Why ‘Breaking Bad’ is So Darn Good
Posted March 22nd, 2010 at 6:03pm by Dan Birlew in Television. Comments Off on Why ‘Breaking Bad’ is So Darn Good
AMC’s fascinating series is back on television for its third season, airing Sunday nights at 9/10pm. As with many other TV series these days I’m late to the party as usual, but no less inclined to cheer for my new favorite.
Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a high school science teacher who’s taken it on the chin with just about every catastrophe life can throw a person: his former partners and ex-girlfriend stole his research and made millions, his eldest son has cerebral palsy, and his wife is suddenly pregnant with an unexpected child. The final straw is when he’s diagnosed with stage three terminal lung cancer, even though he’s never smoked. Under-payed by the school district and forced to work at a car wash for extra money (where his own students heckle and deride him) Walt has a kind of breakdown. Hiding his illness from his family, he hopes to use his chemistry skills to create and sell enough crystal meth to support his family and send his kids to college after his death. But we soon learn that if the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then Breaking Bad is an effing roadmap to get there.
To this end Walt recruits Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul, whom I spotted at Cirque Du Soleil’s Viva Elvis premiere a few weeks ago), a former student and failure at everything, who dropped out and now cooks and deals meth. But Walt finds that breaking into the drug trade isn’t quite as easy as he assumed. Dealers don’t trust him or Jesse, and chaos ensues. Though Walt tries to walk away, he must account to his family for all the time he’s been missing. His only solution is to reveal to them that he has cancer. Though Walt can’t afford the treatments, his family refuses to let him die. Thus Walt contacts Jesse and resumes cooking meth, lying to his wife and son that the money is being provided by his old business partners.
For distribution Walt forces Jesse to contact Tuco, a psychopathic gangster who has taken over the local territory. At first Tuco assaults and robs Jesse. This forces Walt to adopt the pseudonym “Heisenberg” and confront Tuco at his business front, where he threatens Tuco by detonating mercuric fulminate. The devastating but non-lethal blast convinces Tuco to enter a business arrangement with Walt and Jesse.
Meanwhile Walt’s brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) is a DEA officer closing in on the trail of the legendary “Heisenberg.” His search leads him to suspect Tuco. After the DEA takes down Tuco’s operation, the gangster kidnaps Jesse and Walt and plans to take them to Mexico. While waiting for Tuco’s “cousins” to arrive, Jesse and Walt get away. Just then Hank, who is following up leads while searching for the missing Walt, intervenes and kills Tuco.
Walt engineers their separate alibis by undressing in a supermarket to simulate a disoriented “fugue state,” while Jesse shacks up with a skank in a hotel and convinces her to testify that he’s been there several days.
Later evicted from his aunt’s home by his parents, Jesse is forced to rent an apartment from Jane (Krysten Ritter), a recovering drug addict. Not long after, the two start a relationship and begin using heroin. Meanwhile Walt and Jesse expand into distribution, recruiting several of Jesse’s drug buddies to sell. When a dealer called Badger is busted, they hire scumbag lawyer Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) who isn’t satisfied with just a bite, but wants a cut of their operation.
As Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) grows increasingly distrustful of her husband, Walt believes that his blood-filled coughs indicate his lung cancer is growing worse. He and Jesse head in to the desert with their mobile RV meth lab and cook 38 pounds of meth to sell off before Walt dies. Unfortunately one of their dealers is gunned down by a rival gang and the others back out. Walt and Jesse turn to Saul for help, and he arranges for them to meet a buyer at a fast food restaurant. Only the buyer stands them up. Jesse spirals into heroin use while Walt learns from his doctor that his cancer has greatly reduced in size and may now be operable. Still, Walt returns to the fast food joint and is approached by the restaurant manger, mild-mannered and soft-spoken Gus. Gus is the contact Walt was to meet, except that he could tell Jesse was an addict. Walt assures Gus that he is the man in charge, and Gus offers him $1.2 million for his 38 pounds of meth, with only a short time to sell it. Though Skyler goes into labor, Walt is forced to miss the birth because he can’t get Jesse on the phone. He breaks into Jesse’s apartment to find them passed out on heroin. He takes the 38 pounds of meth to the deal himself.
Unable to trust Jesse while he’s a drug addict, Walt at first refuses to give him his cut of the money. But Jesse’s girlfriend and landlord Jane blackmails Walt. So Walt takes them their money and then goes to a local bar to skulk. There he meets Jane’s beleaguered father (without knowing who he is), who convinces Walt not to give up on Jesse. Walt returns to the apartment to try to talk to them only to find Jesse and Jane have passed out on heroin again. While trying to rouse Jesse he knocks Jane on her back, and she vomits and asphyxiates in her sleep.
Jane’s death pushes Jesse over the edge, and he enters rehab. Meanwhile Gus visits the DEA as one of three local entrepreneurs wondering how they can help fight drugs. There he finds out that Walt is Hank’s brother-in-law, and that he has cancer.
As Walt slips under anesthesia before his operation to remove his lung cancer, he accidentally admits having two phones to Skyler, which confirms all her suspicions about his secret life. Seven weeks later Walt and Skyler visit the doctor, who tells them that the cancer appears to be in remission. When Walt and Skyler get home, she tells him to move out. As Walt sits on the back patio contemplating the loss of his family, two airliners collide overhead. Debris and body parts rain down on Walt’s house. The cause of the collision was Jane’s dad, who was an air traffic controller and too overwrought by her death to continue working.
This season begins with everyone dealing of the aftermath of the midair collision. Jesse returned from rehab with a new outlook on life: he has accepted that he is “the bad guy,” and we’re not sure if this will make him even more reckless than before. Skyler serves Walt with divorce papers and also her clever deduction that he’s been selling drugs. He admits the truth to her, and she claims she won’t tell Hank as long as Walt gives her a no-contest divorce. Walt returns to El Pollo Hermanos to speak to Gus, who offers him $3 million for three months’ work. Walt declines on the ground that he needs to go straight and win back his family. Meanwhile two strange individuals enter a Mexican shrine to Santa Muerte (Death) and pin an image to the statue: a drawing of Heisenberg. Referred to at AMCtv.com as “The Cousins,” we can only assume that these guys are Tuco’s family, come to avenge him. Communicating only with odd looks and implied telepathy, they kill everyone who stands in their path. Do they represent an unstoppable force about to collide with an immovable object? The previews for the next episode would seem to indicate yes.
What makes Breaking Bad so fascinating is that every character on-screen, including the brilliant Walt, is so incredibly flawed and human. And every episode we get to see those flaws play off one another and collide, creating some of the most intense situations I’ve ever seen in a TV drama. Honestly, more happens on a single episode of Breaking Bad than on the last three and a half seasons of The Sopranos, combined. So why aren’t more people watching it? Cranston keeps getting acting awards, but why aren’t more of the cast celebrated? What about the writers or producers? Why does the show lose to boring-ass Mad Men? Now that Lost is going off the air we TV aficionados need something good to devour, and frankly Breaking Bad is it.