- Courtesy of AMC
BY DAVID TAO
Daily Film Editor
Published July 24, 2011
Are you a fan of petty wish-fulfillment? Do you like your television idiotic and inconsequential? Then watch some CBS, where “Two and a Half Men” has served as the drive-through McDonald’s of dumb comfort television for eight seasons now. Of, if you like your stuff a little edgier, get HBO. Rumor has it that “Entourage” and “True Blood” are turning into things you might like. If this sounds like you, what you’re definitely not looking for is “Breaking Bad,” a show that, while as nuanced as “The Sopranos” and as morally ambiguous as “Mad Men,” still manages to kick like a mule.
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A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer begins cooking sweet, sweet, chemically pure meth to support his family and pay for the chemotherapy he can’t afford. The show’s title is a Southern expression referring to a person going bad, and true to the colloquialism, the fateful decision to cook transforms former teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, “Malcolm in the Middle”) into a criminal mastermind, a walking id and a wannabe Scarface. He turns down his friends’ charity in favor of his jury-rigged meth lab, lies to his wife and son, hides in plain site from his DEA agent brother-in-law and misses the birth of his daughter due to his newfound fondness for criminal enterprise.
Over the course of three seasons, White’s life takes deeper, darker turns, as he and his accomplice, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, “Big Love”), ride their wave of crystal through multiple drug lord clients. White chillingly deflects the collateral damage of his actions, such as a wife who wants a divorce and a brother-in-law targeted by the cartel, with cheap excuses (“I’m a manufacturer, not a dealer!”). And when his boss decides to replace him, he sends Pinkman his replacement’s home with a handgun.
The new premier gives us mostly falling action. We see White, ever the “I’m-smarter-than-you” educator, lecturing his captors on why – now that his replacement has a hole where his brain used to be – he’s as indispensable as ever. We see White’s family, wondering where he is and why his car is parked in the driveway. And we see Pinkman, scarred after his first murder, stumbling around in shock, eyes red, face numb.
Still, it all bubbles along, slowly but surely, due mainly to Cranston’s sheer thespian brilliance. As Pinkman also is found by White’s captors, we can almost see the inside of Walt’s mind, as Cranston conveys a mixture of surprise, disbelief and pragmatic calculation. As the minutes tick by slowly, White’s protests become louder, more frequent and more desperate, tempering his pretentious chemist façade with increasing quantities of “please, please, please don’t kill us.” It’s realistically understated, yet simultaneously ominous. It’s not entirely surprising when the show finally decides to tear open a sickening gash into a character’s throat with a box-cutter, but it has the same cinematic intensity as a hammer to the nuts.
There’s no show without White, so it’s not really a spoiler to say that the dead body isn’t him, though he and Pinkman are stuck cleaning up the mess. But these aren’t the same starry-eyed entrepreneurs we saw years ago. They’ve broken bad for good, and disposing of bodies is becoming routine. As the show’s latest corpse dissolves in a barrel of hydrofluoric acid, a throwback to an earlier, fatal mishap, they brush off their employer’s concern about the acid’s effectiveness with some of the most disturbing words of the episode.