25 June 2012

Breaking down "Breaking Bad"

Walter White is the danger.
[Coletta Factor:Breaking Bad-current]
Breaking Bad is a story about a man named Walter White. When we first met Walter, he was a high school chemistry teacher with an after-school job at a car wash, a teenage son, a pregnant and overbearing wife, and an ever-present sense of quiet desperation, like he'd given up hope of having any control over his life. Two things happened to him in the pilot episode that sent him on his journey: first, his brother-in-law Hank, who is a DEA agent, took him on a ride-along to see a meth lab busted. Walter was the only one who saw one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman, fleeing the lab through an upstairs window. They shared a moment of eye contact. Jesse made the universal "don't tell" sign, a finger to the lips, and Walter kept his mouth shut. The second thing that happened to Walter in the pilot was that he found out he had lung cancer and no more than two years left to live. This is where things started to get hairy; Walter went to Jesse's house and gave him a choice: the two would partner up and manufacture (cook) and sell crystal meth or Walter would tell Hank about Jesse's involvement in the busted lab.

That was the beginning. Four seasons later, Walter White has become nearly unrecognizable from the man he was; he's become a shrewd manipulator, a ruthless businessman who apparently has no qualms about risking the lives of innocent people, even children or the elderly. Literally. This is an amazing story, Walter's journey from "Mr. Chips to Scarface," as series creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan has famously said. Bryan Cranston plays Walter with a gripping intensity that has earned him three well-deserved Emmys. (The only reason he didn't win four is because the fourth season started too late to be eligible for the 2012 awards. Look for him to win again next year, as well as Giancarlo Esposito for playing the best villain the small screen has ever seen. But put a pin in that for now.) The supporting cast is outstanding; my favorite is Dean Norris (You've seen him before, even if you don't know who he is.) as Hank, whose dogged pursuit of a new meth kingpin provides much of the tension by bridging Walter's family life with his business. Hank is an excellent DEA agent, a good cop, but he's been outmaneuvered by Walter at every turn. One wonders if Hank subconsciously knows that something is up with his brother-in-law; it's a question of how willful his blindness is. Hank is also a source of much of the comedy in the series. You heard me, comedy: this is a dark, dark story, and the level of tension calls for it to be relieved by a solid laugh now and again. It's not jokes, though; the comedy grows organically from the story and the characters themselves, who you feel are true, real, and complex people, each with their own motivations and inner lives. It's good acting, but more importantly, it's good writing. Great writing, even. 

So you've got a good story, tension and comedy, light and dark, cops and robbers. What else could you possibly want from a series? How about setting the action in Albuquerque, NM and allowing the landscape to be so prominent in the story that it feels like a character in the show, just as the Enterprise was the 8th main character in Star Trek? The visuals are amazing, and it's not just the desert landscapes. Breaking Bad even has a signature shot, used to the same effect as Tarantino's trunk-cam. The first time you see it, Walter and Jesse are cleaning up a giant bloody mess in a hallway at Jesse's house. The camera seems to be in the floor looking up at the pair with their gas masks and rubber aprons as they scrub the floor. Over and over we get this floor-cam, and it never feels cheap or over-used. But there's more; the series is like a master class in composition, lighting, camera placement, the use, placement, and varied volume of sound and music. Vince Gilligan must have one hell of a talent for executing his vision, but also a talent for getting the hell out of the way when someone has a really great idea. 

And now it's all coming to an end. We'll get eight episodes for eight Sundays starting July 15, and the final eight next summer. Walter may have vanquished his greatest enemy, but there's danger at his door. If  Jesse were to find out certain things, Walter would be dead at Jesse's hand faster than you can say "bitch!" Hank is still on the trail, what's left (if any) of the Salamanca cartel wants him dead, and there may or may not be a Chilean death squad on its way to the ABQ.Oh, and his wife, who can barely be in the same room with him even as she knowingly launders his dirty money, may be guilty of murder in the service of a cover-up. Did I miss anything? Probably, but I don't want to give away too much. My hope, dear reader, is that you'll pick up and watch the series. If you start now and you're like me, you'll be hooked after the first two episodes; it will be no problem to watch all 46 episodes before July 15. They're streaming on Netflix or you may be able to catch reruns on AMC at the moment. 

My plan is to do one post a week, breaking down the episode and telling you what I think. I warn you now that I will discuss plot points in detail. If you come here before you've seen this week's episode, well, you have been warned. I'll do a couple of posts before then, I think, breaking down certain episodes or scenes that strike me as particularly rich. 

Two more things I want to do: I want to give a shout-out to two podcasts and I want to give you my version of spoilers, which I will graciously put after the jump break so you don't have to see them if you don't want to. Podcasts: The Breaking Bad Insider podcast is the "official" 'cast. It's hosted by editor Kelley Dixon and always stars her and Vince Gilligan, who is a humble, brilliant man who clearly knows he's got the job of a lifetime. They have others on from time to time, whether it's writers, music guys, or the actors themselves. It's an indispensable companion to the viewing experience. The other podcast is called Breaking Good, by the guys over at Bald Move, Jim and A.Ron. They're fans like you and me, but they do their homework and always have interesting and funny things to say. Check out their site, listen to their podcast, support them if you can by buying stuff through their Amazon affiliate link. They deserve it. (They also do podcasts on numerous other shows, like Mad Men, Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones, if you're into that kinda thing.)

Well, that's it except for spoilers. The only spoilers I'll ever give you are upcoming episode titles and guest stars and speculation thereupon. Also, I moderate all comments and will not approve anything even slightly spoiler-ific. And, as I have to read all comments in order to moderate, I strongly urge you to not even go there. If I get spoiled by a comment, I WILL hulk out on you. That is all: to the jump break, then: