Four years later, “Breaking Bad” remains the boldest indictment of modern American capitalism in TV history

The show’s visual style is the greatest-ever rebuke to the gory hold neoliberalism has over our minds and bodies

Published May 29, 2017 2:00PM (EDT)

 (AMC/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(AMC/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

Spoiler alert: This essay reveals major plot points in "Breaking Bad." If you still haven't watched the show, maybe you should go do it right now. 

Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul -- not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
-- Walt Whitman

It’s not plot, it’s the visual style that matters.

Much of the critical attention paid to “Breaking Bad” — to my mind, not only the greatest television show but arguably the most sustained accomplishment in the history of the cinematic medium — remains centered on the shallower dimensions of character and plot. Now that enough time has passed since the end of the series, we should be able to have greater appreciation for the show’s artistic accomplishments, which elevate it beyond any competition for the best of the best.

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"Breaking Bad" is not just the chronicle of an individual’s breakdown, but a global map of modern Western civilization: from its roots in a Lockean/Newtonian liberalism founded in empiricism and hands-on innovation all the way to its contemporary denouement in an abstract capitalism of runaway corporations unresponsive to human ideals. The series unflaggingly maintains the highest cinematographic standards — at the level of a Buñuel, Godard or Antonioni — for not just a couple of hours but for more than 60 hours. In doing so, it translates the abstract chronicle of the rise and fall of empire, and of the various classes of people who are part of it, into visual material that will outlast its moment.

Admittedly, "Breaking Bad" does not exploit alienation effects — the full range of high modernist techniques — to the extent that Vince Gilligan’s crew (particularly director of photography Michael Slovis and production designer Mark Freeborn) were undoubtedly capable of. Though there are occasional glimpses into how much farther the creators could have gone, usually they choose a light hand. This makes the techniques they did use all the more effective, absorbing the default Hollywood narrative style with more conviction.

The primary means by which "Breaking Bad" distinguishes itself is repetition: It is the method that pressures the visual aura to become uncontainable, lending space and time extra-worldly dimensions. Repetition in "Breaking Bad" is not just a stylistic tic, a shortcut to conventional foreshadowing or retrospection, but the marker of a philosophical continuum among all the different lifestyles possible under capitalism.

Each season concerns itself with a dominant mode of capitalism; the motifs, colors, sounds and the whole organization of the visual field emphasize the qualities of that particular mode. There is a season-by-season progression from bourgeois professionalism and petty entrepreneurship to medium-scale enterprise to multinational enterprise and monopoly capitalism, all the way to the final brutal form of empire ending in self-destruction.

Along with progression in the modes of economic organization, there is progression in the psychology of the individuals carried along by the unstoppable waves. It entirely misses the point to analyze Walt (Bryan Cranston) or Jesse (Aaron Paul) or Skyler (Anna Gunn) in terms of good or evil, or conformity to the norms of society that realist art traffics in. The only way to understand these characters is as functionaries within the evolving modes of capitalism. Again, it is repetition — foreshortening or expanding as necessary — that keeps us always in two minds about the unfolding reality. Good and evil have little to do with it.

No other American visual production has been this smart about defamiliarizing ordinary locales in which we conduct our daily business. The White home at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane leads in this defamiliarization by uncanny repetition, but every other location functions similarly: the Schrader home at the end of a cul-de-sac at a higher elevation; the various labs (from Walt’s high-school chemistry lab to the early makeshift one in the RV to Gus Fring’s elaborate setup underneath the industrial laundry to the one in the Nazi compound); the DEA office; the hospitals and clinics, the desert (where various sub-rosa activities take place, from mass killings by foreign intruders to the manufacture of meth and the burial of money to Western-style shootouts and train heists); and even the hardware store, the site not only for home improvement but for procurement of the materials of drug production and corpse disposal.

Every place of activity — from a car to an office to a physician’s consulting room to a fast-food restaurant — appears and reappears in shifting guises, never having the same look, redefined each time by lighting and color and sound, to give us no single privileged site from which to exert our own morality over the narrative. The meaning of each location is caught up in its vanishing moment of existential reality; therefore, the only place of safe observation is the formal aesthetic, that is to say, to put ourselves in the shoes of the creators. Capitalism’s physical realities are offered in so much plenitude that our only choice is to extract ourselves from its seductions and retreat to a formalist posture.

Let me look at a couple of episodes to put some bones on my argument about "Breaking Bad's" devastating critique of neoliberal capitalism functioning through highly stylized cinematographic techniques.

Season 2, Episode 10: “Over” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Phil Abraham)

Sometimes the episode teasers are flash-forwards, consistent through a season, with variations providing partial information. In season 2, it is the falling of the plane over Albuquerque, with parts and bodies landing on the White residence. This particular cold open is in black and white, like the other times the flash-forward occurs this season, in episodes 1, 4 and 13.

White is the dominant color in this episode. We are used to seeing Walt and Jesse dress in yellow hazmat suits with masks on when they cook meth, but here NTSB workers are salvaging evidence from the swimming pool in white hazmat suits. In a later season Skyler will feign drowning herself in the pool, and later in this episode Walt Jr. will throw up in the pool when Walt makes him drink too much. The show is teaching us to see this quintessential suburban space as a locus of dramatic intensification (at the end of season 4, after killing Fring, Walt will sit alone by the pool, contemplating his total victory).

The plastic packages and boxes of evidence will recur in a different form at the beginning of season 5, when Walt engineers a plot to destroy the evidence captured from Gus Fring at Albuquerque police headquarters. The fuchsia hair of the drowned teddy bear is the only color that stands out in the black-and-white tableau, with the one eye popping out ominously. In characteristic fashion, the pink teddy bear appears at different times throughout the series (and also has echoes in the colors of the masks Walt and Jesse wear), as does the missing eye of the teddy bear Walt finds and saves.

Each season of "Breaking Bad" breaks toward an apocalyptic ending (from Tuco and Fring’s deaths to the finale with Uncle Jack’s gang of Nazis), but in the second season, one of attempted domesticity — for Walt and Skyler (after Walt's cancer goes into remission), for Jesse and Jane (as they try to conquer their own addictions) and for Hank and Marie (as she works through her neuroses) — the confrontation is not with some malevolent external force but Walt’s own growing comfort with violence. This particularly means seeing Jane die, which leads in a convoluted manner to the plane exploding above his neighborhood. In a literal visualization of the chaos effect, Walt invites the world to crash over his head when he makes the choice to let Jane die in Jesse’s bed.

As the rescue workers collect the evidence from the pool, at first it looks — because of distortion and superimposition — as if they were walking upside-down underwater. We quickly realize that we’re seeing their reflections in the pool. The exterior of the White home always appears different. Its relationship to neighboring houses and the street is perpetually redefined: The texture and color and lighting reinterpret the house each time, based on the relationships within the White family or Walt’s state of mind. As we zoom out over the driveway, we see that glass has been shattered; it turns out to be the windshield of Walt’s Aztek. Two body bags are duly marked and laid out next to the car. Since we don’t yet know about the airplane crash, we wonder if these might be Walt and Jesse’s bodies — or any other pair of bodies from the show. Whether or not Walt and Jesse end up precisely like this, we sense that they are already marked men.

The teaser has set the opposition against the “live” action to unfold before us, inviting us to step into the philosophical abyss of death. The rescue workers are performing the same authorized rituals on behalf of industrialized death — the dominant characteristic of capitalism — that Walt, in his own hazmat suit, performs at great risk. The White residence is most white (capitalism = whiteness) in the moment when bodies are being salvaged. "Breaking Bad" feels most alive when capitalism is being acted out violently, rather than the veneer of domesticity of the middle seasons, suggesting that it is in capitalist domesticity that we are least energized. Walt is strongest against cancer at his most ruthless. Hence the constant urge, when Walt has a chance to rest, to keep running to the hardware store to fix the water heater or to take care of the “rot” underneath the floors.

Much of today’s great art seems to be in conversation with Daniel Defoe’s individualist/empiricist philosophy in “Robinson Crusoe.” "Breaking Bad" constantly discovers ways to overturn the narrative incongruity of an individual’s development aside from society, something Defoe made literal by setting his novel on a remote island. "Breaking Bad" represents the stage where the human mind has been completely absorbed by capitalism’s logic, and forays into romanticism cannot but be absurd appendages to the overwhelming movement of capitalist destruction.

"Breaking Bad's" frequent fish-eye views — humans witnessed through the bottom of objects used in industrial or domestic processes — abrogate the primacy of the human gaze. Skyler becomes distant toward Walt because of his penchant for secrecy, yet makes silly advances toward Ted Beneke, who represents an earlier phase of American capitalism, the manufacturing base of a hundred years ago.

The first shot after the prologue is a closeup of Walt’s weatherbeaten hand; the possibility of working with one’s hands is often a focus of "Breaking Bad." On Walt’s first day of rest, the bedroom is illuminated by morning sunlight (how different from when the Salamanca twins wait for Walt to emerge from the shower to kill him!), but there is no real option to rest, as we see in the next scene, when Walt meets Jesse at a nondescript restaurant to tell him the good news about his remission.

Walt’s uncertainty is suggested by the wandering camera, the bland blue walls (hazy compared to the assertive blue that will emerge in the final season) and the lack of an identity for the restaurant, or even faux-friendliness, unlike Pollos Hermanos. The only bright color is the red chairs. The camera rotates during the entire scene, taking the men in from multiple directions, never settling for long on one angle. The scene begins and ends with a view of Jesse and Walt occupying the right half of the screen, while the left half is taken up by a plant standing in a dark closet. That there can be no stable point in communication is conveyed by the horizontal lines that always seem to be angling up or down.

The next scene continues this inner quandary. At the party thrown to celebrate the good news about Walt’s health, unlike the party in the pilot episode when Walt was physically embosomed (flabby but wanted) by friends and family, Walt stands very much apart, and reluctantly offers a short, nihilistic speech. This apartness continues at the pool, where he sits away from the crowd, in a corner with Hank and Walt. Jr., and encourages Walt Jr. to drink shot after shot of tequila. We notice more bushes and branches behind where they are sitting than at other times, and what appear to be mythological symbols on the walls.   

Meanwhile, at Jesse’s apartment, his attempted domesticity with Jane is the mirror image of Walt’s own handyman efforts. The red plates and red ketchup stand out against a background of white furnishings. Later, as Jesse seeks emotional certitude with Jane, the floor, cabinets and blinds are bathed in white. When Jane’s dad visits unexpectedly and breaks into their domestic bliss, the shot of the back of the duplex highlights the division — Jesse’s side and Jane’s side — despite the nostalgic bath of Southwestern adobe colors. At the front door the hanging plants frame the visitor in deceptive calm. When Jesse leaves, disappointed by Jane's refusal to acknowledge their relationship, his red car stands out as he hurries past the red stop sign. When he returns home, anxious, his apartment is dominated by red and rust chairs and furnishings. Jane makes her apology by drawing “Apology Girl," in black and white, of course.

The show persistently brings up nostalgia for the era when masculinity had its place in the culture, only to nullify it. Beneke's attempt to keep the family manufacturing business alive evokes this, though unlike Walt and his urge to provide for his family (an ideal the show deconstructs when, for example, Fring coaxes Walt out of retirement by arguing, in the later “Green Light” episode, “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family”), Beneke can only resort to accounting tricks.

As with every location — Walt and Jesse’s homes, the DEA office, Saul Goodman’s office, Los Pollos Hermanos, the industrial laundry, the car wash — each variant shot of the Beneke headquarters suggests new interpretations. We see it in the surrounding industrial milieu, not particularly bleak but removed from the life of the city, despite the up-to-date office interior; this mode of capitalism is obsolete. The lunchroom calls up similar nostalgia, as Skyler and Ted pursue an old-fashioned office flirtation. The episodes involving domesticity and nostalgia tend to have little extra-diegetic sound. The quietness of industrial-age America contrasts with the loudness at the end of the episode when Walt warns a pair of low-life competitors (downscale versions of himself and Jesse?) to “stay out of my territory” — to the aggressive tune of DLZ’s “TV on the Road.”

Walt putters around in the heater room (a “lab” for the handyman?) with rusty liquid on the floor foreshadowing Victor’s blood in the superlab when Fring kills him, or the floor of the same lab when Walt kills Fring’s employees after doing away with him. On Walt’s first visit to the building supply store, rows of white heaters (the same shape as barrels, of course) are on display. The camera expertly brings objects to our attention rather than the people around them. The distancing toward the hardware store is at one with the interrogation of nostalgia toward golden-age suburbia, which sways even Jesse for a while. The re-envisioning of ordinary American venues seems to me "Breaking Bad's" greatest stylistic accomplishment, which the show does without venturing into extreme experimentation. For example, the shot of the White residence framed by the discarded heater at the curb in front subtly devalues suburban quietude.

On his next visit to the building supply store, when Walt leaves we see his car framed in a wide shot, the texture of the scene corresponding to the wide view of the Beneke headquarters earlier, and also the texture when Jesse leaves the duplex. Walt converts his basement into a lab of sorts, once he discovers “rot” while fixing the heater; fixing one mechanical problem only leads to discovering another, in an endless chain. When we see Walt Jr. staring at the hole underground while Walt lies prone on his back, it foreshadows the later “Crawl Space” episode, which is the last chance Walt will have to make a clean getaway — except he can’t because Skyler has blown the $600,000 to bail out Ted from the IRS. It also foreshadows the final shot of the concluding episode when we are shown Walt’s prone body from high above, after he has (lovingly) caressed the Nazis’ lab equipment.

Walt Jr.’s look at his father resembles the way we view someone we have just buried, though there is no room in capitalism to allow for such prolonged glances of curiosity. Capitalism promises to eradicate all the cancers, keeping people busy doing that and nothing else. Hence, Walt tells his son, “[I have to] just cut it [fruiting bodies, fungus] out and start fresh,” which makes Walt Jr. wonder, “Is the whole house going to collapse?”

The buzz of Walt’s saw transitions seamlessly into that of the vacuum cleaner at Beneke’s, where a different kind of rot (Ted’s IRS shenanigans) is what Skyler will try to cut out to give the company a fresh start. When Skyler lets Ted clasp his hand over hers, it is over white account ledgers (which can’t be balanced in the old economy), even as Ted counsels her about her marital situation, saying, “Being that rock takes everything you’ve got.” Here, as so often, the dialogue is an ironic counterpoint to the visual field, a continuous verbal montage interrogating our ways of understanding reality.

The connections with the cold open now become more explicit. Walt is dressed in the same white hazmat suit as the rescue workers once he gets serious about taking out the rot. The mise-en-scène of the breakfast table is visualized umpteen different ways, this time with prominent white mugs and salt shakers, as Walt tells Skyler he can’t go to work because “Skyler, there’s rot!” Walt is in remission, after having almost lost his life, yet Skyler can’t wait for him to get to work: Breakfast is a ritual denial before we start each day.

We overhear news about the housing market collapse, then cut to the Beneke building’s external surroundings, presented more bleakly now. Earlier, when we saw Skyler with Ted shortly after Walt’s restaurant rendezvous with Jesse, the railing leading to Skyler’s office seemed unstable, the lines echoing those of the restaurant. Now, as Skyler is more certain, the horizontal lines of the railing appear steady and a single stem with white flowers again dominates Skyler’s office. Walt, on the other side of town, is busy underground, accompanied by red rags (and plenty of rusted horizontal pipes).

Walt’s next visit to the hardware store is dominated by bunches of white containers of “KILZ,” which is labeled “white pigmented, odorless.” The textual signifiers throughout the series seethe in the visible trappings of a culture (perhaps the only one in the world) that gives everything away at every moment. The public address system queries: “Why can’t the grass always be greener on your side?” The shopping carts are red, the sale signs are in red, and there are red containers and red caps over bottles of chemicals. When Walt encounters the ruffian trying to get meth supplies, at first he is solicitous. He might have continued helping him out, but his cowardliness incites Walt’s manliness. Framed by the red, white and blue flag over the checkout counter, he decides on his course of action. At night the hardware store’s parking lot has turned ominous, as Walt issues his aforementioned warning to his competitors. No house can exist without an extended “territory” going along with it; the myth of privacy is foundationless, and there is no choice but to exert power (of some kind) within a given territory.

Season 5, Episode 8: “Gliding Over All” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Michelle MacLaren)

In the teaser, the fly — which we remember from the earlier eponymous episode, where Walt was driven to a frenzy in the superlab from fear of contamination — now appears because of the proximity of Mike’s corpse in the car trunk. Bodies are substitutable and keep finding themselves in similar predicaments: In season 2, Walt and Jesse were locked in the trunk of Tuco Salamanca’s car, on their way to Mexico. Now Walt has just killed Mike Ehrmantraut, and awaits Todd’s return after the disposal of Mike’s car in the usual manner: Cars are flattened into pancakes, computers are rendered useless with magnet attacks and bodies are always being dissolved in barrels of acid. As Todd views Walt from behind, a large white safe is illuminated. The Vamonos Pest Control office recalls others (such as Chow’s, or Fring’s in the back of Pollos Hermanos) where capitalism’s dirty work bubbles up: No safe can store the Faustian knowledge Walter White possesses.

We are not given much time to focus on the fly, or the disposal of Mike’s body, because season 5 is the culmination of the speed, mercuriality and inhumanity of multinational globalization, the visual style capturing it all. There is a fleeting glimpse of the chart Walt had been studying when Todd arrives; it is one describing various species of flies. A fly is not just a fly, it belongs to a classification system, which is the job of science to elaborate. The full meaning of the fly episode, this recurrence suggests, is not meant to be understood. The fly is not necessarily a symbol for anything; our very existence in capitalism, our very pursuit of “scientific” knowledge, is the problem. "Breaking Bad" wants to take us beyond death to existence as the unsolvable worry. Mike’s corpse is disposed in a white plastic barrel, as we’re reminded that not long ago he was the enforcer; thus, all the enforcers in capitalism with inflated ideas about their own importance are going to be dissolved, including at last the very system of enforcement.

The first episode of season 5 establishes the textural overtones from which it never varies. Locations like Madrigal’s headquarters in Germany, or the café Lydia likes to frequent to make her deals, are the epitome of post-postmodern insensateness, dominated by a cool blue and background noise associated with gentrification. With season 5 we enter the notion that there is no normal in neoliberalism, so Todd (the old-style Nazi) fits in well with the modus operandi of abstract multinational corporations.

Walt’s house will soon be the scene of attempted destruction (like the Schrader home), and when the overhead shot offers a view of his bald head and body as he takes a shower, we are invited to think of the "showers" at Nazi concentration camps. We notice that Walt has left Gale Boetticher’s inscribed copy of "Leaves of Grass" in the bathroom, but it would be a mistake to think of Walt’s hubris causing Hank to discover his identity by way of Whitman; the visual style should have persuaded us by now that no possibility of assigning guilt or credit exists.

When Walt meets Lydia at the café for the first time, the contrast with Pollos Hermanos’ bright ambience (the Southwestern fast-food décor amid which the old-fashioned meth empire flourishes) couldn’t be starker. These are the venues where neoliberal destruction, on a planetary scale defying imagination, is silently plotted. The café is dominated by vertical lines and columns, and its particular shade of blue is a continuation from the season-opening “Madrigal” episode. Lydia’s enticement of Walt has more meaning in the pacified setting. After Lydia brags about moving millions of metric tons, the view expands and we see the complete figures of the patrons, after having glimpsed mostly partial images of them: Our entire bodies are dedicated to the abstract movement of finance, that’s the whole picture.

The café architecture has emptied modernism of its electric charge; it is the sort of open structure that goes back to Milan’s Galleria but has no humanist quality. The vertical lines appear more prominent as Walt makes up his mind. When he’s thinking of delivering the ricin to Lydia, we hear soft piano music, but it grows louder as Lydia writes down the names of the nine doomed men in prison, and the two shake hands over their deal. In one of this episode’s numerous allusions to earlier events (to make the point that neoliberalism is the summation of all the forms of capitalism that have gone before), Lydia echoes Tuco’s exact words when she says, “We’re going to make a lot of money together,” just as Walt echoes Mike’s words when he says, “Learn to take yes for an answer.” The scene ends with an ever-widening shot, and we get the largest view yet of the entire restaurant, including the counter at the other end.

Walt meets the Nazis to plot the prison murders in chilly darkness in a motel room. He concentrates on the mass-produced painting on the wall (as with the music at Lydia’s café, both respectable and sordid locations share the deadness of “art”). "Breaking Bad" insists that the emotional highs in our civilization occur when we engage in various competitive, violent or selfish games; it is not art but violence (think of the excitement of the train heist) that turns us childlike, even if it means murdering actual children. Walt, like everyone else on the show, is most robust, for example, in the climactic episodes of each season, when capitalism’s murderous game is most intense.

This emotional intensity comes across in Walt’s concentration on the picture, while the Nazis sprawled next to him are reflected in the mirror next to the picture. So we have a sideways view of Walt, and the picture he’s staring at, next to the reflection of the Nazis. The underwhelming color is camouflage green, as Walt wonders aloud how the pictures get distributed. The camera’s gaze bestows bleak heroism upon the murderer who notes things that are not so much distractions as iterations of the industrialized processes that reduce us to ciphers.

There is a time-lapse shot of the Motel Hacienda, followed by the calm of the Albuquerque prison’s barbed wire. As Walt expects news of the murders within the designated two-minute window, his house is shown in the richest brown hues we’ve seen so far. The objects are sharply defined in deep focus, and we notice (Oriental) screens; we’ve never seen his home look so classy, so old-world, with richly textured bookcases. Walt’s expensive watch — with the same blue face as Lydia’s blouses, and with red hands and white hours — ticks away during the prison murders montage. The montage, like the meth cooking or distribution montages, is accompanied by Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up,” suggesting the light energy when we, in our own ways, commit everyday murderous deeds. Afterwards, like Walt’s home, Hank’s home has also never looked so classic and sturdy — with rich wood and marble, sturdy bookshelves and cabinets; this only heightens the total loss of purpose Hank is feeling at the moment.

Later in the episode, when Walt visits Jesse to finally give him his share of the profits, we see Jesse’s house as bereft of the solidity of Walt and Hank’s house (though his spirit is stronger). The focus in Jesse’s living room is the futon. Jesse has never wavered from his small-business mentality (in the end he even has to undergo a period of slavery); he doesn’t have others’ ambitions. (Walt: “I’m in the empire business.”) In Jesse’s house, devoid of furnishings, the two are able to let loose and reminisce about their improvisatory history with the unreliable 1980s Fleetwood Bounder RV that served as their mobile lab early on. We are invited to consider that Walt’s exit from the drug trade might have provoked a downward health spiral, rather than the other way around; the question is never explicitly answered, because one of the metaphysical dilemmas of capitalism is that we never know such answers.

Walt depositing the bag of money at Jesse’s home is to metaphorically recall him to death. We watch the Walt-Jesse interaction in Jesse’s living room from high above (the death POV, if you will), whereas when Walt interacts with Lydia, for example, we see them at eye level, in conventional medium shots. Walt and Jesse’s relationship, with the father figure attempting to raise his student’s ambitions, is different. As always on "Breaking Bad," there is continuity between all the realms of life, without any of the artificial separations protecting the lie that capitalism is not ruining us at every moment.

When Walt lifts his head after bending down to take a drink in Hank’s living room, the jump cut reveals him merrily being the meth producer again. The montage that follows, with the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion” at last making its appearance, is a highly sped-up integration of production, distribution and finance in global business, every act occurring almost simultaneously. The montages in "Breaking Bad" are excellent instances of making the passage of time a conundrum, fatally altering space and vice versa; this is the quality of film that distinguishes it from other art forms.

In this particular montage, the desert is at a remote distance, miniaturized as though its threats were suddenly manageable — or so global capitalism would like us to think. While Saul has a leisurely drink, we realize that at last everything in this global network Walt has plugged into is efficient. Walt on his own is shown from above, while the money being stacked by him and Todd is usually seen from a low angle. Skyler’s blue blouse and red cup, along with a view of her legs, transition to a view of Lydia, also wearing a blue blouse (the same cornflower blue top in which she will take the ricin in the final episode) and drinking from a red cup. The cut from Skyler to Lydia in the montage makes us ask: Who is Walt’s crucial relationship with, Skyler or Lydia? The car-wash office has been transformed into a moneymaking operation that exceeds its actual potential, the aspiration of every business. An aerial view of suburban sprawl shows us house after house on each block draped with the Vamonos tent, cover for meth-making; this shot continues until we reach the very edge of the desert.

Exiting the montage, Holly is shown taking her first steps on Hank’s lush blue rug, suggesting that she will grow up implicated in the same web. When Louis calls Walt Jr., we’re back to nostalgia for the heyday of the American middle class, with leisure opportunities for each family member. Marie and Skyler engage in the same layers of family deception, offered as confession, that Hank and Walt engaged in earlier in the same setting; again, it’s repetition that keeps collapsing the artificial boundaries of respectability. Marie, as is her wont, engages in therapy talk, telling Skyler that she worries they’re “enabling” her, and that it’s time to “repair the family.”

My worry with "Breaking Bad" was always whether it would succumb to the valorization of the family — a staple of reactionary American filmmaking for at least 50 years — but this never happens, because family is fatally caught up in the financial dynamics that ruin every sphere of life. To the extent that "Breaking Bad" is a relentless attack on capitalism, it mounts the same kind of attack on the psychological structures that support the modern nuclear family, the base of capitalism.

To show Walt that their family has been preserved for good, Skyler takes him to the storage unit with all their money. The bright blue hues in the storage facility are more metallic, more disturbing, but it’s the same blue of Madrigal and of gentrified postmodern capitalism. Walt’s $80 million is covered with bed sheets; the money is literalized as the bed one lies in, a form of eroticism, when Skyler asks, “How much is enough?” The next scene after the preposterous stack of money (on which Huell and Kuby will soon lie, as though on a bed) is Walt lying on the MRI bed. Again, Walt is seen from above, an intimation of God or death seeing us, and true also of the folklore of so-called near-death experiences. Here is modern medicine (a subset of capitalism) observing Walt’s prone body, as in the crawl space when his sole offspring watches him.

The escalating physical crisis for Walt is reinforced by a typical time-lapse montage of Albuquerque, as we go to the final scene, where Hank at last discovers Walt’s true identity. The yard is dominated by earth tones, as Holly is being pushed around in a blue and red cart by Walt Jr. This is Walt and Skyler’s last attempt to return to earth; in this scene there are more rocks strewn around the yard than we’ve ever noticed before. The pool — which looked enormous when Skyler was feigning to drown in it or when Hank and Walt fought over Walt Jr. — looks tiny now, the smallest it has appeared; the corresponding psychological attempt is to get past the issues that remain submerged, to miniaturize them.

Likewise, the family chatter over the everyday uses of science is of a different quality (the sound is very muted) than in the past. As Hank enters the master bathroom, where he will make his devastating discovery, it appears larger, calmer and more spacious than ever before, in all its lavender glory. This is another deception against what is about to happen, yet another way to creatively imagine the same locale.     

“Breaking Bad” will stand the test of time in the way of the greatest art

The short Walt Whitman poem which serves as my epigraph, and is the source of the title of the episode above, might as well be "Breaking Bad's" aesthetic philosophy compressed to a nugget: The cinematic style “glides over all” (looks from a massively detached point of view at the whole of the neoliberal economy), making us see nature, space and time, and the dimensions of death we all have to face, in a new way.

"Breaking Bad" was a historic show because it took the biggest strides toward the "cinematization" of American television. When critics focus on character development in a realistic vein, they miss nearly everything that is unique about the show. Character in "Breaking Bad" is interesting to the extent that it is developed through visual style, for example, in the way teasers compress time in an open-ended commentary on a season’s (as yet unknowable) thematics. The show makes a mockery of the neoliberal myth of changing one’s reality by changing one’s body; that’s one meaning of Walt assuming the Heisenberg persona and altering his physical appearance accordingly. In the Walter/Heisenberg dichotomy we have a parody of social media reinvention, as is true also of Marie’s assumed identities. We seek to redefine time and space by denying mortality, fantasies capitalism feeds in order to keep its real ventures going without opposition.

What takes place off-screen in "Breaking Bad" is so vast that it defeats a critic trying to fit the show within any given genre. It is not merely a rehash of various genres, but it reaches for a meta-narrative that absorbs each of the genres it encounters: That’s what "Breaking Bad's" visual technique is always trying to accomplish, from the desert scenes (rewriting the classic Western and the spaghetti Western) to reimagining the inherent melodrama of the suburban setting. It is the malleable character of people that gives places reality: Thus we see the White residence 16 years earlier, when they are considering buying it, empty of character and unrecognizable; the same unrecognizability pervades in the scenes at the end when the house has been taken away.

"Breaking Bad" imagines how it is to inhabit a place when the economy seeks to define you in particular ways: Does your self-definition follow from that, or is there something internal that cannot be absorbed in the economy? That’s the source of Walt’s endless anger, the artificial separation between legitimate and illegitimate occupations, legal and illegal ways of making money and acquiring power. Gray Matter Technologies and similar outfits can peddle legal pharmaceuticals to the tune of billions of dollars, whereas there are strict rations to health care, even for Hank when he is injured, beyond which the neoliberal economy won’t go.

Corresponding to forms of permissible and impermissible power are public spaces versus hidden spaces, a constant preoccupation for the show: The heater closet and the crawl space evoke subterranean nightmares we must heed. When liberal democracy was getting started, novels imagined science as a savior; now science is amoral, fatally implicated in empire and domination, a facilitator of new waves of fascism. In this economy of amorality, a would-be small entrepreneur such as Jesse (like his friends Badger or Skinny Pete) has little chance; Jesse is kicked out of his home by his own mother, and at a low point in his life seeks shelter for the night in his and Walt’s RV. Which raises the question whether Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz of Gray Matter Technologies have freedom under neoliberalism or are just as disposable as the insecure small businessman. Are they too fatally reliant on constant PR -- just as is the DEA, just as is Walt’s high school, just as are Beneke and Goodman?

"Breaking Bad" is not a popular culture reflection on crime and punishment. Neoliberal crime is sophisticated, but the show’s tension consists in visualizing remnants of pre-neoliberal production, distribution and finance — storage rooms full of cash, car washes for money laundering! — uneasily meshing with neoliberalism’s abstract sphere. The visual style never veers from keeping this tension in sight, and the variations within repetition make us realize the gaps, which are really hypocrisies, in the narrative we tell ourselves about the economy in which we all think we have a rightful place. Had Walt (and Saul and Skyler and Mike) not had to deal with piles of cash, the crime would have remained forever undetected.

Detection itself is a paranoid impulse, when crimes of far greater magnitude (involving trillions of dollars and implicating the health of all living species) are not even recognized, let alone punished. "Breaking Bad" deconstructs criminality, and therefore also liberal bourgeois virtue, because if the definition of crime is overturned then so is the meaning of the virtues that support legal ventures. We are all (neoliberal) entrepreneurs now, even Skyler with her car wash, with all that this implies. The solution to any crisis, under neoliberalism, is to become an entrepreneur and sell yourself. The DEA is parasitic, facilitating the credible monopoly of legalized addictions, while prosecuting those operating outside the arbitrary monopolies.  

One of the questions neoliberalism presses on us most urgently is that of masculinity in an economy that has no use for any of the definitions of masculinity that went with the rise of liberalism and industrialization. "Breaking Bad's" stylistic innovations let us think critically about the crisis of masculinity (which also means the crisis of feminism), one of whose final manifestations (as we’ve seen repeatedly in the past century and as is unfolding again) is Nazism. Neoliberalism disposes human bodies as callously as Walt does in barrels of hydrofluoric acid. Science always bails out Walt -- even Jesse, his once-inept pupil, begins to have total faith in Mr. White’s ability to get them out of any scrape through some scientific improvisation -- including in the final episode. "Breaking Bad" suggests that the scope for this kind of individualist science has been extinguished, professionalized big science having removed scientific capability from the grasp of anybody not seeking to make monopolistic profits. Scientific rationality (formerly an aspect of masculinity), in the way that we collectively endorse it now, is the only inescapable trap, which has merged into neoliberal domination today.

In this context, it is naive to study Walt’s morality from a bourgeois realist point of view (like Hank talking about “chasing monsters”), when neoliberalism compels a fetishization of the family that removes it from liberal democratic concerns. The protection of the family at all costs (from neoliberal ravages) is the clue neoliberalism has already given us, and has always kept in plain view, as the means to our own self-destruction. It is playing with these evident clues, in plain sight, that constitutes "Breaking Bad’s" stylistic innovation: The savagery we think we see so often, as in the prison-murders montage, is the rule neoliberalism wants us to epitomize as the definition of crime.

All of "Breaking Bad's" visual inventions have one aim: To show that there is no single turning point in neoliberalization, that it is a continuous and endless process. So for critics to wonder about this or that juncture, such as the hardware parking lot scene, as the inflection point where Walter "breaks bad," is futile. We are not proper Heisenbergians (able to think post-philosophically, post-morally, post-democratically) because our minds are not wired that way. "Breaking Bad’s" visual style superimposes our primitive brain (which seeks comfort in small affections) over the abstractions of contemporary economic life, creating constant moral openings where we can see the duality of things and therefore interpret our conundrum. All of us have doubles, or we wouldn’t be neoliberal subjects; all the characters in "Breaking Bad" — Gus as the DEA supporter and meth kingpin of the Southwest, as much as Jesse’s little brother or Wendy the drug addict — visually represent this merger. Time and space must collapse to uphold our mythology of unity, and "Breaking Bad" does this over and over again so that we may justify our (realist) ethics to ourselves.

By Anis Shivani