In a scene from “Breaking Bad”, Year 3, Episode 10, Walt and Skyler are having a conversation about laundering money. Skyler offers to manage a car wash Walt is considering buying for that purpose. He has to buy it because, he says, the manager has to be in on the scam, and the only way to control the manager is to own it.
Somehow the conversation turns to their divorce and Walt says to her something like “but we’re divorced?”.
Skyler has been after him to sign the papers for several episodes. She has been resolute that there is no future in their relationship because of his chronic lying. In a previous episode, in a moment of moral clarity, he finally did sign, with a flourish.
Now, “Breaking Bad” is a brilliant TV series, exceptional in almost every respect. But I was not as happy with this episode as I had been with the earlier ones and this scene was emblematic of a problem beginning to creep in. (Maybe it stops here, maybe it gets worse: I don’t know). Walt reads his line as if there is some question about whether or not they actually are divorced. He almost makes it a question: “we’re divorced?”. “Right?” “Aren’t we?” But in this story line, we find out that Skyler never filed the paperwork after Walt signed it. She notes that married couples can’t be forced to testify against each other. This is important because Walt makes methamphetamine.
In my opinion, Bryan Cranston gave away a plot element in his reading of this line. The character, Walt, has no reason to believe that Skyler had changed her mind about the divorce, and every reason to believe she would have rushed out the minute he signed the documents and filed it with the court. He should have said, “but we are divorced” as if it was final, settled fact. But the actor, Bryan Cranston, knew what was coming next. He tried to set it up, perhaps unconsciously.
Fans of the show and of Bryan Cranston’s otherwise impeccable work on it might argue that Walt may well have suspected that Skyler hadn’t filed the paperwork. Maybe, maybe not. And if it had been the only instance of read-ahead acting in this episode, I would have ignored it. However it was, by my count, the fourth and maybe fifth time in this episode that a character had reacted to knowledge held only by the audience, or a secret known only to the character they were talking to. The conversation between Jesse and Walt about the night Jane died was utterly portentous because of this flaw: Jesse was filmed as if he was about to receive a piece of shocking information, though he could not possibly know that there was anything shocking or even important about Walt’s nattering. He should have continued his tasks (cleaning the equipment) without paying much attention to what Walt was saying at all.
In real life, in fact, we often don’t even hear information that we don’t expect to hear.
These are quibbles, relatively minor quibbles. I just don’t like to see flaws like that creep into what is a very, very good TV series.
There is one other problem I have: it is clear that the series has become invested in the actors playing the major roles. None of them are going to die any time soon. I know it and they know it. This does deflate the drama of some of the tension that should be there. I have long believed that good dramas should plan to kill off major characters along the way just to make sure that the audience doesn’t come to the sedate feeling that no matter what crisis confronts our heroes, they are going to live. They are under contract.
It diminishes the effect.