I am a late comer to many of the hip television shows of the last decade. I guess using the term hip pretty much says it all anyway. I work nights, never invested in a DVR and do not subscribe to premium channels. My t.v. watching has pretty much subsisted on trying to stay current with Bones and Glee through Netflix or Hulu. Not exactly the Ingmar Bergman stuff of television, but entertaining to a tired mind (although I did write a cool paper on the media industry’s use of intentional propaganda in the employment of the word “fag” using Glee as the basis – but I digress). Heck, our television reception has been gone for a month now.
I am also not a fan of entertainment violence, especially graphic or psychological violence. I like my occasional shoot-em-up, but gruesome or nightmare inducing, no thank you. Bones is about as icky as I can take. So why in the world would I choose to watch Breaking Bad? I mean have you seen the promotional cover? It is Hal from Malcolm in the Middle after six rounds of steroids. I think the premise intrigued me enough to take a gander.
Breaking Bad is a Vince Gilligan creation, produced by AMC, surrounding the gradual and terrifying decline of a middle-aged, rather emotionally disenfranchised high school chemistry teacher, Walter White. Having been diagnosed with what was thought to be imminently terminal lung cancer, Walter, who has limited monetary resources, stumbles upon a plan to make quick money to leave his family after he dies. He becomes a meth amphetamine “cooker” with one of his former high school students Jesse Pinkman. (*spoiler alert starts now)
I have to admit here and now, if I had started watching this in real time, I would have given up. The story arc for me was incredibly slow and boring. The constant close-ups of Bryan Cranston’s slack mouth angst were wearing. The wooden acting of the supporting characters was bothersome and the whole perfect emotional tug set-up, with the pregnant wife, disabled (and unbelievably naive) teenage son, kleptomaniac sister-in-law, and stereotypical DEA agent brother-in-law was a bit trite. It would have been too much of an investment for my need-a-resolution in 50 minutes mentality. Where were all the award winning acting and critically acclaimed story lines?
The stilted life of the White family prior to the discovery of Walter’s undercover and dangerous vocation was mind and emotionally numbing. Hints are thrown out throughout the program that Walter left his stimulating and potentially lucrative partnership in a research lab in order to maintain family equilibrium after his son was born with cerebral palsy and the characters literally embody this loss. They move through their lives stiff and locked in their own individuality. There is an ironic lack of chemistry between the characters. It is not until Walter’s other life as Heisenberg, the drug king, begins to overtake the family’s that the actors and their characters come to life. Save one.
Jesse Pinkman is Walter’s former student and character foil. In the beginning, Jesse is a live wire, a junkie living on the edge with the chemicals he produces. Jesse is the one who feels and has true connections with the people around him, unhealthy as they may be. Aaron Paul’s portrayal of the messed up, but lovable poor, little rich kid and his reactions to his dissolving world is riveting. The intensity of his sorrow in the aftermath of his girlfriend’s death is gut wrenching. Try not to clench up when her phone is finally disconnected. As Walt becomes more alive in his separation from all that is moral in regards to life, Jesse dies with each ensuing disaster. He becomes the stilted one, unable to make those connections anymore.
I found out that the original intent was to kill off the character of Jesse in the first season. As a viewer, I agree with Gilligan that would have been a mistake. For me, it is the odd play between Jesse and Walter that keeps me coming back. I find the Walter/Jesse dichotomy fascinating. Many of Walter’s moral disconnects come when he believes he is doing something in Jesse’s best interest. It is like watching a documentary on a Nazi officer ordering the deaths of hundreds of people and then coming home to be the doting father to his children.
The periphery characters do not interest me as much as do Walt and Jesse. I sometimes find them intrusive. Although there are compelling plot lines that obviously run parallel – what would the show be without the ever present danger of Hank Schrader, brother-in-law and DEA agent extraordinaire, discovering the goings on – but they are just props to propel the dark and light balance of Walt, Jesse and their respective descents from humanity.
Hank succumbing to the emotional trauma of facing off with bad guy Tuco, witnessing the death’s and mutilation of fellow DEA agents in El Paso and fighting for his life against the twisted Salamanca brothers is, to me, while good acting by Dean Norris, too blatant in its equivalency to Walt’s succumbing to the evil that resides in himself. Only in finding the goodness – the will to fight the bad guys – does Hank find his strength. It is finding the badness – the will to come out on top – that brings out the strength in Walt.
I do not care for most the women characters at all. Walter’s wife Skylar, played by Anna Gunn, is a whiney irritant. Walter’s sister-in-law Marie played by Betsy Brandt was given the unfortunate and weirdly out of place subplot of overcoming some form of kleptomania. The only interesting sub-play for Marie is her subtle obsessive compulsive act of lining up her artificial sweeter packets – her chemical dependence and reflective image of Walter’s perfectionism.
The woman character I do admire is Wendy. The horribly ravaged meth addict is the only character who remains true to herself. She is hard to look at and harder to understand, but she is really the only character who remains “moral”. Look at her, she is a decaying, filthy shadow of a human being, but Wendy is the only one who cannot bring herself to murder, not just because she knows the two drug dealers or because of the danger – it is just wrong.
All the other supporting cast are obvious symbolic representations of the parts of Walter/Heisenberg: Gus, fastidious and dangerous; Gale, fastidious and pure in his love of the science; Badger and Skinny Pete naive and dirty at the same time; Mike, the former cop and Saul, the sleaze lawyer, two characters who represent the worst of those who should represent the best. Even Walter’s son Walt, jr. (played well by RJ Mitte) shows a physical image of innocence trapped in a constant struggle of mind over body.
I know it sounds funny to say it took me until the end of season three to really want to be invested in the show. That is a lot of time spent on the off chance something will get better. I think the hook finally hit when Walter shot the drug dealer he ran over to save Jesse on that last episode. When he looked at Jesse and said that one word, “Run,” something clicked and I got it. I wanted to know if this story has just been a long build up to the complicated revelation that perhaps, just perhaps, Walter was always Heisenberg, just cleverly disguised beneath layers of built up mundane banality. I wanted to know if his other life as ordinary husband and father was really the coverup. I wanted to know if Jesse could ever come to terms with what he had done with his life.
Breaking Bad has become a habit I do not want to kick just yet. After I finish the rest of what is available on Netflix, the withdrawals will be difficult, but I will get a bump by reading what happened in the end. I have no issues with knowing what will happen before I see it. I read all about the plot lines after I started watching in the first place – it helped me stay with it. I have learned that the build up is worth the wait. For as Walt Whitman said, “The future is no more uncertain than the present.”
Church, yo. I’m hip.
*Breaking Bad airs on AMC at 9/8pm – returning on 11 Aug. All 5.5 seasons are available to view on Netflix streaming.