Let’s write about Breaking Bad. When I gathered up the best telly of 2012 for my roundup, a couple of people asked why I had omitted Breaking Bad? Good question. Well, this is why: I didn’t really watch Breaking Bad in 2012. Although we do have history.
I’d already devoured Seasons One and Two on DVD, having missed the first, when it premiered here on FX, because – admire my honesty here – the trailers didn’t grab me. Those astonishing images of Walter White in his underpants, in the New Mexico dessert, wielding a gun, and the pitch about him being a chemistry teacher? I didn’t think this was my kind of programme. Drugs? Pants? An actor I did not know. (Never watched Malcolm in the Middle.) It seemed too … wacky for me. So I gave it a miss.
I was encouraged to rectify this fatal error by other people, probably on this very blog. So, if I recall correctly, when FX re-ran Season One (hey, they’d paid for it), I caught up at Episode 2 and was hooked pretty much instantly. I bought the box set, so I could watch from the beginning, and I did, right the way through. This was a show so good, you could watch it again immediately. Then Channel Five did the right thing, and picked it up for Season Two, but self-defeatingly hid it late at night on imprint FiveUSA and ran it over consecutive nights. I taped and watched it all, feeling all of a sudden like I was in on a secret. (No spoilers, but Two is the one with the pink teddy bear, an indicator of the show’s swaggering, overarching confidence.)
Season Two is everything Season One was, and more. (I’m assuming you’ve seen it. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and go and see it. Seasons 1-4 are now boxed.) And after that, UK television stopped showing Breaking Bad, a case of criminal negligence that has yet to be rectified. As it hits its fifth and final season in the US, it is a long-running, award-winning, lauded drama series of which only 20 episodes have ever been broadcast in this country. A cable insider me told that it was just too expensive for a niche channel to buy, considering the tiny audiences it drew here on FX and Five. (Even the hype that now trails it has had no appreciable effect on the numbers for Seasons 1-2 re-runs.) There is a suggestion that AMC have priced it out of the market.
At the beginning of 2012, I found myself in a sort of sado-masochistic relationship with what might well have been my favourite programme, had I been able to legally view it. It had, by then, gone overground in terms of column inches, overtaking The Wire and Mad Men in chatterati approval ratings, and yet, not even shown on an obscure cable network in the UK. In the States, where it has a home, the aforementioned AMC, it had reached Season Four. I hadn’t even seen Three. In May last year, it finally became available on Region 1 DVD and I leaped at it. But, weirdly, for me, I found it difficult to get back into, knowing that we would always be one season behind.
Well, in the gaping maw between Christmas and New Year, we rescued Season Three from cupboardly exile, and started again; we saw 2013 in with it, pretty much. With unusually large periods of free viewing time, we were able to watch it as nature intended: back-to-back, binge-style. (Each episode is around 47 minutes long; a commercial “hour”, and they cram a lot in.) We did Three in a couple of days’ flat, ordered Four, and then watched that in two sittings. Gripped. Transfixed. Hooked. In constant awe at how the writers and directors keep up the pace and the intrigue. Although many directors pass through, BB has a distinct house style. Shot on 35mm, and characterised by the blinding oranges and yellows of a boiling New Mexico skyline, you know you’re watching Breaking Bad if a POV camera angle puts you at the bottom of industrial vat when chemicals are decanted into it.
Often, an episode will begin with an extreme close-up, almost abstract, from which clues may be gleaned, but only 47 minutes later will you fully understand the significance of this elliptical, impressionistic flash-forward. (In many ways, the whole of Season Two plays this trick. There’s also a clue in the titles of four episodes of Two that, taken together, hint at the story arc’s conclusion.)
I would seem odd to go too much into the plot, but it all kicks off with mild-mannered Albuquerque chemistry teacher and family man Mr White (Bryan Cranston) learning that he has terminal lung cancer and opting to cook a batch of pure crystal meth in order to take care of his family – wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), teenage son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), and as-yet unborn baby Holly – financially. He hooks up with ex-student Jesse (Aaron Paul), a known amateur meth cook and dealer – as well as a user – and the mismatched pair attempt to pull off the scheme without alerting Walt’s family, or the authorities, emblemised by his gung-ho DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a stand-up guy who becomes their unwitting nemesis, as well as being close family. Here’s my thinking:
If creator Vince Gilligan, alumnus of The X-Files, had successfully pitched his genius idea as a film, this story would have played out, to some kind of conclusion from which everybody learned lessons, in around two hours. That’s just over two episodes. I’m sure it could have been done, but how much better, culturally speaking, that he pitched it as a serial drama, and was able to make seven episodes. (It would have been nine if not for the writers’ strike.) It did not conclude. We were left wanting more of Walt and Jesse and Skyler and Hank. So, Gilligan and his writing team upped the ante. They turned Season Two, with its full 13 episodes, into an epic, in which, well … some very interesting things happen, and Jesse, in particular, goes on an emotional journey. (There’s no better word for it.)
Since then, so much has happened, and yet, Gilligan has kept the whole story local. We’ve been across the border to Mexico, and Hank’s been to El Paso, but for 46 episodes, we’ve never strayed too far from the White household, Jesse’s aunt’s home, the school, the hospital, a fried chicken joint of massive significance and other local landmarks. Just as a soap invites us into a fictional ecosystem, so does Breaking Bad. Minor characters – Jesse’s meth-head pals, Bogdan the owner of the car wash, Skyler’s boss Ted – hove in and out of the foreground. Seedy but well-connected local lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), gun-for-hire and fixer Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), and kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) have all graduated from guest-starring roles to main cast. As such, BB moves in natural, organic, concentric waves. Because of the deadly nature of the game, we never know who’s going to be killed next. It’s certainly always feasible that it might be Walt or Jesse. You never know.
I love the writing, in that I love the planning, and the storytelling. But I also love the dialogue. Whether or not it’s true to the way people in Albuquerque speak, I don’t know, but the white kids speak like black kids, just like anywhere else, even though the most significant ethnic group is surely Latino. You get a lot of Spanish subtitles, especially when you go deep into the Mexican drug cartel. But even these family-oriented gangsters feel fresh after so many of the Italian-American variety. I read an article that gave BB a kicking for being racist. What? Because its white characters are essentially good, and its Mexican/Latino characters are bad? Simply not true. Gus, a Chilean, is wise and fair and, within the boundaries of the criminal class, principled. Jesse and his white pals are losers, and idiots, by and large. I won’t go on.
Breaking Bad is not a show to knock down. Its cast is gloriously multi-ethnic, and it’s clear that casting choices are made on merit, not on star power. Aside from Cranston, and Gunn (who was in Deadwood), and to a degree Odenkirk (who’s well known in the US for stints on SNL and other comedy formats – he’s also a writer), it does not deal in stars, even for cameos. When Steven Bauer crops up in Season Four as a patriarchal drug lord, it’ll take you a few goes before you identify him as Pacino’s pal in Scarface. I read that Jesse was supposed to be killed at the end of Season One, but as soon as Gilligan saw the chemistry – ha! – between he and Cranston, they decided to keep him in. In this sense, it does operate like a soap.
Something I’ve noticed while watching Three and Four is the regularity with which characters are given monologues, stories to tell, at length. A writer’s dream. Whether it’s Jesse at an AA meeting, describing a box he made in woodwork, or Mike warning Walt about “half measures” with a tale from his days as a beat cop dealing with a domestic disturbance, or even the unnamed Group Leader revealing around a campfire how he killed someone, the writers love to suit up and cook pure anecdote. (This is terrific for the actors, too – indeed, Jonathan Banks really brought his character alive in that scene in Season Three.) It must be such a great show to act in. And all those award nominations! Cranston and Paul seem to be the most eagerly recognised by their peers, but we must remove hats too in honour of Banks, Gunn, Norris, Mitte, Odenkirk (way to give depth to an initially clownish figure), Esposito, and Betsy Brandt (Hank’s kleptomaniac wife, who gets her best season in Four). I fear they may all struggle to get better roles in the future.
I’ve not even bothered to argue whether or not it’s a comedy or a drama: it’s a drama. There are moments of comedy – black comedy, at least – even farce, but these never detract from the gravity of the situation. And people die. They die horribly.
There’s a scene in Season Four – no details – where a character breaks into an office by throwing a brick through the glass door, but the bottom panel of the glass door, via which he enters. There is pure physical comedy in the way he effects this, but the situation is life-or-death, so there’s no time to laugh. You just appreciate it, and file it away. Because you’ll be watching it again. (That’s why I do not resent paying for Breaking Bad.)
So, here’s where we’re at. Unless you live in America, or have Netflix, or don’t care about piracy, you’re playing a waiting game. The first batch of Season Five have aired on AMC, with the second batch to air this summer? That means we won’t get the DVDs until the end of 2013. Thanks, UK broadcasters, for being stingy. Thanks, AMC, for hiking up the price. Thanks, UK viewers for failing to watch it when it did air, thus enabling UK broadcasters to wave their calculators rather than make a qualitative decision. Mind you, some things are so good, they’re worth the wait.