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Breaking Bad

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Breaking Ain't Bad

  • Jan 9, 2014
Maybe you remember a certain sitcom from the late 90's called Malcolm in the Middle. It got attention for a few respects: First, it had a reasonably realistic portrayal of a genius kid in its title character. Malcolm didn't run around being a computer math nerd - he never asked for his mental gifts, resented being in the special class, played pranks, fought with his parents, and cared about his image in school. The show's mother, Lois, could have been a certified nutcase. She was a loud fire-breather whose methods were frequently questionable at best and would often border on abusive. Also, the show wasn't reliant on a laugh track to spot the jokes.

One part of the show that didn't get remembered a whole lot was the father, Hal. Hal was more or less a regular bumbling sitcom dad who drifted in and out of cloudcuckooland. The actor who played him was named Bryan Cranston, and Cranston's thankless and inconspicuous work playing Hal probably had him with the top mark for being relegated to TV guest spot obscurity for the remainder of his career while the rest of the cast moved on to bigger projects.

That made it all the more shocking when he turned up years later, almost out of nowhere, as the lead actor in one of the greatest shows in the history of television: Breaking Bad. And Cranston wasn't just leading by creator design, either; although the show probably would have been great no matter what, Cranston was carrying it on his shoulders, bringing a heavy gravitas to a very complex character and delivering THE greatest lead performance in TV history in the process.

Breaking Bad revolves around two years in the life of Walter White (Bryan Cranston). White is a great genius in chemistry who founded a company called Grey Matter which made its stock owners rich and headed a research committee which paved the way for some groundbreaking stuff which eventually won a Nobel Prize. Trouble is, Walter once had to sell his stock for rent money, and since this was before Grey Matter hit it big, he never got to sniff the fruits of his labor. Hell, his partners are actively trying to write off his research as "nothing more than naming the company." Still, though, all things considered, he didn't do too badly for himself: He has a wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn) who loves him dearly and a son, Walter Junior (RJ Mitte), who idolizes him. There's a second kid - Holly - on the way. The son has cerebral palsy, though, and the unborn wasn't planned, which proves to be a bit of a concern because Walt is a high school chemistry teacher who makes $47,300 a year, when he can get work. He makes ends meet with a second job at a car wash. He doesn't have anything stocked up in the way of his family's financial security, which is bad because he was also diagnosed with lung cancer and doesn't have two more years left.

One day, his brother in law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, captures an enormous bounty of methamphetamine in a bust, as well as the drug money that goes with it. When Walt asks if that kind of money is a typical score for meth deals, Hank says that meth dealing is good money before the DEA catches you. The desperate Walt, however, tuned out after hearing "good money." With those two words, his biggest financial decision is sealed. He flags down a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who is a known drug dealer. Together, they go into business. Walt cooks the meth, a purer form than anything else on the market, using his knowledge of chemistry. Jesse sells it, and they makes gobs of money, slowly build a drug empire, and Walt finds the financial security he so badly wants for his family…. While his new side job costs him his family. And everything else, for that matter.

The cost of drug dealing isn't something that comes at the very end of the series as a morality tale. Yes, there's a subtle morality tale, but it develops gradually as the series goes on. There are five total seasons of Breaking Bad, and the divorce comes in the third, while Skyler's trust was gone long before. Walt gradually loses sight of just what brought him into meth dealing, too. At first, he goes into it trying to be as much an idealist as a meth dealer can be. He is disgusted by the violence he encounters almost immediately, and bounces in and out of promises to just up and leave. He keeps getting pulled back in, always saying "this time, no one will get hurt," but it always turns out to be hollow. As the name of the show implies, Walt does finally break bad. Near the beginning of the first season, upon trying to decide whether or not to kill a drug dealer chained up in his basement, Walt is so torn over the issue that he writes down a pros and cons list over it. By the end of the fourth season, he's ordering hits without the slightest flinch.

Yeah, Walt loses his soul. First, he stays as Walt, but only as a meth dealer. Then, by the end of the first season, he's managed to divide into a pair of personalities - the good Walter White, and the increasing culmination of bad, a side called Heisenberg which he uses as his business side. Eventually, Heisenberg gets the better of Walter White. So, since he's the one carrying the show, the voice of his conscience is heard in his on-again-off-again partner, Jesse. Jesse starts out as an extremely small-time drug dealer, but soon it becomes clear that he doesn't enjoy his job very much. He would give up all his money to make only some of it back legally, and at one point in the series, he's so disgusted and feeling so guilt-ridden that he drives down a street literally throwing his money out of a car window. Jesse tries again and again to leave and to smack some kind of sense and limitation into Walt's head, but Walt keeps going because he keeps tuning Jesse out and talking Jesse into believing that what they're doing isn't that bad, or that the next time they make a deal, it will be different, and all those other nice things.

As Walt sinks deeper and deeper into the cesspool he creates for himself, Hank gets closer and closer to tracking down the dangerous new dealer in town - this Heisenberg character. In the meantime, Walt builds an empire, acquires a real lab to use instead of the RV he originally gets in order to cook. He goes from a small-time, VERY psychotic character named Tuco (Raymond Cruz) to a shady lawyer named Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to a high executive dealer named Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser). As Heisenberg takes over Walt and Walt's life falls apart around him, we start to wonder why he's staying in the meth business. Only in the incredible final episode does he reveal the truth - not just to the audience, but to himself: He was good at it. He enjoyed it. He felt his most alive while he did it.

Breaking Bad is a working combination of a drama, thriller, and VERY dark comedy. There are points where a viewer can't help but laugh, but nothing in the funniest scenes feels right about it. In that way, it's a little like the movie Goodfellas - the show finds a lot of humor in the darkest possible places, as if to highlight the total overall weirdness that can exist there. (Of note: Goodfellas was also about a drug dealer.) Breaking Bad is one of those shows in which every scene shot for it is written to stick and make an impression, including the most unassuming and quiet ones. Creator Vince Gilligan referred to it as a modern western.

It isn't very often that a show comes along and gets so many things so rightly down. One of the things that strikes viewers is how few punches it pulls. On AMC, its original network, the characters threw out an occasional F-bomb which was bleeped out. The creators kept it in the DVD and Netflix versions. Breaking Bad is more violent than a lot of movies, and it doesn't have any qualms about showing real violence. However, for most of its run, it does seem to lack the anyone-can-die feel and attitude that so many other shows have come to develop over time. Although death comes and goes around the Breaking Bad universe quite regularly, the lead characters all have typical TV star immunity, and it's hard to believe many of them are in real danger, even when they ARE in danger. Skyler joins her husband in laundering, but her focus is on a side plot with one of her bosses. Hank's wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) is a kleptomaniac, which is brought up in very few major instances, and Marie just doesn't serve much purpose as a character outside of a story arc where Hank is injured.

Not until the final eight episodes does the show shed its safe play toward the main characters. Everything takes on a manic intensity that gets increasingly unhinged as the final season roars along to its conclusion, tying up its loose ends in the process and giving us a satisfying end to the business that Walter and Jesse bled for.

Breaking Bad, by running only five seasons, also managed to avoid falling into that trap of overstaying its welcome and becoming insufferable and losing its audience. The years of Breaking Bad, though, are so addicting and intense that, upon the finale, one could feel a sense of liberation.

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More Breaking Bad reviews
Quick Tip by . July 26, 2013
I really need to find this show on DVD. It looks great and my friends who watch it praise constantly.
Quick Tip by . March 03, 2012
posted in Pass The Remote!
This isn't a show I'd typically watch, and the pilot didn't exactly reel me in, but I stuck through it by suggestion of a friend and by episode 4-5, I was hooked. I don't think I've ever seen a show filmed in such a way, and with such a storyline, and the characters -- you either hate them or you love them. Unexpectedly, my two favorite characters so far are Hank, the hard, but loveable beefcake, and Saul, who isn't a criminal lawyer, but a *criminal* lawyer. There's …
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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About this tv show


One of several fascinating original series from cable's American Movie Channel, Breaking Bad was produced by Vince Gilligan of X-Files fame. Former Malcolm in the Middle regular Bryan Cranston starred as high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who at age 49 was told that he was suffering from terminal lung cancer--even though he'd never smoked a cigarette in his life. Unable to pay for his medical treatment or provide for the future financial security of his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), the latter a victim of cerebral palsy, Walter began moonlighting at a car wash. When this proved inadequate to make ends meet, Walter entered into a slighly unholy alliance with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).

Using Walter's chemical knowhow, the two partners set up a crystal meth lab, with Walter supplying and Jesse dealing. Now the unfortunate Mr. White found himself straddling two worlds, one legitimate, one definitely not. Adding to Walter's crown of thorns was the omnipresence of his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent who'd been trying to bust Jesse for several months--and who of course had to be kept completely in the dark as to Walter's new "sideline." Breaking Bad debuted on January 20, 2008. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide Close
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