These days with web streaming, the answer to the question ‘What’s on the box?’ is ‘Er, everything actually’
It’s nearly over. I’m quietly devastated. It was love at first sight — quickly, life turned into a pattern of long, late nights followed by sleep-deprived, groggy days with the background wondering of what would happen next. But I knew from the beginning that it would end eventually; it’s the nature of these things. It’s not like a Coronation Street, rattling on forever. After tomorrow night, that’s it: done. Sixty-one episodes down, one to go. Breaking Bad, the biggest affair I’ve ever had with a TV drama. (Note: slight spoilers to follow.)
To call it a ‘television’ drama is something of an anachronism. It has the scope and production values of a fat- budget movie, the character development, narrative subtleties and wider-issue resonances of a great novel... and I binge-viewed it on my laptop. It was the first thing I got into after I subscribed to Netflix and I watched it last thing at night in bed, instead of reading. As with an unputdownable book, midnight would become 4am before I knew it, the temptation of ‘the next episode will start in 10 seconds’ too much.
I blame my ‘viewing incontinence’ on the fact I grew up in that simpler era of TV-watching habits, where Charlie’s Angels was on once a week and if SBB Ina Shuí was the only thing on the box, that was what you watched if you were to watch anything. Now, with web streaming services and all that internet malarkey, the answer to the question ‘What’s on the box?’ is ‘Er, everything, actually.’ And it’s not even ‘the box’ any more, is it? It’s any of those escalating number of devices with microchips and a screen around the house. They’ll be all over, eventually. Imagine the chat: ‘Mammy, where are you?’ ‘I’m in the kitchen, watching reruns of Poldark on the cooker.’
Actually, I was thinking, ‘Great, I can get rid of the telly’ — and with it the television licence, that anachronistic charge for a ‘public service’ broadcaster that allegedly answers to a higher call of broadcasting standard (anyone see Damo And Ivor? Ha!) yet is also jam-packed with commercials, YET is permanently broke — riddle me that one. But, of course, now the licence fee is about to become the ‘broadcasting charge’, in acknowledgement of the changing ways we access TV. And at double the monthly charge for Netflix (which is ad-free), isn’t it worth it because you can also watch any of ‘our’ public-service broadcastings you missed ‘on the box’ on playback, via the internet. If you can bear the heaps of commercials you’ve to wade through. Back to where I was... By the time I started viewing, virtually the whole five seasons of Breaking Bad were available. What a compelling drama! A mild-mannered 50-year- old doctoral-level high-school chemistry teacher struggles to make ends meet; after school, he bears the indignity of having to double-job at a car wash. Then he gets inoperable lung cancer. At home there’s a pregnant wife and a 16-year-old son with cerebral palsy. How can he provide for them into a suddenly even more insecure future? Next thing he’s ‘cooking’ crystal meth, scaling the echelons of the illegal- drugs infrastructure, and, bada bing — we watch as the man transforms ‘from Mr Chips to Scarface’, in the words of the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan.
What elevates the appeal of the show, for me, above the lofty likes of The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Homeland is the ‘everyman’ dilemma Walter White, the put-upon, terminally ill, underpaid worker, faces. It homes in on the conundrum of keeping a moral compass while existing within a fundamentally amoral system. Timely, given the bank crash and bailouts we’ve been through: fat cats remaining fat, little everyman bearing the brunt. Over in the US, Senator and Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren predicts the country is shifting from a three-class to a two-class society: the rich and the debt-ridden rest.
Heightening Walter White’s situation, it is additionally revealed that two old college chemistry colleagues have become billionaires based on research he co-authored. So the story is, also, that of a man attempting, with time running out, to rewrite the disappointing narrative of his life. You want him to succeed, to a degree, but as he bears more and more blood on his hands, to the point where it’s as if he’s become the embodiment of Beelzebub, our empathy erodes.
On top of that there are the nuanced characters, the gob- smackingly good acting, the twistyturny storylines (with interweaving of Walt Whitman verse!) and the exploration of the inner logic of using violence as a business tool. You don’t need to know that it’s just won the 2013 Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series to realise its significance. You are just, like me, gagging for the final hour, ‘the how it all ends’.
Then it’s over. The intimacy with the lives of all those characters — snuffed out. What to do? Well, Love/ Hate starts on 6th October. Something to look forward to, if you can ignore all the commercials the ‘public service’ will pile on.
The Nualas play the Moat Theatre, Naas, on Friday