Friday, July 8, 2011

Breaking in to "Breaking Bad"

So I've been watching AMC's "Breaking Bad" after hearing so many, many good things about it. I'm glad I waited to see the show until now, so I didn't have to wait for the breaks between seasons. Also, seeing multiple episodes in a short span helps bring out the longer character arcs that have developed over time. This is now easily my favorite television drama currently airing, with the caveat of course that I do not subscribe to premium cable and I still haven't watched any of AMC's "Mad Men." But it's hard to imagine that anything out there could top the tale of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), an unassuming Albuquerque family man, chemistry teacher, and cancer patient who went out and did a bad, bad thing with the best of intentions. Spoilers ahead.

When you come right down to it, "Breaking Bad" is a morality play, one so well conceived and beautifully executed that it rarely seems like it has any such designs at all. It's also fine character drama, tightly focused on the Walt as he navigates his way through one crisis after another. Diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, despite never having smoked in his life, Walt is desperate to find some way of escaping crushing new financial burdens and providing for his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), after he's gone. He decides a good way to make some quick cash and put his dormant scientific prowess to work is to become a methamphetamine producer. By chance he finds a partner for his new venture, a former student named Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) who is a small time player in the local drug trade. Of course Walt and Jesse get in way over their heads.

The moment I keep coming back to with "Breaking Bad" is toward the end of the second season, when Walt and Jesse are stranded in the New Mexico desert with their broken-down Winnebago meth lab, trying to think up some way to restore the drained battery so they can drive home. The situation is full of humor and tension with Walt and Jesse at each other's throats, though they're both equally culpable for getting themselves into trouble. By this point they've become involved in kidnapping, theft, murder, narrowly avoided a bust by the DEA, and Walt is juggling endless lies to keep his family in the dark. Sometimes is seems like pure luck that they're both still alive. To say there have been unintended consequences to cooking meth is an understatement. Once Walt decides to "break bad," he finds it very difficult to stop. Every time he and Jesse think they've buried one problem for good, a worse one is waiting to fill the vacuum, one that needs Walt to compromise his morals a little more, and trade off another piece of his soul to stay above water.

I could point to so many things that make this show such a rare pleasure. There's a unique viscerality about it, from the glowing cinematography of the arid, sunburnt New Mexico setting, to the jarring instances of violence, to the cutting, pitch black humor. "Breaking Bad" exists in a far meaner, more anarchic universe than just about anything else on television, and yet you never saw a show more deeply concerned with family and values and loyalty. It constantly surprises and defies expectations on every level. I especially enjoy the occasional surreal touches like opening an episode with Mexican balladeers recapping the story so far. Central to everything are the performances of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Walt and Jesse. The whole cast is great, but these two are exceptional in the way they've created a pair of such wonderfully flawed, fallible human characters who seem destined to stumble their way through hell together.

The crux of it, I think, is that the show is unpredictable. Despite all the chemistry going on, there is no formula to "Breaking Bad." The status quo often changes from episode to episode, sending Walt careening through all manner of insane situations, moral dilemmas, and emotional turmoil. You never know what is going to happen to him next, be it a screwy meth dealer kidnapping him from his own driveway, or Walt's DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) suddenly getting too close to the truth. The show's writing is so good that it manages to sustain this level of rising uncertainty and madness for longer than I ever thought possible, transmogrifying Walt little by little from a milquetoast chemistry teacher into a monstrous drug lord. And there's always that looming question - exactly how bad is Walter White going to break? And who is he going to end up taking down with him?

"Breaking Bad" has me utterly bowled over. I haven't been so enamored of a show since the early seasons of "The X-Files" (where "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan got his start). I honestly have no idea where the series is going next, but I have sky high hopes for it. Heck, even if it crashes and burns this year, I'm not going to mind much because of the stellar seasons it's delivered so far.

I believe in TV again. Thank you "Breaking Bad."

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