I couldn't stand it. I was sitting through the lightning delay during Sunday Night Football and so many people were tweeting and salivating over Breaking Bad that I began to feel sick to my stomach over never having watched it. Jesus could have appeared in the flesh and it wouldn't have generated such an enthusiastic response from the masses. Sure, He's the son of God, BUT HOLY SHIT DID YOU SEE WHAT WALT DID THIS TIME I'LL NEVER GET OVER IT! The fervor is so strong that TV critic Alan Sepinwall had his appendix removed on Sunday and still felt obligated to watch the show AND write a recap that night. People want desperately to believe they are watching something momentous—that they didn't waste their time on anything less than the greatest show ever devised. And so they're willing to go to extreme measures to be part of that phenomenon.
This isn't like the lovefest over The Wire, a show that struggled in the ratings and was discovered by the majority of its fanbase after its initial run had ended. The Breaking Bad lunacy is unfolding in real time. One day, Netflix will take over everything and viewing habits will become so staggered that people won't be able to live-tweet quality TV en masse. But for now, shows like this still air at set times, allowing fans to obsess over it simultaneously and make the rest of us feel like fucking losers.
It's not like I didn't WANT to start watching Breaking Bad. But sometimes, you just fall behind on certain things because life gets in the way and you can't find an open window to catch up. I have to deal with kids and a wife who hates violent television and work and all that nonsense. I barely managed to get away with doing all of The Wire (it took a full year), and I did so years after most other people did (IT'S GREAT AND YOU SHOULD WATCH IT AND I TELL YOU THIS BECAUSE I CARE ABOUT YOU!). I knew Breaking Bad was a brilliant show. I knew I would love it. But I had fallen so far behind that I had no prayer of catching up in time for the end. And yet, it's clear now that we all MUST be there for the end.
We live in a completist TV culture now. For Hall of Fame shows like Breaking Bad, you are expected to watch all of it, in order. And you really should avoid spoilers (impossible) to make the viewing experience optimal. No skipping episodes. No jumping in midstream. Shows that can be watched in a more casual way are inferior and pointless. Either you watch all 62 episodes, or you watch nothing. This wasn't the case IN MY DAY*. In my day, if you missed the beginning of a show, you just hopped aboard whenever you could and figured it out. And you didn't feel like an ass about it.
*Copyright 2013 Mitch Albom
Well, I couldn't sit back and let these TV-watching GLORY BOYS celebrate the end of this show without me. The idea of waiting years to experience the emotional payoff of Breaking Bad, and the prospect of spending all my time on the Internet vigilantly avoiding spoilers, was too much to take. So I committed the ultimate modern TV viewing sin: I watched a recording of last Sunday's episode of Breaking Bad (entitled "Ozymandias"; sounds like it'll end well!) cold, without having seen any of the previous episodes or seasons, save a 10-minute snippet here and there. I also watched the one episode over two nights, just to do it REALLY wrong. IMDB rated this the single greatest episode of TV ever, just to make you feel extra terrible for missing it. Well, screw you people, I'm bandwagoning onto that shit, Lakers-fan style.
After all, how hard could it be to figure it out? I knew the gist of it: cancer-stricken chemistry teacher decides to start homebrewing meth, and then HILARITY ENSUES. Besides, they're nice enough to give you the whole "Previously on..." montage. I bet anyone with half a brain could figure out what's going on. Here now are the results of my bandwagoning experiment (WARNING: THERE ARE MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW THAT YOU WILL TRY TO AVOID BUT THEN LOOK AT BECAUSE YOU KINDA CAN'T HELP YOURSELF AND THEN YOU'LL BE SUPER PISSED THAT ANY SPOILERS WERE POSTED AT ALL)...
- These are not happy people!
- Whether by accident or design, creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff were shockingly accommodating in this episode to anyone who's just tuning in now. Right off the bat, there's a flashback to happier times, just Walt and Jesse in the trailer, cookin' up methshine back in the good ol' days! MEMORIES.
- I also know right away that Hank is Walt's brother-in-law. Or was. Walt seems really broken up about the whole "neo-Nazi shooting Hank to death" thing, which is odd because if he REALLY liked his brother-in-law, he probably wouldn't have put him in a spot where a neo-Nazi could shoot him to death. No one is ever really THAT close to their brother-in-law. He's just grieving to be nice.
- But I'm glad I tuned in just in time to see Hank die. This shit is getting good!
- Kudos to Walt for recovering from his grief quickly enough to smoke out his meth-making colleague Jesse and then tell him that he let his wife (or girlfriend? Sounded like someone Jesse liked either way!) overdose and die. He really got his game face back on quickly. You gotta have a short memory in the meth game.
- It was super nice of the neo-Nazi to let Walt keep a barrel full of cash. Despite all the murdering and racism, neo-Nazis believe in fairness above all.
- I'd like someone to fill an oil drum with cash and weigh it for me so that I can figure out if it's realistic for a dude to be able to roll said oil drum for what appears to be miles through a sun-baked desert. What if you hit a rock? What if you hit many of them? Sounds like SOMEONE didn't close a crucial plot hole! F-minus for you!
- I was also able to quickly figure out that the blond lady and brunette lady are sisters. Sassy sisters who just won't stop bickering with one another about who's husband is a drug lord and who's gotta tell whose kids all the horrible shit they've done. WOMEN, AMIRITE?!
- Whether or not you agree that this was the greatest episode of TV ever filmed, this episode most certainly broke the record for "most characters who make the Greek weeping face". You know the one: it's the frowny theater mask, the one on the cover of Motley Crue's Theatre of Pain. Walt, Jesse, the wife, the sister, the son, and the baby all make that MY GOD LIFE'S CRUELTY KNOWS NO BOUNDS face. Jeez, you people are downers.
- There's no delicate way to put this, but... Walt's son is challenged, right? That's his deal? I assume Walt did that to him somehow by slipping meth into his lunch or something.
- Skyler has to choose between picking up a phone or a knife when Walt comes home. I was rooting for the knife, and I got it. Good choice, girl!
- Nothing beats a good husband-wife knife fight. This was one of those knife fights where both combatants are struggling for the weapon and you fully expect one person to go OOOOH! and then slump to the floor, and then they reveal the knife accidentally plunged in someone's breastplate. Classic knife fight trope. But both Walt and Skyler survive. I thought the son might get stabbed in the melee somehow, but he lived. Kinda disappointing.
- Holy shit, Walt stole the baby! What a cock! Like any good drug lord, Walt knows that having a baby means you have LEVERAGE. I also liked that Walt changed the baby's diaper on the road and made sure to find a secure car seat for her. Because when you're traveling in a broken-down pickup with a kidnapped, blood-stained baby riding in the front seat, SAFETY MATTERS, you know? Glad he's got his priorities in order.
- Did they have to show the baby crying MAMA? Christ. Nothing but bad things happen on this show! THERE'S NOTHING IN THE SHOW'S TITLE THAT INDICATES BAD THINGS WILL OCCUR!
- Walt calls his wife to ream her out and say hateful, awful things to her. I thought he was gonna kill the baby over the phone and have her listen, because that's a real power move.
- But then he returns the baby! It's true: Babies do tend to lose their charm the longer you have them around.
- I was doing an abroad program in Mexico one time and for class, our teacher made us watch this Mexican movie where the police break into an apartment building, kill lots of innocent people, and then leave. That was the entire story. Just the saddest, most horrible shit you could imagine. This was basically that. So that's fun!
Anyway, I watched "Ozymandias" and found myself instantly riveted, and then utterly horrified. It was as intense as any piece of TV I've ever seen, even though I'm sure a few storylines were lost on me. By the end, I was a withered soul. Like any devotee of the show, I could barely sleep thinking about it. It completely fucked with my head, which I suppose was the point. And now I'm caught up! I'm hip! Hooray! I regret nothing.
Is this the optimal way to experience a historic TV series? Of course not. But if you're pressed for time and you just want your cultural constipation relieved, it's nice to know that you DO have the option. It's a sin in this country to not wring maximum pleasure out of everything you do, but in this case I think I'll be okay with it, especially given that stolen babies were involved. Can't wait to jump into Homeland now! I'm told mental illness is featured. Sounds juicy!
(Seriously though, watch The Wire from the beginning or else you're a terrible person.)
Image by Sam Woolley