Cast: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betty Brandt, RJ Mitte
Ask anyone their opinion of Breaking Bad and you will hear nothing but the finest applause. Even those who haven’t sat down and watch it know of its reputation for depicting family values, crime and cancer beautifully across its five season run, climaxing in a glorious win at the Emmys earlier this month. According to the media, it can do no wrong.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher, struggling to make ends meet. He is put in awkward, embarrassing situations. The first episode sees him teach a student only to have to wash that same student’s car in a crappy part-time job, making him a target for ridicule. And to make matters worse, he soon discovers that he has cancer. Realising that soon he will die and leave his pregnant wife and disabled son with nothing, not even a real legacy to carry on in his name, he turns to an ex-student, who deals in the dangerous world of crystal meth. He soon realises that he has the chemistry knowledge to make the best product around and teams up with this student to make drugs on the side. However, his business plan is never as clean as he wants it to be and he is forced to evolve into a cut-throat supplier.
The genius thing about Breaking Bad is that it taps into a very real fear for a lot of people. You are faced with your own mortality and when you look back on your life, you realise that you have been living for all the wrong things. Walter White never becomes a character you hate, because even when he brutally kills people and does grotesque things, it is rationalised by the fact he is doing it out of love for his family. It often takes the chance to discuss the morality of why things are legal. The final episode squeezes in a moment where Walter and his brother, Hank, who is also a DEA agent, discuss if making meth illegal is arbitrary. There are some clever ideas here, but series creator, Vince Gilligan never lets them override the story. After all, this is not a series about morality, society or ethics: this is a story about a family man, trying to save his family.
Something interesting that came up when watching Breaking Bad was how you perceive the content. After watching four episodes with my ex-girlfriend, she was struggling to summon the mentality to watch the next one. I asked why and she said that it was a little too depressing for her to relax and watch. This much is true, because it discusses cancer a lot and how Walter White is looking at facing his final months. However, I felt the completely different way: for me, Breaking Bad is a feel-good show. Yes, Walter White is dealt a bad hand, the worst hand in fact, but he takes it and sticks it to the man. He often sees that douchebags get their comeuppance and cleverly finds his way around the rules that society has thrust upon him. He is a man who is unhappy with the rules of the game, so makes his own game. Yes, I agree with my ex-girlfriend that this show takes you to some dark places and at times, I felt myself choking up (the intervention scene was beautifully jumping from amusing to heart-breaking, showing minimal difficulty with the challenge that usually entails). However, to help the viewer survive the sadness, it knows how to make your heart soar at the right moments. The direction always keeps you entertained.
The thing I love most about Breaking Bad is that I see the season easily avoiding all of the problems that most seasons struggle with. The amount of story and exposition that the season gets through would take most shows 24 episodes to convey. The viewer learns so much information from a few lines of dialogue. Sometimes the most information is portrayed through a simple change of facial expression from Bryan Cranston. Another thing I liked was how the season paced the story. Around the midpoint in the season, Walter White decides to try and break away from crime and focus on his family. This could be a danger point in most seasons, but the writers understand that, even though these scenes are brilliantly scripted, the viewer may crave more. Cut to Jesse, played by Aaron Paul, who often has a subplot about the meth business. These sequences are entertaining, or failing that, a fun distraction. Other seasons would try and plough through these moments and get to the action as quick as they could. Sometimes I wish more recent seasons would take a lesson from Breaking Bad’s book.
While every episode of Breaking Bad’s first season is more or less perfect, I do think that the show slightly suffers as a season. For one, it is very short. It is pretty much over before it has begun with a miniscule seven episodes. I am sure that the season could carry on for double that without ever losing pace. Also, the finale is somewhat lacking. There isn’t really a big conclusion, the season kind of just ends. This means that the first three episodes seem much more exciting than the ending few. Maybe this isn’t that big a problem and it is exciting that Breaking Bad tries to shake up this formula. It is hard to criticise the show for too much.
Final Verdict: The rumours are true. Breaking Bad is every bit as exciting and gripping as everyone has made it out to be.