Walter White, Heisenberg, and Time Out of Mind: The Legacy of 'Breaking Bad'

An examination of how AMC's Breaking Bad played with the conventions of time, character, and attitude.

Breaking Bad, Breaking Out, Breaking Even

ISBN-13: 978-3035800081
Publisher: Diaphanes
ISBN-10: 3035800081
Language: English
Author: Gertrud Koch
Publication date: 2017-07

What most of us remember about the brilliant Vince Gilligan AMC crime drama Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is probably contained in images. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is standing in the middle of a desert, somewhere in New Mexico. This cancer-riddled high school chemistry teacher has turned to a life of producing and selling crystallized methamphetamine as a way to fund his chemo treatment. The life he’s facing has dwindled down to a desperate sentence, and in the image we remember he’s standing defiantly, covered sometimes just in tight white underwear and his science teacher glasses. He’s clutching a gun in his right hand, and though he still has a head of thick hair, we know it’s not for long. We know that whatever Walter is seeing in the distance will eventually take his life.

The other image we remember of Walter White is as Heisenberg, his alter-ego, dark fedora perched on his shaved head and mirrored sunglasses covering his eyes. He will not allow us to see his eyes. The meek milquetoast that was Walter White the high school chemistry teacher had no need to hide in his persona as Heisenberg did. Koch’s very brief (less than 100 pages) examination of Breaking Bad is very slim in content but rich in meaning. For Koch, the images are intrinsically linked with the importance of narrative form. Where most crime-centered episodic television dramas began with a “cold” open before the credits that put the viewer “in media res” and followed with a story that explained what we’d seen and culminated in a variation of it, Breaking Bad shattered that convention.

“The pilot episode begins with a proleptic story [presenting a future act as if its already happened]… other episodes… draw on this… form of storytelling. This is the context in which the mysterious figure of the charred teddy bear appears… a harbinger of disaster… as mysterious as the trousers coming down from the sky.”

Koch effectively connects the teddy bear (after effects of a mid-air plane crash tragedy where the people and artifacts fell to the ground and landed in White’s pool) with the trousers we see in the pilot episode. What’s happening? Who is missing their pants? How have things come to such desperate conditions? The images of persona Walter chooses to present to the world are linked with the images of the flat, endless landscape where this tragic story plays itself out over the course of 62 episodes. Koch manages to successfully argue that if the program was anything (crime drama, noir, mainstream suspense thriller) it was the darkest of comedies, more noir than anything else, but pure and consistent in its allegiance to the pitch-perfect comedy from Cranston

In the chapter “Chain Reactions”, Koch notes the importance of causal reactions primarily through observing nature’s laws in physics and chemistry. Basically, it’s all about what comes up must come down. On the other hand, that’s not necessarily always the case with human activity and social context, where many variable factors are always in place to upset expectations. An air traffic controller father is grieving the drug overdose death of his daughter, girlfriend of White’s young partner Jesse. The father’s grief allows for the plane crash, and a charred teddy bear surfaces to haunt everybody. We watch and absorb and try to position these events in some sort of understandable sense, and convention steers us to believe this is simply a maudlin story of a man who chose extreme measures to guarantee the future of his wife, teenaged son, and new baby. On the other hand, though, Koch posits this argument about the series and the legacy of Walter White:

“At the end… stands the character of an egocentric, who did everything for himself… He is the goal and the reason for his own actions, the perfect bourgeois subject in the age of neo-liberalism.”

For Koch, Walter White is not a tragic hero. He's not a subject for whom we should feel extra compassion and offer any degree of forgiveness. Instead, he’s a noir hero, an independent agent, a man who knew exactly where he was going and the consequences of his actions. The fact that he dies from the results of his swimming in the cesspool of crime bosses and drug lords his meth producing and distributing world created, rather than from the cancer that was supposed to bring him down, is in keeping with the fatalistic nature of noir. Don’t shed any tears for Walter White because this is the way he chose to lead the final days of his life.

Breaking Bad, Breaking Out, Breaking Even is presented in six chapters. Koch ends with a separate section, a brief paragraph-length commentary on “Five Iconic Scenes”. In the first chapter, “It’s a Trip”, whose title is borrowed from the New Mexico state motto, Koch argues that one of the qualities that helped the series attain its status was “…the new temporality of a very long narrative…” In other words, the “binge watching” habit so popular to so many viewers, through physical DVD watching or streaming services, was perhaps as addictive as the meth Walter White was peddling -- the fact that we could easily have more meant that we would not hesitate to want more.

The chapter “In 62 Episodes to Death”, Koch carefully spells out the inevitable. None of this was going to end conveniently. “The series begins in the form of a cascade,” she writes. Later, Koch notes that the intricate time span is presented within the first five minutes of this pilot episode. There’s now (in the motor home, naked save for a pair of white briefs, running around the desert waving a gun.) There’s “The next few days”, in which the teen son will learn some dark truths about his father, and then there’s a flashback from three weeks earlier.

The binge-watching addictiveness of this structure is what separated Breaking Bad from standard episodic television. With the routine episodic crime drama, there was usually no need to commit to a character’s back story. Whatever sort of incidental triviality happened in episode three of season one didn’t necessarily spill into the same episode in the next season. In the old days, as well, there were approximately two dozen episodes per season. By condensing a season to half that amount, the creators of Breaking Bad and other shows of the past ten years (or so) have a greater opportunity to work with such a manageable time frame.

The chapter “Time Going Backward, Time Going Forward” also plays with the concept of narrative. What happens when traditions and conventions are broken? If Breaking Bad is, in fact, the jewel in the crown of “Quality TV”, an argument shared by many, then the form itself has now become “…an artisanal style that covers up its lowly origins with abundant effects… the hybridization of cinema with TV gives rise to completely independent forms.” Viewers recognize the tight constraints of what had once been conventional television on broadcast TV, the self-proclaimed liberty of pay services like HBO, but Breaking Bad and AMC, even more so than Mad Men on the same network, broke all the rules.

If Breaking Bad, Breaking Out, Breaking Even has faults, they rest in the actual physical presence of the book itself. It’s a rich study of a brilliant television program whose strengths Koch clearly understands. At less than100 pages, though, with only two-thirds actually containing content, the pages might eventually fall out, especially as the studious reader annotates and dog-ears them for future reference.

Koch, a Berlin Film Studies Professor (the book is translated from the German by Daniel Hendrickson) wisely references the February 2015 premiere of Better Call Saul, the equally brilliant Breaking Bad prequel from Vince Gilligan that deals with the early career of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk.) Fans of Better Call Saul know that it deals with the transformation of Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman. It gives us Saul, Mike (Jonathan Banks), and Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito.) Perhaps at some point in the distant future the full text of Breaking Bad, Breaking Out, Breaking Even can be incorporated within a deeper, comprehensive study of Better Call Saul. After all, the shared DNA of the creative team behind each program makes them tantamount to separated conjoined twins.

Until that time, this is a fine primer, a welcome examination of the world created in Breaking Bad. It’s not meant for the uninitiated, but even those of us well acquainted with the sad downward spiral of Walter White will absorb this rich, astute, clear examination and go back -- again and again -- to the source material.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

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