Breaking Bad has ridden such a tidal wave of critical adulation -- perhaps the most effusive since The Wire earned every plaudit under the sun -- that I reached the point where every day I didn't get around to trying it out felt like a missed opportunity. Finally, I couldn't wait any longer, so I set aside the various TV series I'm catching up on to give it a go. Naturally, this AMC series about a cancer-stricken man cooking crystal meth lives up to the hype, and while this first season contains a few wrinkles at the beginning, by the end of its truncated order it establishes itself as great television and leaves plenty of room for growth.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, works a second job at a car wash to supplement his meager income to account for his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), taking off for maternity leave. After collapsing in a coughing fit at the car wash, Walt discovers that he has inoperable lung cancer, which he cannot bring himself to tell his family. Concerned with leaving his wife, his palsy-stricken son and his coming daughter deeply in debt, Walt decides to build a nest egg for his family. Following his brother-in-law, Hank, a DEA agent, on patrol one day, Walt gets the idea to cook meth to make fast, easy money to leave behind. What's life in prison when you've only got months to live?
Initially, Breaking Bad has such a deadpan absurdity to it that I wondered if the show was a black comedy instead of a drama. While watching the lab bust that inspires him, Walt sees a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), flee the scene. Rather than rat him out, Walt tracks the boy down and decides to make him his partner: Walt cooks, Jesse deals. The kid is as incredulous as the audience, and the insanity of it all only compounds when Walt ends up cooking the purest batch of meth in the Southwest, which he modestly chalks up to basic chemistry. (When the DEA eventually gets a sample, agents note that their own chemist could not make a batch this good.)
The madness only piles up from there. Jesse's old partner, Emilio, got busted, leading him to believe that the kid ratted him out and threatening Walt's attempts to sell his product wholesale to dealer Krazy-8, Emilio's cousin. The two dealers come to kill Walt under suspicion of him being a cop, and once again his chemistry skills avail him when he suddenly throws his materials together to create mustard gas, killing the two. Well, not quite, and the tough-talking Krazy-8 suddenly comes to fear Walt when he comes to and sees the mad genius who can kill him with a few mixed powders.
For all of the attention to scientific detail -- with necessary gaps in editing to prevent people from getting ideas for recipes -- Breaking Bad does not conform to the same realistic elements that made The Wire so memorable. Hell, it doesn't even try to play it as straight as CSI. The show introduces a succession of grotesques in quick order and then tries to make sense of them through the grounding element of the chemical accuracy. Mild-mannered Walt tries to set a standard for himself as a meth manufacturer, as if a proud entrepreneur slapping his name to a quality product, and he evolves over the seven episodes into a surprisingly hard-edged figure completely at odds with his weak frame, made even weaker through chemotherapy.
The rest of the characters are just as insane: Marie, Skyler's sister, shoplifts while husband Hank uses FBI connections to get his hands on illegal Cuban cigars. Jesse slips in and out of meth-induced paranoia, and his wannabe gangsta demeanor begins to fade as the quality of Walt's ice attracts dangerous men. Amusingly, he begins to follow Walt's example somewhat when he attempts to cook some of the teacher's pure meth with another junkie friend and spends most of the time chastising the other for the same childish behavior Jesse himself exhibited in the pilot.
The first four episodes generally play out as high comedy: when Krazy-8 survives the attack and Jesse locks him in his basement, the kid and Walt argue over who will kill the dealer. Walt tries to pawn all such responsibilities onto Jesse and thinks that his instructions -- in this case to dissolve the bodies in strong acid -- fulfills his end of each bargain and leaves the heavy lifting to the boy, but Jesse will hear none of it. Jesse wins a coin toss, setting in motion a long, tense subplot of self-doubt as Walt questions whether he can kill a man. There can only be one conclusion to the situation, but the depths Cranston plunders with minimal face movement and hesitant body languages makes the two episodes over which the question of his action plays out unbearably suspenseful, even tragicomic in his conversations with Krazy-8 (or Domingo, as his parents would call him). And then the writers can break up the tension of this plotline with the hilarity of Jesse ignoring Walt's instructions to get plastic containers in which to dissolve the bodies and simply melting Emilio in his bathtub, only to discover that the acid also eats through ceramic, metal, wood and anything non-plastic, thus burning a hole through the second floor and dropping wet mounds of soupy flesh all over the place. Shaken by the experience, Jesse attempts to quit the game and return to the upper-middle-class parents who threw him out, only to be cast out again for not ratting on his preppy, younger brother when discover the tween's pot (perhaps explaining how Jesse could have thrown away such a nice life).
The series takes a turn for greatness, however, in the fifth episode. After Walt's cancer is finally revealed to his family and friends, the he tries to argue against getting chemotherapy, knowing that he'll just put his family in debt before dying. Episode writer Patty Lin finds just the right balance between the snatches of drama seen up to this point and the black comedy that defined most of the early episodes when Walt's family stages an intervention, a subtle irony that tics across Cranston's face as he ponders it, only instead of drugs they plea with him to save his life by undergoing a treatment that will force him to down dozens of pills a day. It starts funny, with meathead Hank typically unable to share his emotions and Skyler trying to find some stability after hearing the news by insisting that no one speak unless holding the "talking pillow." Yet the show undermines and breaks expectations by structuring the severe parts of the intervention in a way that doesn't turn out in a pat manner. Walter Jr. gives a moving speech about the difficulties he faces with his disability and asks his father point-blank, "What if you gave up on me?" that brings Walt to the verge of tears. Then, however, Marie, who sees chemo patients every day at the hospital, says that Walt should be allowed to make a choice for himself and bluntly notes how many chemo patients seem as if they'd prefer death to their suffering.
At this point, Cranston proves why he got the Emmy over more well-known names. He quietly tells his family that he feels he never had a choice in life, suggested earlier by seeing his former co-worker, Elliot, who runs a lucrative chemical company with his wife Gretchen after Walt dropped out in the company's infancy to teach. When evidence comes to light that he and Gretchen shared something that might have driven Walt not only to sever his partnership but even refuse Elliot's financial aid in this time of need, the impoverished pointlessness of Walt's life takes on a deeper sadness. He notes that chemotherapy could prolong his life, but to what end? What is life if he's too weak and nauseated to move? Though he eventually agrees to the treatment, Walt shatters the normal way these interventions play out on the screen by calmly but urgently requesting that he be allowed to die.
There's something ingenious, insane yet oddly plausible about Breaking Bad's premise. Cranston's bent-over, nervous frame carries that hint of authority present in any good teacher, broken down by a crap paycheck and youthful defiance and apathy but still able to silence an unruly teenager with a growl. Watching his arc from nervous law-breaker who hangs his good clothes outside the RV in which he cooks to avoid getting odors on his clothes and rousing suspicion to a bald, Stoic presence in the drug trade who can brew false meth to act as explosives when someone tries to harm him or his partner is as fascinating as television gets.
Still, the writers never lose the comedy. The first great deadpan of the series showed Walt finding an outlet for his shock at receiving his diagnosis by fixating on a mustard stain on his doctor's coat, and the central gag of the finale involves Walt having to cook several pounds of glass in Jesse's basement to appease a dealer while a realtor shows up to hold an open house in the place. By the end of the season, Walt is set to make more money than he's ever dreamed of but he's also under the thumb of a psychotic dealer. This produces a sinking feeling in one's stomach but, in context of what came before, all you can do is laugh, and that's Breaking Bad in a nutshell.