16/02/2014

Breaking Bad Season Three

Created by Vince Gilligan
Starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul
First shown in 2010

It starts with a striking sequence in which an increasingly large number of people crawl across semi desert tracks through a remote village towards a shack inside which we see a cornucopia of items including a sketch of Heisenberg.  It’s doubtful whether any series has begun with quite such an obscure visual the (unexplained) significance of which adds a typically offbeat flourish to a season that, even more than the first two, uses some stunning photography against which the story unfolds. You feel the heat of the desert as much as you do the tricky situations in which our two `heroes` find themselves. Much of the first quarter of the season deals with the emotional fallout from the dramatic events at the tail end of season 2 but the slow pace works because we know these characters by now and there is no necessity for the sort of detailed plot turns that marked out the sophomore series. By the time the key firework are lit we’re fascinated by every moment. 
Warning- Major Breaking Bad spoilers lie beyond this point.


There are a lot of people doing this now- by which I mean watching Breaking Bad for the first time, not cooking crystal meth! If you look at the initial ratings when these episodes were first shown in the US they are below 2 million yet the news has spread turning the series into one of the biggest slow burn sensations in television history. This has inevitably stoked the ire of those who did see it four years ago and have now moved on to something else. Our `sudden` delight in the series is, apparently, so old fashioned. Well don’t let Walt here you say that or he might just take the sort of sudden violent action that nearly knocks you off your seat later in this season. Such possessiveness about television is nothing new but it is a pity these people can’t enjoy the fact that an increasing number are now appreciating the show. Yes, you saw it first but perhaps a lot of us haven’t either the money or the time to subscribe to every channel under the Sun.
Season 3 is the triumph of a series developing and evolving. One of its strongest characteristics is the unexpected way important developments are dropped in our laps. On the one hand, the revelation that Skylar has guessed what Walt has been up to is done almost matter of factly. Yet when Walt mows down two henchmen in his car saving Jesse’s life it’s one of those shock moments. Broadly the story is more straight forward than the complexity of the second season which show runner Vince Gilligan admitted took a lot to produce.  The first quartet of episodes are framed in some gorgeous landscaped shots – especially in the first one which Bryan Cranston himself directs. After all that happened in the second season the opening episodes of this one can seem comparatively tame- though still intriguing- as both Walter and Jesse emerge as wounded individuals trying to cling onto something. Skylar’s attempts to force Walt out of the house leads to scenes of uncomfortable silence whenever the family are together, last season’s furtive Walt replaced by stony looks and resignation. It is only when Skylar sleeps with her boss that Walter is stirred into more aggressive action in a sequence where he causes a commotion at the office. Amusingly he tries to hurl a heavy vase through a window but it just falls to the floor and doesn’t break the glass. A more appropriate representation of where he is at this point would be hard to find though the pizza stuck on the roof of the house for a couple of episodes is another.
Jesse meanwhile uses his share of last season’s spoils to buy his parents’ house in which he then mopes about endlessly dialling Jane’s answerphone till the number is changed and he is forced into some kind of action. He daringly cooks some meth himself; utilising what he learned. In a telling scene Walter berates his sloppiness as for a few moments they become teacher and pupil again. Much of the interplay between them comes as a result of Jesse’s attempts to carry on the business- it is this that provides Hank with an escape from the dreaded El Paso assignment which he is again offered. It is also what provokes Gus to offer Walt a lucrative deal. Finally out of his home and living in a flat, suspended from his job, Walt accepts.
There is a fantastic menace lurking in each episode. Parallel to other developments we are witness to two silent cousins of Taco who have arrived to kill Walter whom they believe to be responsible for their uncles’ demise. In one tense sequence they are in his house until Saul (who of course has bugged the place) manages to get them to leave and Walt is none the wiser. In a masterful bit of plotting that would make you wary of ever falling out with Vince Gilligan, Gus uses this scenario to his advantage; saving Walt by telling the taciturn cousins it was Hank who killed Tuco then anonymously tipping off the latter in the hope he’ll finish them off.
Hank is still grappling with his inner fears which come to the fore when he is again posted to El Paso, a plum assignment he is outwardly bullish about but inwardly terrified of. We’re reminded in episode 3 of just how brutal a place it is courtesy of a flashback.   His obsession with and pursuit of the perpetrator of the blue meth delivers some terrific scenes. Almost parallel to Walter’s behaviour changes Hank has been unravelling with equal velocity leading to him placing his career in jeopardy. One of the season’s best moments comes when Walt and Jesse are inside the RV with Hank outside, unaware of course that his brother in law is there.
It is just one of many examples showing however good the series is, it is at its peak when Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are together. Whether in desperate situations like this- they are both great at `panic`acting but approach it from different places- or in more serious dramatic exchanges they are peerless.  While Cranston’s Best Actor Emmy became a fixture, this is the season for which Paul also won for Best Supporting Actor though it has to be said they are so well served by the scripts.
`Fly` in particular shows just how the two can hold the screen, the tenth episode being a two hander. Walt develops an obsession with a fly in the lab initially alone and later with Jesse and the results are an amazing mixture of dark comedy, drama and a touch of the bizarre, Directed by Rian Johnson (who made the film Brick) the episode delights in its limitations while the script utilises every possibility. Like a stage play it leads to a more sombre pinnacle in which Hank almost confesses what happened the night he found Jesse and Jane overdosing but not quite. The fly could be a metaphor for the entire series; something just out of reach, Hank ruminates on when the perfect moment to die would have been, a way out of the mess after having secured the money. Like much of this season, `Fly` does not deal in certainties, more in the sometimes random unavoidable problems that can divert us from our intended path.

Pancake Day at the lab


Which is what has happened to Hank; Dean Norris is excellent as Hank’s outer bravado is gradually whittled away by fear and doubt. Episode 7 concludes with a car park shout-out between a suspended Hank and the twins (whose upbringing we get a clip of at the start of the episode) ending in a bloodbath. Hank survives but is left in hospital unable to walk and bitter at circumstances.  Whatever happens to Walt, this season paints Hank as a weaker more vulnerable character. His single mindedness is similar to Walt’s yet the sacrifices he makes- his promotion and now his health suggest an even more tragic figure. Across two episodes the family wait anxiously for Hank’s prognosis- Walt of course is considerably more anxious than the others but has to stay leaving Jesse kicking his heels – and playing around like a child-  in the lab. These hospital scenes build a palpable tension especially when it transpires one of the brothers had also survived. This tension builds as cops opine that they wouldn’t mind killing him off and there is a moment where, left alone at the nurse’s station, you think Walt will actually do it. There is also a scene of Twin Peaks- like intensity when the surviving assassin sees Walt watching and drags himself out of bed staring at him. It is only then we learn that he has lost his legs but he nonetheless drags himself across the floor pure anger in his eyes.
“Don’t make the same mistake twice” advises Gus in that casual but menacing way he has when he unexpectedly invites Walt to a nervy dinner. This inscrutable yet powerful character has worked his way to the top of the chain by subtle methods- and Walt knows it. You get the impression Walt is the most intelligent person Gus has ever had working for him something that both concerns and impresses him. Is there a slight hint of appreciation in his face when Walt demonstrates how much he knows? The “mistake” Gus refers to may be the missing crystal which Walt has noticed and which Jesse is siphoning off to run his own deals. Jesse of course looks like he may be making another mistake in hooking up with Andrea a single mother he meets at the drugs support group. Their relationship starts off clean- as indeed it did with Jane but the spectre of drugs is round the corner. In the wonderful way the series has of circuitously returning to previous points it turns out her younger brother is the kid who set up his friend to be killed last season.
The season concludes with game changing moments that once again re-position the series. The crucial act is Walt’s saving of Jesse’s life after the latter sets off to kill the two henchmen responsible for the murder of Andrea’s brother. That act is so shocking that you do have a certain empathy with his actions but we already know Jesse seems incapable of carrying out such a cold blooded act as we have seen earlier on more than one occasion. It is Walt who saves the day in one of the most memorable moments of the series when he runs both the intended targets over in his car. This of course sets off a tense finale.
“No more half measures” Gus had warned Walt but now that the latter has acted rashly on the advice, he finds his days working for Gus are numbered. Virtually the whole way through the series to this point both Walt and Jesse have been the victims of circumstances or else we’ve seen what they are planning. `The last episode `Full Measure` turns this around so it appears to us that Walt has over reached himself as he is taken to the lab to be killed and seems to be prepared to give away Jesse’s location. The surprise is that this turns out to be a ploy to allow Jesse to despatch Gale the fastidious assistant from earlier who is brought back. At the closing moments it is debateable which of Jesse or Gale is the most terrified by what is happening.
It’s too easy to layer superlatives on a show like Breaking Bad and there are still, for me, a lot more episodes to go so you can take it as read that words like “amazing”, “brilliant” and “thrilling” are close by. What is really impressive though is the synergy that has kept the series in a powerful shape and twists the plot takes leading you to unexpected places. There are so many examples of shows which either start off strongly then tail off or begin in wobbly fashion but improve. Breaking Bad started with one of the best opening sequences anyone can remember and it has constantly maintained that standard. It seems to have no weak links; if you were being very, very, very picky you might wonder whether Gus is really looking hard enough if he has a choice of only two cooks, you could say that as the events of all 3 seasons have taken place over a relatively short period there are clues aplenty that the police should have picked up. You could question the moral undertones of a series that has us rooting for two guys who have killed and made huge amounts of dangerous drugs. Then again you could watch `Fly` or any of the shootout sequences or Walt’s running down of two henchmen or the way that Skylar has gradually been sucked into Walt’s alternative world or any one of a hundred things and realise this is the drama by which all this decade’s subsequent TV drama should be measured.


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