How Breaking Bad is Using Anticipation Against Us

At the end of “Buried,” the second episode of the final eight hours of Breaking Bad, Hank, our terrifying co-hero, illegally enters an interrogation room holding Jesse Pinkman, a man Hank almost beat to death just a few months ago.

Hank knows that Walt is Heisenberg. Hank knows that Jesse is Walt’s partner. In this moment, the two worlds of the show are about to collide in a huge way.

The episode ends.

In “Confessions,” the episode directly following “Buried,” Hank gets nothing out of Jesse. He is quickly forced to leave the interrogation room by Saul. Nothing came of the event. But we waited a week for an answer to what would happen on the other side of that door.

Vince Gilligan has turned Breaking Bad into the television event of the year through his sheer mastery of anticipation. He knows that we enjoy wanting to know more than actually knowing, and that’s a distinction only a confident writer can really make.

Many critics found Gilligan’s season two teases of a vague, cataclysmic event tedious, given that the big payoff was the death of unseen plane passengers, and not Walt’s family as we were meant to believe.

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Each episode in which a black-and-white teaser started the show created a sentence through their titles, “747 Down Over ABQ”

Was the plane crash inconsequential? No, but the anticipation Gilligan created for the crash was definitely unbalanced when compared to the story implications of the event. Sort of.

You see, the plane went down because Walt let Jane die. It’s a direct correlation. Maybe it wasn’t Skyler and Walter, Jr. in those body bags, but it might as well have been. For many, Walt’s decision to let Jane choke to death on her own vomit is the ultimate turning point for his character. There’s no turning back, now.

It’s not Crazy Eight, a would-be killer drug-dealer who would bring destruction to Walt’s life. It was Jane, the woman who almost pulled Jesse from the fire. The plane crash is symbolic, yes, and the impact is indeed far-reaching and destructive, but Gilligan wasn’t teasing the plane crash when he filmed those black-and-white scenes.

He was doing two other things.

The first thing those teasers accomplished was build anticipation, the second thing they did was misdirect us.

Breaking Bad is all about misdirection. Nearly every anticipatory tease from the show has turned out to be a misdirection, from the ricin, which I think may never get used at this point, to the assassin twins who ended up being anticlimactically killed off before doing anything all that impressive.

Yes, they handicapped Hank, but with eight episodes of anticipation, you think they would have actually killed Hank. Or at least survived the ordeal.

Gilligan is able to misdirect our attention so often because he understands the very nature of anticipation. He’s using our own experiences with narrative against us.

In the majority of the crime fiction we’ve seen, the beginning of an episode featuring ricin will end with the ricin being used. A gun on the mantle will eventually be fired. So when Gilligan places a gun on the mantle, he’s really sticking a bomb in our pocket. In our stress over the unfired gun, we’ve been tricked.

In “Dead Freight,” an episode that Todd (Jesse Plemons) so gracefully summarized in the beginning of this week’s episode, the teaser opening the hour focuses on a little boy riding a dirt bike around the episode. In our excitement over the perfect train robbery, we forget the boy.

Gilligan’s delivery of a well-paced, perfectly edited train robbery leads us to believe that that’s the most important part of the episode. Not the final moments, which give us the death of that boy, who we’ve forgotten about in the confusion.

In “Dead Freight”s case, the entire train robbery acts as a misdirection. We almost forget that the chemical they’re stealing is responsible for hundreds of deaths and even more ruined lives. What they’re taking is a poison that spreads to every corner of the world Walt has made for himself. That boy is the reminder. That boy is the real drama.

Breaking Bad is a show completely centered around character arcs. A lesser writer would have made that arc the star of the show, but Vince Gilligan has done something very unique in the television landscape. He has made a show that is about character arcs, but that is focused on our arc as an audience. He’s asking us, every hour, how we feel now about the man we’ve been rooting for.

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He’s performing magic tricks with his plotting, editing, structuring, and brilliant use of misdirection.

How’s it going to end? I don’t really care. Not because the show is lousy, but because the show is nearly perfect. I don’t care because I know that Gilligan will give us something we’re not expecting.

Maybe Walt is going to die. Maybe he’s going to live. Maybe, at the end of the day, his cancer will be what gets him. Who knows? Any of those endings sound great, because it’s not about the ending. The journey that Vince Gilligan has created is why the show has endured and grown the way it has.

I’m anticipating a huge finale, but, if the show’s past has been any indication, the finale will not be huge in the way we’re all anticipating. And certainly not in the way we’re all expecting.

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