Monday, July 18, 2011

Breaking Bad: Death of a Chemist, Birth of a Monster

Breaking Bad
Created By: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, and Dean Norris
Writers: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Geogre Mastras, Sam Catlin, John Shiban, Moira Walley-Beckett, J. Roberts, Gennifer Hutchison, and Thomas Schnauz.
Directors: Andrew Bernstein, Michelle Maxwell MacLaren, Vince Gilligan, Colin Bucksey, Bryan Cranston, Johan Renck, Terry McDonough, and Michael Slovis

I don’t write about it often, but I try and keep up with a number of shows. There are television shows that accomplish a lot in their serialized hours, and much of the best that the moving image has to offer is now seen in the comfort of our homes. Mad Men has revitalized the cultural legacy of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit era. Parks and Recreation has found a constant source for satire in small town government with its amazing ensemble of comedians. And many of the best shows are complete and now on DVD, including the politically charged Battlestar Galatica, the depressingly hilarious Party Down, and the short-lived sci-fi western Firefly (I have yet to sit down with David Simon’s expansive crime drama The Wire, but plan to…eventually).

All of these shows are reimagining the television as a writer’s medium for delivering smart comedies and dramas that speak to our age. However, none are doing it as well, and with such audacity, as Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, which is now returning to AMC for its fourth season. Breaking Bad has a smaller scope than many of the other shows that have been canonized by television gurus, but its intimacy with its characters has allowed it to transcend its premise and deliver some of the most intense, though-provoking, and morally challenging television ever produced.

For those who don’t know the series, please direct yourself to your closest Best Buy and purchase all three seasons. But in all seriousness, Breaking Bad chronicles the tale of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who learns in the pilot that he has terminal cancer. In an act of desperation to provide for his wife, teenage son (who has cerebral palsy), and his daughter on the way, he finds a local meth dealer and proposes that he become a cook. Walter, you see, used to be a very prestigious chemist, but had some sort of falling out that Mr. Gilligan has still left somewhat ambiguous (part of the brilliance of Breaking Bad is how slowly it has conveyed  what many would perceive to be necessary back story).

As the story goes with these shows, Walt has taken on higher stakes, both in terms of his business, and his moral compass. We’ve seen Walter go from small time cook to ruthless drug lord. At first, he was questionably sympathetic; now he’s down right reprehensible. Played by Bryan Cranston, known before for his role as the comic father in Malcolm in the Middle, Walter is not an easy character to enjoy being around or even watch. He’s a quiet and reserved man, and without the charisma of a Don Draper or a Tony Sopranno. Cranston has taken no chances to give us a way to truly like Walter. In one of the show’s best episodes, a bottle episode called “The Fly” (and directed by Brick’s Rian Johnson), Walter, who has been drugged, apologies to his partner Jesse for an unforgivable act he has committed that Jesse is unaware of. Cranston slowly lays it out, making it the scene play less like drama, and more like a silent thriller in which each line could lead to an eruption of violence.

And it’s not just Walter’s story. Aaron Paul as Jesse has developed from a meth smoking moron to a solemn shell of a person with a Nietzschean attitude. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) has never simply been the concerned unbeknownst wife, and can be in some ways just as cruel as Walter. And the show’s real hero is Dean Norris as Walter’s brother-in-law Hank, a DEA agent who has gone through quite a few ordeals over the season, radically changing his outlook on the war on drugs. Plus there’s the comically evil lawyer Saul, Hank’s self-righteous wife Marie, and Walter’s boss, a seemingly ordinary man with a ruthless heart named Gus (Giancarlo Esposito).

But the real hero behind Breaking Bad is Mr. Gilligan, who has let the series develop with a formal audacity most shows wouldn’t dare. While television is a writer’s medium, Breaking Bad is one of the most silent shows, letting pauses speak for themselves instead of exposition. This is a show focused on story, not plot, and episodes can go without moving forwards any of the narrative strands (three seasons have covered a little more than six months, a sliver compared to many shows). The color palette of the show is not afraid to make the landscape of Arizona into an ugly and desolate environment, and the same goes for the characters as well. And Breaking Bad often builds to scenes of impossible tension, and when the violence finally ends, you literally feel your heart slowly returning to a steady beat.

 Breaking Bad does nothing to pull you along; the satisfaction is not in seeing the characters get what they want—it’s in them pulling their souls further into the darkness. In a recent debate at the AV Club, two critics debated what the enjoyment of the show was, and why it was so popular when it was utterly depressing. No show exonerates, or at least displays, such questionable moral decisions without repercussions than Mr. Gilligan’s show. But it’s also the show about the edge, and what people do when push comes to shove.

Now moving into its fourth season, the goofy chemist with the sad sack life is gone, and the bald, cold-hearted murderer is here to stay. And I couldn’t be more excited to see what Mr. Gilligan and Mr. Cranston will do to show what happens at the edge, and how someone’s true colors are revealed only at such a place.

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