Onwards and Upwards

This is a real photograph

Real photograph from the Apollo 17 mission (Click to Enlarge)

From the Earth to the Moon (1998)

Breaking Bad (2011) (Spoilers)

But really, to me, it’s about the visual. I guess I’ve always been more visually oriented. And to me, movies and television are the same thing, with the only difference being in the actual mode of transmission. But even all those definitions are currently in a state of flux, and to me, what it really comes down to is your story. Does your story last for two hours or does it last for a hundred hours?

That’s the ultimate contrast between a movie and a television show, because they all use the exact same equipment. We use the same lights, we use the same cameras to do our show that would be used on a feature, and the same technology, the same crew people. And so to me the question becomes, what then is truly the difference between the two?

Historically in television it was much more dialogue-based, which is a wonderful thing. I love a show that’s not about the visual. ‘All in the Family’—I could watch that for hours on end and that’s pretty much a filmed stage play in half-hour increments, and that’s a wonderful thing. But historically, I think television has been more dialogue-oriented, more about the word and less about the image, probably fundamentally for financial reasons. Back in the day, it was harder on a television production schedule to go out and attain the visual, and that’s actually one way in which television has really evolved and changed over the years in a good way.

Cameras got smaller and financial models changed to the point that many TV shows, not just ‘Breaking Bad,’ can go out into the real world and shoot, for instance, six days out of eight, out on location versus on a sound stage. Not just ‘Breaking Bad’ but most TV shows have the opportunity to be more visual. And we take that opportunity and run with it.Vince Gilligan

Tom Hanks shepherded From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers to the small screen in 1998 and 2001, three years, respectively, after their film predecessors, 1995’s Apollo 13 and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Both prestige projects received great acclaim, and while neither overshadowed the films that came before them they marked important steps in HBO’s rise as a cultural powerhouse.

The two miniseries bookended the broadcast of the first three seasons of The Sopranos, and while those seasons and the latter war miniseries have more than held up, thirteen years later From the Earth to the Moon feels quite hollow. Today it seems a world away in heft, polish and storytelling even from Band of Brothers, which would air only three years later.

There are a few stories that work well on their own, but the entire enterprise, for all its visual sheen and historical gravity, fails to achieve any cumulative impact. In its rush to chronicle and relate its subject matter, the show aggressively breaks itself down into short segments, as if the creators felt the need to dramatize the process of checking items off a list. In some episodes title cards pop up every five or ten minutes, and other episodes saddle their narratives with wooden and time-wasting framing devices. The shifts in chronology, character focus and tone from episode to episode make the series feel disconnected from itself, and few anchor characters feel developed enough to help navigate through its shifts. These misfires make for an inefficient use of the miniseries’ twelve-hour running time.

From the Earth to the Moon has a much better grasp of its visual obligations than its responsibilities on the story front. The grammar of its space flight sequences is crisp and conveys the necessary impact. After all, no matter how simple the underlying Newtonian physics of rocketry might be, that human beings traveled to the moon and back is quite incredible. Appropriately, the space flight and moon sequences have a real enthusiasm and energy to them that’s foreign to the rest of the material.

The miniseries has another virtue unique to a non-fiction subject in how it invites and encourages you to look back into history, to learn about the amazing story that the miniseries sketches. And this is a positive of the show that’s in keeping with its defining flaws. The series is an extended bonus feature for a superior experience—the real events—and in a way its content is even less important than its simple existence as a reminder of the reality and complexity of the American space program.

Watching From the Earth to the Moon today feels like a return to something much simpler and far less satisfying, even as the miniseries at the time was viewed as a landmark achievement. The creative team behind the miniseries failed to understand the strengths and possibilities of its actual medium, and the project has a latent insecurity about being television. The miniseries’ reverence for chronicling history prevents it from appreciating the needs and the merits of the medium it’s actually operating within.

Television has come a long way in the short time since the miniseries first aired, and the medium was lucky enough to break into more confident strides. Many of the observations about the special achievements of various shows relate directly to their mastery of some canonical aspect of television as a medium: The Sopranos‘ use of television’s innate status quo bias as a moral statement, The Wire‘s perfection of the idea of a television novel, or the endpoint Mad Men has reached for post-Sopranos dramatic leads.

In light of this forward motion and artistic legitimacy, “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.” has proved a less and less compelling slogan over the years. Yet there’s a reason it was an effective declaration of intentions. In 1998 From the Earth to the Moon could happily content itself with the belief that to look professional and to demonstrate the best of intentions constitutes a step above the rest of the small screen. Today, shows own their identities and have moved past their insecurity.

The strength on display in the best of them has been a willingness to be a little less reverent, for the best shows have understood a fundamental truth: any exercise in reproduction has to contend with comparison to the real thing. Freed from that anxiety about competing directly with the compressed power of film, secure in their identity and their medium, they have pushed to the edge of what’s possible in long-form television narrative.

As television has raised itself in stature and confidence, no show has held its head higher than Breaking Bad. Amid its many assertive and ambitious peers, however, Breaking Bad has stood alone in maintaining an uneasy relationship with its existence as a television show. Where the aforementioned masterworks and many of the best shows of the present day have harnessed the inherent strengths of television and its expansive possibilities for both breadth and depth, and often exploited features of television for thematic effect, Breaking Bad is mostly unconcerned with delving into its medium. While it has one of the most “high concept” premises in recent memory, the show from its start has steadfastly avoided establishing a status quo. This is a surprisingly brave choice, as episodic revisitation of a familiar set of affairs is much of what makes television television, yet Breaking Bad has done so nonetheless, contenting itself with “Walter White remains alive” as its constant while the statuses, allegiances, and agendas of the characters have shifted countless times.

Beyond this discarding of the way television normally functions, Breaking Bad has also rejected the available templates for how to construct top-shelf television entertainment. It hasn’t attempted a unified, coherent structure to its events—stretching a three or a five-act structure over the course of a season, for instance. It has nothing resembling a typical episodic formula or structure. Instead arcs arise and collapse in the most unpredictable fashion, and events don’t so much culminate as cascade. It’s not structure-less, but its structures bear very little relationship to the established paths painstakingly laid down in the decade before its premiere.

Curiously, however, Breaking Bad does not feel like is a show where anything can happen. The likely outcomes and the constraints on choices are always in the foreground. As a result Breaking Bad has earned its reputation for phenomenal unpredictability less in the what than in the when, especially its unfailing ability to push forward the timetable, combine foreseeable events in unexpected pairings, or otherwise push things to the brink more quickly than the characters (or viewers) thought possible.

This has proven to be an invaluable asset for Breaking Bad in building tension, that clear sense of the few, terrible directions in which events can go and the certainty that things won’t play out in the rhythm you’d expect. That tension through the narrowing of options is also complemented by the show’s resource limitations. The small budget afforded to the creators by AMC is perhaps at the root of the show’s absolute obsession with the notion of limitations, and with that in mind it’s telling that one of the few television standbys that Breaking Bad hasn’t tossed aside is the bottle episode. The show returns as often as it can to the confrontation of wills and intentions between two characters, paring down the expression of its ever-frenzied events into the almost-abstracted dramatic interaction often associated with theater. Breaking Bad is never stronger than in this confined, unbearable focusing of intensity into a simplified form.

Complementing that fascination with compression into intensity is Breaking Bad‘s total lack of shyness in reaching for iconic moments and images. Not content with television as television, the show has always wanted a way out, more audacious than it has any right to be, and this ambition has thankfully been coupled with an uncanny facility in finding and deploying those moments. The show can do this without any apparent effort, simply on the strength of the creator’s tastes and the performances of its cast—conjuring menace or unfathomable disintegration at a moment’s notice, or setting new benchmarks for holy shit moments that lesser shows could never even aspire toward depicting.

As often as its iconic moments wind up closing off an episode, Gilligan’s understanding of what is now possible for the visual vocabulary of television presentation has become a working ethos for the show, evident in the stylistic touches and striking cinematography that have marked the series throughout its run. And that focus on the vivid depiction of individual moments, and a dizzying faith that for the most part the grander structure will work itself out, has only grown alongside the gradual shift in the storytelling of the show. Where in its early going Breaking Bad played much like Pulp Fiction in its basic rhythms, relying on an unerring, scene-by-scene wittiness to evoke a structural coherence, as the show has progressed there’s been a yearning desire to achieve a grander architecture without reproducing the structural templates of some of its peer series.

Much of that has been accomplished through the very kind of “tags” and closures that often provide striking ends to episodes, where a single, powerful moment imparts or makes evident the animating design of a season. Where the second season foreshadowed and at its close brought forth a spectacular cataclysm, bringing something out of nowhere that made clear the full import of what we’d seen so far, the third season kept pushing and pushing the outer limit of where it would go, culminating in the shooting that provided the most fitting capstone for a season whose fundamental principle was that everything would take place at the moments when characters were written into impossible corners.

The just-concluded fourth season has seen a middle ground between those two courses for realizing structure indirectly. And its most memorable moment provided a realization in both senses of the word—a fulfillment and a revelation. The blood-curdling ending scene of “Crawl Space” arrives, like everything on Breaking Bad, predetermined yet wholly unexpected. Yet nothing could quite ready a viewer for seeing Walt’s plans and composure implode in so devastating a fashion. That scene is borderline unbearable, and on first viewing reached a level of tension that’s probably never been seen before on television.

And I think Breaking Bad became something new in that moment. The season had doggedly worked through the experience of a man entirely trapped by his circumstances, as impotent and imprisoned as he had been at the start of the series. The show that can’t stand a status quo had finally settled into one, and it pushed against that deadening imprisonment as unceasingly as its lead. In the show’s trademark fashion, events came to a head in a flurry of activity, as Walt finally took the measures he had to in order to break free. And yet the show revealed that there was no way out, that the careful, often meandering steps it had taken throughout the season had drawn a noose around Walter so tight he couldn’t break out of it.

For all its power as a character moment, for the sheer dread inherent in the episode’s close, the great import of that moment may be the marker it set down for the show. The restrictions of television as a medium were made to convey the emotional impact of film, avoiding confinement to the possibilities of its medium without trying to be quite like cinema, either. The show has finally perfected the union it has long sought between its dramatic intensity and its aspirations toward the iconic. From here on out, we’re in uncharted territory; and in the final two episodes, Breaking Bad thankfully continued to operate with gleeful abandon in the space it has carved out so wholly for itself.

It’s been welcome indeed that television has grown beyond the baby steps on display in something like HBO’s early forays. The great television series of recent years have achieved the very pinnacle of what’s possible within their medium. And while it’s tempting to believe that Breaking Bad has fulfilled the full promise of a medium that has traveled so far in the past thirteen years, I suspect we don’t quite have a word for what the show has become. Free from the shadow of film, unconstrained by the limits of television, Breaking Bad has traveled somewhere one could never have expected it to go. Let’s hope it can make it back safe.

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