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TV IS THE NEW CINEMA: 'Breaking Bad' Goes Out with Neat Freak White at the Helm; Do the Suits Smell Blood?

Thompson on Hollywood By David Chute | Thompson on Hollywood September 30, 2013 at 3:35PM

It is now work like "Breaking Bad," rather than the white elephant CGI films that play in theaters, that furnishes our touchstones and defining metaphors. And if this really is the '60s and '70s, we have to thinking about how it might end. If the Third Golden Age of Television began because the suits didn't see any obvious way to "monetize" (lovely word) the wacky things the creators were doing, can the end be far behind now that they've tasted blood?
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'Breaking Bad'
'Breaking Bad'

One key to the greatness of the "Breaking Bad" finale was that it was written by Walter White himself. He personally engineered all of its highly satisfying resolutions. Satisfying in the first instance for him but also to us, not least because they were founded on what seemed to be real repentance in his statement to Skyler, and not a moment too soon. So no complaints, please, that the string of thematic wraps ups was "too neat," since the neatnik is clearly Walt.

In a couple of places, notably the post-finale episode of "Talking Bad," and in a comment last night to my post to this effect on Facebook by "New York" magazine film critic David Edelstein, it has been pointed out that this string of coups was classic Heisenberg in hinging in part on Walter's established flair for improvisation.

Vince Gilligan testified during the TB discussion that he had "The Searchers" in mind, specifically Ethan's decision at the end of his long quest to let Debbie live. Walt fully intends to kill Jesse until he sees the state he's in and realizes that he has not, after all, been cooking again voluntarily. The expression of joy on Jesse's face as he drives away from the scene of carnage is the partial victory that definitively answers all accusations that the drift "Breaking Bad" has been in any sense nihilistic.

That a discussion of an American television series should so effortlessly fold in a classic American movie is an indication of how far we have come. The premise of this series of columns, and its title, is that TV in the Third Golden Age (hereafter GA3) has become central to American pop culture the way movies were in the 1960s and '70s. Back then we talked endlessly about the new Arthur Penn movie, reading its images like so many tea leaves. Now we spend weeks online and twittering in social media, parsing a single episode or even a single speech in a single episode of a widely embraced TV series. (Twitter is the new water cooler.) 

Read "The New Yorker's" Emily Nussbaum on Walt's phone call to Skyler, with the police listening in, during the watershed episode "Ozymandias." You could spend a full day tracking down all the online permutations of that discussion.

That episode and that scene had people talking about the show as a whole and its central question: What kind of a guy is Walt ultimately? And what kind of people are we, because it makes a big difference whether we think Walt had retained a shred of human feeling or was totally amoral, and whether or not when we rooted for him somehow to survive we ourselves became "bad." Honestly profound issues. The point being that it is now work like this, rather than the white elephant CGI films that play in theaters, that furnishes our touchstones and defining metaphors.

And if this really is the '60s and '70s, we have to thinking about how it might end. 

This article is related to: TV Reviews, TV, TV Features, Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston, Television


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.