NO HALF MEASURES: CREATING THE FINAL SEASON OF BREAKING BAD Documentary Review

     November 26, 2013

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As one or two of you may have heard, after years of narrowly avoiding cancelation, Breaking Bad managed to become a mainstream hit and finish up its story on creator Vince Gilligan’s own terms. Now that the final curtain has fallen on Walter White, the only thing left is the DVD/Blu-Ray release. And what a box set it is.

Monday night, Collider was invited to The Pacific Grove Theater in Los Angeles for one of the very last Breaking Bad promotional events ever: a screening of the new, two hour documentary No Half Measures: Creating the Final Season of Breaking Bad. Hit the jump for the review of the doc.

breaking-bad-no-half-measures-eventIn my review of Breaking Bad Season One I wrote, “[T]he show is incredibly watchable. In fact, my girlfriend and I found ourselves canceling our evening plans in order to stay at home and watch the entire season back-to-back, in one sitting. A feat no other show has ever compelled me to accomplish.” At the time this seemed very odd, embarrassing even. Who watches an entire season of TV in one sitting? Welcome to 2013.

Breaking Bad is a show that grabbed Web 2.0 by the jugular and threw it face first into the world of streaming content by the sheer force of its’ compulsively watchable and massively intricate serialization. Without Breaking Bad I sincerely doubt that the current crop of binge watching digital series’ would even exist. And that’s all without even touching upon the deep well of extra content included on the discs, as well as the detailed and informative weekly podcast. All of this is to say, while Breaking Bad is my favorite television drama of all time, its’ natural habitat has always been the DVD or digital binge.

With a feature length runtime, full access to a crew overflowing of eloquent creatives open and ready to talk about their work and a come from behind victory deserving of Rocky to serve as the story spine, how could a Breaking Bad retrospective documentary be anything but spectacular?

Unfortunately, it’s just that – anything but spectacular.

breaking-bad-ozymandias-set-imageNo Half Measures begins with a tightly edited, humorous and provocative forward that summarizes each season of the show, intercut with a greatest hits compilation of throat slitting, bomb blowing, meth cooking action. In less than 10 minutes the montage plows through the concept and evolution of the show, season by season, touching upon important details in a snappy and compelling manner.

This first chunk is pretty good infotainment, about on par with those AFI greatest film lists. It’s all surface, but it’s still fun to see the head of Sony Television admit that, upon the initial pitch, he declared Breaking Bad to be the worst idea he had ever heard for a television show. Too, in prototypically humble Gilligan style, there is a refreshing focus on the “little people” behind the scenes and their individual jobs and personalities. Cinematographers John Toll and Michael Slovis get their due, which makes sense. Far more surprising is the inclusion of conversations with and about the series’ editors, set designers and even a cameraman and a few production assistants. It’s impressive to see that just about half these writers, directors and crewmembers are women – about 40% higher than on most shows. And clearly, not a one was hired in order to be ‘politically correct.’

breaking-bad-ricin-bryan-cranstonBut that’s about it. You get to meet pretty much every person involved with the show, but you never learn anything about them. We’re there on set for each actor’s climactic scene, but with the exception of Anna Gunn – who comes off well in all of her interviews, especially the one where she subtlety redresses the nonstop misogyny thrown at her character by a certain sect of fans – we never hear them talk about how they got to this place, or what it all means. There’s no summation, no insight, no analysis. We just see the final take for each of the principals and then get a too-long scene of each of them reacting as they receive an oversized glamour shot signed by the crew.

I’m sure it was emotional at the time and the footage is a great memento for everyone who was there on set. But watching this play out 8 separate times is incredibly tedious.

Conversely, the film seems to be perpetually two steps behind, beginning a new scene just after something really interesting has happened. We see Gilligan put the last flash card on the cork board, but we never see anyone breaking down the narratives or even discussing the ‘why’ of the narrative. The documentarians were in the room filming during outlining sessions, but for some reason they chose to focus on the toys and trinkets littering the conference table. When we do see Gilligan and his final two writers stressed out and holed up in an ad hoc office trying desperately to write the last episodes, we don’t hear anything about the plot dilemmas, or differing artistic approaches. Instead, Gilligan gives the camera a quick tour of the barren office and comments that writing in New Mexico is less comfortable than in LA. Because of the lack of content, I occasionally found my mind drifting, noticing the extra large McDonald’s cup on Gilligan’s desk and being impressed that someone took the time to get so many legal clearances.

breaking-bad-ozymandias-anna-gunnWith the exception of a brief wraparound involving the last day on set, there is no attempt at a cohesive structure here. It’s just a procession of vignettes, most of which are rather dull. If this came with the DVD of the latest season and was split up into eight parts and not presented in marketing as a feature length making-of documentary, I wouldn’t have too much to complain about. If I watched any one of these segments before or after an episode, I might like it. There is just enough to keep you going. But taken as a whole, and viewed with your complete attention in a movie theater, it’s grueling to sit through.

Things jolt to life periodically: the bawdy humor on set and faux rivalries between Dean Norris and Bob Odenkirk are very fun, the application of Cranston’s end stage cancer makeup is fascinating, seeing Aaron Paul and Betsy Brandt getting into or staying in character was kind of hypnotic and Gunn really does show you a little bit of her inner world. When we’re just watching the day-to-day of the production and seeing the differing approaches to acting or the below the line’s dedication to their jobs, it’s reasonably engaging.

But then we get scenes like the one where Cranston and others discuss a ‘script leak’ that was really just a stolen book bag. If the camera crew had been on set when the bag went missing, that might have been something. Instead, we get an after the fact interview about how the topic of said interview is actually not a big deal and not an interesting story after all. Most of the sequence is Cranston brushing it off. This made the final cut, but Skinny Pete, Badger, Huell, Andrea, Lydia and even Todd (aka Jesse Pleamons aka Meth Damon) barely register a namedrop.  

breaking-bad-felinaThe closest the doc gets to any form of narrative tension is a brief vignette where Writer/Producer Sam Catlin struggles through his first day as a director. His eyes are wild and his gestures too big. The actors are looking at him with a bit of apprehension and cinematographer Slovis seems to be making a ‘suggestion’ rather definitively. Then nothing. We never see Catlin overcome his nerves, or get an after the fact about what he learned. We just go on to the next episode where a different set of talking heads say mundane things.

Just before the end, Cranston and Gilligan finally start discussing Walter’s final scene. Should his eyes be open, or closed? Is it a happy ending or a sad ending? Cranston actually gets a chance to talk about the core of his character and his approach to his art and Gilligan kind of admits that it’s a happy ending for Walt, which has been a major point of contention for many on the internet. I was reengaged and ready to see, perhaps, one of the other writers suggesting a way where this isn’t the happiest ending possible for Walt. Or maybe challenge the idea that Walt should go out on his own terms and essentially ‘win’. It’s the end of the movie so they’ve got to get into some of the complex moral issues in play with the non-diegetic elements of the narrative being sympathetic to Walt after all he’s done and after Gilligan promised we would hate him. But then, nope. None of that. Time to cut to another teary-eyed speech.

breaking-bad-farewell-posterCONCLUSION: 

Look, No Half Measures is a perfectly passable making-of documentary and I’m sure it plays much better on the small screen than the large. But the fact remains, it’s just not up to snuff as a central marketing point in a $300 MSRP dvd box set, especially not for a show of this caliber and especially when there is so much better content already available for free from these same creatives. The interviews are largely shallow, the funny bits could easily be a 10 minute gag reel, there is no effort made to create a three act structure, a great many scenes feel like watching someone else’s vacation footage, and we get no new insight into the characters, the motivations, of the what-might-have-beens.

I wasn’t expecting Hearts of Darkness, but I also wasn’t expecting something that reminded me of Katy Perry’s Part of Me: The Movie. Like that film, this is a long-form commercial designed specifically for a devoted fan base who have already bought the primary product. And, like Part of Me, the feature is made up largely of material that was previously released for free on the internet. And just like in Perry’s pseudo tour doc, which never showed a song in its’ full form, No Half Measures always seems to miss the most interesting aspects.

I’m still going to buy the box set because I’m sure that in the context of the other 53 hours of bonus features, No Half Measures is just fine. But it is not at all what it’s being sold as. It’s not an in depth, two hour look into the creation of the final season, it’s eight of those HBO ‘making of’ interstitials duct taped together. For the first time ever, I am disappointed in Breaking Bad. 

Grade: C-

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