Life Sucks and Then You Die
"Breaking Bad" / Stacey Nosek
TV Reviews | January 29, 2008 | Comments ()
Walter White takes a lot of shit. He takes it from the smarmy, bullying teenagers whom he good naturedly attempts to teach chemistry to. He takes it from his DEA agent brother-in-law, who belittles and ridicules him. He takes it from his boss at a car wash, where he works part time to make ends meet to care for his pregnant wife and teenage son with cerebral palsy. And finally, he takes it from his body, when he finds out he has terminal, inoperable lung cancer despite never having been a smoker. Essentially, you could say “Breaking Bad” is the story of a guy who decides that he’s not going to take it anymore.
In his first headlining vehicle, Bryan Cranston plays the aforementioned Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who turns to meth dealing to support his family when desperate times call. I’m a huge fan of Cranston, who was the only bright spot in the tedious exercise which was “Malcolm in the Middle” and the sole reason I kept tuning in long after the series had passed its expiration date. In “Breaking Bad,” however, Cranston proves that his range as an actor goes way beyond the manic energy he brought to Malcolm’s Hal Wilkerson. Because, to be blunt, Cranston acts the hell out of Walter White — a multi-layered character pushed to his breaking point by overwhelming hopelessness and desperation. I was so moved by his performance I’d even go so far as to say its some of the best acting I’ve seen on a television series, ever.
The premiere opens to a scene of pandemonium, with Walter erratically driving an RV in his underpants with two presumably deceased men with firearms in the back, and another in the passenger seat. Finally he crashes, and shoves a gun in the back of his drawers before stumbling out of the vehicle. Walter pauses a moment to give some gut-wrenching last words to his family via a handheld video camera, telling them to remember that he only had them in his heart, before calmly proceeding to point the gun in the vague direction of oncoming sirens. And this is in the first three minutes of the series! Compelling don’t tell the half of it. Before we get any kind of resolution, however, the story flashes back to three weeks prior.
This is the calm before the storm. It’s Walter’s 50th birthday, as his doting yet somewhat overbearing wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), has helpfully spelled out in veggie bacon (low cholesterol!) on his breakfast platter. It is on this day that we’re privy to a glimpse into the mundane, depressing life of Walter White: The teenagers who torment him, the boss who forces him to stay late and scrub tires on his hands and knees, the whole nine yards. Later that evening after he finally gets home from the car wash, Walter walks in to a surprise birthday party. Through subtle interactions, such as his brother in law Hank (Dean Schrader) toasting to him by taking the very beer out of his hand and drinking it himself, you get a feel for the general lack of respect Walter commands. It’s at this party where he gets the idea for cooking meth by listening to Hank boast of all the money they rake in during a typical bust.
A few days later, Walter passes out on duty at the car wash and is rushed to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with the terminal lung cancer. Best-case scenario with chemo, he’ll live another couple of years. He receives the news in a catatonic reverie, and you can almost hear the brittle snapping sound as something in his brain splinters. Instead of doing the normal thing by going home and breaking it to the family, he decides to ride along to a meth bust with Hank in hopes of secretly picking up the trade. While waiting in the car at the bust, he notices former student Jesse (Aaron Paul) fleeing from the scene undetected, and Walter eventually tracks the kid down to blackmail him into helping him cook and sell meth. The two go into business together, forming an odd-couple symbiotic partnership with only a grudging tolerance for one another.
Billed as a dark comedy, “Breaking Bad” is certainly far from upbeat. It’s about as dark and deadpan as you can get within the genre. Although the character of Jesse does provide some much needed comic relief, most of the comedic moments are subtle — often leaving you feeling somewhat uncomfortable as to whether or not you’re supposed to laugh. Like when Walter finally quits his job at the car wash, it’s clear he’s starting to unravel. He causes a scene, knocking things off the shelves and yelling “Fuck you and your eyebrows” at his Middle Eastern boss, then grabbing his crotch and snapping ” Wipe down this!” before taking his leave. It’s simultaneously funny and unnerving, to watch a man whose mental state has just been shattered.
Some might be quick to compare the series to “Weeds,” the other cable comedy series featuring a middle class parent selling drugs to make ends meet. However, aside from the unusual premise, that’s the extent of any comparisons. “Weeds” Nancy is, in my opinion, not motivated purely by selfless reasons. Nancy could have just as easily gotten a job with decent benefits in a cubicle farm — except that selling drugs is easier and it assures her plenty of time to sleep with half of Agrestic and still have time to grab one of those frappacinos she’s always sucking on. Walter White on the other hand, is an utterly desperate guy with absolutely nothing to lose. His actions, while sometimes bordering on deranged lunacy, are purely motivated by the love for his family, and the frantic, driving need to provide for them. And the result is a poignant, and at times, downright heartbreaking series.
“Breaking Bad” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC, and is currently available on most OnDemand networks.
Stacey Nosek is the world’s most articulate idiot, and a television columnist for Pajiba. You can also find her ripping on celebrities at Webster’s Is My Bitch.