After five seasons, the most interesting “Western” on television, “Breaking Bad,” came to the end of its run this week. Like “Longmire,” the West of “Breaking Bad” is the contemporary West (New Mexico), and like “Longmire,” “Breaking Bad,” with its story of outlaws and lawmen, has always been aware of its roots in the genre western.
It’s been an almost a week since the final episode aired, but I will nonetheless announce “spoiler alert” for anyway who hasn’t seen the episode. Stop here if you want to avoid surprises.
Although, really, there weren’t that many surprises, at least in terms of who did or didn’t die. We’ve known since the first episode of the series that Walter White had 2 years to live (as he was diagnosed with terminal cancer), and, if he dies from a gunshot wound rather than cancer (and he does), the only question really has been how rather than whether he will die. At least, I haven’t been able to imagine a reasonable scenario that would have been true to the aesthetics of the show that would have allowed Walt to go on living.
And when the episode begins with Walt discovering a cassette tape of Marty Robbins’ “Greatest Hits” in a car he’s breaking into, you pretty much know where the episode is going. There’s no doubt that we’re going to hear Robbins’ cowboy ballad of doomed romantic love, “El Paso,” and we don’t have to wait long to hear it (it starts playing when Walt fires up the car). From the moment we see the cassette case, we know that the episode is heading into Western territory, and when they lyrics come on of saddling up and going on the run, that is further reinforced. And, for anyone who knows how the song ends, the use of it at the beginning of the episode is pretty clear foreshadowing of what is to come.
Ever since Jesse Pinkman was taken captive and forced to help out with the meth cooking in the previous episode, I have been thinking that what we were heading for was “The Searchers,” a story of capture and rescue, and with the main character (as does John Wayne’s Ethan Hunt in “The Searchers”) having an ambivalent attitude toward the captive. Will he kill her/him or save him/her when finally found?
It was great to hear series creator Vince Gilligan comment on the influence of “The Searchers” (“we only steal from the best”) during an interview on “The Colbert Report” (please watch the interview, and stay tuned after the interview for the hilarious coda). What is interesting to me about “Breaking Bad” is that way it takes such influences and really reimagines them–not only in terms of plot parallels but also stylistically. The final scene of “The Searchers” (see image above) in which Wayne, framed by the doorway, watches the reunion of mother and child, but does not enter, and then slowly walks away from the house in the final shot of the film, no longer a figure in between civilization and savagery but one who is firmly on the outside, is a classic, and it’s a framing that has been repeated in Western film after Western film.
What “Breaking Bad” does is take the idea of the hero on the border between the civilian and the outlaw (Walt, certainly) and develop it over the series, as it takes Walt further and further “outside” and away from the interior space (his house, his family) that symbolizes his connection to civilization. The house, abandoned and trashed by partying teenagers, in the final episode is no longer the place it once was, and with the loss of the house, we see there’s no hope for Walt to return to the life he once lived.
That final scene of “The Searchers” comes back to us in an interesting way. After making arrangements for his son, Walt, Jr., to get the remaining money from his meth days, Walt goes to where Skyler is currently living to explain how that will take place. It’s his final views of Walt, Jr., that play on “The Searchers.” Walt, because he has to hide, is continually looking at his son from the outside, often through windows. In a reversal of “The Searchers,” it’s Walt, Jr., that gets the classic John Ford frame–initially, as he steps off the school bus, and the doors open up to frame his departure. In the next shot, it’s Walt, Jr., in the door frame of the house, except he’s going inside rather than outside. In contrast to “The Searchers,” in which we observe Wayne from the inside of the house, the camera here takes the outsider’s perspective, as we watch from the Wayne/Walt position as the child returns to civilization, and the outsider can only watch his wish realized from that outside perspective. When Walt is placed in a position similar to Wayne, it’s done very abstractly, as we see the last image of Walt in this scene through the distorted perspective of a pane of glass, the same basic idea as in “The Searchers,” but done so in a way that references the earlier film without obviously or directly copying Ford’s stark framing technique.
And that is much of the way that “Breaking Bad” has approached the Western throughout the series. The allusions and references are there, but often in more abstract form, not always direct or obvious, but still an important component of the storytelling and the visual (and auditory) style of the series.