Sunday, March 14, 2010

On DVD: "Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season"

I suppose there are some that would argue that the act of watching a television show shouldn’t be a stressful one—that it should be an escape to entertainment, the release of a pressure valve rather than the compacting of one. Breaking Bad, on the other hand, functions in such a constant state of dread, permeated by a sense of bad things right on the verge of occurring. It operates at a fever pitch; it keeps ramping up, higher and higher, increasing the intensity to such a degree that you’re not sure how they can possibly sustain it. But they do, and then they top it. It’s a masterful program.

The second season begins with the menace and tension so carefully worked up to in season one firmly entrenched—indeed, it begins with the previous season’s last scene, and then a terrifying extension of it. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a high school chemistry teacher who finds out at the beginning of the first season that he has inoperable lung cancer, and scant months to live. It’s terrible news on several levels, particularly financially: his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) is pregnant, and his son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy, so they’ve barely gotten by on his public school paychecks. In order to provide for his family in his absence, he enters the lucrative field of meth production; his partnership with Jesse (Aaron Paul), a meth-dealing former student, is an odd one, but Walter’s chemical brilliance results in a pure product that is highly in demand. So the two men find themselves in business with Tuco (Raymond Cruz), a tweeked-out kingpin on a hair triggered—as the duo finds out when he puts their drug-and-money exchange on hold for a moment to beat one of his underlings to death for a perceived (and minor) slight. Suffice it to say, Tuco’s not the kind of guy who you want to witness committing a murder.

With that jolt of narrative adrenaline, we (and our “heroes”) are plunged right into the lion’s den, and the show hurdles us headlong into its dark, strange world. The series is wildly unpredictable, but not in an irresponsible or gimmicky way—in fact, it is notable among crime dramas for being a show that thinks things through, that follows storytelling threads and considers their consequences. Creator Vince Gilligan and his skilled writers keep throwing turns at you, but they’re logical and inevitable, built upon the domino effect of bad decisions and rotten luck piling up like something out of a Scott Smith novel.

Those turns work because of the bedrock of realism that the show is built upon—even when the situations are far flung from what most of us consider “normal life,” we buy into it without hesitation. Much of that is the skill of the writing and the direction; the season is full of killer set pieces and brilliant sequences. In the second episode, “Grilled,” there’s some business with Walt and Jesse trying to sneak Tuco a snort of spiked drugs that is unbearably tense; the unexpected accumulation of events at the end of that episode is shocking, but also tight, clean, and precise. The sixth episode, “Peekaboo,” finds Jesse at a pair of meth-heads’ house, trying to collect a debt—it’s a jittery, chilling hour. Episode eleven, “Mandala,” ends with a ticking clock that is downright nerve-rattling, while the penultimate episode, “Phoenix,” has a closing scene that is a fucking jaw-dropper. The closing scenes of the season’s final episode, “ABQ,” may hinge on a coincidence that perhaps a bit too nice and neat, but nevertheless, they’re like watching the wheels fall off the wagon—in slow motion.

The pace of the season is driving, relentless—one thing right after another, with barely time to catch your breath in between. Some of that is thanks to Dave Porter’s score, which sounds like a refugee from a spaghetti western; some is due to the show’s continued use of out-of-left-field gore (the head on the turtle, and the moment that follows, is stomach-churning). But much of the show’s power is rooted in the brilliant performances. The desperation of extended secrecy is one of the series’ more compelling themes, and Gunn, as the wife who doesn’t know what Walter is up to (but becomes certain, over the course of the season, that he’s up to something), continues to work her role for every nuance it’s got. Speaking of desperation, Paul’s Jesse goes through his share of bumps in the road during season two (episode four, “Down,” is centered mainly on his epic string of bad luck) and he continues to find new angles on the character, particularly his muted pathos at the end of the line. Dean Norris, as Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law, gets several memorable scenes as well, and the writers smartly color outside his first-season lines of blowhard macho shithead; come to find out, he’s actually good at his job, which raises the stakes considerably. In smaller roles, Krysten Ritter (formerly of Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls) shines as Jesse’s romantic interest, a literal girl next door hiding darker tendencies within, while Bob Odenkirk (of Mr. Show) adds some welcome levity as skeezy attorney “Better Call” Saul Goodman (looking over a pre-dug grave, he muses, “I’m gonna keep a happy thought and assume this is just a negotiating tactic”). Good ol’ Danny Trejo even pops in for an episode, showing that the series’ guest-star cachet is on the rise (though one key episode is stifled by the casting of Giancarlo Esposito, who is very good but clearly not the background player the script wants us to think he is).

Make no mistake, Breaking Bad isn’t just a meth-fueled magic carpet ride. The season takes a turn at the 2/3 mark that is like a kick in the kidneys—emotional, and then one beat past that. From that point, it delves into sticky themes of guilt and entitlement; we think we’ve come to a place where we can feel a certain way about Walt, and then they yank the rug out. That’s the way it goes—nothing is easy on a show like this. God forbid.

Breaking Bad is deeper, thicker, and stronger in its second season, handily topping the seven-episode warm-up and ascending to a perch as one of television’s finest hours. It is tough and it is grim and it is, without question, tense and difficult to watch in places. But it is also a thrilling, voyeuristic peek at the dark side of human nature, and those who exploit it.

"Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, March 16th. For complete A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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