“What’s happened?” It’s a good question to ask in regards to any TV show. What’s happened? Where is this show going? Why did I just find my remote in the freezer next to the mozzarella sticks? They’re all important inquiries with equally vital answers. Save that last question. All you need to know is I’m on medication and it makes me a tad woozy. I believe it’s called a “mojito.” One a day. I don’t have the solutions for the other questions, and it seems neither do the characters. When Skyler, the dough-eyed naif, whispered that crucial question — “What’s happened?” — during the fourth season finale of “Breaking Bad,” she seemed as lost as any lay viewer.
At the most basic level, a lot has happened. In the technical sense, I believe that would be called a “shit ton.” In the course of four short seasons, “Breaking Bad” has seen the titanic transformation of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White from the stale state of a chemistry teacher in the midst of a mid-life crisis to a meth kingpin and calculated killer. For comparison, in the course of watching those four seasons, I’ve only managed to amass debt and a debilitating addiction to chocolate milk.
However, I ain’t talkin’ about just plot or characters. The tone of “Breaking Bad” began on an already somewhat sinister note. A body was burned in acid, a plane crash killed hundreds and the protagonist let a heroin addict choke to death on her own vomit. There were also some jokes about “Star Wars” for the kids watching, of course. Now, the jokes seem to have subsided in favor of a far more morbid and experimental approach. Strange camera angles have appeared from atop the handles of shovels, moments of silence have lingered for far longer than comfortable and in the last 10 minutes of the episode “Crawl Space,” the show suddenly evolved into a heart-wrenching horror film — complete with maniacal laughter and slow motion panic.
So, “Breaking Bad” is good. We get it. To be supercilious (mainly just so I can use that word), I’d be brash enough to call it New Mexico’s answer to “The Wire” with its vast complexity, auteur-level artistry and overwhelming obsession with every one’s favorite pastime — the illegal drug trade. But, the show’s level of quality only partially answers the question posed earlier. What’s happened to “Breaking Bad” is essentially the evolution of a new ethos for cable dramas.
A ways back, in the olden days of television bore (about 2003/2004), my first encounter with the one-hour drama was CBS’s homage to my favorite medieval heretic, “Joan of Arcadia.” To put it politely, it wasn’t exactly “The Wire.” But the truth is, “Joan of Arcadia” wasn’t even trying to be. It couldn’t. Maybe if the protagonist indulged in some cocaine, then they’d have a hit. Drugs really do seem to be the key factor for both critical acclaim and last night’s dream where I played bass for The Rolling Stones. However, nighttime visions aside, the truth remains that CBS is a network and because of HBO, cable dramas have always had the upper hand in terms of quality and nuance.
Only now, with AMC (not TNT, who has never known drama despite what their tagline claims), one doesn’t have to shell out 30 bucks every month to experience TV’s most compelling programs. And, even more to the point, AMC’s most popular shows, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” even when compared to HBO’s greatest (probably “The Wire” and “The Sopranos”), are so completely unique from everything else on television. They’re esoteric. One is about 1960s advertising and the other about the New Mexican meth trade — hardly common topics of conversation unless you’re a tweaker transplanted back in time. These shows take risks, both visually and plot-wise. In short, they are in the vanguard of what drama can and should be.
In the final shots of season four, “Breaking Bad” hardly answers the question of what’s happened. Instead, the camera fixates on the image of a curious plant. It’s ambiguous and unsettling, but in its wordless wonder, it just might be the best thing on television.