beats well. “I just don’t think it’s going to be enough,” Walter said of he and Skyler’s home in the flashback. Oh, the hubris. Like “Walternate” on “Fringe,” this past-Walter is arrogant enough to think that he’ll never have to compromise his ideals. If the Walter of 16 years ago only knew how much he’d compromise… everything. The present-day Walter White will have to live with having turned Jesse into a murderer to save his own skin.

All things considered, I’m glad that I gave Season 3 of “Breaking Bad” another chance. I gave it several other chances in the past, but this time around, the show’s positives definitely outweighed the negatives.

No show is perfect, but there has to be more good than bad for me to go the distance and commit to a program. I bailed on the first season of “Chuck” after a while because the things I didn’t like outweighed the things I did enjoy. Once the show addressed a bunch of those issues in Season 2, I became an ardent fan.

BBs3ep313_Day4_CamA1-0012 I actually went back and re-read every previous review of “Breaking
Bad”
that I’ve written (those pieces are here, here, here and here). I can honestly say that many if not most of the issues I brought up in those reviews have been addressed. “Breaking Bad” has simply done a better job of entertaining me and making me care about whether the characters get what they want.

Jesse and Walt were the only fully fleshed out characters in the past, but this season, there was a broader array of complex characters, whose interactions and relationships became increasingly intense and intriguing. Your mileage may vary, of course, but all I could ever do is be honest every time I gave the show a shot.  

All in all, the construction of the season’s long-term arc was pleasing — as dark as the story got, I wanted to know where it was going and was surprised by several twists and turns. Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston gave masterful performances, and if the Jesse elements of the story are still frequently predictable, that aspect of the show wasn’t focused on to the point that it became distracting.

But perhaps it would be more useful for me to provide an example of why I bailed on “Breaking Bad” in a previous season.

I watched the last few episodes of Season 2, and while I recognized that the show had improved in some regards, I also saw the scene in “Phoenix” in which Walt watched Jane die. Intellectually I knew why he did that — I knew his logical reasons for wanting her out of the picture — but emotionally I recoiled at that scene.

And that’s part of the reason I didn’t want to watch Season 3 — why watch what happens to a man who would let another human being die without lifting a finger to help? The thought of following him further into the heart of darkness — well, I just didn’t think that was a journey I wanted to be on. Cranston may be a great actor, but there are times that I simply don’t like Walt and that was one of them.

As I said, though, I may not agree with Walter or Jesse’s choices, but I’m more interested in their plights. Walt and Jesse are now murderers, but I understand their reasons for doing what they did. I understand those reasons emotionally, not just intellectually. They did these awful things to save each other. Their reasons for everything they’ve done (including the Jane situation) may not be justifiable, but at least they’re more understandable.

Those reasons have explored via a well-paced story with equal measures of suspense, intensity and moral exploration. All season long, there have been moments that allowed me to look past Walt’s selfishness and delusions. On some level, Walt knows exactly what he’s done and the guilt he feels makes him seem tragic, not just terribly misguided. 

As the pleasurable compensations for the show’s remaining weaknesses became apparent this season, I was able to think about “Breaking Bad” in a new way. My expectations for the experience of watching the show evolved.

I realized that I’d never be as emotionally invested in the people of Albuquerque as I am in the people of Dillon, Texas. But that’s OK. “Friday Night Lights” may get dark, but it isn’t hopeless. And maybe “Breaking Bad” needs to keep the viewer at a distance. Without it, maybe Walt and Jesse and the probable bleakness of their futures might be too hard to take.

There’s a coolness to this show; even as it depicts their suffering, the show keeps these people at arms’ length. We’re observing them; they are like ants in an ant farm. How much pressure can they take? What level of intensity will bring out their murderous sides? What will break them and make them go bad? Perhaps it’s appropriate that a show about a former chemistry teacher is like a giant experiment measuring pain and pressure.

Perhaps because they are capable of such dark deeds, the show keeps a clinical eye on the characters. Perhaps it’s better that we don’t get too close to these people, whose tragedies will undoubtedly engulf them. It’s possible, for me anyway, to understand their plights and even feel some compassion for Walt and Jesse without being emotionally overwhelmed. Thanks to the fact that the show is firing on all cylinders, I can appreciate its structural integrity and intellectual curiosity. The clinical approach may not be my  personal favorite (the shows that can make me cry will always be closer to my heart), but I can certainly appreciate how well it is deployed here. “Breaking Bad” is fine storytelling, full stop.

As the season drew to a close, I began to understand “Breaking Bad’s” use of those enormous desert skies. As Walt walked over to Gus, the contrast was apparent: Even in that vast space, Walt was trapped like an animal in a cage. The space around him served as an ironic contrast to the limited freedom he has left.

Thanks to everyone who was patient (and courteous and thoughtful) as I took this journey though the third season (my thinking out loud about Episodes 1-12 can be found here and here). Let’s talk more about all of this next season, shall we?

AMC’s press release on the fourth season of “Breaking Bad” is below.

AMC RENEWS
EMMY® AWARD-WINNING AND CRITICAL HIT 

BREAKING BAD
FOR FOURTH SEASON

New York NY, June 14, 2010 AMC announced
today the renewal of its Emmy® Award-winning and critically acclaimed
drama series Breaking Badfor a fourth season, continuing the network’s
momentum in delivering the best original storytelling on television.
From acclaimed writer/producer/director Vince Gilligan (The X-Files), the series
follows the story of a desperate
man who turns to a life of
crime to secure his familys financial security. Breaking Bads first two
seasons awarded Bryan Cranston the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a
Drama Series, which marked the only time an actor from basic cable has
ever been recognized with back-to-back Emmy Awards.

Last
night, AMC premiered the final episode from season three. Household
ratings are 20% stronger than season two and season three is delivering
18% more total viewers and over 30% more adults 18-34 than last season.
Breaking Badis filmed on location in Albuquerque, NM.

AMCs
Breaking Bad is one of the most layered and intense dramas on television
today, said Joel Stillerman, Senior Vice President of original
programming, production and digital content. The critical acclaim and
strong audience growth weve seen in season three reinforce that this is
the kind of exceptional original storytelling AMC has become known for
providing to audiences.  Vince Gilligan and his team deliver bold
storylines that truly push the psychic envelope and create a
mesmerizing, exhilarating television experience.  We look forward to an
incredible fourth season.

“Through its captivating storytelling,
inspired performances and breathtaking visuals, ‘Breaking Bad’ delivers
on all levels and it’s a show we’re very proud to have in our
portfolio,” said Zack Van Amburg, President, programming for Sony
Pictures Television.

Breaking Bads third second season premiered
on Sunday, March 21 to the highest ratings ever for the series. Variety
qualified Bad as one of TVs best dramas. Newsdaysaid, this show – still
TV’s best – remains utterly true to itself.TV Squad heralded, all things
considered, AMC has a lot to be celebrating. Both Mad Men and Breaking
Bad are two of the best — no, they are the best —
shows on television. 
The writing is among the very elite in
television, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Breaking Bad stars 2008 and 2009 Emmy Award-winner Bryan
Cranston (Malcolm in the Middle) as Walter White; Emmy nominated Aaron
Paul (Big Love) as Jesse Pinkman; Anna Gunn (Deadwood) as Skyler White;
Dean Norris (Little Miss Sunshine) as Hank Schrader; Betsy Brandt (CSI)
as Marie Schrader; RJ Mitte (Hannah Montana, Weeds) as Walter, Jr; Bob
Odenkirk (Mr. Show with Bob and David

) as Saul
Goodman; Giancarlo Esposito (Gospel Hill) as Gus Fring; and Jonathan
Banks (Wiseguy) as Mike.

Breaking Badfollows protagonist Walter
White, a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher who lives in New
Mexico with his wife and teenage son who has cerebral palsy.  White is
diagnosed with Stage III cancer and given a prognosis of two years left
to live.  With a new sense of fearlessness based on his medical
prognosis, and a desire to gain financial security for his family, White
chooses to enter a dangerous world of drugs and crime and ascends to
power in this world. The series explores how a fatal diagnosis such as
Whites releases a typical man from the daily concerns and constraints of
normal society and follows his transformation from mild-mannered family
man to a kingpin of the drug trade. 

Breaking
Bad is produced by High Bridge Productions, Inc. and Gran Via
Productions in association with Sony Pictures Television for AMC.
Executive producers are Vince Gilligan and Mark Johnson; co-executive
producer Michelle MacLaren; line producer/UPM Stewart A. Lyons; producer
Melissa Bernstein; supervising producer Sam Catlin; consulting producer
John Shiban; producers Peter Gould, George Mastras and Thomas Schnauz;
Co-Producer Moria Walley-Beckett; and director of photography Michael
Slovis.

Sponsored Link: Amazon’s Breaking Bad Store

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