"Breaking Bad" hurts so good
That was my reaction when the Emmy's wrapped up last year, and not because I have anything personal against Cranston, who I've enjoyed as wacky dad Hal in "Malcolm in the Middle," and more so, as Tim Whatley in "Seinfeld." I had just never heard of "Breaking Bad" before, and as someone who follows TV rather closely, it caused me to re-evaluate my priorities a bit (must ... watch ... MORE ... TV).
So now that I'm playing catch up with "Mad Men," it made sense to latch onto AMC's other prized drama ... even if it's a full year late. But Season 2 of "Bad" started last night and the DVD of Season 1 only recently came out, so I hadn't been offered an opportunity to dig into what's been called one of the best shows on TV -- well, at least according to Stephen King.
With only a seven episode first season thanks to that bloody writer's strike, I figured I could bang out most of the DVD set this weekend (I finished six and only have the Season 1 finale to go, woo-hoo!). Wow, I wish there was more to enjoy.
Created by Vince Gilligan, "Breaking Bad" (a Southern expression for when someone goes astray) follows Walt White (Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher stuck in the middle class struggle with a pregnant wife and disabled teenager. To make ends meet, he has to take a degrading second job as a car wash attendant -- which is where he collapses one day after weeks of intense coughing fits. Turns out Walt has lung cancer despite having never smoked a day in his life.
When his brother-in-law, an alpha male D.E.A. agent, mentions how much money he recently seized in a high-end meth-amphetamine bust, Walt gets an idea to help pay for medical costs and not saddle his family with debt. Aided by an irresponsible, burned-out student (Aaron Paul) he runs into while on a police ride-along, Walt's plan to cook up batches of pristine crystal meth goes into high gear. The situation spirals out of control in unpredictable and darkly funny ways -- including a death scene that, well, you have to see it to believe it -- and eventually places Walt in a moral quandary that'd be much easier to handle if he were, you know, Tony Soprano, and not a mild-mannered chemist without a criminal record.
The show -- which, in concept, has been compared to Showtime's "Weeds" -- is a revelation. Cranston's Walt is so numb, so profoundly pathetic in his weakened physical and mental state, the fact that he's aiming to be an unlikely drug kingpin would usually be enough to steer a show this audacious. But it's so much richer. Instead, you find yourself rooting for Walt to do what he feels is right for his family -- even as the collateral damage from his duplicity lies in plain view.
Pushed into a dark corner, a man who has seemingly been unable to control anything in a rather unfair life, finally decides to push back. It isn't pretty, but heck, if you use today's dour economic climate as a comparison or a reason to understand Walt's plight, desperate times call for desperate actions.
There are several other wonderful dichotomies to explore as the first season winds down. Walt and his partner Jesse couldn't be more different. Jesse is about the quick fix as a dealer and junkie who never applied himself in high school. Walt is about the big score and making a pristine product -- a man obsessed with using chemistry properly. Just as Walt is a fish out water in the criminal world, it turns out Jesse has been a fish out of water when it comes to his trade. Sure, he knows where to find junkies and addicts, knows how to crank out inferior product at low return. But he's never looked at meth making as chemistry, as scientific property that despite its destructive qualities in drug form, has tremendous beauty as a process to Walt.
The real fix, though: Cranston, who is as good as advertised. In fact, he's better -- particularly once he loses his hair, which magnifies both his increasing sense of desperation and wilting sanity.
So there you have it: "Breaking Bad," my new favorite show. And just in time for Season 2 to begin.
"Breaking Bad" airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on AMC.
-- Thomas Rozwadowski, firstname.lastname@example.org
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