Vince Gilligan’s beloved drama — one of the most visceral, aesthetically articulate programs that the television medium has yet given us — is one of the great shows of the post-Sopranos era, and Walt White is one of the great post-Tony Soprano anti-heroes. Breaking Bad is a great show, of course, but — brace yourselves — it’s not the capital G Greatest Show of all time forever and ever amen. There is no single greatest show. It’s like trying to pick between The Sopranos or The Wire; neither is “better,” and they have such different styles. The Sopranos is cinematic and literary, The Wire gritty, almost like a documentary, more focused on realism than metaphor, and shot in the more conventional-for-TV 4:3 aspect ratio.
The reason I ask you consider that maybe, just maybe, Breaking Bad isn’t the great thing since the big bang, is that this has been a stupendous year for television, and Vince Gilligan’s show will face some heady competition at the Emmys. You may have to face the very real possibility that it won’t win the Emmy for Best Drama or Best Actor.
Shows tend to earn extra favor in their final seasons, and Breaking Bad‘s final season was the most-hyped final season since, you guessed it, The Sopranos. But, keep in mind that James Gandolfini was nominated but didn’t win for the final season of The Sopranos, though David Chase took home a statue for his writing on the enigmatic and polarizing final episode “Made in America.”
The way the Emmys work isn’t exactly how most people imagine: the potential nominees — directors, writers, actors — choose an episode to submit to represent their best work. So Bryan Cranston doesn’t just submit the entire half-season, but chooses one episode. This is at once the fairest way of handling things, as well as an infuriating way, since it boils down an entire season worth of work into one single episode, and helps to elucidate why Jon Hamm has yet to win an Emmy.
Hamm is the opposite of showy, using subtle facial ticks and vocal inflections to convey those percolating emotions shrouded by his pretty visage. Hamm doesn’t get those tense, thrilling episodes to flaunt his acting prowess; his is a slow, gradual performance, best appreciated over the course of a season, of multiple seasons, than any single episode can capture.
Cranston, on the other hand, gives what you could call a more cinematic performance, more akin to Al Pacino circa Heat than Pacino circa The Godfather Part II. That’s not a diss — it’s a startling and stunning performance, as implausible as it may be that a 50-year-old high school teacher can go from Mr. Chips to Scarface in 11 months (yeah, the first four seasons unfolded over the duration of just one year, in case you forgot.) In fact, Cranston deserves double credit for making Vince Gilligan’s melodramatic writing feel so grounded, lending an air of authenticity to a show that thrives on the wow factor. His only real competition this year is True Detective‘s Matthew McConaughey (and if you ever thought Bryan Cranston would have to compete with Matthew McConaughey, you’re lying to yourself.)
The question of which episode Cranston and co. will submit for their various nominations isn’t much of a question. “Ozymandias” is the obvious answer, and one of the most tense, taut, and tragic hours of television’s 70-year existence. Directed by Looper‘s Rian Johnson (whose third season episode “Fly” is also one of the show’s finest), the episode starts at the height of a climax and manages to sustain a grueling atmosphere of dread until the credits roll. The screen gleams and glares in the New Mexico heat as Johnson uses a series of medium and close-up shots to rack up the tension. While Aaron Paul will certainly be nominated, and probably win, for his turn as Jessie Pinkman (the 34-year-old has already won twice for the role), Dean Norris deserves consideration for “Ozymandias” and its prelude episode “To’hajilee.”
“To’hajilee,” directed by Michelle MacLaren, channels Sergio Leone’s style of histrionic realism,with its depiction of violence fluctuating between intimate and outrageous. Norris’ Hank Schrader, Walt’s brother in law, has finally caught Heisenberg, or so it seems, until the episode abruptly ends with a trigger happy gang of white supremacist pychos, ending on the most dire of cliffhangers. Norris became the final season protagonist, and seemed, for a hot minute, like the guy who would finally take down Walt. Since Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) was blown up at the end of season 4 (probably the best season), season 5 had to find a new foil for Walt. Gilligan found that foil in the stern, stubborn, but good-hearted Hank.
“Ozymandias” picks up right where “To’hajilee” ends, and Norris underplays his character’s impending death with a restrained grace, not even getting to finish his final sentence before the bullet cuts through his brain. It’s not the kind of acting that wins awards, but it should be.
“Ozymandias” was written by Moira Walley-Beckett, and she and Johnson stand a good chance of nabbing the first writing and directing Emmys for the show. That’s right, Breaking Bad has never won Best Writing or Best Directing for a Drama. Cranston’s already won Best Actor three times, which may tip the scales in McConaughey’s favor (though in all sincerity, McConaughey does give one of the most carefully layered performances of this or any year, and is as deserving a winner as I’ve ever seen.) But “Ozymandias” could be the episode that finally brings home the honors. If Breaking Bad does win for “Ozymandias” or “To’hajilee,” Vince Gilligan won’t be the recipient, which seems kind of odd, but them’s the rules.
Anna Gunn, who gets perennially nominated as Best Supporting Actress instead of Best Actress (go figure), is basically a shoe-in for the award this season. She finally won last season, and is starring in the upcoming American remake of the critically acclaimed Broadchurch, now called Gracepoint, which is the must-see new show of the 2014-15 season.
We’ve all spent so much time fawning over the sublimity of “Ozymandias” that we all consciously seem to have forgotten that the final two episodes of the season, and of the show, were tremendous let downs. Gilligan is just not nearly as good a writer/director as David Chase, Matthew Weiner, or Terrence Winter. His true gift is picking the right people to do the writing and directing, whereas Chase and Weiner have a hand in every facet of production. After the stranglehold tension of Rian Johnson’s direction, the cartoonish machine gun in the car trunk seemed so sophomoric, so silly. Johnson was the perfect candidate to helm “Ozymandias,” and his work is outstanding; the subsequent two episodes just don’t compare.
Luckily, the final two episodes don’t have to be great, or even good, since “Ozymandias,” Gilligan’s favorite episode of the series, is the likely nominee.