Breaking Bad

The best series ever? John Connors goes back to the start to watch the seasons 1 and 2 of the astonishing Breaking Bad.

When enough people describe a programme as the best ever it’s bound to make you want to give it a try though this can pall when every new US drama is heralded thus (and by implication every UK drama is the opposite).  Nowadays you can’t move for people extolling the brilliance of Breaking Bad which is strange as the series has recently concluded. Has there ever been a series ending just as everyone decided it was amazing? The general rule is that great programmes are in decline when they stop or else they are prematurely cancelled. Breaking Bad appears to have concluded at exactly the right moment judging from the reaction to this month’s finale. Meanwhile, enticed by its glowing tributes I am starting back at the beginning. The down side is trying to avoid spoilers, the upside is that I won’t have to wait a year to move from one season to the next.  I could watch it all over the next few days if I wanted in a Walter White type frenzy! Will it be the best series ever? 

NB There will be spoilers aplenty in this article though they won’t necessarily make sense unless you’ve seen it.

I remember vaguely hearing about Breaking Bad when it was due to start and to be honest, I couldn’t think of a drama I’d less like to watch than the tale of an ordinary, rather dull man who learns he has a terminal illness and starts dealing drugs. Really? That’s entertainment? I was probably also biased by the fact that I’d watched the first two seasons of the not dissimilar Weeds (suburban housewife starts dealing drugs to earn money) and found it rather dismal. There is generally nothing as uninteresting as shady drug dealers in a drama because they are all the same; you almost know what they will say before they say it. Anyway, years have gone by and I’ve not really heard many people going on about Breaking Bad until 2013. Before this year, it was Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones that seemed to be the holy trinity of modern US television drama. I’ve seen them and, yes, they are good, but is every episode pin sharp and surprising? Is every character as fascinating as the next? Not really. Not that we usually expect it to be. Breaking Bad on the other hand seems to have set the bar higher. So high in fact, it is already becoming an all time classic, something like I, Claudius that will transcend its era and become a byword for brilliant tv drama. 

“I’m awake” declares Walter White, dull but genius brilliant science teacher soon after he not only discovers he has cancer but due to a chain of events is cooking crystal meth of such a high quality that he is propelled into a shady world you and I and most people never encounter. And; first shock- he’s the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle! It’s very rare for an actor to accrue two signature roles in a career but having been the stand out in the excellent madcap comedy that was supposed to be about the kids but really was about the parents, here’s Bryan Cranston who I always knew as befuddled Hal driving an RV through the desert (without his pants) before making a frantic message to his family and then pulling out a gun! Is there a more intriguing way to start a series? It demands you watch more to at least find out how he got here. Breaking Bad seems to relish these sorts of scenes. Season 2 has many- the Mexican drug song video, the rocking car, the pink teddy bear in the swimming pool. Yet this is no ruse because the episodes unfold and conclude as perfectly as they begin.

Being that it’s a series about drugs it is not surprising how addictive Breaking Bad becomes. Each episode moves things on to such a point that you cannot resist watching the next, preferably the following minute! How is it that the writers can make a show with such a potentially depressing premise so vital? Well when you find you have limited time left I imagine you’d want to do as much with it as you can, right? Walt’s brother in law happens to be a police officer so he knows a little about the drugs trade being the sort of area where you can make thousands easily and that, combined with an accidental encounter with a former pupil leads to the immortal phrase “let’s cook!”

Jesse Pinkman, former underachieving pupil of Walt’s has dealt small but with the product “Mister White” cooks up is moving to another level.  Walt and Jesse are Laurel and Hardy or Morecombe and Wise or something like that. Their personal chemistry seeps from the test tube and the lab into a double act that, at various times, encompasses parent / child, teacher / pupil, psychopath / stoner. Whatever they do- or fail at doing- it is compulsive viewing. There’s a season 2 episode where we spend most of the running time with just the two of them in the desert and gradually things unravel to the point where they are left stranded without water or any means of communication. Most shows- indeed most writers and certainly most actors- would struggle to hold your attention in such a scenario but this episode seems effortlessly entertaining and at times surprisingly amusing.

"Yo, can you get the Internet on that thing?"

Between them Bryan Crantson and Aaron Paul (who plays Jesse) can hit every dramatic note and make it interesting. The writers have lots of fun pulling them apart, making Jesse different levels of stupid (the acid in the bath, the key in the ignition) and Walter overbearing and dangerous (the clothes shop incident where his son is insulted, the sudden urge to blow up the car of a motorist he doesn’t like) yet we are with them all the way. Cranston can be terrifying especially once he loses his hair yet he never gives in to melodrama. Instead, Walt simmers for much of the time, punctuated either by volcanic outbursts of rage or simpering lies to his long suffering wife Skylar. Jesse is mid- twenties but behaves like he’s ten years younger with out of date garish baggy attire and an attitude that frequently brings him into conflict with Walt’s cleverness. It’s odd to discover that the original intention was to kill off Jesse in the episode when he is seriously hurt. This inspires one of Walt’s most bravura early moments when he walks into the den of the assailant and lets off home made explosives. How the show would have survived without Jesse is unimaginable really. Luckily the producers saw the two together and realised they had acting gold. It’s worth saying too that even when apart both Cranston and Paul tear through scenes with aplomb. I had a notion that it would be amazing to see them do some Shakespeare together. 

Let’s not forget that the show is about more than just the two of them though. There’s Anna Gunn who gives Skylar dignity and fortitude yet you can see the suspicions about her husband’s disappearances and strange behaviour. That she is also heavily pregnant adds to Skyler’s dilemmas. Her scenes with Walt are studies in marriage woes and how awkward it is dealing with such a major bolt from the blue. The scripts delight in Walt’s lies to her personified by a fabulous scene where he is offering the lamest `explanation` as to why he might have seemed to have had a second phone where you see Skylar’s face change as the whole thing becomes less and less likely.  They have a son, Walt Junior who has cerebral palsy and, this being the series it is, is not used to be the show’s moral conscience. Skylar’s sister and her husband seem more mis matched the Whites. His macho sarcasm hides panic attacks while she steals. Season 2 introduced more people to the mix including Krysten Ritter as Jane an ex-junkie girlfriend for Jesse and the garrolous Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman an ironically named lawyer who provides surprising help. Anyone who saw him in his younger days in The Larry Sanders Show will know what a live wire he can be.

The scripts so cleverly work in just enough justification for us to go along with it. At times it is so subversive, you don’t even know what you are watching! Take the episode where they nick a barrel of chemicals from a supposedly secure factory. This is presented as near slapstick and makes you laugh yet what they are doing will have dangerous implications. More than that, you are rooting for them to get away with it. How’d that happen? The show revels in such anarchic plot lines; comedic arguments between them over who will kill someone, the almost interminable day Jesse spends in the company of a drug addled couple in their run down house. Perhaps the best one from the first two seasons is their sojourn as prisoners of crazy drug dealer Tuco in his remote house. What other shows might offer simply as a tense, sweaty siege slowly morphs into a hilarious series of incidents involving Tuco’s aged mute uncle and the bell he uses to communicate.

Of course, the argument against the show would be that we should not be cheering for people like Walt and Jesse because their success brings trouble to people’s lives. Breaking Bad walks quite a line between moral uncertainty and legality. Does it glorify the cooking and selling of crystal meth? Well a look at the very last scene of the first season would say not but it is the case that nothing the duo have done so far had happened without plot justification. In fact the show has seemed to deliberately steer away from making judgments and to that end the messages at to what is and isn’t legally right is essayed by Hank and this is not sent up in any way. Indeed, we do get the perspective of the law for example one incident where a police informers ends up in a very tricky situation involving a tortoise.

If you like, the morality of the show is most present in Jesse who, while no innocent, seems at this juncture less certain about the more violent acts Walt sometimes wants him to pursue to maintain their place in the city. To say he just wants to have a good time is not quite the case though, in the early episodes we learn about his parents’ disappointment in and eventual ostracising of Jesse. The character does view many things through the eyes of a child and this enables an effective counterpoint to Walt. Had Jesse been written as some sort of nastier character the dynamic would be wrong. Walt’s viewpoint is more complex though not necessarily more mature. He has bottled up rage which sometimes explodes, he starts his journey into crime for his family though there are already signs during season 2 that he is learning to selfishly enjoy his new sideline. His declarations about his `territory` make him sound almost like the vicious Tuco and we see quite early on Walt is capable of physical brutality.

The picnic was ruined when they realised they'd forgotten the salad dressing

The one aspect of the show were I suspect most viewers are prepared to be led unknowingly is the science of it. Various scenarios require Walt to spout all kinds of chemical knowledge and he soon takes on the mantle of Heisenberg who was a real life German theoretical physicist who rather gloriously invented something called The Uncertainty Principle which pretty much sums up Walt’s situation. Don’t bother Googling him because it’s all the kind of stuff that only Physics geeks would understand, unless of course you are a Physics geek though you can find out where to buy a Heisenberg Hat as worn by Walt’s alter ego.

Breaking Bad is as much a metaphor about a mid life crisis as anything; about lost possibilities and potential and how some people seem to get ahead whereas others are left behind. This fuels much of Walt’s inner rage but is never presented without large dollops of self doubt. There is a striking moment when Walt declares that when he first learned he had cancer he thought “why me?” and now he learns his tumour has shrunk by 80% he still thinks “why me?”. Perhaps he can only carry out the acts he does because he assumes he will soon be no more and it will be interesting to see how this plays out as he continues to live. One curious element is Walt’s contradictory behaviour especially at the end of season 2. He goes out of his way to save Jesse from substance induced oblivion after Jane’s death yet days earlier had earned over a million dollars selling all his remaining meth to another dealer something he also missed the birth of his daughter to undertake. It is as if he is slowly substituting one family for another though he may also be excising his guilt over his complicity in Jane’s death. The whole issue of whether Walt actually likes Jesse or not is an interesting undercurrent because he ends up doing more for him than you would expect.

Season 2 is a master class in plotting as various strands weave together in an audacious final episode that ends with a mid-air plane collision that leads to that strange image of the burned pink teddy bear floating in Walt’s pool which has been popping up from time to time thus ending the season with the same image with which it began. How this happens to be could be construed as just a bit too clever; after all what are the chances of these coincidences coming together? Yet it’s as much the way it’s done as what is done that impresses. Storylines intermingle in a way that provides surprises galore because we only see half of it. Skylar’s deconstruction of Walt’s mountain of lies - which incidentally Anna Gunn delivers with such grace and restrained anger – is kicked off by two words (“which one?”) and all happens in one subsequent scene. The revelation of Jane’s father’s occupation is so left field that you are left open mouthed when things go wrong and all of a sudden the body bags outside the White’s house make sense too. This ability to know what to show and what to tell overrides any doubts that would otherwise linger about the verisimilitude of what we are watching.  Vince Gilligan says he was partly inspired by Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi story The Sound of Thunder in which an accident involving a time traveller in prehistoric times alters all subsequent history.

So, at the end of the first 20 episodes is Breaking Bad as amazing as people say? Of course it is, in fact it is rare to find a show that exceeds the hype made around it. Time to move on to season 3!

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