Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Study In Self-Preservation: Why Breaking Bad Is A Tough Series To Want To Own!

The Good: Dynamic plot, Wonderful acting, Moments of character.
The Bad: All of the characters end up unlikable, Troublesome moments of suspension of disbelief
The Basics: Breaking Bad is a novelty show that smartly ended before it became too tiresome . . . but not before its characters became thoroughly unwatchable.

I was never a convert to Breaking Bad. There seems to be a cult of personality that surrounds the AMC television series Breaking Bad, which works out well for the fans who wanted the series to continue and now have a full season of a spin-off on the way with Better Call Saul. The reason I refer to the fandom for Breaking Bad as having a cultish bent to It is pretty simple: I’ve yet to meet anyone who identifies as a fan of the series who does not declare it one of the very best television series’ of all time. There is something of a “love it absolutely” or “hate it entirely” mentality around those who have watched the show. Having run for five seasons, with sixty-two episodes, Breaking Bad is a series with a clever concept that quickly wears thin. The result is a show that has pretty wonderful initial watchability, but pretty low replayability.

Like AMC’s other major produced television series, The Walking Dead (season 1 is reviewed here!), Breaking Bad may suffer in an objective evaluation simply because of how it is billed. The Walking Dead is not actually intended to be a zombie show; it is a tale of survival horror, so the writers strive to explore the horrors of the world falling apart entirely and surviving in it (and, if the graphic novels are any indication, how the world might slowly be rebuilt through forming communities). In a similar way, Breaking Bad tries to explore with realistic depth what happens when a good man gets into a business that is illegal and dangerous. In other words, Breaking Bad is not about cooking methamphetamines, it is about the destruction of a family when one man becomes obsessed after embarking on a dangerous business venture. Breaking Bad is how desperation motivates a man to find his spine and sell out all of his principles and while the initial set-up is bold and entertaining, it soon degenerates into a consistently-tense, but repetitive, story about evading law enforcement and eliminating adversaries who are involved in the organized drug trade.

The complete series Breaking Bad boxed set includes the content of:
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
and Season 5 with all of the previously DVD/Blu-Ray bonus features and discs. The new boxed set is more compact than the prior bundle packs of the seasons.

Walter White is a nervous, quiet, high school chemistry teacher whose family is so barely squeaking by financially that his wife’s average day of good news is selling an ugly lamp on eBay for a few dollars more than the couple originally spent on it years ago. Walter tries to take care of his wife and son, who has cerebral palsy, but when he is diagnosed with lung cancer, he is astounded and has no idea how he will afford treatment. Walter accompanies his brother-in-law, Hank, on a DEA raid of a small-time meth lab and is astounded at how much cash is laying about. Witnessing one of his former students fleeing the area, Walter realizes that Jesse Pinkman is working with the meth cook Hank busted. Walter extorts Jesse to work with him making methamphetamines and selling them in the American Southwest.

Walter’s quest to make enough money to alternately afford cancer treatment or leave behind a nest egg for his wife and family quickly draws the attention of the local drug cartels. Walter’s meth is one of the purest ever seen and both the cartel and the DEA want to put him out of business. Working with Jesse, Walter makes the transition from working in a run-down RV in the middle of nowhere to producing for the drug kingpin who has managed to elude the authorities for years. Over the course of two years, Walter White has to remain ahead of Hank’s investigations of the local meth business, keep Jesse off drugs long enough to be useful to him, and keep his marriage to his wife intact while battling cancer. That consistently puts Walter and his family in the crosshairs of drug pushers, thugs, and law enforcement.

Almost all of Breaking Bad occurs over a single year (the second year of the series is the last half of the fifth season) and it details a very dark turn in the life of Walter White. Watched in quick succession, Breaking Bad ages poorly in that the speed at which events happen to Walter White. Continuity problems seem vastly more significant when one watches Breaking Bad in rapid succession. For example, one of the earliest conflicts in Breaking Bad comes when Walter draws some suspicion when Hank finds that some of the equipment used to make meth in Arizona matches missing science equipment at Hank’s school. Watched quickly in order, the way that entire plotline is dropped and Hank seems to forget the suspicion that was drawn toward his brother-in-law seems much less believable. Equally unbelievable is how quickly Jesse bonds with Jane Margolis so that Walter is able to manipulate him using her. In context, in less than a year Jesse goes through two incredibly serious relationships and in and out of rehab so frequently that it becomes impossible to believe that someone as cautious as Gus (who has survived so long in plain sight in the drug business) would ever have accepted him into his organization. Similarly, the ups and downs of Walter’s relationship with his wife becomes utterly unrealistic when one watches the series over the course of, say, a weekend.

Why is Breaking Bad so popular, then? AMC found a way to successfully market it as hip and cool and, frankly, there is nothing quite like it on television. The concept was a strong one, even if the execution is deeply flawed. Perhaps as important, Breaking Bad mastered the serialized cliffhanger concept in a way not seen in television since Alias (reviewed here!) went off the air. In other words, the characters almost always end the episode in complete peril, which makes viewers desperate to see the resolution before they get into their next stupid dangerous set of circumstance. Breaking Bad also does some season-long arcs, like one involving flashes forward in the teaser to a plane crash and how Walter White and Jesse inadvertently are involved in that event.

As well, Breaking Bad has a protagonist who is more memorable than he is likable. Walter White is perhaps the ultimate survivor on television and he leads some pretty interesting characters. The principle characters in Breaking Bad are:

Walter White – A high school teacher who also work at a car wash, he is incredibly stressed out about how much cancer treatment would cost and how it would completely destroy his family’s finances. After a ride-along with his brother-in-law, Hank, he becomes convinced that the way to save his family is by cooking methamphetamines. Because of his brilliant aptitude for chemistry, he is able to manufacture near-pure methamphetamine. He quickly becomes consumed with the business end of the arrangement when his work with Jesse necessitates a more active stance. Keeping the secrets from his wife, his son, and his newborn daughter and his wife’s family leads him to lie almost constantly while he negotiates his way from meth cook to drug kingpin,

Skyler White – Trapped in a marriage that is stagnant, she is shocked when she learns she is pregnant at virtually the same time that she learns her husband has lung cancer. She tries to be supportive of him and easily buys his lies about where the money to pay for his treatment is coming from (one of his old business partners). As her pregnancy progresses, she tries to go back to work for a boss who once was romantically interested in her. She also becomes deeply depressed and when she discovers that Walter has a second cell phone, she gets suspicious and when he tells her the truth, she has to accept how his actions will change her entire life,

Jesse Pinkman – A drug-addled former high school student of Walt’s, he was working with a meth cook who got busted when Walt discovered the financial benefits of being in the meth trade. Extorted by Walt, he begrudgingly gets into the supply end of the drug trade. He often has to execute Walt’s will and is traumatized when that almost immediately leads to murder and losing all that is important to him (both material possessions and people),

Hank Schrader – Walter’s brother-in-law, he moves up fast in the DEA. When he has some initial success in Arizona, he is briefly moved to lead a joint task force in El Paso before the brutal murder of an informant leaves him shocked. He struggles to recover professionally (and personally once he is nearly killed by Hank’s enemies) and relate to his wife, who goes through a number of problems related to her boredom,

Marie Schrader – Hank’s wife, who is a nurse (when the writers remember to have her doing anything work-related), she shoplifts multiple times and is generally a pain in the ass to both Hank and Skyler. When Skyler becomes despondent, she and Hank take in Walter White Jr. and the new baby,

Walter White Jr. – A young man in high school, he struggles with his cerebral palsy and the fact that his father has cancer. He gets multiple cars and calls his father out on lies as he gets older. While his father tries to get him to succeed by playing by the rules, he starts pulling away from his parents and insists he be called Flynn,

Gus Fring – An entrepreneur who runs Los Pollos Hermanos chicken chain and a Laundromat. He offers Walter a position in a state-of-the-art meth lab, but does not want Jesse. When his hand-picked assistant for Walter is killed, he is forced to accept changes to his organization . . . and that does not sit well with him. He instills terror in Walt, even though to the general public he appears to be a strong anti-drug advocate,

Mike Ehrmantraut – Gus’s enforcer, he takes Jesse under his wing. Acting in some ways as a surrogate father to Jesse, he helps get the young man off drugs and he becomes a partner in Walter’s budding business when Walter ascends to be the area kingpin,

and Saul Goodman – A lawyer originally hired by Jesse and Walter to get one of their dealers out of a jam, he is a criminal lawyer. Money laundering for Hank and Jesse, he is unethical, but helps get them out of numerous jams (even though he complicates Hank’s life by helping advise Skyler on how to pay off one of her corrupt friends’ debts).

Breaking Bad is notable on the acting front in that it finally was a vehicle for Bryan Cranston to headline. Cranston is an amazing character actor, but before this his longest-running role was in the supporting role as the father on Malcolm In The Middle. Breaking Bad is the execution of the potential Cranston illustrated in all of the minor roles and he lives up to the promise by sustaining the role of Walter White. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give about Cranston’s performance is that it takes a number of seasons before one loses sympathy for Walter White, despite the volume of despicable acts he has enacted (by the end of the first few episodes, there is already a riding body count at the hands of Walter). Cranston makes Walter White distinctive, getting through long, terrible monologues when the character lies with utter implausibility and making pleas for his life in a way that is completely credible. Walter lies virtually the same way every time, but Cranston sells it so well that the viewer gets more agitated at the stupid characters surrounding him buying the lies more than the fact that Walter is lying to them!

Cranston is supported by Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler as alternately strong and mopey, RJ Mitte who is utterly convincing in portraying a character with a more serious form of CP than he has, and Dean Norris, who plays Hank as far more exuberant than competent. Supporting cast like Giancarlo Esposito (Gus), Bob Odenkirk (Saul), Aaron Paul (Jesse, bitch!) and Jonathan Banks (Mike) flesh out the dangerous world of the meth trade to look and feel like a distinctive and real place.

But for all the realism, Breaking Bad is hardly enjoyable to watch. For the most part, the series is a man’s constant betrayals of his own principles, his family, and whatever came before in his life that made him into the milquetoast who is present at the start of the series. Walter White is the ultimate survivor, but that does not mean his journey is worth watching more than once.

For other works with Dean Norris, please check out my reviews of:
Little Miss Sunshine
The Cell (2012)
The Negotiator
NYPD Blue - Season 1
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Total Recall


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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