Pushing The Limits – Breaking Bad

I’m watching Breaking Bad through again, having now seen all of it. And there is a great disparity between the early episodes and the later episodes, except that it keeps pushing limits.

I’m on season two right now and it’s still a playful show where Walt and Jesse are pretending to be drug kingpins. Saul tracks Walt down in a matter of hours when Walt thinks he’s being extra careful. Jesse has a few men under him and he plays like he’s a blowfish that doesn’t have to get dirty. Walt in his hat is a far cry from telling his wife that he is the one that knocks on the door, he is the one that people are terrified of, and he is the all powerful drug kingpin. He has not yet taken down Gus, he does not have Mike, he is just in a broken down RV playing drug dealer. And Jesse is still in baggy street clothes saying Yo. He’s not in the slim fit clothing that he dons later when he becomes a professional and tells off a Mexican cartel’s lab for not being up to his standards.

They are a long way off from where they end up.

But the writing is what keeps me interested from an external point of view. They don’t become power hungry or experienced overnight. They get there from pushing the limits and in incredibly simplistic ways. Vince Gilligan never tires of putting them in harsher and harder circumstances to test them and when they overcome them they become hardened. It’s story telling at its best. Trial and Overcoming. Constantly involving the plot to drive the characters and then the characters to drive the plot. And the plot points are fairly simple, first money, then power. What seems like a dense show is really just derivative from simple character points.

Power and Friendship

All the greatness is from pushing the limits incrementally so we see power take over and money become its own purpose and strain the friendship as much as build it. The characters are always invited to take the next step. Killing through proximity, killing in self defense, killing in the defense of another, then out right murder to protect, finally, killing someone who just was there to see or was just in the way. And with money there’s always a little more that could help that much more.

And I like that it took seasons to get there. They didn’t jump right into killing and love it. Nor did they jump into being friends immediately. Walt is an ass to Jesse in the beginning. Rewatching it I’m wondering why Jesse is still around if it weren’t for the money. They were pushed and cajoled into just the two structures. It just seemed like the next logical step each time. Which makes it insidious. It just seemed natural. It’s why I’m trying to study it right now. It’s so damn simple in the end.

It doesn’t just come from having obstacles. I’ve seen that done and it can feel contrived if it’s just pushing toward something. It has to feel organic. This is something else about Breaking Bad that is important to know. They didn’t know where they were going. They would get to the end of a season and then wonder what was next. The advantage they had was intelligence, which many shows lack, but they bite the bullet more often than not. In one season, Gale had to die, he just did, in the end that was his entire purpose in the series. When I grew up watching television like CSI or Law and Order, they wouldn’t bite the bullet unless it was a relationship or wedding. No one had impulses that would create conflict. There was no tango between friendship and power. They would keep everything the same.

Books do this all the time. Fifty shades is just episodic and contrived, Enders Game is fun but there are no real challenges in it, just difficulties and none that really play off of the character’s themes. There doesn’t have to be someone running over drug dealers in an Aztec and then putting a bullet in each for there to be drama. But I like to think that every story should have the potential for something like that to happen. That we can conceive of what would happen if the characters were actually pushed to their limits.

And underneath it all, Breaking Bad is incredibly simplistic. Walt likes feeling powerful. He never felt in control of his life before, but he does with meth. So he keeps going. Jesse starts off because it’s all he knows, but then finds that Walt takes care of him in ways that his own parents don’t. And after a while, they find that they can’t survive without one another. In my mind, everything else is filler. We watch it more for these two than the crazy plot, at least, I’m rewatching it for these two because I already know the plot.

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