The One Who Knocked: The End of Walter White and Breaking Bad

Yes, I am aware that Breaking Bad ended like 6 years ago now or whatever. But it has taken me awhile to gather my thoughts. How could I accurately summarize what Breaking Bad means to me, and what messages it sends to the wider community, only a few days after it ended?

So, I first think about the finale, a piece of television perfection while not terribly risky in its storytelling. The final season, and “Felina” in particular, provided a needed reciprocity for its viewers: it drew us back to the main story, that of the death of Walter White. Over the course of 5 seasons, fabulous performances by Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring, Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman, and Jesse Plemons’ Todd Alquist, among others, made its fans forget that Walter White was always the focus. Unlike other great shows like The Wire, which features many characters that can function without being directly related to the main character, every character on Breaking Bad is there because of Walter White, from Saul Goodman to Gretchen Schwartz. Even Jesse, while compelling and could feature as the lead character in a series of his own, would not live in the Breaking Bad universe without Walt. Walt was the one who knocked on each of their doors, except he gave them their stories instead of a bullet.

This is why Breaking Bad is arguably the greatest television show of all time. Its structure of relying solely on one character was unprecedented. In fact, Breaking Bad was more like an epic piece of literature than a television show. It operated on far too grand of a scale to be classified in the same vein as The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, or even Mad Men. It was too well written, too tightly connected to be considered part of the silver screen. In a way, Breaking Bad is a reflection of Walt himself. Walt was too smart to be a chemistry teacher, too ambitious to stop at small-time meth peddler, too resentful to not enter the “empire business”. He could not be classified as just a meth king because he was too grand to be one. He had to be a god.

Up until the finale, both Breaking Bad and Walt operated on the premise of not accepting any bonds restricting them. Breaking Bad always pushed the envelope, thematically and structurally. Showrunner Vince Gilligan used innovative camera angles and deliberate song choices in order to set each specific emotion he needed from a scene. The writers pulled no punches, from the deaths of Jesse’s girlfriends to arguably the greatest scene in the show, Walt’s showdown with Hank. Every other show would have stopped as soon as Walt left the garage. But Gilligan would not tread lightly, knowing that Breaking Bad could not stop there. He knew there was a emotional firecracker ready to be ignited. For his boldness he received a stunning scene, one all of its viewers had waited for until it was ripe enough to be tasted. Oh, was it sweet. On the other hand, Walter was just as groundbreaking as his show. From the death of Gus Fring, to the lily of the valley, to the brutal prison hit, Walt would not be confined by traditional boundaries. He was always looking to go a step further, to truly embody the name Heisenberg- the uncertainty principle.

But, in fact, Walt’s fatal flaw was that he was never Heisenberg. He was never uncertain. After murdering Gus, Heisenberg’s ingenuity seemed to vanish, and Walt’s morality returned. When he became the kingpin, he suddenly became bored. One of the great scenes of Breaking Bad was the montage at the end of “Gliding All Over”, the finale of the 1st half of the final season. Walt has finally become Heisenberg: he has total control over a multi-million dollar drug industry with no one to answer to. However, he is bored by being the boss. The montage features the drug production, planes flying the drugs to their location, counting money. But Walt was not satisfied by this monotonous routine. He was never satisfied by the status quo, whether that was being a high school chemistry teacher or a drug overlord. He always had to move on. So he leaves it all behind, including his ingenious, sinister formula for methamphetamine and millions and millions of cash. He walks away.

But, for his health, Walt should have never left the meth industry. An interesting feature of Walt was that whenever he was not cooking meth, his cancer was at his worst. His cancer, while of the lung, was also of the heart. Years and years of subconscious regret and resentment had damaged his heart dearly. The cancer would go into remission when he not only had an outlet for his resentment, but also had an occupation he truly loved. The combination of his narcissism and his intellectual nature would mean that he would never be fulfilled by family. While Walt loved his family, he loved them strictly because it gave him a safety net and an internal reason to justify his evil actions.

The most important scene of Breaking Bad, in fact, involves family. Skyler has just hung up on her sister Marie, and now must face a bearded Walt standing in her kitchen. The conversation starts out as a typical talk between the couple: Walt asks for something from Skyler, while she is skeptical of his plans. Walt then assures her continued safety, like always. However, all changes when Walt decides to finally tell what his motivations were for becoming who he is now. Skyler cuts him off, not wanting to hear him again say that he did everything for his family. But Walt calmly responds, saying “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was, really… I was alive.”

I think that people have forgotten a key detail regarding this scene and the previous episode, “Granite State”: “Granite State” was months in Breaking Bad time. Walt was all alone in a cabin for months, getting cancer treatments and playing solitare while enjoying occasional strolls down a mountain side. He had all of the time in the world to think, think about his actions and why he did them. That is when he came to the conclusion, at least consciously, that he had done everything for himself. It was never for the money or for his family. It was to feel alive. After being forced to leave his brain child, Grey Matter, and stooping to teach high school students chemistry, Walt was dead inside. He needed a spark. He needed some motivation to become alive again.

Up until the finale, I thought that Walt had died internally a long time ago. But after seeing the final scene, with his blood-soaked hand staining his meth equipment, I realized that he was alive the whole time, in his life’s work. It was in viewing the parts of his life that could not provide an outlet his resentful, intellectual nature- his family, working at the car wash, teaching chemistry- that Walter seemed as dead as the many men he had disposed of over the years. The only thing separating Walt’s body from the ground was his cozy hydrofluoric acid bath. But the meth-making reinvigorated him, gave him new purpose. He wanted a legacy, and he got one. During the 5th season, Walt is doing something he often must during Breaking Bad– negotiating a drug deal. Walt tells Declan, the drug distributor, to “Say my name”. Declan meekly replies, “Heisenberg”, which causes Walt to break out into a huge grin and growl, “You’re damn right.” Walt revels in knowing that he is so threatening, so infamous, so known. But there is nothing he wanted more in that instant than to say who he really was: Walter White, not Heisenberg.

In the very first episode of Breaking Bad, Walt tells a class of disinterested chemistry students that “Chemistry is the study of change, of transformation!” In fact, that is what Breaking Bad is all about. Transformation and change. Until the finale, however, I thought it was internal change that Walt was referring to. But it was actually an external change- the cancer. The key was how Walt responded. He could have bowed down and died physically, as he was already dead emotionally. But Walt’s ego and his resentment would not let him just give up. Those parts of him wanted to prove to the world that he was still a genius. He wanted a legacy. So, Walt was able to transcend cancer, both physical and emotional. A wise man named Mike Ehrmantraut once told him, “No more half-measures.” Walt took that to heart. In the end, Walt suceeded. He built himself his legacy. After all, that’s what people in the empire business do.

Comeback Story? Kings of Leon Disappoint Again

A few years ago, it seemed that Kings of Leon were poised to take over the world. Arguably, they were the biggest band in the world after their hit 2008 album Only By The Night. “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” were huge hits, getting massive airtime and generally ruling the end of 2008. It featured strong, catchy instrumentals, combining driving guitar riffs with Caleb Followill’s pure, emotional voice. He shines on ballads like “Closer” and “Cold Dessert”, and his bluesy, southern voice fits well their earlier style on tracks like “California Waiting” and “The Bucket”.

One thing Caleb Followill is not, however, is a great songwriter. He has never been accused of writing insightful lyrics. Although they have moved away from their mix of Southern rock and Strokes-alternative music, their music is not incredibly imaginative either. So now, on their 6th album, it seems like the band is running out of ideas. Their new album, Mechanical Bull, is the same bland mix of mid-80s U2 alt-rock and a ballad here and there. In fact, this predictable blend is the same thing that sunk their last album, Come Around Sundown. And while Bono and the Edge have also never been accused of being great songwriters, at least they are a little more imaginative.

The album does have its highlights, like all albums which are made by musicians with this much talent. “Temple” is a rocking throwback to “California Waiting”, and “Wait for Me” is a really pretty stadium tune. But overall, this album is just mediocre. The decent instrumental work by the other members of the Followill clan (Matthew on guitar, Nathan on drums and Jared on bass) and Caleb’s piercing voice can’t make up for the lack of quality songwriting. Caleb’s lyrics are particularly brutal this time around: “I walk a mile in your shoes/ And now I’m a mile away/ And I’ve got your shoes” (contender for worst lyric of the year).

What Kings of Leon really need is a reinvention. They have reused the same formula over and over again in the early part of their career, and eventually that formula gets stale. Even bands with more talented musicians, kind of famous bands like THE BEATLES, RADIOHEAD, and THE ROLLING STONES all changed their styles multiple times. U2 are a decent comparison here. They were a band who, after emerging on the scene with a rawer style, broke out after turning more mainstream. Then they went into a decline in the mid 80s while their songwriting stagnated. Albums like Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum struggled because of their predictability.  But after they became more creative with their songwriting, they made their best album, 1991’s Achtung Baby. Kings of Leon are currently in their stagnation period. They could use a reinvention, and fast. They have the talent to be a great band, one that can combine the raw talent of Caleb Followill with the polish of the band’s musicians. Until then, they will continue to release bland material like Mechanical Bull.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Arctic Monkeys Come Full Circle

I’m baaaaaccckkkkk.

Sorry that I’ve been away. I’ve been busy with other stuff. So, yeah. Awful excuse, but that’s the one I got. PSA concerning this site: now that NBA season is coming up, I will be posting A LOT more.

But until then, on to music, more specifically, the Arctic Monkeys. The band out of Sheffield, England just released their 5th studio album, AM. After a few albums that were difficult to listen to completely (namely, 2009’s Humbug and 2011’s Suck It And See) because of the departure in style from their fabulous 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, AM has improved on the style of its immediate predecessors while returning to the bands’ roots and incorporating a new blend of influence from metal to hip hop.

Whatever People Say I Am was a transcendent record. It inspired people, much like the Velvet Underground’s classic, Velvet Underground and Nico, “to start a band” as music great Brian Eno once said. The album became the fastest-selling debut album in UK history, moving 360,000 copies in one week. In case you were unsure, that total beats other British acts the THE BEATLES, THE ROLLING STONES, LED ZEPPELIN and THE CLASH. And this happened during an age when the CD has lost a lot of its luster as compared to the glory days of the second half of the 20th century. This raw, enthusiastic album seemed so genuine. Hit singles like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “When the Sun Goes Down” kept college kids dancing for months. It seemed inevitable that the Arctic Monkeys would conquer America.

But they didn’t. It is not like they released any terrible albums. They just didn’t catch on. The band moved on from its early, garage-fueled, raw guitar-sounding days to a fusion of Joy Division and later stage British pop. However, on albums like Humbug, Suck It and See, and 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare, the Arctic Monkeys lost most of the pop element from their music while adding to its complexity. Not a very appealing type of music.

However, on AM, Alex Turner and co. morph all of their prior influences into a catchy, rocking blend. From the pop punk of the two opening songs, “Do I Wanna Know?” and “R U Mine?” to their classic ballads like “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Fireside”, the band simplifies the formula, playing just simple guitar riffs and simple melodies. Turner was particularly mature in moving away from some of their more complex ideas that appeared on albums like Favourite Worst Nightmare. He composed a really tight, catchy album here, drawing from metal influences like Black Sabbath and Queens of the Stone Age while throwing in some Green Day pop punk riffs. He also sounds excellent as always, on both vocals and lead guitar, and bassist Nick O’Malley cooks up some delicious bass lines.

Overall, Arctic Monkeys have released one of the best albums of the year, and one of the best punk albums in a long while. And while they may never conquer America, at least people can get excited about the band again.

4 Stars