by Richard Hart
How far would you go for love? What would you be willing to do to protect your future? At what point does the compromise outweigh the reason for making it? These themes are at the American heart of the AMC series “Breaking Bad”.
Breaking Bad is about Walter “Walt” White, played by Bryan Cranston, he’s a fifty year old chemistry teacher who is in debt and has terminal cancer. He’s a character facing destruction, both physical, financial and even emotional. Walt is up against the odds and as the maxim says, sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.
In his desperation and despair Walt decides to use his chemistry skills to cook crystal meth, a highly addictive (and destructive) drug. Walt intends for the money to provide for his family after his death. To get the drugs sold, Walt forms an alliance with Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) a local dealer.
The series works around the dueling priorities in Walt’s life as he attempts to make an entry into the dangerous and devastating world of being a meth dealer whilst avoiding his wife’s suspicion. Set into the background of the first two seasons is his son’s rising anger at his father’s illness. There is also Hank, who is both Walter’s brother and a DEA agent
Hank offers to help Walt personally, inadvertently playing a role in starting Walt on his road towards becoming a meth dealer, whilst professionally working against the very drug trade that Walt has embarked upon.
Part of the allure of the first season is Walt’s realisation that he is actually very good at being a drug dealer. His knowledge of chemistry means he cooks “great crystals” whilst his intelligence and his unassuming nature make him more dangerous to his adversaries than he first appears. All of these elements are weighed up and performed to great aplomb by Cranston, who is a revelation in the lead role. Some of you will know Cranstonfor his much more family friendly role in Malcolm in the Middle but his role as Walt sees him find some depth and pathos as a family man struggling under enormous pressure.
The central crux of the first season was deceit; both Walt’s deceit of his own wife to his new activities and then the deceit that Walt and Jesse work out with the pseudonym “Heissenberg”, who later becomes a target of Hank the DEA agent.
As the first season comes to a conclusion, Jesse and Walt form an alliance with successful but unbalanced drug dealer “Tuco” who is played by Raymond Cruz. This alliance leads directly into the second season where the pressures and temptations on Walt and Jesse get larger and more personal.
The first time Walt crosses a line is when he becomes a meth dealer. But this is far from the last line he is forced to cross and the theme going into the second season works around corruption. There is the corruption of the drug dealing relationship between Jesse and Walt. There is the corruption in the family as an increasingly suspicious wife Skyler turns to dramatic measures to try and take back control of her family. And there is the personal corruption that Walt goes through, forcing him to examine exactly why he’s dealing drugs.
The second season ends with a shock moment, a visual slap in the face that is gently foreshadowed but really hits you hard. Its commonly thought to be illustrative of a major part of the story’s ethos; that things cause damage no matter what your intention, no matter what your excuse.
The acting is generally very good and the supporting turns are excellent. Cranstonand Paul are very good in their lead turns. Dean Norris steals many scenes throughout the second season dealing with his complex character, Hank. Anna Gunn improves by the episode as Skyler, especially in the second season where she is given greater emotional weight to work with. One of my favourite character actors Giancarlo Esposito has a scene stealing turn as “Gus”, a mysterious new contact for Jesse and Walt.
The series at no point glorifies the life of a drug dealer. Whilst the new role as “Heisenberg” breathes a new lease of life into Walt, both physically and emotionally, he is forced to come up against his own demons time and time again. Contrast his reaction to dealing with the dealer “Krazy 8” in the first season to how he removes an unfortunate problem late on in season two to see how much a man can be overcome by his own shadow.
Equally the effects of drug use are illustrated in the life of Jesse and his girlfriend Jane as she struggles with her addiction to heroin and her relationship to Jesse. The horrors of drug addiction, which alludes to the damage that Jesse and Walt are causing, are shown with brutal clarity.
There lies the overall series great hook and intellectual lynchpin; that we identify with and root for these two characters but what they do is wrong, even if it is well intentioned and they are seemingly decent people. But at what point do they cease to be decent people? At what point are they just another pair of scum-bag drug dealers?
Of course the series has a few weak points. The production values in the first season aren’t quite up to the lavish HBO standards. There are a few fairly hackneyed devices in the first season, though these start to fall away in the second season. But the biggest weakness is part of the series appeal; its central premise.
When watching the first episode there is a feeling that it must have a finite lifespan. The lead character has a terminal illness and faces death. At some point the series, like Walt, has to face up to that “ghost at the feast” and find a way to make it work. The series, now optioned for a fifth and sixth season, faces a danger of becoming stilted and even silly. A good television series needs to know when it has outstayed its welcome. For examples of when they stay for too long, just look at “24” or “Lost”.
Breaking Bad is worth a watch, the first season sets up an interesting proposal and the second season only served to make it more intriguing. We’ve been set an interesting riddle about corruption and crossing a line. Now I wait to see whether the show has the answers to riddle.