Given the many clones on Orphan Black, it’s not uncommon to get a sense of deja vu while watching the show. But the opening scene of Governed As It Were By Chance, the fourth episode of season two, conjures not another version of Tatiana Maslany, but a vision of Bryan Cranston in his underwear. Continue reading →
Before the name was borrowed by everyone’s favourite meth-dealing alter-ego, it belonged to Werner Heisenberg, a German Nobel-prize-winning physicist. My knowledge of science stopped expanding in grade 12, so I can’t possibly explain his contributions to science, but he’s largely known for the uncertainty principle. Loosely speaking, it says that when you try to measure something, you affect that thing, possibly in ways you can’t expect.
Breaking Bad has been largely defined by its attention to unforeseen, or unforeseeable, consequences. It’s most obvious in season two, where the death of an addict results in an airplane crash, but it shows up repeatedly: Walt tries to gas the drug dealers who plan to kill him, but ends up with a prisoner in Jesse’s basement. Skyler only wants to frighten Ted Beneke, but puts him in the hospital instead. Walt and his gang can execute a flawless train robbery, but it all goes to hell when a kid on a dirtbike shows up. Most of the major conflicts of the series arise from Walt thinking he can work with – even control – men like Tuco, Gus, and Uncle Jack, only to see things spiral out of control.
If there were a moral to Breaking Bad, it would surely be something about hubris; references to Ozymandias were not coincidental. But to reduce the series and its protagonist to a moral lesson is simplistic, and beside the point. Instead, let’s say that Breaking Bad had a principle, and that principle was uncertainty; that real life, real human beings, are messy and unpredictable, and that the more you try to exert control, the faster you lose it. And that in its final episode, it threw aside the principle it had worked so hard to define in an attempt to tie everything up.
Beware: Spoilers for everything up until the final episode of Breaking Bad.
Todd VanDerWerff wrote a great piece at Grantland comparing the trajectories of Dexter and Breaking Bad. The main point is that Dexter has always avoided making its protagonist the bad guy. Yes, he’s a serial killer, but a) he only kills bad people, and b) he’s a lovable, cuddly guy when he’s not murdering people.
VanDerWerff cites the end of season 2 as the defining moment: After pitting Dexter against the suspicious and driven Sgt. Doakes, the show had two choices: Dexter would be exposed as a murderer and caught, or Doakes – who was essentially a decent guy, despite being a tremendous asshole – had to die. Doakes died, but not at the hands of Dexter, handily absolving the protagonist of breaking his code and killing someone who wasn’t a horrible murderer and/or rapist.
For the first two seasons, Dexter had a real sense of danger: This was a man who needed to kill, who enjoyed killing, even if he tried to abide by a code. While the series has had a few high points since then, the tone has been markedly different: Dexter is the good guy. The audience will always be on Dexter’s side.
This is in stark contrast to Breaking Bad, where Walter White has done some truly fucking terrible things. There’s always an element of justification for his crimes – protecting his family, or simple self-preservation – but they’ve consistently been diluted by greed, entitlement, and anger. No one could fault Walt for killing Crazy 8, who certainly would have killed him if the tables were turned. But what about Jane? Or Mike?