TV for Movie People: Breaking Bad

For the first time in this series I’m profiling a show that hasn’t yet completed its run, which of course leaves open the possibility that the show will go out like many potentially great shows have before it by either overstaying its welcome or betraying its own identity and losing track of what made it so great. In this case, I think anyone who has seen the first three seasons of Breaking Bad will tell you that either of those scenarios seem extremely unlikely.

Breaking Bad is a series that doesn’t attract a lot of viewers, a fact I believe is attributable to a rather unpleasant sounding premise and an advertising campaign that’s not exactly easy on the eyes (the cover of the Season 1 DVD box features star Bryan Cranston wearing no pants and a green dress shirt tucked into his underwear). On its most surface of levels, Breaking Bad is not the same kind of visual feast as its prettier, more popular AMC sibling Mad Men. There’s no glamour, no fantasy escapism and hardly any sex.

The beauty of Breaking Bad is all in the narrative, a story that unwinds so perfectly logically and yet so consistently unpredictably that every hour of the show brings both an adrenaline rush and a satisfying intellectual discussion about the human heart and what it’s capable of. There is no other show on television that sparks as much post-show discussion in my household and that’s primarily due to creator Vince Gilligan and his writers’ willingness to break one of the cardinal rules of television writing: never let the character’s change.

In one of the opening scenes of the pilot episode, high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Cranston) explains to his class that chemistry is the study of the way basic elements can change their nature when put in different situations, a perfect foreshadowing of what’s to come for Walt himself. Walt is a quite typical family man, struggling to take care of his family on a teacher’s salary. When Walt is told by a doctor that he has terminal cancer, that normally stable element finds himself in an unusual situation and the changes he begins to undergo are drastic. Unlike the characters we see in movies who find out they have a short time left to live, Walt doesn’t suddenly become introspective and seek out the meaning of life. Instead he becomes more desperate than ever to find a way to take care of his wife, his son and yet-unborn daughter. Through chance and happenstance, Walt discovers a way to make a great deal of money in a short period of time: making crystal meth. Walt’s background in chemistry gives him all the know-how he needs to produce the city’s best product. All he needs is a business partner.

Enter Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a former student of White’s whose ultimate destiny was to drop out of school and become one of the many small-time meth dealers in Albuquerque. The creation and handling of Jessie by the writers of Breaking Bad is perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of the show. While Cranston has earned an Emmy in each of the show’s three seasons on the air, Paul only earned recognition for his work for the first time this past season. But the careful balance between comedic idiocy and sincere, almost heartbreaking decency that Paul weaves into everything Jessie does is what dictates the tone of the show. If this were only a show about Walter White, it would be a dark show indeed. Jessie’s struggle to be at times, believe it or not, the moral compass of the two is at once hilarious, endearing and tragic.

The entertainment value inherent in the premise drives the first season entirely, as Walter becomes a classic “fish out of water”, a straight man trying his best to negotiate his way through a world filled with some of the most unpredictable, mentally unstable scum imaginable. When the show’s first major “villain” crops up at near the end of the first season, a Mexican meth lord named Tuco (Raymond Cruz), it’s clear that Walt and Jessie are in over their heads and that the stakes will only continue to rise. And rise they do.

There are points at which the intensity reaches “squirm in your seat” levels, including the now-classic Season 2 episode “Grilled”. The episode features an ingenious tension-building device involving Tuco’s sick, elderly uncle who is able to communicate only by tapping a bell. The episode is on par with the kind of tension-based writing Quentin Tarantino has made his name on.

A major part of the show is Walt’s struggle to keep his drug trade hidden from his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), a struggle made all the more difficult by the fact that Skyler’s brother-in-law Hank is a DEA agent (Dean Norris). Like Jessie, the Hank character is initially played for laughs, an overconfident blowhard who is more of a jock than a detective. But as the series goes on Hank gathers complexity, showing both what an incredibly competent agent he is and how fragile he can be when facing the fever pitch intensity of the drug world.

I will avoid talking about too many other characters that appear after the pilot since each character that comes into the lives of Walter and Jessie has an impact on where they ultimately end up and even on the men that they become as the series progresses, just as each element can be changed by the other elements it comes into contact with. Walter’s journey from the man he is in the pilot episode to the man he is at the thrilling cliffhanger ending of Season 3 is a stunning story about the power of a single choice in life. From one slightly abnormal decision made by a good man in a moment of desperation comes an almost unthinkable, yet totally believable, series of events ever deepening in intensity. Where Walter is headed, we still don’t know but what is clear from the first three seasons of this stunning show is that both he and Jessie are on a path that they can no longer turn back from. They live in a world completely shaped by the consequences of their actions and it’s a narrative so well-written, so well thought out by the writing staff that it makes you wonder whether the writers are writing the story or simply allowing the story to write itself.

Where to Watch It: The first two seasons are available on Netflix and while you can’t see Season 3 on DVD until June 7th, AMC is currently replaying the complete series two episodes at a time every Wednesday night.