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Monday, September 30, 2013

Macmeth: A Tragedy in Five Seasons

I saw a couple of Facebook postings today from people imploring the interwebs to stop spoilering the finale of "Breaking Bad," as they had only gotten up to, like, season three on Netflix.  I have no sympathy!  If people had started watching the show back when we all told them to, then they wouldn't find themselves in this predicament now would they?  Still, good luck with that whole internet shutdown.  Maybe you can get Republicans to attach a defund Obamacare rider to every website. . . .

I don't even know what that means.

Anyway, on to the post: A final consideration/tribute to "Breaking Bad," the indisputably best show on television over at least the last three years or so, and short-listed candidate for best drama of all time.  Last night, of course, was the series finale, and the show went out in a blaze of glory.  I must admit that the opening, while entertaining, was kind of pointless: Why open with a "suspenseful" moment before Walter White leaves New Hampshire on his final trip to New Mexico?  By this time, we know he gets away from the Granite State: We've seen him back home in the flash-forward!

After that point, however, the finale teems with memorable and highly satisfying moments.  Walt's final farewell to Skyler brought a tear to these cynical eyes, especially Walt's confession, arguably his most honest moment in the series, that everything he had done he did, ultimately, because he wanted to: "I liked it.  I was good at it.  I was alive."  The massacre of Uncle Jack and his merry band of Nazis, the ricining of Lydia, and Jesse's revenge on Creepy Todd satisfied on a visceral level.  And of course, Walt's death, surrounded by the tools of his trade, a slight smile on his lips, as "Baby Blue" (which I thought was an Aimee Mann song but which turns out to be by Badfinger--she covered it) played over the soundtrack was just. . . .MWAH (I just put my fingers to my lips and then opened my fingers in a kiss-blowing motion).  The perfect ending to the perfect show.  (And a sort of redemption for executive producer/creator Vince Gilligan, who had a hand in what was probably the worst series finale of all time, "The X-Files.")

The best part of the finale, though, was actually one of the less important moments: the meeting between Walt and his erstwhile partners, the Schwartzes.  This scene presented us with one of the last examples of Walt figuring his way out of an insoluble problem: how to get his money--nearly ten million dollars--to his family without it being confiscated by the DEA.  Not only does he enlist the Schwartzes as his reluctant bagmen, he also manages to put the fear of God--or of Heisenberg, which is probably worse--into these people who foolishly disparaged his abilities--and on national television no less!  Long after he is dead, he will continue to haunt his former friends.

So what's the big deal about "Breaking Bad," anyway?  I've been thinking about this, and the best answer I can give is that "BB" is nothing less than a classical tragedy set in modern America.  As with the finest tragedies, the ending is preordained at the beginning, as a tragic hero--one "like ourselves or better" in the Aristotelian formulation--hurtles headlong to a doom of his own making.  We watch Walter White, confronted with his own mortality, not only rage against the dying of the light, but seize every opportunity to transcend the destiny assigned to him.  We love Walter because he represents something we all wish we could be: a brilliant, invincible commander of his own fate.  That he does this by becoming a conscienceless methamphetamine kingpin only complicates our feelings--it does not diminish them.

Whether you consider "Breaking Bad" the greatest television drama ever, or just one of a handful of flawlessly written, beautifully acted series, one thing is for certain: We are unlikely to see another show like this, or another character like Walter White, any time soon.  Rest in peace, Heisenberg.

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