I’m simply unable to hold myself back from reviewing this exceptional show any longer. I’d initially planned to do a Telly Head retrospective at the end of the present fourth season, but having just witnessed yet another immaculate 45 minutes of television (Episode 4:7, Problem Dog) I have to fast-forward the timescale a little. For some inexplicable reason Breaking Bad, despite awards galore and a hardcore following of around two million people, hasn’t really been well served by British broadcasters. Buried away at the backend of FiveUSA’s schedules, or dropped from FX’s sparkling roster of shows, barely two seasons of this intense psycho-drama have been readily available on UK television screens. That’s why it comes as no real surprise that the general recognition level, of what may now be AMC’s premiere show (even taking into account Mad Men), is pretty poor across the UK media and television viewing population.
On paper it’s partly understandable, as the concept for the show seems a pretty hard sell. The general plotline can be summed up as follows:-
A depressed chemical engineer, stuck in a high-school teaching job that bores him, finds out that he has cancer and maybe only a few months to live. Realising that he has achieved nothing with his intellect and scientific talent and that his wife and partially disabled teenage son are going to be left in penurious financial straits, he desperately tries to plot a path toward a financial nest-egg for his family. Stumbling upon a drug-dealing former pupil, the chemistry teacher see’s the possibility of entering into a partnership with this hapless young tearaway, one that will see him manufacture the best crystal meth in New Mexico, whilst the former pupil takes care of the dealing side of the operation. Pretty rapidly the teacher and his former pupil/new business partner find themselves in way over their heads.
Breaking Bad also doesn’t take the preferred route of easing the audience into its narrative slowly. The pilot episode begins with a pre-credit sequence (a device that is used frequently by the show to add layers of intrigue and narrative dynamism) that shows the chemistry teacher Walter White (played superbly by Malcolm in the Middle co-star Bryan Cranston) driving a Winnebago at high-speed through a desolate desert landscape. Walter is wearing a gas mask and is dressed only in his white Y-fronts, whilst an unconscious figure, that will turn out to be the former pupil Jesse Pinkman (an equally strong performance from Aaron Paul), rolls across the dashboard on the passenger side. Crashing the Winnebago off the road, police sirens can be heard closing in and Walter runs from the vehicle, tearing his gas mask off his face. After a moment of frustrated gesticulation, Walter grabs a camcorder, a gun and a shirt, from the Winnebago and then rushes past two prone bodies in the back of the vehicle to grab his possessions. Outside, with the sirens even louder, he films a gut-wrenching apology to his wife and son, before taking to the centre of the road, in a nonchalant John Wayne pose, and pointing the gun in the direction of the oncoming police cars. Cue opening Periodic Table credit sequence.
So disconcerting and disorienting is this opening sequence that I can fully understand why many viewers fail to make it much further into the show. Breaking Bad takes a dispersed approach toward time, subtly winding its way backwards, forwards and sideways through its narrative, without ever sacrificing its reckless forward momentum (initially an extension of Walter’s new found impulsivity in the face of his cancer). Events frequently occur out-of-sequence, with some only being elucidated seasons later. As well as this careering, headlong approach to narrative, the show also is not afraid to stand time on its head, taking a whole episode to fixate on the central pairing’s pursuit of a fly in their meth factory. Generally Breaking Bad’s narrative arc is unlike anything else on television, as it manages to mine deep caverns of pathos, whilst providing the kind of energetic, action-packed excitement of a mid-eighties Hollywood blockbuster and the unremitting tension of the very best Polanski or Hitchcock thriller.
Furthermore there is a grimly black humour at work amidst the dramatic concerns. In only the second episode (1:2 Cat’s in the Bag…) Walter and Jesse find themselves having to dissolve some bodies in acid. Jesse opts to do this in his upstairs bathtub, only for the acid to eat through the bathtub and the floor, depositing some very messy remains all over his aunt’s downstairs hallway. It is sequences like this that Breaking Bad excels at, as no other show has continually pushed into seriously uncomfortable terrain whilst continuing to deepen your affection, or understanding of the central characters.
Another ingenious aspect of the show is the way in which it rations out the main speaking roles. Breaking Bad has a ridiculously small cast for a major drama series, which has allowed Gilligan and his co-writers to focus their considerable energies on creating 8-10 really strong characters, something that shows like The Wire and Mad Men have neither sought to do, nor even really needed to do. Breaking Bad is a very different beast from these heavily-acclaimed contemporaries. In terms of tone, or attitude, it bears a stronger comparison with Shawn Levy’s cop drama The Shield. However, whereas that drama depended upon an episodic, fragmentary structure and the charisma of its central character, Breaking Bad has increasingly developed ever more densely structured plotlines, switching the focus of the show from Walter, to the characters of Jesse, Skyler (Walter’s wife, played by Anna Gunn) and Hank Schrader (Walter’s brother-in-law and DEA agent, played by Dean Norris).
Season after season Breaking Bad has improved and refined its formula, until by the middle of the third season that formula seemed to consist of an impressive capability to convincingly realise the completely unexpected. Anyone who managed to get over Breaking Bad’s initial strong medicine, will have been amazed by the richness of the character development throughout season’s three and four. As Walter and Jesse’s relationship has gradually shifted from one of teacher and pupil, to a much more ambiguous dependence, so the narrative possibilities have multiplied exponentially. Has any other show dealt with such a mixture of thematic concerns as:- the realisation of one’s impending mortality; the moral transcendence of murder; the graphic effects of hardcore drug dependency; the difficulties of having a physically disabled first child; the impulsive kleptomania that acts as an easy, if ineffective, balm to bland, consumerist living; the sheer arduousness of recuperation from partial paralysis; the idea that the drugs trade is an industry that exists due to the inability to institute free markets; the notion of gradual, creeping corruption (very similar to The Shield and The Soprano’s); the brutishness of power; the ability to do anything once you are aware that nothing has value; the compulsive need to lie to protect a lie; and the singularly abhorrent culture we have created that allows us to indulge our basest impulses, whilst shirking responsibility for absolutely everything else.
It is this latter theme that has been to the fore in the major plotlines of this fourth season, with so many peripheral characters now entangled in Walter’s quick-fix solution to his ‘worthless’ existence. Jesse, played to the hilt by Aaron Paul, has become a character overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of his actions and appalled by the almost complete absence of guilt that he feels. In Pinkman, Breaking Bad, has presented us with the first television character to question the very idea of ‘pain’. For Jesse Pinkman, his pain appears to be utterly divorced from his actions and his experiences, it has become a hideously indulgent thing, merely serving to remind him that nothing he has done is truly being ‘punished’. There is no retribution here and in the absence of retribution, the purgatory that Pinkman seemed to at first inhabit, has merely become an aperture through which he can perceive the utter meaningless of his every move.
Early in the show’s run Walter tells his class about the major lesson of chemistry, all things ‘change’, nothing remains in its initial state. Breaking Bad has pushed this theory to its very limits in an all too human way. Ultimately, Walter finds himself now hanging on, like a prisoner, just trying to maintain the status quo, falling back into familiar patterns of anger, frustration, hubris, guilt and recalcitrance. It is with Jesse Pinkman that we see the utter flux of human existence, as his character absolutely refuses to remain locked in place, even though he is abundantly aware of the continued futility of action. Being a show that is obsessed with the idea of ‘nothing’, Breaking Bad has all of the propulsive dynamism that comes from both the horror and the acceptance of such a state.
MINOR-LEAGUE MUSINGS:- Vince Gilligan, whilst being interviewed regarding the creative process on season 3 of the show, said the following:-
“We’re actively moving these chess pieces around, not so much playing 10 or 15 or 20 moves ahead, but we are kind of running for our lives. It’s scary. I don’t want it to sound like it’s a slapdash operation. It doesn’t feel that way when we’re doing it. We put a lot of thought into everything, and we try to play the game several moves ahead. But we’re only human, and it’s tricky sometime. All of this is a long-winded way of saying this was not pre-planned from the get-go. It was kind of a living, breathing thing that took on a life of its own as the season went along.”.
Perhaps this goes some of the way to explaining the unique qualities of the show. I also have to take a second to mention the sterling work of three of the supporting actors onboard. The comedian Bob Odenkirk is the absolute definition of unscrupulous, in the role of the shyster lawyer Saul Goodman (not his real name, but chosen because of the Jewish cache). Giancarlo Esposito’s druglord Gustavo Fring is one of the most chilling screen creation’s since Kurt Sutter’s turn as Margos Dezerian in The Shield. Whilst Jonathan Banks Mr. Fixit, Mike, is an insane mixture of zen-like, droopy-jowelled calm and ruthlessly efficient violence.
Breaking Bad is currently midway through its fourth season on AMC. The first and second seasons have appeared on FiveUSA, but the first season originally aired on FX in the UK. There are currently no UK rights holders for the third season.