Thursday, May 24, 2012

Breaking Bad (Seasons 1-4)

Creator: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks 
Original Airdate: 2008-2011

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's a moment that arrives toward the end of Breaking Bad's fourth season when underachieving high school chemistry teacher turned crystal meth cook Walter H. White (Bryan Cranston) receives devastating news. The news is so bad, the person delivering it so clueless, and its ramifications so potentially catastrophic, it almost seems like a cruel joke. Basically every character on the show, including him, could die because of it and we don't hesitate for a second thinking the writers would do that without even blinking to service the story. Wherever rock bottom is he's officially hit way below that. Laying helpless and defeated on the floor in a fetal position, he starts crying. Only he's not crying. He's laughing. And that totally makes sense. There's nothing else left to do. It's the defining moment, and every piece of the puzzle and plot twist and turn the series has taken since the pilot episode aired in 2008 has been leading up to it.

Opening title card
Even the most successful series have creative peaks and valleys. AMC's Breaking Bad is just one huge peak with each season gaining momentum and the stakes growing higher. 46 episodes and not a stinker to be found, or a single minute that feels false or insignificant. We keep hearing we're in a golden age of television with just the past few years bringing us acclaimed dramas such as The Wire, Mad Men, Lost, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Homeland, The Walking Dead and Dexter. Going back further to what kick started it all you could include The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The X-Files and Twin Peaks. The list goes on and on. I've seen most, but not all. It's definitely been a fruitful 25 years for television, but this takes its much deserved spot atop that list. Creator Vince Gilligan has really crafted a modern classic here, confirming rumors that TV has indeed surpassed movies. But I didn't believe it until watching this, which pushes the medium to places it's never been. Mind-blowing from start to finish, it's one of the greatest television dramas of all-time.  

Faced with a terminal lung cancer diagnosis, mild-mannered science teacher Walter White tags along with his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) on a meth lab bust, leading to an encounter with former student and drug addict Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Soon Walt and Jesse team up with Walt realizing that cooking and selling crystal meth will financially provide for his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled teenage son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) after he's gone. By only description, the thought of a normal, middle-class Albuquerque suburbanite dealing drugs might sound like something from Weeds. Or a man with a dark secret he must hide to avoid capture from a relative in law enforcement could easily recall Dexter. None of it does. And then there's the ticking time bomb of cancer giving the series its sense of urgency early on, but even that (if just temporarily) becomes a non-factor. The show could have easily been defined by all this but that it isn't and amounts to much more than merely the sum of its parts is a testament to its depth. It's when all these factors go away that the narrative truly begins to take shape, transforming into a entirely different series than when it began.

Star Bryan Cranston and creator Vince Gilligan
Far exceeding the point where providing for his family financially works as a valid excuse for doing this, Walt continues to cook anyway as if the cancer has afforded a newer, more exciting life he couldn't have considered before the diagnosis. Operating under the criminal alias of "Heisenberg," Walt cooks the purest meth in the Southwest and attracts the attention of the Mexican cartel.  After a while, it starts to become indefensible to state that Walt is leading a double life at all. Now he is "Heisenberg," accepting all the collateral damage that comes with it and putting everyone close to him in harm's way, especially brother-in-law Hank. Most of Walt's problems stem from the fact that he and Jesse haven't a clue what they're doing. Jesse's a delinquent hothead prone to rash decisions while Walt's expertise lies in the chemistry, but little else. Calling them friends wouldn't exactly be accurate, and at times it's difficult to even consider them business partners. Whether they're trying to kill each other or saving each others lives, there's a strange but gripping dynamic that develops between the two that's at the core of the show, often more closely resembling father-son than teacher-student. But the most intriguing angle of their relationship is how their roles reverse over the course of the four seasons with Jesse becoming more level-head than the out-of-control Walt, who slowly becomes more of an addict than he was, but in a different sense.

In one of television's greatest performances, 3-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston sells this complicated evolution from wimpy science geek to criminal bad ass like nobody's business. And the beauty of it is how he never forgets that Walt is as much surprised by his own actions as we are until his pride and thrill of accomplishment take over, making him numb to it and nearly as bad and those hunting him. It's scary to think that after Malcolm in the Middle Cranston could have faded into obscurity and we would have never discovered the full range of his talent. Then again, material like this never comes around so matching the right performer with such a rare project is a feat in itself. If this were a movie he'd have 4 Oscars on his shelf already.

Jesse Pinkman and girlfriend Jane Margolis
Emmy winner Aaron Paul's matches Cranston step-for-step in versatility. Jesse is linked to two major tragedies over the course of the series that end up altering the character's entire existence. One involving his heroin addict girlfriend Jane (an unforgettable Krysten Ritter) and another heinous action that at the end of the third season that psychologically eats away at him. There's always this glimmer of hope that Jesse could eventually get his act together only to have another catastrophe occur that prevents it. Laying behind all the character's false bravado is Paul's sympathetic performance of a good kid from middle class family who only wants the approval that been denied to him his entire life. Similarly, it's often denied to him by Walt. Just as as Walt and Jesse can't seem to survive without each other, the same statement could easily be applied to the actors portraying them. Because of their work and some really brilliant writing, it's completely believable they'd go from wanting to kill one another one episode to saving each others lives the next. And as crazy as it sounds, the original plan actually called for the character of Jesse Pinkman to die in the first season.

After a Season 2 finale that feels almost Lost-like in terms of its karmic significance, there's a brief moment at the start of the third to catch your breath before the writers hit the reset button, changing the game completely. It's then when you realize Walt and Jesse's actions from even as far back as the pilot set in motion a domino effect that lands them in the fast food chicken restaurant, "Los Pollos Hermanos," face-to-face with the owner and new employer, Gustavo "Gus" Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Using his chicken chain as a front for meth distribution and an industrial laundromat as headquarters for a super lab, Gus comes off as a calm, soft spoken cross between Colonel Sanders and Barack Obama. But he's really a psychopath hiding in plain sight, keeping his cool even as he commits the most cold-blooded atrocities to protect his business. 

Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo "Gus" Fring
Esposito's remarkably composed performance makes Gus one of the most terrifying villains to ever appear on the big or small screen. When we finally get a flashback showing how this monster was created, it was more than worth the wait. As feared, he and Walt are more alike than either would be willing to admit. Working for the bone-chilling Gus insures far less safety than going at it alone as the imminent threat that he could off them at any time hangs over them. The seeds of mistrust are planted by this master manipulator who places them in the crosshairs of his bitter feud with the cartel, pitting the duo against each other and culminating in a graphic Season 4 shocker that features the most indelibly horrifying scene in the series.

Breaking Bad has the deepest acting roster on TV but the most under-appreciated is Dean Norris as agent Hank Schrader. Providing comic relief, he plays him as a smart man who's often excellent at his job but always seems to remain one step behind his brother-in-law because his pride gets in the way and Walt's just a half a step ahead. When an event occurs that compromises him he's forced to become a better, even more cerebral agent. and the scenes he shares with wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) preceding and following his tragedy are among the most emotionally charged in the series. Anna Gunn has the thankless task is playing the show's most unlikable character in Skyler, but that's not at all a negative. Her relationship with Walt changes drastically over time and she often does things to Walt that make you wish they'd just her kill her off, but I believe that's intentional and speaks to the effectiveness of Gunn's work. Her actions frustrate you, but Gunn makes them understandable and the performance never rings false. That we find ourselves frequently siding with her meth cooking, murderer husband who put her in this position to begin with is not only an interesting statement of how we view female characters on TV, but the an example of just how challenging the show's dynamic is.

Walter White examines the symbolic pink teddy bear
As innocent, breakfast-loving Walt Jr., RJ Mitte acts as the eyes and ears of the audience, articulating exactly what anyone watching must be thinking about his two crazy parents. But you know Walt and Jesse have it bad when the only person they can completely trust is ambulance chasing criminal attorney Saul Goodman, who's played with hilariously sarcastic, over-the-top glee by Saturday Night Live vet Bob Odenkirk. And by "criminal attorney" I mean a criminal who's an attorney. It's a real credit to the show that even he's written smartly, complete with a bag of legal and illegal tricks to capable of navigating them through any treacherous situation. Because Odenkirk's so funny and makes such a likable sleaze it's easy to forget he's saved each of their lives about half a dozen times with his schemes. Character actor Jonathan Banks plays an increasingly important role as the series wears on as brutish hitman and clean-up expert Mike who makes it a point to not let feelings in any way influence the proficiency of his work. And with the ringing of his iconic bell and heavy breathing, the wheelchair-bound patriarch of the Mexican drug cartel, Hector Salamanca, is given a sad and terrifying presence by Mark Margolis.   

It's kind of a shock to find out the brains behind the development of this series was a writer and producer on The X-Files. While that show definitely displayed flashes of brilliance from time to time, you wouldn't think anything in it suggested Vince Gilligan could be responsible for something as wildly different and groundbreaking. There is some overlap in terms of technical approach but this series does some things in that department we've never seen before on TV, specifically the use of its visually stunning Southwest desert photography and crazy POV shots. The polarizing third season single location episode, "Fly" (directed by Brick's Rian Johnson) is emblematic of the latter and indicative of the many tricks this series has up its sleeve. One of the few shows shot on 35 mm film, it looks and feels more cinematic than most movies, especially in when viewed in High Def. The cold open of each episode can't be missed, sometimes revealing essential flashback information.

Walt and Jesse cooking in the "super lab"
With only one season left, Gilligan's pitching a perfect game. Four flawless seasons with each one better than the last and the rare opportunity to go out on top. You have to wonder how he's planning to close it out since so much was wrapped up at the end of the fourth season. But there are plenty of loose ends and as anyone following the show knows, the tiniest loose ends often become explosive season-long story arcs. The fourth season finale's closing revelation suggests Walt's been corrupted beyond repair and there's now no turning back.  It seems almost inevitable that the show must end with his death and Jesse's redemption but even that isn't a guarantee. Nothing on this show is. If Gilligan says there's more left then there's more left. The writers are constantly painting themselves into corners and using their ingenuity to find a way out. But nothing I write could possibly do justice to experiencing this show for the first time. Art and entertainment has never converged quite like this. The only drawback to watching Breaking Bad is that anything you watch after it will seem a lot worse.


Time Lord said...

Wow. Wonderfully written review for a wonderfully produced series. Like the show itself, every word rings true, and every word is necessary to convey - BREAKING BAD is damn good.

Also, wonderful opening paragraph. That scene you're describing - My God, nothing I have ever watched before or since has spooked me as much. Bloody amazing.

jeremythecritic said...

Thanks...don't know why I put off watching this for so long but boy am I glad I finally got around to it. Probably the highest quality show I've ever seen. Just unbelievable acting and writing. Can't wait for Season 5.

Rick said...

Awesome! Check out my BrBa drawings on

Jennifer Aguiar said...

AMC has finally announced the return date for Breaking Bad ( E01-E08) on dvd. The highly anticipated 5th Season of Breaking Bad dvd will premiere on July 15th on AMC. It will have a run of 8 episodes and then go on hiatus. The second-half of the 5th season will air in the Summer of 2013. Of course this will make the series’ final 8 episodes. In the previous four seasons of Breaking Bad, the chemistry teacher, Walter White was trying his best to live and what will happen then in the fifith season of this drama.