I pride myself that usually when people ask me “have you seen such-and-such?” I can smugly reply in the affirmative. Just on this website I’ve got reviews of over 200 shows; many admittedly only for the pilot, but there’s usually enough for me to make intelligent comment. Even in my impressive (pathetic?) watched list however, there are gaps, and those are sometimes very embarrassing. So I am relieved that when asked “oh my god, have you seen Breaking Bad? It’s incredible!” I no longer have to sheepishly say “um, no… I got the first season on dvd a few years back but I’ve never actually gotten round to it”. Better late than never right?
So all in all, there’s a good chance that I’m talking to the choir, and even more so one that may have seen not just the first season (which is only 7 episodes) but has made it all the way through to the fifth and final season (half of which has already premiered in the US, the 2nd half to follow this year). I know enough about the show to know that some of my comments will likely be met with “you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
The first season forms a very tightly structured story, we follow the journey of Walter White an unassuming chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Through lucky (?) coincidence he stumbles upon an opportunity to turn his chemical expertise into money for his treatment and his family by making crystal meth, partnering with a former student who is an unimpressive drug dealer. We see Walt divide his life in half – one part a pushed around husband and nice guy, one part scary bad ass who fits into the violence and intensity of the drug world surprisingly well.
The story shares some similarities with Weeds, a series that didn’t work for me because I was unsettled by the levels of violence and destructiveness that an urban housewife allowed to develop just to make more and more money. Breaking Bad however carefully skirted around that problem. Although Walter also makes bad decisions, there felt like there was more of a selflessness about it and a natural snowballing that didn’t lose me along the way as Weeds did. It also doesn’t treat Walter’s life or choices as anything other than bleak, there’s no glamour in the druf world at all, it’s not exciting or exhilarating, it’s brutal and terrifying.
The most obvious comment about the show is that the acting is absolutely superb. Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White is perfect as a very quiet, unremarkable man with occasional flashes of intensity as he embraces not just his criminal potential, but also his terminal diagnosis. His performance is beautifully subtle, so much more about what isn’t said than what is. In contrast Aaron Paul as his more drug savvy partner gives flamboyant performance for the most part but with brief moments of quiet, somehow making me care about a character that should be phenomenally annoying. The supporting characters don’t really do much beyond adding depth to Walter’s life. I found his wife generally pretty annoying, but she’s vital to show that Walter has pretty much given away control of his life to those around him, breaking the law is one of the few decisions he’s made for himself and although it’s a bad decision, you can see why it’s so empowering to him.
My one disappointment of the series was that the comedy elements got fewer and further between as the season went on. The comedy was always somewhat incidental, it was more about taking a moment for the audience and characters to acknowledge how ridiculous the situations were, but I felt there was less time for those moments in later episodes. Instead the comedy was more heavy handed, provided by the over the top brother and sister-in-law. I missed that lightness and hope that future seasons find it again, otherwise the show runs the risk of jut become too intense and heavy.
That is part of the reason that I’m undecided at the moment as to whether to watch season 2 or not. I did very much enjoy season 1 and was certainly impressed with it, but I can also see that life is unlikely to get better for the characters and I’m not sure that I want to see that. I’ve already got a few series on my roster (Supernatural and Sons of Anarchy for example) where I’m dragging my feat watching later seasons because the unrelenting awfulness inflicted on and by the characters that I’ve come to empathise with is just too depressing. Breaking Bad is a victim of its own success in that I may not watch anymore because it is just too good.
From the looks of it, I wouldn’t hold your breath on seeing Breaking Bad on TV (season 3 doesn’t have a planned airing date yet, let alone 4 or 5) but you can pick up some pretty good deals on boxsets at amazon