Breaking Bad and the Issue of Realism
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Magical Realism (n.)-a literary genre or style (associated especially with Latin America) that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.
If you’ve got an internet connection and a pulse you’ve likely been following the rapturous reaction to Breaking Bad‘s, breathtaking, unprecedentedly phenomenal final season. Of all the shows from television’s golden age, none has ever ended in such a fever pitch/methylamine train ride into hell; a final run where season upon season of meticulously crafted story comes to a head, everything paying off in one way or another. Likewise, no other show from this era has had the near unanimous support of a fully formed internet community that has the means to react to the tragic splendor and then discuss the insanity over the course of the week.
It’s created a spotlight that a lesser show might have wilted under but from season 6′s (I refuse to play along with the split season nonsense) opening episode, the stakes just kept rising. This increased spotlight has, inevitably, brought some people to the table determined to find big problems that undermine BB’s place on TV Rushmore and that’s well within their rights. But as they’ve pored over Breaking Bad and found that there are virtually no flaws, at least no deal breakers, the only thing many have been able to level against the show is that it often fails to be ‘realistic”, stretching suspension of disbelief as a crutch for bad story decisions.
This is, in part, because the other drama that has to come up when discussing BB’s race towards being the G.O.A.T. is the most realistic show ever constructed. That show is HBO’s The Wire, a show fueled by realism and anti-climax. But comparing the two is already self-defeating, they’re very different, and using the ‘realism’ argument misses the point entirely. Breaking Bad hasn’t been steadfastly realistic from the beginning, and that’s a major factor in what makes it great.
I don’t bring up The Wire to disparage it, or to make a definitive statement on which show is better. My personal take is always going to be that, while The Wire made me think like never before and is staggering in its depth and scope, Breaking Bad is just too damn fun to watch (although the pain of these last few episodes makes me think I hate myself), on top of all its thematic resonance. The two shows are, ultimately, too different to make a true judgement. The Wire is a vast, sprawling show that uses it wonderful characters to explore the death of the American city, the inevitable corruption and manipulation of institutions, and the self-perpetuating decay of inner city poverty. These are lofty ideas that play out on a massive stage where the genre-y drama of single moments are eschewed for the truth of the big picture.
Breaking Bad, however, is a tightly focused character study, a cackling genre explosion that uses Wire like episodes of set up, realism and world building to crescendo into episodes that are heightened far beyond the realm of realism to create insane moments that are etched in our brains forever. We’re never going to forget Walt blowing up Tuco’s office, Gus adjusting his tie before the camera reveals what is left of his face, the Cousins wielding their axes, Walt running drug dealers over in “Half Measures”, and so many more scenes. These moments work because they take a step beyond realism. They give the show a mythic nature by embracing an internal reality and they stand out because the show spends a lot of time showing us the gritty work, and details (the realism) of what’s going on, before blowing up Chilean drug kingpin/chicken magnate faces (read that sentence and then complain that just now the show has become unrealistic).
Breaking Bad is a clinic in the use of magical realism, defined oh so subtly above, a literary technique that’s all about the use of fantastical elements in realistic settings. The realism criticisms increased with the awesome introduction of Robert Forster’s unnamed vacuum salesman/dissapear-er who signed up for monthly trips to his New Hampshire client. The real purpose of those trips was, since the episode spans months, to give us an understanding of Walt’s complete and utter decay during his time in New Hampshire. It gave us a lens through which to view his desperate isolation, his ruined body and the bleak fate that awaited him and his barrel of useless money. It wasn’t supposed to be a 1:1 look at how this sort of criminal operates in reality.
Trying to unpack if a character like this exists in this world is futile. He does exist in this world and our understanding of the show we’re watching should adjust accordingly. We’re talking about a show which once opened with Narcocorrido song performed in front of the RV known as “The Ballad of Heisenberg.” The show is all about creating internalized myths and playing off its different genre influences (crime noir and westerns chief among them) for dramatic effect. The fact that BB’s most common comparison, The Wire, was focused on anti-climax and averting the big moment because that’s how it, more often, goes down in real life is its own sort of genius. I’m not saying the thugs and cops of Baltimore never had dramatic shootouts and murders but they were almost always downplayed.
Realism isn’t synonymous with quality. Magical realism isn’t either. Criticizing a show for employing either technique is invalid because it refuses to meet shows on the terms they create. The reality within a work of fiction should have consistency (unless lacking consistency is part of the appeal, like Childrens Hospital) but that doesn’t have to fit a strict code of what could happen in real life and what couldn’t. When Walt, a 51-year-old cancer patient, rolls a heavy barrel through the desert the show is playing off mythology (Sisyphus) and the stark visuals of its setting to communicate part of its story. It’s not positing Walt has superpowers, but rather not worrying about a small detail in order to better achieve the look and feel they want for Walt’s journey. In the end, the goal of every showrunner is to reach into their bag of tricks and wow us whenever possible. Whether that wow comes from gritty realism and an in-depth look at Baltimore’s schools, or a slow building meth nightmare that results in a nazi shootout in a midwestern desert, when the writing is good enough, the ends justify the means. Or to quote the philosopher Omar Little: ”It’s all in the game.”
EDITOR’S/WRITER’S NOTE: A number of readers have pointed out that this went up with a number of typos. Our mistake! Mike is a notorious apostrophe criminal and we’re amateurs who make the occasional goof from rushing. Keep point out mistakes and thanks for reading!