Breaking Bad: Season 4 in Hindsight

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

I get the feeling that we’ll be talking about this one for a long time.

Back in July, nobody, not even Vince Gilligan himself, could have convinced me that Breaking Bad would be able to top its third season. Equal it? Sure. But for me, its third season was the an apex of dramatic storytelling on television, a milestone that would rarely be paralleled by any future show. Here I am, thirteen weeks later—and I’m eating crow, because they did it again.

Breaking Bad topped itself, and holy **** was it one crazy ******* ride.

(Sidebar: I’ve refrained from any spoilers in this post, as it’s a review of the season as a whole. If you want to talk specifics, comment, or find me on Facebook or Twitter. This is mostly a plea to get everyone to catch up and watch this outstanding show.)

I don’t know if the world deserves television this good. I fully understand how hyperbolic that statement might seem, but I truly believe it. We’re in a golden age of TV that probably has no precedent. I doubt, though, that when we look back on this creative renaissance, we’ll find many examples of greatness that are quite as great as this tale of a good man gone horribly wrong. But where does someone begin to praise the show that’s heard every ounce of praise? Of course, there’s the acting—as magnificent as anything that’s ever been on the small screen. Then there’s the writing, the unique camerawork, the music…but we’ll get to all of that later.

No show can mess with expectations like Breaking Bad. I spent all summer theorizing what would happen during the fourth season—and I was only right on the most vague of levels. That’s the most incredible aspect, that when looking back on a season, the broad strokes of the story are all plain as day. It’s the way that the show takes the audience there that’s nothing short of amazing. All that aside, I’ve still run into a few holdouts—detractors that say Breaking Bad is “too slow for them,” or that “there isn’t enough action.” If someone is looking for “more action,” they can go load up their old 24 seasons. I guarantee they won’t be a tenth as satisfying.

What makes the pacing and the journey of Breaking Bad so special is the writing staff’s tolerance, or even encouragement, of taking things slow. This is a show that can get away with over a third of its 13-episode season being set-up. It’s earned the ability to be a slow burn, to focus on those small character interactions that pay off in dividends come season’s end. This method also builds an almost-unbearable amount of tension by episode 11 or 12. When things move so slowly, uneasiness and fear begin to set in—a fear of when the proverbial “it” will hit the fan. A show centered around the world of meth is one with built in expectations, ones of gunfights, explosions, and lots of screaming. Instead, when each week is filled with muted conversations, tense games of cat-and-mouse, and endless waiting, it gets to you. And then, when those aforementioned elements come crashing into the picture, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Everything about this season has been on that same beautiful level, though. If the first three seasons were showing how capable Vince Gilligan and Co. are at ratcheting up tension, Season 4 is a master class. Likewise for the actors: Bryan Cranston undoubtedly deserves another Emmy for portraying Walter White in his descent into a Hell of his own creation. What will be most interesting at next year’s Emmy ceremony is the battle for Outstanding Supporting Actor. While Aaron Paul would have been a lock for a repeat win for his tortured performance as Jesse, another role on the show became a megaton performance, one that will be remembered as one of the most iconic of this TV era. Giancarlo Esposito absolutely killed as Gustavo Fring, the cold and calculated puppet master of Albuquerque’s meth operation. The everyman fast-food manager/drug kingpin was a marvel to watch each week, and the finale gave him scenes that will never, ever, ever leave my head. Just give the man an Emmy now.

As well as getting even better performances from its actors, so too did Season 4 get an even better “performance” from Albuquerque itself. When Lost was on the air, the on-location Hawaiian filming was universally praised, giving the Island a sort of character of its own. While that show’s location brought a form of claustrophobia to its storytelling, Breaking Bad’s New Mexico sets are incredible. The open desert vistas create gorgeous backgrounds, while the interior shots contrast by seeming even more cramped when compared to the openness outside. It provides for striking work behind the camera, and a true sense of place that is unmatched.

Season 3 of Breaking Bad incorporated motifs and a lot of stylistic choices from gritty crime films, which played nicely with the season’s themes of Walt and Jesse’s initial descent into their own true darkness. But for this season, one that has been described as a “giant chess game,” that theme shifted to that of the classic Hollywood westerns. The camera was almost constantly paying homage to the great films of the genre, and throughout the season, the inevitable showdown between Walt and Gus was always looming as the final confrontation between good(?) and evil(?). During the final weeks, the atmospheric music and lighting seemed to only be building towards that spaghetti-western-style showdown—but what we got was that, taken to a level of insanity that only Breaking Bad could provide.

It was, in few words, a beyond-incredible end to an equally amazing season. It was at times contemplative, thrilling, hilarious, and terrifying. It was a character study in good and evil. It was a horror movie. It was a dark comedy. It was a sometimes-heartbraking take on the dissolution of a family. It was brutal. It was wonderful. It was just another season of Breaking Bad.

Where does the show go from here, though? I’ve now learned to never bet against this team when it comes to beating themselves, but after a finale that left almost everything resolved, what’s left to mine in the Albuquerque drug world? I have a sinking feeling that given this season’s events, things are only going to get much, much darker. Walter White’s story has always been described as that of “Mr. Chips becoming Scarface,” but now we have confirmation that there’s very little, if any Mr. Chips left in Mr. White. Season 5 will likely be an exploration of the depths of depravity that Walter will sink to to “protect his family,” but with only 16 episodes until the series finale, it appears he’ll be hitting rock bottom in the near future—a fact as scary as it is exciting.

There’s not a show on TV, past or present, that’s trying to do what Breaking Bad is actually accomplishing. It’s turning a man from a hero in Season 1 to its ultimate villain, while still keeping the audience rooting for him. As the last batch of episodes start airing next summer, though, it’ll become harder and harder to stay on his side. Even though it may become harder to watch, I don’t doubt at all that it’ll be any less gripping. We’re stuck with Walter White in this nightmare he’s created— and we’ll be going down with him.

(Find Breaking Bad on Netflix instant streaming or on DVD for cheap at Amazon. You won’t regret getting hooked— and you will get hooked.)

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