Aristotle in Albuquerque

Ending well.
In full, satisfying color!

My one complaint with the otherwise spectacular second season of Breaking bad has been its insistence on prefacing each episode with cryptic, desaturated images of the Whites’ suburban residence, littered with the wreckage of some unforeseeable disaster and crawling with figures in haz-mat suits: i.e., the much-maligned Gratuitous Flash Forward.  Last night we finally learned that — unlike with, say, the overwrought chronological acrobatics of Damages — the mystery behind the pre-title sequences plays an almost co(s)mically accidental part in what will surely be Walter White’s main logistical hurdle for the first part of the recently greenlit third season.

What would have made the flash-forward device (in its usual, “x hours/days/months earlier” formula) particularly unsuited to Breaking bad is also what constitutes the show’s greatest narrative strength.  Its principal appeal, that is, lies in creator Vince Gilligan’s use of the techniques of classical, Aristotelian tragedy.  The structure of great tragedies, in ancient Greece as well as Shakespeare, is such that their protagonists’ fate is always a product of their own free will.  White and Pinkman have each had opportunities to change their ways, but they have both repeatedly chosen to plod unceasingly toward their own unhappy endings.

Misdirection 101.
Misdirection 101.

So, deliberately misleading images of a pair of body bags from some undetermined time in the future were never necessary for us to suspect that White and Pinkman were already well along their dual roads to Hell.  Had the outcome of last night’s season closer not genuinely surprised me, I would be using this space to bemoan the superfluousness of that particular image.  But, I should have had a little more faith in Gilligan’s vision: he has been an exceptionally savvy storyteller for a full two seasons now.

A couple details from last night’s finale merit special mention.  First is the climactic collapse of Walter’s fragile economy of lies, prompted by the innocent, anesthetized slur of two simple words.  Before Walt goes into surgery, he responds to a question from Skylar with another question — “Which one?” — and suddenly all the scaffolding he has erected around his secret labors finally falls out from beneath him.  The second detail is the truly inspired monologue that closes out the episode’s final minutes: “Life Guard 4-6, cleared direct Albuquerque.  Climb and maintain 1-7000.  Juliet Mike 2-1, turn left heading 1-1-5.  Way Fair 5-1-5, traffic 3 o’clock.  King Air, turn left heading 0-8-5.  Sierra Alpha, Alpha contact Albuquerque Center 1-3-4.6…”  If there is an opposite of expository dialogue, this is it.

Breaking bad‘s casting has also been visionary: the cameos this season have rivaled Tim and Eric‘s, which is no easy feat for a dramatic serial.  We’ve been treated to appearances by Dr. Schweiber from Freaks and geeks (reprising his justifiably typecast bedside manner) and Giancarlo Esposito (most notably from the final season of Homicide) as the American Southwest’s unassuming meth mastermind.  And of course, who could forget Bob Odenkirk as TV lawyer Saul Goodman?  A stroke of pure, unqualified casting genius.  Season three can’t get here soon enough.

— J.C. Freñán

Battle of the finales

Summer is nigh, and with it new seasons of Weeds (June 8), True blood (June 14), and Mad men (August).  TubaTV can’t wait, because all these season finales are leaving some serious holes in our week nights.