On its surface, Breaking Bad is about Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston in an Emmy-winning role), an over-qualified high school chemistry teacher with a pregnant wife and a son with cerebral palsy, who has recently begun cooking high-grade meth with a former student after finding out that he has terminal lung cancer. He does this in order to provide for his family (whom he keeps the meth-cooking secret from) after he dies.
Yet the show is about so much more. It asks questions such as, When does a person cross the line from being bad from good? What distinguishes someone from being truly bad and just desperate? Does death absolve us of our wrongdoings? What would you do for your family? It also dives deep into the meth trade, which has largely remained off TV due to its unseemly devastation across “flyover” country.
In short, Breaking Bad isn’t light-hearted fun-time material, which is why all the premium channels (HBO, Showtime) turned it down. The show ended up at AMC, where it landed in the lineup behind Mad Men. In short order, Breaking Bad not only surpassed Mad Men in quality and storytelling; it is, without question, the best show on television.
Due to the writers’ strike, the shortened first season of Breaking Bad was like a prologue, setting up Walt’s illness, his descent into meth cooking, his (arguably) necessary murder of a drug dealer who tried to kill him for his product, before ultimately getting involved with an even crazier drug kingpin who kills a henchman in the last moments of the first season. The second season overlaps with that scene as Walt, and his fellow cooker and former student Jesse (played by the perfectly cast Aaron Paul), decide they can’t be partnered with the unstable Tuco any longer.
At this point, the entire season is off and running, as the first few episodes are centered on the guys trying to come up with a plan to kill Tuco, before he kidnaps Walt and Jesse and plans to kill them. That is until Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law (who has no idea that Walt is even there, or is the manufacturer of the perfect crystal meth that he and his co-agents are trying to apprehend) kills Tuco in a shootout, and Walt and Jesse are essentially let free to continue their criminal enterprise.
That is, if Walt can pull off explaining to his wife and family why he disappeared for a few days. Much of the first season was spent with Walt as he constructed houses of cards of lies (such as all the extra money they had to pay for his cancer treatments was from former friends who cut him out of a company; and he went to spiritual healing sessions) to keep his cooking from his family, and Walt’s lies have to get more outrageous to explain away his absences. Ultimately, the lies and the hurt he causes his family begin to make clear that Walt is doing harm to his family by being emotionally and physically distant in the present while trying to make enough money now in order to provide for them in the future.
Walt has ‘broken bad’ in a way that Jesse, who is the supposed “real” criminal here, hasn’t. He makes dastardly decisions, such as deciding he and Jesse will deal the meth themselves. He tells Jesse to murder a pair of meth heads who stole from him, threatened and kidnapped a skeevy lawyer (played by the never-better Bob Odenkirk), and killed Crazy Eight in season one. These directions come easily to Walt, bringing the question about whether a persons’ propensity for doing bad is just out of necessity—or it it comes from a darker urge.
Walt undoubtedly crosses that line late in season two, when he more or less murders Jesse’s unstable heroin addict girlfriend by refusing to turn her on her side when she begins vomiting. That this happens the day after Walt’s own daughter is born (a scene in which Walt swaddles her is cut with shots in which the drug addict is dying, for maximum emotional devastation) is all the more tragic and sinister.
Things take a turn for the better and worse for Walt, after the experimental cancer treatments he was on shrink his cancer significantly, allowing him to have a tumor removal surgery. At first, this plotline rang as a way for the writers of the show to keep the show going past its shelf life and stretch on indeterminately, but ultimately, this will make for great drama in season three. Dying always gave Walt a way to rationalize, or at least, avoid dealing with murdering people, lying to his wife and son, and becoming the king of the New Mexican meth trade. Now he’s left with a broken life—his wife leaves him in the season finale, citing being lied to for too long, even though she really knows nothing of what Walt’s been up to—and has to deal with the moral implications of his path of destruction. In a way, he’s now like Jesse, who throughout the series has grappled with just wanting to make enough money to keep himself in weed and becoming a career criminal.
It’s in this crucial way that Breaking Bad annihilates Weeds, another show about a suburbanite who is thrust into the world of illegal drugs, in that Walt is actually going to have to pay a penance for his crimes (unlike Weeds’ Nancy Botwin, who can’t find a tough situation she can’t solve by sleeping with a drug lord). Whether that entails losing the family he was cooking the meth for, or ending up in prison for a very long time is up in the air at this point. For this we’ll have to watch season three.
Besides the superlative storytelling and cinematography (I had to make sure Sam Peckinpah didn’t do cinematography on this, since the western vibe here bears his style), the acting is on another level on Breaking Bad, as every actor is performing like they’re in a prestige picture and not a serialized TV series. Bryan Cranston, primarily known as the goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle is able to play the scary drug dealer and the put-upon everyman just trying to get his slice of the American dream, sometime in the same scene.
Aaron Paul’s Jesse isn’t just a caricature of a drug addict/dealer: He’s able to, with a scrunched brow and an expletive, convey the desperation and boredom that comes with being a drug addict. He can also play the dramatic moments for maximum sadness, particularly in the scenes in which he must face the father of his supposedly recovered heroin addict girlfriend after she ODs. Jesse has no idea that Walt was there and watched her die, so he naturally carries that burden (like many other dramas in his life) on himself. He ends the season in rehab, but who knows how long he’ll stay there.
The extras on the DVD which are numerous in number, are exactly all that necessary. There are a bunch of cast commentaries, a handful of deleted stuff, but the most tantalizing bit is the opening scene of season three, which finds Walt enlisting the help of his brother-in-law Hank to move out of his house per his wife’s orders. When Walt tries to haul a bag of $600,000 into the truck, his brother-in-law jokes about how heavy could it be, and Walt more or less tries to tell him he’s got illegal money in there. Hank just laughs, and throws the bag in the truck. If only he knew the half of it.