On the first day of 2010, I watched the final episode of the second season of Breaking Bad, which I now declare to be the finest new TV series of 2009. (It began on AMC in the States and here on FX in 2008, but I picked up on it in 2009.) It was so good and so satisfying, this final episode, I was moved to immediately begin to watch season one again from the start. It is the mark of a truly great TV show that you can watch it again, without a cooling-off period. Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, is one such show.
I wasn’t sufficiently drawn in by the trailers to catch it when it premiered on FX at the end of last year; maybe the timing was wrong, or maybe it just seemed too fond of itself in those trailers. When it was snapped up and re-aired by FiveUSA, I actually missed the opening episode, by mistake, and was forced to come in at episode two, by which time Walt White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) had already embarked upon their get-rich-quick scheme in the New Mexico desert. In fact, Ep2 of S1 begins with its own flashback, further tantalising us about what actually occured in Ep1. To be honest, the trailers, and a couple of rave reviews, filled in the basic narrative gap: that chemistry teacher Walt has been diagnosed with lung cancer and opts to pay for the treatment and look after his family by cooking up crystal meth with an ex-pupil dealer.
It’s a dark piece of work, cleverly set in Albuquerque where they have bright sunshine 300 days a year, thus always hammering home its bleak message under blue skies. It’s not the first time the suburbs have revealed dark secrets, but this is no American Beauty. The White family are not well off. They can’t afford health insurance. Their boiler doesn’t work. Their pool is not an indicator of wealth or comfort. Indeed, the pool itself will come to contain its own grim portents as S2 unfolds, and an emptied pool at another location will bring death. The trailers presented a sort of self-consciously wacky comedy, but Breaking Bad is anything but – there is humour in the writing, certainly, but it comes from the juxtaposition of dialogue, the clash between a 50-year-old man and an ill-educated, jive-talking twentysomething hip hop kid: in Ep1 Jesse tells Walt in the desert that he can see “a cow house”; when Walt tries to dictate to him what to do, he comes out with, “Heil Hitler, bitch!”; and when Walt educates him in how to fashion a makeshift car battery and, like his teacher again, tries to get him to name the element copper, Jesse triumphantly calls out, “Wire!” If Aaron Paul’s characterisation of Jesse seems one-note and comedic from my summary, you ain’t seen nothing yet, beeyach.
Walt is a clever, learned, philosophical man who missed his chance to make money and cannot connect with his students, despite being a very good, and very illuminating, teacher. He loves his wife, and his wife loves him, and there’s a baby on the way, but the sense of having missed the boat is etched into Walt’s brow. He does not “deserve” inoperable lung cancer on his 50th birthday (“Why me?”), and yet, absurdly, it is the making of him. It changes his life. Certain death releases the inner Walt, which is generally bad news for everyone else.
The only real lightness comes from Walt’s son, Walt Jr, who has mild cerebral palsy and yet provides the story with its heart: brilliantly played by RJ Mitte, who also has palsy, he is anything but defined by his condition, and usually cuts through the breakfast table tension between his parents with the honest, unsugared view of a teenage boy who’s finding his own personality (he starts demanding to be called “Flynn”, without much explanation, because his friends do, thus hacking at the family ties of his unimaginative and narcissistic given name). Here is a character who’s living with a debilitating physical condition, hopping around on crutches, unable to use the pedals of a car effectively, but he deals with it stoically and bravely, and does not demand praise or special privileges for doing so. I’ve no idea why Gilligan gave the son palsy, but it was a genius move. (If a kid appeared on crutches in a British drama, you’d immediately think, “box-ticking.” But then, as Breaking Bad confirms, we may as well stop making TV drama in this country and just let the Americans do it.)
Skyler (Anna Gunn, previously seen in The Practice and Deadwood) is the long-suffering wife, but no need to reach for the cliche-scanner – she’s long-suffering in the sense that she effectively has two male children to cope with, and seems to have subjugated her instinct to write to the needs of being a homemaker (we occasionally hear of her short stories, but they remain mostly buried). Like Walt, she has sacrificed something at the altar of family, and look what her reward is: a lying husband. Because Sky is visibly pregnant from the start of Ep1, the bulky belly and the bad back define her to us – she is carrying the future around inside her. Meanwhile, inside her husband, the breadmaker, is an inoperable tumour, something far less hopeful. I won’t ruin it for anyone, but in S2, Skyler sheds her innocence and loses the trust that kept her going – although even as far back as Ep2 in S1, she played detective and confronted Jesse in his own front yard, so she was never a victim.
The character who surprised me the most over the course of the two seasons was Hank (Dean Norris), Walt’s brother-in-law and seeming polar oppostite, the hardass, ball-busting, pistol-packing, bulletproof DEA supervisor, buoyed by the innate bigotry and smart mouth that get him through his day job, but much more complex once you get to know him. Again, I won’t go into any story detail, but even Hank is not a God; he, too, can be reduced to a mere mortal by events. The skill of Breaking Bad is to drip-feed details about the supporting characters gradually over the course of the two series, with even Marie (Betsy Brandt), Sky’s sister and Hank’s wife, fleshed out beyond early tics. (What’s fascinating to me is how different the second viewing is – I watched Ep2 and Ep3 from S1 again last night, and Marie is a great example of a character who feels more real now; the scene in the shoe shop seemed almost random on first viewing; now it is loaded with portent. Can you imagine the guts it takes to make a drama so rich and so subtle that stuff is almost designed to bypass the first-time viewer? TV drama writing is all about immediate impact, usually. Not here.)
A word about the direction. You watch a great film, you can credit the writer and the director. With an ongoing TV series, you must credit a team of writers, and a string of different directors. And yet, Breaking Bad, like all the very best TV dramas, has an overarching visual feel. I guess the real skill of the TV director is to bring personal touch and individual vision without unbalancing the whole. In many ways, the landscape and the New Mexico climate give Breaking Bad its “look.” Of the individual directors across the two seasons, I think I have counted 16 – including, incidentally, Bryan Cranston, John Dahl, Charles Haid and Peter Medak, who once worked here and directed The Krays and Let Him Have It – but their skill is to create something cumulative. There are some amazing early stylistic touches, such as the way the first episode begins with a pair of trousers noiselessly floating to the ground (that was Gilligan), or the way Ep3 (Gilligan again) opens looking up through the acid-dismembered goo of a corpse in a bathtub as Walt and Jesse mop it up. And the recurring flashforward in S2 with the pink teddy bear in the pool is not just a stylistic flourish, but a narrative one, too – not that I’ll be giving any clues about that. (Hey, apparently there are clues in the episode titles of S2, but unless you want to ruin the ending, don’t look for them. I was happier not knowing.)
I never watched Malcolm In The Middle, so I’m only aware theoretically that Bryan Cranston is making a bonfire of his most famous screen characterisation here. I envy those who know and love him as Hal, the Dad in that popular show; it must make Walt and Breaking Bad seem all the more revolutionary. All I know is, Cranston deserved his Emmy for this – it’s a tightly-wound, small-brushstrokes performance that defies the precepts of so much returning-series TV in the sense that Walt changes throughout. The lead character’s job is usually to provide a constant, a pivot around which the action revolves. Sure, a character can get married, have a baby, move house, change job, but his or her personality must remain steady. Not here. Which is why Breaking Bad is more like a film.
Season Three airs in the States in March. Let’s hope Five have bought it. Breaking Bad has been a revelation: simple concept, brilliant execution, subtle depths. Life, death, birth, sun, sky: it is, to risk a pun based on Walt’s beloved Periodic Table, elemental. And, as I say, it merits an immediate second viewing, upon which it reveals further genius. If you haven’t seen it yet – and S1 is on DVD – you’re going to have to get over the fact that the main protagonist coughs, violently and painfully, all the time; that death stalks the show constantly; that by the end of Ep3, two bodies will have been clumsily and graphically disposed of; and that even if you think you’re immunised to insanely violent drug dealers thanks to their ubiquity since Quentin Tarantino changed the face of crime movies, there’s an even more insanely violent one, called Tuco, you have yet to meet, and he will scare the living daylights out of you.
I did. And I’m glad. Vince Gilligan is two years younger than me.