I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard the concept and first thought “black comedy”.
A chemistry teacher, beaten down by the myriad sticks and stones of his life, discovers that he’s dying. Worried for his family’s future, he decides to put his time and skills to use in providing for them after he’s gone… by cooking and selling crystal meth.
In and of itself, the tale of Walter White doesn’t necessary reach out and grab you. It could be very good. It could be very bad. It could be somewhere in the middle. And so the middle was where I stood for those early episodes. It wasn’t until late in the second season that I committed to watching it.
What I saw when I did was something far more than a two-sentence logline. Something that defied, even transcended, the bounds of genre. Something that, for me, redefined what was possible in scripted television.
What I saw was Breaking Bad.
The series premiered on AMC (thereby joining Mad Men in restoring the network’s reputation) on January 20, 2008. Since then, its cast and crew have taken Vince Gilligan’s “simple” premise and built it into something far more complex and interesting than I had first imagined. Oh, it does have its moments of black comedy (Exhibit A: Bob Odenkirk’s inspired turn as the lawyer Saul Goodman), but it’s also filled with moments of shocking violence, acts of violation not merely against the body, but against the soul.
For the core of Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a man whose moral compass fails him long before his body does. It’s all too easy for Walt to rationalize his actions, to deny their consequences, but he’s long since abandoned the pretense that he’s doing this for his family. In three seasons, we’ve watched him do some fairly despicable things, far less to preserve his family than to preserve himself. A perfect example takes place in Season 2’s “Phoenix”, when Walt allows a girl (the girlfriend of his assistant Jesse) to die, leading to some horrifying repercussions for her family, for Jesse, and ultimately for everyone in Albuquerque. And for Walt? Nope, not his problem.
But Gilligan won’t let anyone off that easily, least of all him. To describe the show’s plot twists would be to describe interlocking chains of consequence that will ultimately ensnare everyone around Walt. When his wife discovers Walt’s business, she first files for divorce; now she’s helping launder his money. His brother-in-law, a DEA agent, is now in a wheelchair, the casualty in a blood feud between Walt and a Mexican cartel – a feud that Walt, of course, never knew existed. And I don’t even want to think of what will happen to Walt’s son (who adores him, to the point of near idolatry) when he finally comes to the truth about his father. The sins of Walter White will be visited upon everyone around him, and ultimately, he will pay for theirs and for his own, with far more than the soul he’s already given up.
Though everyone will suffer, the series’ strongest conflicts begin and end with three characters. With Jesse Pinkman, once Walt’s student, now his partner, and always a tortured soul; with Gustavo Fring, fast-food magnate, community benefactor, distributor, and sociopath; and with Walter White himself. The relationship between these men – labyrinthine in its motivations, and dangerous in its implications – has become the heart of Breaking Bad.
I can’t think of a better example of this relationship than a scene from the fourth season’s premiere episode. If you’ve seen “Box Cutter” already, then you’ll know EXACTLY what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, I’ll not be the one to spoil it. But it’s a masterwork of writing and acting, and typical of Gilligan’s method/madness, building a shocking outcome on a foundation of nearly unbearable tension and pitch-perfect performances.
And this is the part I’ve been trying to get to from the beginning. Those performances have elevated Breaking Bad to a level so far above what I ever expected of it. In Aaron Paul’s hands, Jesse becomes a torn and tragic mess; we root for his redemption, even as it falls further beyond his grasp. Giancarlo Esposito, with little more than a calm look and an even pace, has made of Gus one of the most terrifying villains I’ve ever seen, in any medium. And Bryan Cranston – well, do I need to rehash how good he is?
I suppose I could, but in the end (like so many things I recommend), you can’t really know until you’ve seen him in action for yourself. So I hope you will. Be warned, of course, that this show goes to some very, very dark places (again, I give you “Box Cutter”). But it’s so well written, acted, directed, that it’s truly something to behold.
Thanks as always for following along. I hope you enjoy the show and hope you’ll come back for my next dispatch.
Until then, “be seeing you…”