Breaking Bad making-of documentary: No Half Measures review

Paul takes a look at No Half Measures, the 131 minute making-of documentary included on the new Breaking Bad UK box set release...

The making-of documentary No Half Measures has been around in the US for nearly a year now, featuring originally on an all-singing, all-dancing Blu-Ray box-set that pushed the boundaries of taste by wedging a fistful of memorabilia and all 62 episodes of the show into a plastic barrel, a bit of fan-service that harks back to the hilarious scene in the series where mismatched knuckleheads Walt and Jesse do some barrel stuffing of their own, only replacing the DVDs and branded tat with the remains of a dead child.

Yep: if ever there was a show that didn’t appear to lend itself to being merchandised to within an inch of its life, it’s Breaking Bad, which started off being a show about the effects of terminal cancer and then somehow just kept getting darker. But with the forces of capitalism being what they are, here we are a year on and the Pollos Hermanos logo and the Heisenberg doodle continue to appear on T-shirts, mugs and posters with the kind of insistent, aggressive regularity that would make Shepherd Fairey wince.

And while we’re at it: exactly what justification does Sony have for initially issuing a bare-bones boxset in the UK, only to follow it up with a features-packed edition a year later? Are they looking to wring money out of the Breaking Bad die-hards by encouraging a double-dip into that metaphorical barrel, by any chance?  It’s all a little sneaky, so it’s a good job that I’ve never sourced an episode of Breaking Bad illegally myself and can indulge on some tedious moral grandstanding on the important issue of home entertainment economics. Otherwise I may as well not have even brought it up.

But you’re here to talk about No Half Measures itself, because – if you were reading Den of Geek when the show was airing – you’ll know I’ve already given my own personal thoughts on the show itself in extensive, often punishing detail, and it turns out the documentary-makers have approached their reams of footage taken during the filming of the final batch of Breaking Bad episodes with a similar obsessiveness.

The documentary runs 131 minutes in length, which I think automatically makes it something for real Breaking Bad obsessives only – (which admittedly is not an insignificant group of people). This is not a profound artistic document a la Heart Of Darkness, or Lost In La Mancha, where the assembly of B-roll was transcended into a narrative that was genuinely compelling and insightful in its own right. There’s no on-set gossip to be found, or captured tantrums, and there are very few moments of artistic torment – the closest is when Anna Gunn is struggling to drum up the necessary intensity for a (surprise) intense scene, but it takes her roughly five minutes to figure it out before she nails it completely. Panic over. It’s hardly Martin Sheen being bullied into a heart attack.

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But this isn’t to say that the doc doesn’t give a genuinely interesting insight into the creative process of Breaking Bad, and film-makers (and anyone who works in any kind of team) could do well to study it. What you take away most from No Half Measures is the extraordinary atmosphere of collaboration and co-operation that existed on the Breaking Bad set, one cultivated by the two creative pillars of the show: the world’s best uncle Bryan Cranston, and showrunner, upstanding Southern gentleman and Official TV Genius Vince Gilligan.

Cranston’s uncanny ability to segue seamlessly from relentless on-set capering to the villainous headspace of Walter White makes his performance even more impressive in retrospect, while he also seems to be remarkably sensitive to the needs of other actors – on the very final scene of the show, he punctures an emotionally fraught moment with the clearly distraught Aaron Paul by mooning the camera. It takes a strong character to have the confidence to drop your pants with the express intention of stopping someone crying.

Gilligan, meanwhile, is remarkably polite and thoughtful to absolutely everybody in the cast and crew throughout, even when (as he admits at one point) the pressure to ‘stick the landing’ of the final few episodes is felt by him most intensely at all. He is shown to be deeply involved in every single creative decision that ever took place in the show, including one faintly ludicrous scene where he sits in the editing room agonising over a foley effect in a moment that maybe 0.01% of people would ever notice or even hear.

In the book Difficult Men Brett Martin makes the point that the three Davids who can consider themselves Vince Gilligan’s TV peers (particularly The Wire’s David Simon, Deadwood’s David Milch, and The Sopranos’ David Chase) ruled with an iron fist on set, and were unafraid to utilise fear and intimidation as important weapons in the manipulation of their cast and crews, while treating themselves and their work with an unrelenting portentousness. They’re generally held up as a powerfully dislikeable bunch (allegedly), but their stewardship  of undisputed masterpieces means that the argument can be made that the end justified the means, feeding as it does into the tortured artist narrative that has acted as a handy Get Out Of Jail Free card for sociopathic ‘creatives’ for hundreds of years.

But watching Gilligan at work here makes you think that you can still make amazing TV, Film, art, whatever you want to call it, while still being decent and respectful to everybody around you; that collaborating and abandoning your ego can actually make things better, as opposed to diluting the all-important creative vision.

It’s true that everyone is shown to be so deeply in love with the show and each other in No Half Measures on occasion it becomes a bit irritating – there are only so many Americans saying ‘I cherish you’ that any decent repressed Englishman/Englishwoman can sit through without wanting to run screaming for the exits – but for the most part it is genuinely touching. Even noted curmudgeon Bob Odenkirk is visibly moved when saying his goodbyes, as he mourns the fact he’ll never play Saul Goodman again. We know now that isn’t true, but the sentiment remains the same – Breaking Bad was a one-off, a beautiful, unlikely thing to watch play out on our screens, something that meant so much to its fans and its creators that yeah: 2hrs and 15mins of (often literal) – back-slapping will do just fine, thanks.

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The Breaking Bad – Complete Series Collector’s Edition Tin was released on Blu-Ray on Monday the 3rd of November.

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