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Desert island: how Breaking Bad became the next Lost

Game of Thrones is the dominant genre show of the moment. But with more science fiction and fantasy adaptations on the way, guest blogger Jack Reed asks where we turn for the imaginative mystery and unpredictability that The X-Files and Lost once gave us. Surprisingly, it’s to a dark drama about a family man cooking crystal meth.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad.

(The following article contains spoilers for Breaking Bad through the eleventh episode of its fifth and final season. It also contains discussion of plot details from The X-Files and Lost.)

In five weeks Breaking Bad will come to an end and we’ll learn the ultimate price of Walter White’s descent from high school chemistry teacher to drug lord. That unlikely journey has turned into event television, his transformation generating intense online coverage and excited lunch-room debates.

But we’re not talking about Breaking Bad the way we do other reality-based, character-driven dramas like Mad Men. We’re not just discussing the latest character moments and unexpected twists. We’re fixated on what will happen next, formulating wildly varied theories about how it will end and analysing unusual dialogue for symbols and portents. We’re engaging with Breaking Bad with the same hunger and awe that intricate genre sagas like The X-Files and Lost used to inspire. Somehow, a gritty moral drama has effectively become the next supernatural event show.

That’s not too surprising given the state of genre television. Since Lost and Battlestar Galactica left the air, original genre shows like Grimm, Once Upon a Time, and Falling Skies have largely been derivative and unambitious, trying to replicate old magic instead of conjuring their own. Doctor Who is incredibly creative, but its mysteries are intermittent and relatively short-lived. The biggest shift is that the two game-changing genre sensations at the moment – Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead –adapt novels and comic books over many seasons rather than telling original stories, and their success means that more long-form adaptations are on the way.

Fans of those properties are cheering as they watch the stories they love unfold again on screen. But the price is that, for everyone else, future plot developments of these most popular of genre shows are now only a Wikipedia search away. We’re no longer united by glorious shared ignorance of what’s coming next. Those who haven’t read the books discuss the latest events and might speculate with other newbies, but it’s half-hearted when we all know a Game of Thrones reader who could disprove our sheltered theories with a sympathetic smile.

That knowledge diminishes the sense of wonder that the best genre television can evoke and undermines the communal viewing experience. The conversation is no longer universal. While existing fans debate how the story will be adapted, the rest of us settle for discussing these shows reflectively, the way we do straight dramas that don’t deal in mysteries and endgames.

The cast of Lost.

Compare this to how we bonded over the grand mysteries of Lost and The X-Files. Even when we watched them alone, they made us feel like part of a scattered community with the same burning questions in common. As the shows drip-fed new plot points that coalesced into a complex and opaque mythology, our excitement heightened and we speculated and theorised en masse.

By blending science fiction, fantasy, and horror with character drama, their showrunners exacerbated our uncertainty. Any genre trope could turn up to explain or complicate a mystery. Just as we came to grips with the bizarre rules of the island in Lost, it began moving through time like a skipping record. When we finally met Samantha Mulder but discovered she was just one of many clones, the question of the original Samantha’s alien abduction took on extra dimensions.

Escalating mysteries gave these shows powerful momentum. The truth seemed closer and closer the longer we watched, and their intermingling genres gave rise to a sense of infinite possibility. The ending rarely matters more than in the supernatural event show because we’ve been encouraged to consider so many potential payoffs. Normally, a new event like this comes along every few years, but the epic adaptations now consuming our attention have set limits on our imagination.

Remarkably, Breaking Bad has stepped into that breach despite the imaginative limitations set in this case by real-world Albuquerque. The supernatural event show, it turns out, doesn’t have the monopoly on leading us to believe anything is possible. Just as Lost and The X-Files bewildered us with an array of genre elements that weren’t clearly compatible, creator Vince Gilligan and his team have us at their mercy with painstakingly crafted, fully-realised characters who can plausibly do the unexpected.

We can even accept an over-the-top and faintly absurd action movie moment like Walt suddenly driving into frame in his hatchback and running down two drug dealers to save Jesse. He stumbles out, shoots one in the head and tells Jesse in a gravelly voice to ‘run’. Because Walt has been established as a timid shadow of a man now misguidedly finding masculine power in a life of crime, we don’t question that he would do something so reckless. It doesn’t break the show.

That carefully nurtured human volatility is a key ingredient of the acclaimed dramas of this so-called Golden Age of television. We never know where an episode of Mad Men or The Sopranos will take us even if we’re not fixated on how the show as a whole will ultimately end. We might expect an episode about Don and Megan Draper driving long distance to a meeting to at least end with that meeting, their relationship having been explored in that context. Instead, Megan’s frustration with her job leads to an argument en route. Don angrily abandons her at a diner before cooling down and returning, only to find she’s disappeared. A straightforward situation has morphed into a surreal crisis, all because we were still discovering the difficult truths underpinning their marriage, just as they were.

In the best dramas that aim to be true to the unpredictable effects of human interaction, developments like this aren’t signposted. The characters are fleshed-out and nuanced, vividly contradictory and ethically inconsistent. They frequently don’t say what they mean and leave us to solve their personalities like a murder mystery. They could do virtually anything and we’d accept it as credibly human.  Vince Gilligan has weaponised this, turning sophisticated character drama into riveting event storytelling.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files.

That process began when he chose to introduce us to Walt before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In order to leave money behind for his family, he decided to use his neglected chemistry genius to cook methamphetamine. Because we watched Walt make that choice, the question of his fate and how his actions would ultimately impact those around him has haunted every subsequent scene, stretched ever more tautly until it will finally snap in the series finale. Don Draper’s fate, or even that of a career criminal like Tony Soprano, doesn’t gnaw at us so keenly. Just as the promise of revelation in Lost and The X-Files never left our minds, the consequences of Walt’s actions fill us with irresistible dread.

Because Walt and the rest of the cast have been developed with the same insight and attention to detail as the best Golden Age dramas, we’ve come to believe they’re capable of anything, no matter how extreme. No turning point has an obvious outcome because it’s dependent upon the actions of a fully realised character rather than a walking plot device (such as those trapped Under the Dome). Each combination can yield a different reaction, just like in chemistry.

The immense range of supernatural possibility in Lost and The X-Files is replaced with the seemingly infinite possible reactions of people like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Following Jesse’s realisation this week that Walt poisoned his ex-girlfriend’s young son, they seem equally likely to kill each other, turn each other in, or perhaps even circle back to protecting each other to save themselves. Walt’s strategic thinking and manipulation and Jesse’s rage and fear are the wildcards in determining how their conflict will play out. Breaking Bad’s truth is not out there, unlike Fox Mulder’s. It’s buried deep in each character’s psyche, and they may discover it at the same moment we do.

Combine that with the spectre of fate that’s permeated each episode, and you have a powder keg of infinite narrative possibility. No wonder we devise theories about the show’s future based on literature, colour coding, and repetition, and even dissect Badger’s ridiculous Star Trek story idea for a small nugget of foreshadowing.

Yet paradoxically, this infinite possibility is an illusion. Breaking Bad’s writers are limited to what’s credible and does best justice to the story, but they’ve engineered their narrative so that a huge range of outcomes seem equally feasible. Let’s look at the aftermath of last year’s final scene when Hank finally deduced that Walt is Heisenberg. We spent ten months wondering if Hank would confront him straight away or build a case in secret, or whether Walt would learn about his discovery first. But each outcome generated more possibilities when we considered how Skyler, Marie, and the other characters could affect each of Hank and Walt’s choices, and many of them seemed equally valid.

Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston dine uncomfortably in Breaking Bad's latest episode, "Confessions".

In the end, this year’s premiere ended with Hank unable to contain himself and revealing his hand to Walt. But in hindsight this was the only prudent choice. Hank having that power over Walt would destabilise the narrative. Breaking Bad has always been about how Walt gains and abuses power, so for him to be powerless and know less than the audience for an extended period undermines his narrative authority, not to mention that open conflict between the two is much more exciting.

But because the show has established that characters can do or become anything, we kept our minds open to every chain of events we — and more importantly the writers — could think of. That we still thought so many other options made sense is the glorious con of the well-executed serial drama.

And the process began again with this week’s episode, which ended with Jesse furiously dousing the inside of Walt’s house with gasoline. Jesse learning that Walt poisoned Brock blows their already toxic relationship apart, but his retaliation now directly affects Skyler and every other character. With so many variables in play, seemingly anything could happen next week. Once we see what the next episode weaves with all those threads, however, it will probably feel like the only logical choice.

Of course, we end up debating the success of how mysteries develop and resolve in supernatural event shows. By introducing so many elements, their showrunners set an ambush for themselves if they don’t ensure they cohere. Some of Lost’s mysteries were autonomous, like the three-toed statue and the Dharma Initiative, but we didn’t know that for sure until the series was over. When major mysteries are abandoned, the audience can feel betrayed.

Breaking Bad will likely avoid that trap because its momentum comes from inevitable moral and practical consequences rather than deepening paranormal mystery. Although we can imagine so many possible endings, we’ll be satisfied as long as there are final, decisive consequences for Walt’s decision to cook meth, regardless of whether we root for him to succeed. We only need one resolution because every character and plotline ties back to him.

Breaking Bad has struck gold by choosing the best from both worlds, using the infinite character possibility of well-crafted Golden Age drama to give us the sense of infinite narrative possibility of the supernatural event show. It’s fitting that Vince Gilligan says he brought everything he learned about TV writing from seven years on The X-Files to bear on a viscerally real moral drama. The result is that Breaking Bad bridges the gap between television as thrill ride and as high art by creating each with the defining traits of the other. No wonder so many of us are captivated by Walter White’s final hours. And unlike Lost, less of the audience is likely to throw their remotes at the screen in frustration.

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Jack Reed is a film and TV critic constantly pining for his next genre show obsession. In the meantime, he blogs about all things screen-related at Remote Wanderings and tweets @remotewandering.

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  • 1
    mikeb
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Why is BB so good? The answer is magnets. Yeah bitch! magnets!

  • 2
    Melena Santorum
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    “But each outcome generated more possibilities when we considered how Skyler, Marie, and the other characters could effect each of Hank and Walt’s choices, and many of them seemed equally valid.”

    Effect or affect?

    Melena, you're right. Sometimes these things slip through the cracks. Thank you. — Byron

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  1. ...] Desert island: how Breaking Bad became the next Lost, I examine how Breaking Bad has unexpectedly become the next supernatural event show, following on [...

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