There was a time when you just didn’t kill a regular cast member on a television series. Major TV deaths were so few and far between that the ones that did exist – Henry Blake’s plane being shot down over the Sea of Japan or Rosalind plunging down the elevator shaft – became weirdly legendary. Then, about ten years ago or so (I’d place it to roughly the death of Big Pussy on “The Sopranos”), killing off characters because just a Thing You Did if you wanted to be taken seriously as an Important Drama Series.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (May 2) “Breaking Bad” after the break…]
You can sort of trace the evolution of this ideal by watching how “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – which was on the air for the entire growth of the TV shows killing people movement – killed steadily more important characters. In the first season, it was a best friend in the pilot that we never saw again and a few bad guys. In the second, third and fourth seasons, it was a handful of important recurring characters and even more bad guys. In the fifth season, it was Buffy’s mom, a recurring player, but the biggest, most important one to go so far. In the sixth season, it was a guest star who had nonetheless been in every episode so far that season and might as well have been a regular. (Indeed, she was billed as such in the episode where she was offed.) And in the seventh season, the character who died was a full-fledged series regular (albeit in the series finale).
But nearly every show was at least giving this a shot. Even something as relatively innocuous as “The West Wing” killed off the president’s beloved secretary. Over on “24,” there’s barely a non-Jack Bauer series regular who hasn’t been killed (or, in some cases, brought back from the dead). “Lost” has pretty much made an episode where a character dies a borderline religious ritual, complete with a storyline where the character in question resolves whatever nagged them pre-Island on the Island. “The Wire” killed one of its most important characters midway through its run, and that’s to say nothing of the many, many supporting characters who died on the series. And while we’re on an HBO kick, “Six Feet Under” dumped its main character with a handful of episodes to go before its series finale.
At this point, though, killing off a character almost feels tired and hackneyed. It’s an easy way to come up with a way to goose drama, particularly if you have an actor who’s being problematic on set, and some shake-ups like this irreparably harm some of the chemistry of the show. Say what you will about “Desperate Housewives” (a show I’ve never been a huge fan of), but killing off Bree’s husband in the first season finale was probably a mistake, as the interplay between the two drove a lot of what made Bree the series’ most interesting character. One of the reasons “Mad Men” seems relatively sedate nowadays is that all of the characters who leave are merely fired for one reason or another. It’s inevitable a character more important than Betty’s dad will die on that show – honestly, how much longer will Robert Morse be alive? – but for the most part, the series doesn’t seek to push the limits by arbitrarily tossing Pete Campbell in front of a subway.
“Breaking Bad,” I realized to my surprise, has never killed an incredibly major character. None of the series regulars have been killed, even as Vince Gilligan had to talk himself out of killing Jesse in the first season (and got an assist from the writers’ strike in doing so), and the biggest recurring players who’ve died have all been bad guys who arguably “had it coming.” The series seems like one where at least one major character would die per season. It is, after all, set in the criminal underworld, and its main characters are often incompetent about how they’ve gone about entering that criminal underworld. But it’s also something of a televised Coen brothers movie, where there is something of a moral force guiding the universe, even if it’s not always readily apparent what that moral force has in mind or is driving at. Walter White can be a needlessly petty and venal man, and he won’t be struck down, but someone somewhere is going to remind him that his reckoning will come by setting in motion a chain of improbable events that leads to two planes colliding in mid-air over his house.
What I find most interesting about “One Minute” is that it goes through all of the normal steps an episode would take before killing off a major character. And yet, at the same time, it reasserts the presence of that moral force in its fictional universe. There may not be a god, per se, in the Albuquerque of “Breaking Bad,” but there’s definitely something that is interested in rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. If the whole of “Breaking Bad” is a combination character study and morality play, then this episode reminds us that even on a show that consciously paints in shades of grey, there are still some things that are hardcore black and white.
Last season, “Breaking Bad” did another episode that spent most of its time focusing on a character who had not been terribly well-developed up until that point with the episode “Peekaboo,” which followed Jesse Pinkman into the house of some drugged out users where he met their little kid, the indirect victim of the blue meth he peddled. In many ways, “One Minute” is a very similar episode, as it follows a few days in the life of Hank Schraeder, a man who’s just snapped and done a very bad thing that may lead to him being kicked out of the DEA forever and also a man who’s being stalked by two forces of unbridled destruction and death, though he doesn’t know that yet. It’s a terrific showcase for Dean Norris, who’s taken the character I probably liked least in the first season and made him a tightly coiled ball of masculinity that has nowhere else to go.
What’s interesting is that “One Minute” basically follows all of the steps you’d expect an episode that killed off a character like Hank to follow. He has a moment where he makes his peace with whom he’s become and rights his wrongs. He has a moment where he performs one last selfless act. He improves his relationship with his wife. Basically, he’s checking off all of the little boxes we might have in our heads for what he needs to do before he dies. The death of a fictional character – even on a show as ruthless as “Breaking Bad” – is often a place where we want to see everything go just right, knowing perhaps that we will not get the chance to set things right before we die. So when Hank laughs off the warning from the man with the masked voice who says that he’s going to die in one minute, it seems that he’ll pass away in a brave but futile battle with the Cousins. That scene where he confesses his sins to his wife – possibly Norris’ best moment on the series so far – should practically come with a giant red arrow pointing to Hank’s bald head that says, “THIS CHARACTER WILL DIE NOW.”
And I’m going to be honest with you here. The first time I watched this episode, I thought it was awfully convenient that the still-standing Cousin doesn’t shoot Hank in the head, particularly when the episode opened with that deeply creepy flashback to Tio beginning the boys’ evolution into killers when the two were young. And, yeah, it is convenient. But the more I think about the episode and after a second viewing, I think something else is going on here. Hank, I think, is being rewarded for doing a good thing, for doing the first truly selfless thing in the “Breaking Bad” universe that I think I’ve really seen.
“Breaking Bad” is, on some level, a show about how people are always looking out for themselves, always pursuing the rush of doing things they shouldn’t be doing just because it makes them feel good. Skyler probably shouldn’t have sex with Ted, but it feels good. Walter shouldn’t make himself over into a drug kingpin, but it feels good. Hank shouldn’t turn himself into a workaholic who never sees his wife, but it’s the only way he knows how to stave off the demons. So when Hank sees Jesse and sends him flying, giving in to his own worst impulses, it seems of a piece with the show’s moral code, the one that states that when presented with two choices, people will almost always take the easy one that makes them feel the best in the moment. Hank realizes what he’s done immediately after beating Jesse to a pulp, but in the moment, it feels amazing.
But watch what happens next. Hank considers his options. He realizes that there are ways he could get out of this, that most jurors would take his word over that of Jesse any day, that he could lie and back his way out of the situation he’s constructed for himself, just like many other cops in our universe have many times. But Hank doesn’t take the easy road. Even as it looks as though Jesse will be punishing him for his rashness for the rest of his life, Hank does the right thing, not the easy thing. He turns in a statement that reflects what really happened, and it seems likely that he’s gone from the DEA forever. But right as he does this, his luck begins to change. He learns that Jesse maybe won’t be pressing charges (thanks to his ex-brother-in-law, though he doesn’t know this). And as he goes to the store to pick up flowers for his wife, it seems as though things might finally be changing. Which is, of course, when the cousins strike.
It is a little disappointing to have the cousins dispatched with so early in the season, though it’s obviously part of the series’ desire to throw off the typical pacing of a TV season. At the same time, the cousins’ storyline, while not as important to the show as Hank’s, is running roughly parallel to Hank’s storyline. All three are living with obsessions, but the one who’s able to let go of his obsession is the one who lives. And I think the series is tipping its hat to that moral force here as well, as Hank is saved via a most improbable series of events (though not as improbable as the ones leading to the plane crash). A bullet given to the cousins by a wacky gun dealer falls out of the cousin’s pocket, just as he’s preparing to shoot down Hank, and as Hank lies on the ground, he has just enough time to fumble it into the gun. It’s an exciting sequence that caps off one of the show’s best pure action sequences, but it’s also a suggestion that by doing the right thing, whatever force that drives these improbable coincidences in the “Breaking Bad” world is now looking out for Hank.
I don’t think this is anything so crazy as God reaching down to touch all the children of “Breaking Bad” with His hand, but I think we’re meant to believe that Hank is on the side of the angels here. Look at how carefully the camera picks out the bullet pinging to the ground when it falls from the cousin’s pocket. Look at how Hank falls in just the right spot to pick it up and slide it into his gun. And, seen in that light, look at how the cousin decides to drag out Hank’s suffering and – in his sudden lack of being clinical – dooms himself with one last fatal error. Nobody would ever mistake “Breaking Bad” for a morally simplistic show, but it’s always been clear that the writers believe there are some things that are unavoidably wrong and some things that are unquestionably right. In this episode, they suggest that doing the right thing can pay off in ways you wouldn’t even dream of.
Some other thoughts:
***I talked a lot about Hank, and though the Walt and Jesse plot, where the two finally agreed to start cooking meth together again, was mostly backgrounded, it was handled well. Jesse’s bitter speeches to Walter in the hospital both might as well have had “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION” typed across the bottom, but Aaron Paul somehow managed to deliver them and not make them seem too maudlin.
***Another example of the episode’s moral intrigue: Walter does what feels to us like the “right” thing when asking Jesse to drop charges against Hank, but it’s so motivated by self-regard (and a little prompting from Skyler) that it’s hard to think of it as a righteous act, particularly when you consider that he’s basically bribing a kid to let a federal agent get away with beating him to a pulp.
***Has the thing where Marie loves purple always been a part of the show? Why am I just noticing it now?
***I really enjoyed Skyler’s short scene where she tries to figure out a way to alleviate her guilt over what’s happened to Hank by getting Walt to let him off the hook. I also like how the show is making Skyler into more and more of an accomplice of Walt’s, even if she never, ever gets directly involved with Walter’s operation.
***I hope we see more of Gale. He’s one of my favorite short-lived characters on the show. I do wonder if we’ll be seeing him informing on Walter or something.
***I kind of liked the gun dealer character. He’s exactly the sort of dude you’d see doing this, and his appearance nicely sets up pretty much that whole final scene.
So what’s your favorite TV death?