[Fox Mulder looks at Modell, lying in a coma. Dana Scully enters]
Scully: There's no telling how long he'll hang on, but he'll never regain consciousness.
Mulder: You know, we thought he was undergoing treatment. We were wrong.
Scully: What do you mean?
Mulder: Read his chart. The MRI's were a way to gauge how much life he had left, but he consistently refused treatment. The tumor remained operable right up until the end, but he refused to have it removed.
Mulder: I think it's like you said. He was always such a little man. This was finally something that made him feel big.
[Scully takes his arm]
Scully: I say we don't let him take up another minute of our time.
--The final scene of "Pusher," a classic Season 3 episode of The X-Files
, written by Vince Gilligan.
When The X-Files was great, it was truly great, and in the mid-1990s it was at its creative apex. Gilligan was a major voice among the writers of the series, and his particular stories were imbued with a critical eye toward special characters. The "Gray Matter" that plays an indispensable role in his Breaking Bad story arc for Walter White is previously visited upon in his very first X-Files script, the Tony Shahloub-guest strarring "Soft Light" from late Season 2. The Season 4 episode "Small Potatoes" features a shape-shifting schmuck who feels inadequate and unimportant, referred to as "small potatoes" by another character--but feels special once he channels his powers to take on the appearance of David Duchovny's Mulder. As with Modell, who made a fetish out of Japanese custom, lore and tradition by way of the samurai in "Pusher," two fourth season episodes Gilligan penned each featured a serial killer who boasted of their exploits as a way to make them seem special ("Unruhe" and "Paper Hearts"). Another Season 4 episode penned by Gilligan features a "Monster-of-the-Week" who literally feeds off of cancerous tumors ("Leonard Betts"). And the series' most imposing villain was either known as "Cigarette-Smoking Man" or "Cancer Man," the latter becoming a Breaking Bad descriptor of Season 1 Walter White via episode title.
And it was through this lens of foreknowledge that I was able to look at Gilligan's artistic masterwork, the sprawling, dazzling series Breaking Bad
into which I finally waded with a marathon three weeks viewing experience some months ago.
When we first meet Walter White in the series' pilot episode, he is hardly the boss of his own household, much less the boss of anything ostensibly exciting. His wife force-feeds him a healthy version of bacon as he prepares to enjoy his fiftieth birthday.
What unfolds is a powerful tragedy that burrows psychologically within the crevices of each character's particular point-of-view as a Shakespearean and Greek tragedy all at once, characters making a bevy of deeply unfortunate choices while having their trajectories to some extent preordained, like the waning and waxing of great tides.
What Walter White becomes over the course of the series is little more than a modern day, everyday-life-bound supervillain, and if Breaking Bad
is nothing else, it is something of the "origins tale" of said supervillain--though from the first episode on the span of time his reign shall have is definitively limited. And so Walter endeavors to have it all. Originally one can see how he rationalized his choice to go into the "meth" business with his exquisite knowledge of chemicals and properties thereof and how wasted they were on a bunch of indifferent Albuquerque, New Mexico high school kids, a few of whom openly mocked him as he worked at a car wash after school to make end's meet for his family. What Gilligan and his team of writers do so fabulously is to etch together an entirely believable backstory for White, providing their protagonist with more impetus than can be quickly summarized, informing choices and decisions that White will make all the way through the series's fantastic run.
There is also the phenomenal array of colors the series boasts: White and his recruited assistant Jesse Pinkman find themselves in a massive red laboratory for a lengthy middle portion of the series's unspooling, run by the vicious and brilliant drug lord Gustavo "Gus" Fring, who, were he a comic book character, would boast that most marvelous of assets, the ability to hide in plain sight, everywhere. The red paint, the the red shirt that Walter's brother-in-law Hank wears when Hank finally for the first time ever in the series becomes enraged at Walter, all of it symbolically used. Marie's perpetually present purple palette is another symbolic hallmark the series dotes on. Orange represents near danger as when a horde of convicts attack those Walter White needs disposed of in prison or another shirt that Hank wears on a memorable day in the episode "Ozymandias," the title representing the beginning of the end of Walter's at-that-point vast illicit drug empire. Yellow is most closely associated with the actual cooking of meth, as Walter and his assistant Jesse tend to be wearing yellow lab suits for much of their cooks. Marie wears a yellow top on the day Hank finds out something about Walter. Green is often displayed prominently and frequently in connection to Walter. Representing, perhaps, envy, the color makes memorable and bright appearances from time to time, but most memorably when Walter cooks up--no pun intended--his plan to kill Gus in the final episode of Season 4. Walter wears a green jacket as he sits at a bar late in the series's run, watching as his business and romantic rival Elliot Schwartz takes full credit for Gray Matter and claims that White, who is at that point publicly disgraced, had nothing to do with the enterprise.
Black representing caliginous evil, perhaps most notably Walter takes on the color as he falls further and further into complete criminality. His black hat seems to represent his singular transformation from family man and high school teacher to overlord of crime, to gangster. Marie wears black when she goes back into her habit of stealing things which do not belong to her after moving away from that habit early on in the series. Her kleptomania bubbles back up when she wears the color, as she struggles to deal with her husband who is on the mend from an assassination attempt that left him badly wounded. Blue, and deep shades of it, and light shades of it, appear again and again in the series. Walter's wife Skyler wears blue tops a lot, most memorably in "Ozymandias." Actress Anna Gunn's blue eyes come out well with the color, and on the show the color seems to represent something akin to the "blue pill" in The Matrix
, best encapsulated as being false serenity, blissful ignorance. Blue also comes through the paradigm of the meth business in Breaking Bad
in numerous overt ways. Blue pool water, blue skies, all have a deep connection, and play elemental thematic matter together in Season 2's audacious season-spanning arc.
Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul, is something of a homme fatale
in the series as Gilligan and his team of writers flip certain crime and noir conventions on their respective heads. He is essentially a good kid whose inability to "apply [him]self" as a Walter White-penned critique of his work in Walter's class from long ago becomes one of the driving issues of the series. In so many ways Breaking Bad
plays out like the darkest of dark comedies, and amidst its suburbia-set sweeping paranoia and distress is the funny as well as morally perilous and toxic tale of Walter White becoming the instructor for young Jesse outside of the classroom--and outside of the law--that he never was as teacher in the classroom.
This review of Breaking Bad
could go on and on and on, and, perhaps one day I will revisit it and expand upon it, because this treatment barely scratches the outermost surface of this magnificent series, which was everything I had vaguely heard it was and more, long before I finally summoned the sense of commitment to watch it all. The most obvious statement in the world is that the acting is beyond top-notch (have to mention Bob Odenkirk, whose performance was a delight). Yes, it turns out, Bryan Cranston probably actually did deserve all of those Emmys, even if the Emmys are kind of a joke on the whole. Seriously, Cranston is otherworldly-fantastic. Paul deserves special credit, too, as Pinkman. Gunn had perhaps the most thankless and arguably most difficult role on television for years and while I can see why her Skyler was detested by so many, I found her entirely engaging and believed in the complicated connective tissue machinery that defined her character arc.
Reflecting on this grand series, in spite of Walter White's array of threats and proclamations, his catchphrases ("...I am the one who knocks!..." "...You're goddamned right..."), my mental eye reaches all the way back to those Gilligan-penned episodes of The X-Files
, finding that common artistic and thematic spine bridging all of his best work together. As Walter White explains to his ex-wife in the series's finale, "I did it for me... I liked it..." Removing all familial justification, and allowing the patina that he himself did so much to obliterate finally and forever crash down once and for all for his estranged family members, perhaps he himself saw what agents Scully and Mulder saw, seeing his cancer-stricken, shriveling body and countenance in the mirror. "He was always such a little man. This was finally something that made him feel big."