Breaking Bad: The Last Laugh

Only a couple episodes left in what has rapidly become a stunningly good season of Breaking Bad.

Gather up your reserve blood supply and join me for a discussion of “Crawl Space,” after the jump.

Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) was a small-time competitor to the WWE that began in Philadelphia in the early ’90s. Eventually a staple of local late-night TV, especially in the Northeast, ECW developed a reputation for bloody, hardcore action combined with legitimately impressive feats of athleticism. Wrestlers would gather weapons from the audience to use during matches (trash can lids, shovels, etc.), and barbed wire and thumbtacks were used to draw real bloodshed from the performers. Matches featured wrestlers leaping from heights onto their opponents, fighting among the spectators and essentially doing anything to provoke a reaction — tactics that were eventually adopted by ECW’s larger rivals.

When a particularly mind-blowing spot occurred during a match, ECW fans showed their appreciation by chanting “Holy shit! Holy shit!” From this particular crowd, that was the highest of praise.

ECW was a bastardized version of professional wrestling in which, largely because of audience demands and expectations, storylines and character development were sacrificed in the name of the “Holy shit!” moment. Watching it, one could easily become inured to even the most dazzling athletic feats and acts of insane brutality because each such moment had to be more shocking than the last and because nothing else about the promotion held any relevance. Once you’ve seen someone body slammed through a table lit on fire once, it’s not going to provoke the same reaction a second time. So the wrestlers were forced to forever amp up the levels of danger and barbarism in their matches.

In some ways, Breaking Bad is a lot like the ECW of television shows. Vince Gilligan and crew have delivered one “Holy shit!” moment after another. At times, in the slower episodes, you can find yourself as a viewer impatiently waiting for the next shocker and not appreciating the tone or character development. This season, and in particular this last string of episodes, have featured a number of “Holy shit!” moments — each one seemingly more stunning than the last: Walt’s drunken confession at Hank’s dinner table, Hank laying out the case against Gus to his law enforcement cronies, Walt and Jesse’s brawl, and Gus’s power play against the cartel just for starters.

Because of its tendency to blow you away with moments and shocking turns and “Did he really just say that??!” conversations, it would seem that Breaking Bad would be in danger of falling into similar traps to ECW: eventually running out of new ways to jar viewers and numbing them to potential surprises and cliffhangers. But at least so far, the show’s creative powers have managed to deftly avoid that particular pitfall, mostly because the series remains so well-rounded. The acting, writing and direction continue to be superb, and (most) everything that’s happened has made sense from a character perspective. And perhaps more importantly, Breaking Bad can still deliver compelling episodes without any “Holy shit!” moments, as we saw earlier this season.

But as far as “Crawl Space” itself?

Holy shit.

The final act of the episode built to a ridiculously amazing crescendo, culminating with Walt laughing maniacally in his basement as the camera looks down on him from above — the shot framed as though we’re about to see the coffin lid slam shut on Walter White. It was one of the best sequences the show’s ever done, and one of the best pieces of acting of Bryan Cranston’s career. One of the strongest elements of Breaking Bad is that it takes a long time carefully setting up the pieces for the season, and when everything finally comes together, it’s always satisfying but it’s never in quite the way you envisioned it happening. And man did things come together in “Crawl Space.”

For the first three quarters of the episode, the Skyler/Ted storyline served as an anchor dragging down the goodness found in Walter and Jesse’s plots. Good God was their scene together dull. And I don’t really buy the Throw Rug ex Machina (particularly with the ol’ TV trope foreshadowing), but if it serves to get rid of Ted and bring Skyler down a peg, I can live with it. And Walter’s car crash as distraction would have worked better had Julie Taylor not pulled a similar move earlier this year.

But those are quibbles in the grand scheme of both the episode and the season. Walter White is now at his lowest point since he entered the meth-cooking trade, while Jesse and Gus are ascendant. Walter’s emasculation was completed as he was brought to his knees literally — in the desert, with a sack over his head, trembling and helpless. He’s out of money, he’s out of a job and he’s a dead man walking (in more ways than one). All of which combine to make him more sympathetic than he’s been in a long time — just in time for us to root for him as he devises whatever scheme is forthcoming to get himself out of this mess.

Two final points:

  • Of course Skyler likes frozen yogurt. Of course she does.
  • This is the only show that can make you actively root for a crippled, wizened, mute old man to be humiliated and destroyed.

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Filed under Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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