Review: The Methods of Breaking Bad

The Methods of Breaking Bad
edited by
Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood

Title: The Methods of Breaking Bad
Author: edited by Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 9780786495788
Publisher: McFarland Books
Publisher’s Blurb:  Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is a central work in the recent renaissance in television-making.  … This collection of new essays focuses on a variety of themes.
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

As a writer, I found Breaking Bad a ripping good story.  Which, in my vernacular means asking, “What happens next?”  And that was my reaction to Breaking Bad a lot.  Digging into the themes and subtext has helped deepen my understanding of writing as a craft, and of Vince Gilligan’s brilliance as a story-teller.  Not to mention Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of the fascinatingly unlikable Walter White.

Breaking Bad is a work that facilitates, perhaps even makes possible, a dialogue about aesthetic, philosophical, psychological, and ethical elements in our culture in a way we have yet to see in television.  (p. 7)

The essays written by academics in The Methods of Breaking Bad focus on the ways in which the story is told.  I found it invigorating, inspiring and, more than a little intimidating.  At best, I am casual viewer, reviewer and writer.  One can only go so far on one’s own.

Miguel E. H. Santos-Neves’ essay, “Our ‘word … is half someone else’s’:  Walt and the Literary Echoes of Whitman” focuses on the purpose of Walt Whitman’s “Learn’d Astronomer” in Breaking Bad.  In larger context, Santos-Neves makes the point that unlike the insular community of a story like The Sopranos, the literary allusions in Walter White’s world point to something less constrained,  the entire world.  Bonus points for making me finally read Whitman.

Not many of the characters in Breaking Bad were likeable.  Most were downright loathsome, yet viewers returned episode after episode, hanging on every twist and turn.  Aside from Jesse Pinkman (Walter’s sidekick), and Mike (played so well by the always excellent Jonathan Banks) who had his own sense of honor, there was no one I liked.

Giving Skyler White short shrift was quite in vogue at the time.   After reading Rebecca Price Wood’s “Breaking Bad Stereotypes about Postpartum:  A Case for Skyler White,” I reconsidered.  Price Wood’s thesis that Skyler’s behavior was exacerbated by being pregnant for most of the series, and giving birth to beautiful Holly resonated.  Surviving in Walt’s world would be harrowing for any woman.  Trying to maintain sanity while pregnant and being mother to Flynn, who has cerebral palsy, would be damned near impossible.  And that’s where Skyler finds herself.  I still don’t like Skyler, but I do have more sympathy for her based on Price Wood’s essay.

The most fascinating essay for me was Neil Connelly’s “What Writers Can Learn From Breaking Bad:  The Risks and Rewards of Deliberate Disorientation.”  His comparison of Gilligan’s story telling style to that used by Toni Morrison in Beloved is what drove me to read it finally.

Above all else perhaps, the reader must trust the writer, must feel like an intentional master plan is being unveiled, must sense that her efforts are being rewarded with additional knowledge and understanding.  (p. 49)

That was one of my aha! moments.  As was the ensuing discussion of how disorientation is used to great effect.  Gilligan’s skill forces us to trust he’s leading somewhere, and that we will understand when we get there.  From the iconic opening scene of the RV roaring down the dirt road and a pair of khakis flying out the window to Walter’s death at his own hands, the viewer wonders “What is going on?” Followed at some later point by, “Oh!  That’s what was going on!”

Reading Connelly’s essay helped me understand that disorientation was one of the most appealing things about Breaking Bad‘s story.  Gilligan made me pay attention, and since the payoffs came frequently enough to help me understand the story at a deeper level, I came to trust the story was leading me somewhere interesting.

Overall, The Methods of Breaking Bad, led me to enjoy the show on a deeper level.  As a creative person, the collection of essays gave me much to ponder about craft and style.  Not a bad use of time, if you ask me.

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