Breaking Bad is the story of a good man driven to bad places. Walter (Bryan Cranston) is a high school chemistry teacher who has just turned 50 when the series begins; he is writing off his grogginess and general malaise to mid-life crisis, but finds out there’s more to it than that. He’s got lung cancer, it’s spreading, and the prognosis isn’t good. Walt is worried about his family: his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) is pregnant, his son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy, and they live paycheck-to-paycheck. He’s desperately searching for a way to leave a healthy nest egg. And that’s when he tags along with his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) as they take down a meth lab. Walt sees Jesse (Aaron Paul), a former student, making a getaway. Walt goes to the young man and offers a deal: Walt cooks the meth, Jesse sells it, and Walt can stash away enough ill-gotten gains to take care of his family after he’s gone.
In its rough outlines, the series sounds astonishingly similar to Weeds--desperate protagonist makes an unlikely fit into the seedy world of narcotics—but tonally, the two shows are starkly different. It’s easy to chuckle at the goofy potheads that make up Nancy Botwin’s clientele, and to allow ourselves the comfort of knowing that, no matter what happens, she won’t deal the hard stuff. Breaking Bad makes no such concessions to viewer comfort. Crystal meth is a different beast, and the show has no qualms whatsoever with following the story’s natural inclination to kick over rocks and gaze at the vermin squirming around underneath.
There’s a raw, gritty intensity to the show, established immediately with its frantic scorcher of an opening scene. In that pilot episode, creator Vince Gilligan throws us off-balance, and never allows us to really get our bearings back—the series is unpredictable and frazzled, and even at its most stoic, it packs a perverse, voyeuristic thrill. The structure of the season that follows is shrewdly inventive—it throws Walter and Jesse together without too much contemplation, then deals, deliberatively, with the fallout of a first big deal that goes very, very bad. That splits them up, and the rest of the season (a total of seven episodes, shortened due to the 2007-2008 writer’s strike) follows the series of events that puts them back into the lab.
What’s great about good television, the advantage that it has over even the best of movies, is the time allowed for character and situational development. The changes to Walter’s personality are allowed to develop subtly over the seven hours of the season. We find, to both our surprise and his, that the cancer is not making him weaker, but stronger—stronger in character, and in purpose. It also gives him a sense of having nothing to lose, which certainly puts him at an advantage against the rough-and-tumble types he must now do business with, and the writers are confident enough to let us infer that without giving him some hack dialogue saying as much in black and white.
Similarly, the opportunities for extended storytelling allow them to pull events out and give them their full weight. Most films, even the great ones, can only spend a few minutes of screen time on a character making a choice to kill another. Early on, Breaking Bad spends a good two hours on it (and other things too, don’t get me wrong—it’s not some chamber piece about morality and mortality), as Walter knows that what he has to do, and simply cannot bring himself to it. His obligation, and the knowledge of the consequences (as outlined on his pros and cons list), sits heavy in the pit of his stomach, and it lends the episodes a real sense of dread. The resulting episodes are so tense, they manage to give you goose-bumps with a scene of Walter reassembling a broken plate. That’s skillful filmmaking, no matter what the format.
But it’s in episode five, “Gray Matter,” that you feel the show truly staking its claim as great television. Walt has finally told his family that he has cancer (though not about his alternate revenue stream), but he doesn’t want to pursue treatment. They decide to stage an intervention, and what begins as a potentially pat sitcom situation takes a lightning-fast turn from character comedy to tough, heartbreaking drama. “All I have left,” Walter explains, “is how I choose to approach this.” Cranston was a surprise Emmy winner for the series, but watching his work, it’s no shock at all—this is a tremendous performance, nuanced and brilliant. As his wife, Gunn does a tricky job (she must be both smart and completely oblivious) admirably, while Paul—though strangely reminiscent of Ben Foster—lets us see just enough of Jesse’s soul to keep from writing him off. He and Cranston also get a good rhythm going in their scenes, which is a nice contrast to the sprung timing of Norris, who plays Hank has a big, boorish lunk who is plenty dangerous all the same. Mitte (who has CP in real life) handles several difficult moments well, though Betsy Brandt (as Skyler’s sister Marie) doesn’t have much to do. About the only performance that doesn’t play is that of Raymond Cruz, whose Tuco is so deliriously over-the-top that he threatens the reality of the show; he’s “acting” in a way that the rest of the cast is not.
The overall tension goes a little slack around episode four, and occasional story threads are allowed to fall away (the business with the open house in the season’s final episode ramps up big with no payoff). These are minor defects, momentary glitches. Dark, unpredictable, and downright combustible, Breaking Bad is one of the most exciting and challenging shows on television today, joining its AMC brother Mad Men in expanding the boundaries of what television can do in today’s timid network climate. Its intense subject matter and smattering of sex, violence, and gore (watch out for that bathtub) certainly qualify it as an acquired taste, but audiences with the stomach and intestinal fortitude will find The Complete First Season to be rewarding, essential viewing.
"Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season" is currently available on DVD: it makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, March 16th.