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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Breaking Bad Season One

I’ve been wanting to start watching Breaking Bad since it first started.  I never watched Malcolm in the Middle, but it seemed clearly to me that Bryan Cranston was a great actor, and seeing him in a dramatic role was appealing.  And as a die-hard X-Files fan, I of course knew the name of Breaking Bad show-runner Vince Gilligan as one of the best writers from that show.  But for whatever reason, I just never got around to watching Breaking Bad, and as the seasons went on I knew that starting from the beginning would require an ever-increasing time commitment.  It’s sort of funny, then, that I finally took the plunge and watched season one just as all the hoopla was happening around the broadcast of the show’s final episodes.

In case anyone doesn’t know, Breaking Bad tells the story of high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who has been living a sad, fairly pathetic life.  His discovery that he has lung cancer, which might only allow him a few years more to live, sets about a profound internal crisis in Walt that eventually leads to his pairing up with a young druggie named Jessie, to together cook and sell crystal meth.  Walt, at first, knows nothing about the drug world or the criminal element, but he knows everything about chemistry, making him an extraordinarily skilled cook of crystal.  As the seven episode first season progresses, we see the timid Walt take his first steps into the “dark side” and, in so doing, suddenly develop a spine and a courage he never knew he had.  So what if it is illegal and his brother-in-law heads up the local DEA?

The first seven-episode season of Breaking Bad is terrific, everything I had hoped it would be.  The pilot episode is tremendous, a strong statement as to what sort of show this was going to be, something intense and dark and original.  Sometimes plots can be wobbly, with the filmmakers unsure of exactly what show they are making, and/or burdened by a lot of boring character exposition.  But the pilot episode of Breaking Bad is magnificent, focusing right in on the character of Walter White and taking its time in introducing us to all the misery in his life BEFORE he learns of his cancer diagnosis.  That’s a smart storytelling choice.  Walt’s main problem isn’t his cancer — it’s everything else that has gone wrong in his life.  The pilot is intense and gripping, and of course it gives us the the now-iconic image of Walt with no pants, in just a shirt, boots, and his tighty-whiteys, holding a gun.

The next two episodes, “Cat’s in the Bag…” and “… And the Bag’s in the River,” up the anty.  I had expected the show would jump forward a bit in time after Walt and Jesse’s first disastrous misadventure in cooking meth that ended up, at the end of the pilot episode, with two dead drug-dealers and a crashed RV.  But nope, episode two picks up mere seconds after the end of the pilot, with Walt and Jesse stuck with the dilemma of how to dispose of two dead bodies — a dilemma that escalates when they realize that one of the drug dealers they gassed isn’t quite dead yet.  “Crazy Eight” knows who they are, so how can they let him live?  Is Walt capable of committing cold-blooded murder?  Those two episodes were wrenching, extraordinarily difficult to watch.  That’s a compliment towards the skill that went into making those episodes but also an honest assessment that I can’t say I had much fun watching them.  The drama is so REAL that I couldn’t really separate myself from what I was watching on-screen — I was right there with Walt through the whole gruesome, stomach-churning mess.  Great television.

I was pleased that, after the madness of those first three episodes, the show then took its time for Walt and Jesse to return to one another’s orbits.  That made a lot of sense to me, because really, why would these two continue to work together, ESPECIALLY after everything that went wrong in those first three episodes?  I was particularly interested into the glimpse into Jesse’s home-life and background in episode four, “Cancer Man” (a nice joke of an episode title, which references the villainous Cigarette Smoking Man from Vince Gilligan’s previous gig, The X-Files).

Less successful was episode five, “Gray Matter,” the shows’s one big mis-step in season one, in my opinion.  I was 100% in Walter White’s corner through the first four episodes, despite some of his, shall we say, more questionable actions.  I had huge sympathy for the character, and I was rooting for him.  But episode five presents us with a Walt who was foolish, and who caused his own problems (rather than being a victim of life circumstance) in three ways.  First, we learn that he was involved in starting a company called “Gray Matter,” and while he is no longer involved with that company his former partner is now hugely wealthy.  We don’t know what exactly went down and why Walt is no longer a partner with his friend Elliot, but it seems to have something to do with whatever went down with Elliot’s now-wife, a woman with whom we saw Walt involved in a flashback in a previous episode.  So it seems that, in Larry David Clear History style, at some point in the past, Walt did something stupid — either leaving on his own or antagonizing Elliot so as to get himself forced out — that resulted his his losing out on the opportunity to make a fortune.  Stupid Walt mistake # 1.

Then we learn that Walt has decided not to undergo chemo.  In previous weeks it seemd like the obstacle to Walt’s getting treatment was the money, which was a big part of why he started cooking meth.  But now we lean that Walt’s main obstacle to treatment is himself.  Now, I think one could argue there is merit in someone in Walt’s position deciding not to undergo chemo, and Walt’s speech about wanting to be able to make this own choice about something, to have control over one thing in his life, is poignant.  But it makes it harder for me to sympathize with Walt, and it takes away one of the main reasons I saw for his involvement in drug-dealing — that he saw no other alternative to get the money he and his family needed.  And, indeed by the end of the episode Walt changes his mind and, to make his family happy, decides to accept treatment.  So that is the second piece of Walt stupidity, a second way in which suddenly he is his own main obstacle.

And then, thirdly, his rich friend Elliot offers Walt a job at his company, so Walt could benefit from their great health care plan.  When Walt turns that down, Elliot offers to just pay for Walt’s treatment.  Walt turns him down.  Here again, I have some sympathy for Walt and I can see how much it hurts him to be in a position of needing a handout from this former friend who seems to have married a woman Walt once loved.  But, as with the other two things I just listed, this removes what I had seem as Walt’s main reason for needing to cook meth, something highly illegal and arguably highly immoral.  Walt ISN’T desperate for money and left with no alternative.  The money was right there for him to take.  The only thing that stopped him was his pride.  So now we have three reasons why Walt was his own main obstacle, three reasons which seemed to undermine the basic narrative set-up of the show. So, boy, I did not like episode #5.  It will be interesting to see if future episodes flesh out any of this backstory in a way that makes me more sympathetic with Walt’s actions in this episode.  For now, I sort of prefer to ignore it, as the whole episode seems like a big narrative mis-step to me.

Luckily, the show pulled me right back in with the final two episodes, in which Walt and Jesse pair back up and begin trying to figure out how to make a more effective go at cooking and selling meth together.  It’s interesting and fun to see how at-each-other’s-throats these two are.  I’ll be interested to see how this relationship grows in future episodes and whether these two begin to form a stronger bond with one another.  For now, I am glad the show didn’t rub off their rough edges and make the two guys best buddies right off the bat.  These two men are so different from one another, they really wouldn’t initially be friends or really have much of anything to say to one another.  I did, though, like seeing the small ways in which they have already started to rub off on one another, such as Jesse showing off what he learned about chemistry to another druggie buddy with whom he briefly tries to partner to cook, and the way Walt takes on the crazy drug-dealer Tuco after he brutally beats up Jesse in episode six, “Crazy Handful of Nothin.”  That episode, by the way, features the first appearance of the really bad-ass Walter White.  I’m not just talking about his shaved head look, though there was much laughter in my household after I turned to my wife to say, “He looks bad-ass,” when newly-shaved Walt first comes down to breakfast, mere seconds before his son echoes my comment.  No, I am talking about Walt’s fearless confrontation with the drug-dealer Tuco, and the combination of scientific smarts and fearless ballsiness he displays in standing up to Tuco and then blowing up his joint with what Tuco thought was meth.  Holy cow that was a great scene.

The final episode brought some resolution, but mostly I felt excited that, at the end of “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” the show was putting pieces in place for a lot of juicy future storylines.  Walt and Jesse are totally in the drug-dealing game, now, and they have allied themselves with a vicious, unpredictable thug.  Walt’s DEA brother-in-law, Hank (a fantastic Dean Norris, my favorite supporting character in the show so far) is on the trail of the new drug-dealer that he has no idea is in his family, though he has tracked the merchandise used to cook the meth to equipment taken from Walt’s very own science lab.  (I really can’t wait to see where the Walt- Hank relationship goes from here.  I am excited to see these two adversaries square off in the future.)  And this final episode brought front-and-center the previously hinted-at-idea that Skyler’s sister (and Hank’s wife) Marie is a serial shop-lifter.  It’s intestingly to see a crack in Hank and Marie’s family, and I wonder if that story-line was used just for Walt to see Skyler’s horrified reaction at learning that someone in her family has broken the law, or whether there is more to come with Marie’s shoplifting.

These first seven episodes of Breaking Bad are phenomenally well-made.  The writing is extraordinary, with sharp characters and tense situations, and a nice sense of continuity and building dread over the course of these first seven episodes.  The show looks great, with a wonderfully dingy tone hanging over everything.  The show does small dramatic scenes as well as it does moments of intense action.  There’s really no part of this show so far that doesn’t work.

And, of course, while the entire ensemble of actors is solid, the success of Breaking Bad really rests squarely on the head of Bryan Cranston.  This is an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime role for Bryan Cranston, and man does he step right up to the plate.  Mr Cranston absolutely dominates the proceedings, just killing every scene he is in.  He conveys so much with just his eyes and his gloriously craggy face.  So many of the best moments of this first season featured no dialogue, they just played right off of what was going on on Mr. Cranston’s face.  (I am thinking specifically of the moment when Hank, genuinely trying, I think, to be consoling to Walt, tells him that if anything happens, he’ll take care of Walt’s family.  He wants Walt to know that he doesn’t have to worry about his family’s future.  That’s a good-guy think for Hank to say.  But boy does it land totally differently for Walt.  We can see, without a word being spoken, just by looking at Bryan Cranston’s face, what a moment of utter humiliation that is for Walt.  It’s an astounding scene.)  And, of course, as great as Mr. Cranston is at playing all of the moments of Walt’s quiet humiliation and sadness, hoo boy is he great when, as the season progresses, we get to see Walt be a bad-ass.  The confrontation with Tuco at the end of episode six, that I mentioned above, is extraordinary.  I can’t wait to see more of this bad-ass Walt in future episodes.

I am delighted to have finally begun the journey of Breaking Bad.  Can’t wait to start season two.

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