You never know. Somehow a column marking Giuseppi Verdi’s 200th birthday has gone astray and broken bad. What could possibly justify putting the man who gave us Rigoletto, Falstaff, and La Traviata on hold for another week? How about the concluding episode of Breaking Bad? So much for high art, right? Joe Green meet Walter White.
It begins to look as though the theme of this column is why not have Verdi, Shakespeare, Bryan Cranston, Badfinger, high art, pop art, rock and roll, Faustus and Mephistophles, Violetta and Walt singing and dancing and scheming in the same 1800-word opera house? Verdi grew up in a tavern, after all, and returned to his roots at 80 for the tavern scenes in Falstaff, where the title character embodies the highs and lows of art and expounds on the joys of getting divinely drunk: “A good sherris-sack hath a twofold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.”
Now right on cue here comes Walter Pater reminding me that all art “aspires to a condition of music” and I’m thinking how well that describes the aspiring, ascending final moment of Vince Gilligan’s phenomenal series, which just ended its five-year run on AMC with an audience said to number 10.3 million. When Frank Capra came to Princeton to talk to some film students, his main message was that all the art in the world that ever mattered was popular. Ten million people in one night, not to mention all those who saw Breaking Bad on DVD or On Demand or who streamed it or dreamed it — that’s popular!
Right now after a week of having Badfinger’s freshly resurrected hit from 1972 playing in my head, I keep hearing “Follie! Follie!” (“Madness! Madness!”) from the first act of Zeferelli’s lavish 1983 film version of La Traviata. Admitted, the music the other Walter had in mind was a long way from “Baby Blue,” the song that Breaking Bad aspired and ascended to the other Sunday. But how good it felt to recognize the opening chords, then the descending bass line, to know the song even before you could name it, a surge of melodic rock and roll excitement lifted over the top with a camera movement that was nothing less than operatic (lest we forget whose birthday this is). Suddenly you find yourself rising above the concluding image of a show defined by the richness of its imagery, looking down as if from a Paris Opera chandelier with the fallen phantom way below. That crane shot and the choice of “Baby Blue” was the defining stroke of genius in a show propelled by its own brilliance, like a Catherine wheel Vince Gilligan set spinning when Bush was still in the White House. For cinematography alone, the saga of a high school science teacher in Albuquerque who took his life to another level as the master chef of crystal blue meth is an outstanding work of art.
Now that I think of it, a fascinating opera could be composed around Walter White’s Mephistophelian journey, with arias and choruses featuring the downtrodden scientific genius, his family, his former D-student helper, his underworld associates and enemies, clowns and kingpins, and the fire that consumes them.
The Right Song
According to a story in Rolling Stone, Vince Gilligan’s music team didn’t agree with his choice of Badfinger’s rocker. Numerous songs with titles playing on blue meth were suggested, including no doubt Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Tommy James’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Profiting from the stir created by Breaking Bad, Badfinger’s prototypical piece of Power Pop, the polar opposite of Dave Porter’s succinct, hypnotically sinister opening theme, is on the verge of entering the Billboard Top 100, with a nearly 3000 percent sales gain in the week following the September 29 showing; in the 11 hours immediately after the finale, according to Spotify, global streams of the song were up 9,000 percent. The hint of media mania also reflects a reprise of the Beatles magic that gave an early glow to their Welsh proteges. Not only was Badfinger the first group signed to the Apple label, it took its name from John Lennon, who used to riff on his “Bad Finger Boogie.”
The breaking bad downside is that Pete Ham, the song’s composer and lead singer, hanged himself in 1975, three years after “Baby Blue” was released. Tom Evans, whose bass line gave the song its signature, took his life in the same manner in 1983, three years after the murder of John Lennon. The crook who stole the group blind and helped sink it (he was actually named in Pete Ham’s suicide note) would have been at home in the cut-throat world of Gilligan’s Albuquerque where the show’s crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) provides all kinds of unlawful advice along with indispensable comic relief. A sign of Saul’s popularity is that Odenkirk is under contract to AMC for a spinoff series tentatively titled “Better Call Saul.”
Not all of Breaking Bad’s followers go along with the ending. The show that rocks its way off the stage has given us hell on earth, plumbed depths of evil, created paintings on film as savage as they are beautiful, shot through with outrages like the raspberry slushie, the pink teddy bear, and the severed-head-of-a-drug-dealer-aboard an exploding tortoise. At the same time, Badfinger’s jubilant, undaunted song underscores the recognition that Walt himself finally articulates in the closing episode, that he’s an unapologetic genius who sinned mightily going to the limit for his art, which in the end was not merely for money and family but for himself.
So how do we define or relate to or properly appreciate Breaking Bad? In Alan Sepinwall’s Hitfix blog, which is heading toward a thousand comments, most respondents make generally positive value judgments about the finale, debating plot elements, unresolved twists and turns, loose threads, speculating on the fates of supporting characters, fools and knaves, bodyguards and hitmen. The level of analytical involvement made me think of the brave new world of teaching the critic Richard Poirier was proposing around the time he wrote The Performing Self (1970). Poirier’s goal was to open the study of literature to elements of popular culture and compelling subjects like sports, video games, technology, advertising, making the most of everyday interests and enthusiasms undergraduates and graduate students could engage with, therein leading them to the spontaneous practice of a primitive, but potentially productive form of analysis that could then be brought to bear on what they were reading. Right now the last comment on the Hitfix blog, from “Jerseyrudy” ends with a reference to everybody’s favorite analogy for ambiguity, the Mona Lisa: “it is a strength of any work of art that it can be open to different interpretations.” The Mona Lisa was also Frank Capra’s favorite example of Great Popular Art.
But how to classify enterprises as indisputably great as The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad? At the moment I can’t think of a film made in America since, say, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West that even comes close to what David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, and Vince Gilligan have somehow presided over, or as they put it, created. However many times you choose to see a motion picture in the course of your life, it’s not the same as living with characters and situations week to week, as did everyone who started watching Breaking Bad in January 2008.
Because viewers of the controversial closing episode of David Chase’s The Sopranos had been living with Tony Soprano for eight years, they felt they had a stake in his fate, and even now, for all I know, bloggers are still arguing about the unresolved ending — was that sudden cut to black a cop out or a masterstroke? Who can blame people after eight years of watching, eight years that included any number of near-death experiences for Tony? Thus the cumulative pressure on the last few minutes charges a superficially routine situation with extraordinary tension as Tony sits in a Bloomfield Avenue restaurant with his wife and son, waiting for his daughter to join them for dinner. As soon as Tony pushes the button for Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ “ on the table-top jukebox selector, the tension becomes almost unbearable.
The instant the song starts playing it generates excitement similar to what happens when “Baby Blue” comes in at the end of Breaking Bad. Unlike viewers of The Sopranos, people who have been following Walt’s tempestuous career have the benefit of a resolution.
Celebrating Bryan Cranston
Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White is worthy of superlatives beyond the usual, words like “courageous” and “heroic” that reflect our commitment to the character. Cranston puts us on Walt’s side, whether he’s doing evil or permitting evil to be done. Even at the moment when he passes the show’s most clear-cut moral point of no return, standing by as a young girl chokes to death, he’s not doing evil, he’s protecting his money, the fruit of his newfound creation, and his working relationship with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) by letting nature take its deadly course. And it hurts. He suffers the moment like a cut to the quick of his humanity. Heroic actor, anti-heroic character, gifted creator, all are elements composing the chemistry of Breaking Bad.