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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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"|