So, a guest post I published on B2W about six months ago, 5 Reasons To Hate BREAKING BAD still gets this blog in the region of approximately 50-100 individual hits a week. As you may remember, Ian Martin’s post, though it talks of “hate” is actually admiring of the series … like just about everyone else in the known universe. Yet, typically, the Google searches that land on the post are often the likes of “I hate Breaking Bad” or “I hate Walter White”, suggesting there ARE people out there who dislike this seemingly “universally loved” series, backing up my claim that writers must realise there are always haters, no matter what. So when Scott approached B2W with his pitch to counter-answer Ian’s post, I agreed – especially as I knew how popular the series is amongst the Bang2writers and I love a good (natured!) ruck online. So, GLOVES OFF everybody, no flaming please and also, think on this question:
Where does “suspension of disbelief” start in a story – and where does it end, ie. “it just is” … and why?
And don’t forget … PLAY NICE! Over to you Scott …
***FYI – SPOILERS!***
Now that everyone has sobered up from watching the hit TV series Breaking Bad, offering some critical comments might not get me stoned, so to speak. The seemingly universal praise as “the most consistently great series ever written and acted” (Metacritic.com gave it 99 out of 100) has resulted in a level of hype that apparently is hypnotic.
I watched the first few episodes and, unimpressed, went on to better things. I assumed most critics would feel the same, since my taste for drama included critical favorites like The Wire, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Hill Street Blues, and Deadwood (and not everyone is convinced: Breaking Bad got lucky at 13 from the Writers Guild, below I Love Lucy).
But once the BB cult reached fever pitch, I decided to give it another chance. I went back to the beginning and watched all the episodes within a few weeks (with someone else to check my impressions). It may have been the intense exposure that made me realize that every episode had several significant character inconsistencies or unrealistic plot elements (228 I noticed on this first round or nearly four in each of the 61 episodes). Many would require more space to explain the context than we have, so let me just provide at some representative examples.
And lest anyone accuse me of being overly anal about the logic behind fiction, I enjoyed Lost (it got a pass because of the supernatural). Maybe creator Vince Gilligan was spoiled by the low demands for credibility made on his X-Files. As I became more perplexed, I began sharing thoughts with friends, whose reaction was always, “I didn’t notice,” some going back to confirm the problems. Posting on fan sites brought furious non-responses.
Among the baffling aspects early in the story:
1) The entire series is based on the assumption that Albuquerque high school chemistry Walter White can make such an amazing meth product that neither a top drug cartel nor an international pharmaceutical conglomerate can buy someone’s expertise to figure out the formula (even when they’re shown by White’s not overly-bright assistant, Jesse).
2) For two seasons, Walter manages to disappear for long periods (cooking meth in an RV to raise money to treat his cancer and leave something for his family) without anyone becoming suspicious of his excuses that he was simply depressed and wanted to go for a walk. He also brazenly lies about things that can be checked, like visiting his mother, despite having no reason to believe he would get away with this forever.
3) Although he has been out on drug surveillance with Hank, his brother-in-law, who is an official in the DEA, Walter does not grasp that he should not talk about drug deals or murder on his cell phone. He also does not destroy the RV, even after he stops using it (Albuquerque must not have endless reruns of all flavors of “Law & Order”).
4) Jesse is incensed when lawyer Saul suggests laundering money by buying a nail salon, since he doesn’t want to pay taxes (he’s not bright, but not that dumb).
5) Walter decides his product is so superior he wants to become a regional meth kingpin with the help of Jesse and his three even more dimwitted sidekicks.
6) Walter decides to let Jesse’s girlfriend die by not turning her on her side while she and Jesse are knocked out on heroin, so she chokes on her own vomit. This despite the fact that the police will have to come into Jesse’s apartment when he is already under suspicion of being a meth dealer.
The Madness Continues
7) Walter keeps a huge bag of cash in a closet where it can be easily seen and his wife, Skyler, discovers it (he also piles cash in the garage, barely concealed by a flap of insulation). She guesses he is selling marijuana, but rather than embracing this, he decides to tell her he is a major meth maker. She forces him to move out, yet don’t come up with a cover story as to why, which only makes everyone more curious (though they finally claim Walter has a gambling problem to explain why they’re flush).
8) Skyler finally decides to buy a car wash to launder the money without bothering to find out how much is involved (she covers the millions by adding a few extra “cash purchases” to the register each day, even though there are security cameras recording her “conversations” with customers). No one notices Walter is rarely there.
9) Walter agrees to work for regional drug lord Gus in a pristine underground lab. One night after work, Jesse puts sedatives in Walter’s drink, but while he is still barely awake, Jesse has him hold a ladder to that Jesse can kill a fly, which does not seem to move after repeated vain efforts to swat.
10) When two of Gus’s distributors kill the brother of Jesse’s lover, Jesse heads out to shoot them, but Walter runs them over to keep him from getting killed. One has to ask why he values Jesse’s life more than the lives of his family.
11) Gus spares Walter and Jesse because he can’t find anyone else in the world to make good meth.
12) DEA agents go to the laundry that is the cover for Gus’s drug business and the manager lets them search without a warrant without calling the boss for approval.
13) Walter is incensed that Jesse didn’t put the ricin he was given into Gus’ drink while at dinner, even though there is no opportunity.
14) Gus is always unflappable, yet gets so mad that one of his enemies, Hector, visited the DEA office (presumably to rat him out), that he decides he must personally kill him. Never mind that the DEA should be protecting Hector. Gus inspects his room very carefully, but not the wheelchair Hector is in, which has a bomb visibly attached. Earlier, Walter had planted a bomb on Gus’s car, and Gus had a sixth sense there might be a problem, but not this time.
15) After Gus is dead and the lab destroyed, Walter assures Skyler there is no longer any danger being in the meth business.
16) He sets up a mobile lab inside houses that are being tented for fumigation. It’s a good place to hide, except they enjoy TV at night, which lights up the tent.
17) When offered $5 million to close down his lab, Walter is furious that he would be losing out on the money he would have to forego (even though he can’t even launder the $80 million he has to stash). Jesse and Mike (Gus’s enforcer) point out that he originally wanted to just make $750,000 for cancer treatment and it’s better to stay alive, but he continues.
18) Walter discovers a tracker on his car and believes Hank is on to him. To confirm, he drops by Hank’s home on a supposed social visit. Knowing that he doesn’t have the goods on Walter yet, Hank doesn’t take the bait. But on Walter’s way out, he turned back to let Hank know that he found the device. Since he can’t be sure what Hank knows, why risk immediate arrest? Hank decides candor is best, even though he hasn’t even built a good enough case to tell his DEA colleagues.
19) Walter insists that some thugs arrange the execution of 10 prisoners simultaneously in several different places, despite their protests that this is unrealistic.
20) Once Hank knows Walter is making meth, he tries to get Skyler to tape a confession, not only failing to Mirandize her, but telling her she should not consult a lawyer.
21) Before going on the run, Walter returns home to get his clothes, despite having $11 million in cash. He knows the family might not be there—they show up shortly, but was he going to wait while the clock ticked? They refuse to go, so he kidnaps the baby, even though this will trigger an Amber Alert to make the public aware.
22) Finally, why is the office of the lawyer, Saul, who seems to represent the entire regional illegal drug industry, sacrosanct? As an active participant in crime, he has no legal protection.
Some things no doubt have an explanation, but it should not be the responsibility of the audience to work too hard at figuring things out. And yes, people are often conflicted and do things out of character. But even fiction has to be credible to suspend disbelief: would we buy the story that Superman not only is working as a reporter during the day, but is a heroin dealer and polygamist? Maybe the part of the overheated enthusiasm for this undercooked series can be explained by the large percentage of Baby Boomers who no longer use drugs, but want a contact high without jail time or a hangover.