AMC series’ narrative craft is epitomized in a bold move.In literature, prologues establish a story at some wiser remove, as in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Or they promise the reader an exciting story by jumping into a dramatic moment, as in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (analyzed). Often a prologue does both, offers a survivor’s perspective and a taste of the drama of his surviving.
A few weeks ago, AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad opened its fifth and final season with a revelatory and risky prologue, puzzling for what it revealed. By last Sunday ’s episode—with only two more to go—viewers have seen the power and utility of this move in intriguing them and shaping their reactions. The prologue that has weighed on our minds exploded like a time bomb Sunday night.Breaking Bad is the story of how Walter White, a meek, resentful, and broke high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, becomes a meth-maker after he’s diagnosed with cancer. In the past four seasons, viewers have watched White edge into evil as he becomes a drug kingpin. We see him learn to live by the cruel parameters of his criminal world. And become trapped by his own ego—a brainy man who underestimates others at every turn—as his intelligence turns to hubris.
The flash-forward prologue depicts him returning to his home, which has been trashed and abandoned; he’s armed with a heavy-duty assault rifle. Then the season’s opening episode picks up the story chronologically; it and the three following shows have ended in jaw-dropping climaxes. Real cliff-hangers. “Well,” I’d say, turning to my wife, “we know he lives.” Yes, the writers did tell us in the prologue that he survives—at least to that point. Which is implicitly promised as the final episode. A showdown, probably a bloodbath, will end White’s story.
What’s to be gained in such a reveal?
That was puzzling before last Sunday, when White’s actions led to the death of his heroic cop brother in law; at the end, White has left his family, lost most of his fortune, and he’s on the run from the law and from fellow criminals. Yet after the melodramatic endings of the previous four episodes, this close seemed comparatively flat. It signals a welcome change of pace, however, a lingering in various ruins. And we remember that prologue’s promise. He’ll be baaaaaack—to win revenge on rivals or die trying. Did it give away that much, after all? We knew White’s story had to end violently. The real questions become: how, who lives, and at what cost?
The writers for Breaking Bad have sustained interest this season partly by using the prologue as a counterpoint to stark but organic plot twists. Meanwhile its sister series, Mad Men, has blundered on, zombie-like, morphing into a soap opera, its narrative arc long spent, the lead character a cipher for whom we no longer care. One of Breaking Bad’s virtues has been to keep fans from writing off White as solely a monster; we’ve seen him struggle sometimes to be good. In this it resembles the godfather of these series, The Sopranos, which makes viewers privy to the humdrum humanity and emotional trauma of a violent mob boss. Breaking Bad is a far smaller canvas, but a great story. Its bold use of the prologue epitomizes its narrative craft and intrigues this storyteller.