This American TV series from AMC is now in its fifth and final season. With the show taking a mid-season break and the final eight episodes scheduled to be broadcast during the Summer of 2013, now seemed a good time to attempt catching up by giving series one a try. Especially as it currently sits on an impressive 9.4/10 on IMDB.com – at the time of writing this article – and garners nominations (and wins) consistently at the Golden Globes and Emmy awards.
So… what’s it about?
Well, Vince Gilligan (a former writer for “The X-files”) wanted to create a TV show that turned the hero into a villain over the course of its run. That is the story arc that concerns itself with our ‘anti-hero’, Walter White. Played by Bryan Cranston, (‘Hal’ in “Malcolm in the Middle”), Walter is a meek middle-aged high school Chemistry teacher living in New Mexico. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Walter decides to use his knowledge of chemistry to become a drug dealer and thereby make some money for his family by before he dies.
When his partner-in-crime, ex-student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), asks Walter why he wants to risk everything by making crystal meth, Walter gives his reason thus:
“I am awake.”
Over the course of the season, we see exactly how the mild Walter White comes to terms with his altered reality. The cataclysmic news of his imminent death has awakened something in Walter and now the genie is out of the bottle it cannot be put back. His relationships with his wife Skylar, his teenage son Walter Jnr., his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank and sister-in-law Marie are all put to the test as he harbours his secret from them all. They all think they know him and what is best for him but the normally passive Walter has had enough and now wants to decide his future for himself.
“I feel like I’ve never really made any decisions for myself.”
The American writer and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, once said “The vast majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. Not so the new “breaking bad” Walter. Rather he will ‘rage against the dying of the light‘ by doing anything or everything he can to ensure his family are taken care of.
These hurdles are not insubstantial either. Along the way he must deal with all sorts of problems: how to keep the secret from his family; how to get the right ingredients and equipment to ‘cook’ the best quality crystal meth in New Mexico; where to ‘cook’ it; how to sell it in large quantities; how to avoid getting his hands dirty and, importantly, how to stop his new ‘hobby’ impinging on his normal life.
Reasons to be critical of the series:
1) Skylar White
Walter’s pregnant wife, Skylar, is potentially one of the most annoying characters in TV history. Self-satisfied, mom-of-the-year Skylar is the reason Walter is doing all these mad things. Yet, at one point, Walter turns to her and says:
“Could you just climb out of my ass? Could you do that for me? I’d really appreciate it.”
You end up punching the air when he says this. The lantern-jawed miserablist is always on his case: rolling her eyes; nagging him like a child; trying to talk about her ‘feelings’ when you can tell the poor guy just wants to be left alone.
Okay, so it’s understandable that he wants to make money for her so that she is looked after when he is gone. But, umm, she can go to work you know Walter. I know she wants to be a writer but hell, she may just have to get a regular job and do that in the evenings until that takes off.
2) Oh, the slowness
The pace is too slow and languid at times, especially in the early episodes. There are a lot of scenes where the plot does not move on and we get “humorous” family scenes instead.
[NB: It should be noted that the tense first episode of series two, directed by Cranston himself, seems to have resolved this however.] Perhaps, then we should see the first series as being all about exposition and by the end of the series everything is now set up.
The actor that plays druglord “Tuco” is really bad and I don’t mean badass bad. He’s just not very good at being threatening… or believable for that matter.
4) Walter being mean to Jesse
While Walter and Jesse are good together as the two central characters, Walter is consistently nasty and bullying towards Jesse when Jesse has, as far as I can tell, not done anything to deserve such treatment. This can be quite alienating as a viewer but perhaps it should be seen as a reminder of things to come as Gilligan tests your loyalty towards Walter.
Reasons for checking out this series:
1) The central idea
Vince Gilligan, the show’s writer, has observed that most characters in other television series tend to reside in a static universe. Nothing changes. The character often remains the same from start to finish. Here he has boldly decided to push the audience’s loyalties, for once, by showing its main character as sympathetic initially so that you toast his early successes. Then, ultimately, he will be presented with some disturbing moral conundrums and he may choose, horror upon horrors, to do the wrong thing. This complex character arc is one to be commended and one which makes for daring television.
2) The acting
Bryan Cranston, Gilligan’s first choice for the character of Walter, is the only man that Gilligan felt could play a protagonist who does terrible, unforgivable things along the way. Despite the studio’s reluctance to cast Cranston (due to pigeon-holing him as the buffoon in “Malcolm in the Middle”), they thankfully did not manage to cast their own choices: John Cusack or Matthew Broderick. The execs’ loss is TV’s gain as Cranston has picked up his third Emmy for “Outstanding Lead Actor”. His ability to maintain an integral sense of humanity about his character to keep the audience engaged with his struggles is something that Gilligan recognised in Cranston from the beginning. Watching his worn-in face agonise over these awful decisions then gradually finding strength he never knew he had is definitely a plus point to savour.
3) Chemistry is fun, who knew?
The clever uses Walter puts his chemistry knowledge is really fascinating; like one of the researchers from “Q.I.” has popped up to add a fact or two. Whenever Walter has an insurmountable problem, he recalls this knowledge and comes up with a clever/kickass (delete as appropriate) chemical compound to help save the day. It is like Batman and his utility belt… but with actual practical science. I only wish we had more examples peppered throughout the series. Either that or my old “Johnny Ball chemistry set”.
4) The writing AND the acting
The writing and delivery of the comic dialogue given to Hank’s character and the bickering dialogue between Jesse Pinkman and Walter White is priceless at times. Describing White and Pinkman, Aaron Paul likens them to ‘The Odd Couple’. The relationship between chemistry teacher White and dropout waster Pinkman as they feel their way into big time crime is comedic and tragic at the same time. Moreover, both characters are sufficiently realised that they could have interesting pasts and interesting futures to be explored in later episodes.
5) It’s short and sweet.
The first series is only 7 episodes long. This will hardly tax you.
IN SHORT: An ambitious character study and an engaging story. This is definitely only going to get better.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
A slow burner of a start.
What do you think of “Breaking Bad” (Series One)?
Watch a promo trailer for “Breaking Bad” series one here:
Watch the show’s writer Vince Gilligan talk about Bryan Cranston here:
Watch Bryan Cranston in “Malcolm in the Middle” before morphing into Breaking Bad’s Walter White here:
Watch a gag reel for “Breaking Bad” here: