Friday, November 14, 2014

Miserable People On The Edge: Breaking Bad Season One!

The Good: (Mostly) Wonderful acting, Decent plot progression
The Bad: Some of the supporting actors are not great, Unlikable characters
The Basics: In its first season, Breaking Bad did what wonderful television does best in taking the time to establish characters, however unlikable, who start to develop.

There is an almost cult-like quality surrounding the fandom of Breaking Bad. While I do enjoy the show, I have found that the series lacks some of the core elements to an enduringly great television show: most notably, likable characters and bigger themes that make the show worth returning to multiple times. The seven episode first season of Breaking Bad is good, but it is not great in a way those who are part of the cult of Breaking Bad would insist that it is.

Breaking Bad Season 1 is very much the start of a journey and the key to any enduring television show is characters who evolve. Obviously, at the beginning of the journey, the first season is intent on establishing, rather than developing, characters. But despite having a somewhat empathetic protagonist, almost all of the regular characters in the first season of Breaking Bad are unlikable. Add to that that over the course of the first seven episodes, the show already begins to illustrate some narrative conceits that imply exactly what will happen over the course of Breaking Bad; the plots will be repetitive and somewhat formulaic.

Walter White is a milquetoast high school Chemistry teacher who works afterschool at a car wash where his boss takes advantage of him. He collapses one day at the car wash, shortly after his fiftieth birthday. His braggart brother in law, Hank, takes him on a ridealong and he sees his former student, Jesse, climbing out a neighbor’s window. After extorting Jesse and using his life savings to buy an RV, Walter steals equipment from the high school to go out into the desert to cook meth. Jesse’s past quickly comes back to haunt the pair, though, when the first people he tries to sell their near-pure methamphetamines to decides to get revenge upon him for fleeing during the ridealong. Walter and Jesse are put into mortal peril by Jesse’s former associates who want Walter to cook for them.

Their first cook goes disastrously, with Walter and Jesse left with two drug dealers who have seen them and their operation, one who is already dead. As Walter and Jesse deal with wrestling with killing one of the dealers and disposing of the bodies, Skyler calls Walter out on knowing Jesse. Claiming Jesse sells him pot, Walter defers the threat and she finally gets it up to kill Crazy Eight when it becomes clear that Crazy Eight can identify him. Soon, Walter’s lies begin to unravel and Skyler pushes him away. To keep her with him, he tells her about his cancer while lying about his burgeoning crystal meth business. As he gets treatment for his cancer, Walter takes on the alias Heisenberg and pairs with Jesse to make meth for a violent, crazy, wholesaler named Tuco.

The plots in the first season of Breaking Bad become somewhat predictable, trading on raising tension instead of following sensibility and reason. While the initial premise is genius, Walter White’s medical condition leaves him with only minimal consequences in the day to day. After causing a massive explosion, for example, Walter has no problems with breathing, despite the fact that he should be exhausted from his chemotherapy. The episodes frequently hinge on viewers forgetting what they saw in the episode’s teaser – like the way the pilot starts with details like bodies rolling around the R.V. and him standing out in the road in his underwear, gun drawn, waiting for vehicles with their sirens blaring to expose him.

Breaking Bad has distinctive characters, though none of them are particularly likable. In the first season, the principles are:

Walter White – After his fiftieth birthday, he collapses at his second job and he learns that he has inoperable lung cancer. While on a ridealong with his DEA brother in law, he sees his former student fleeing a meth lab and decides that making methamphetamines is his best chance to provide for his family. The first clue his family has that anything is wrong with him comes when he attacks a twenty-something who is mocking his son. Fed up with jerks around him, he blows up a man’s car, lies to his wife and willingly leaps into bed with a villainous drug distributor . . . instead of returning to work for his affluent ex-partner and ex-girlfriend doing Nobel-prize winning work and having his medical bills paid,

Skyler White – A former writer, who never quite hit it big, she is unhappily married to Walter. She sells things around the house on eBay and tries to protect her son. She is instantly suspicious of Walter’s increased libido and nervousness when he gets a call at home from Jesse (who is posing as an AT&T caller). When she talks to Walter’s former business partners, she becomes convinced Walter should fight for his life and stages an intervention to voice her feelings about the situation. As her pregnancy progresses, she seems to willingly believe Walter when he says his old friends are paying their medical bills,

Jesse Pinkman – A former student of Walter’s, he’s been cooking and selling meth with chili powder in it. He is extorted by Walter to sell the meth they cook together. Stressed out over having to dispose of bodies and having Crazy Eight chained up in his basement, he begins to get high on the meth he and Walter made. To keep his friends around and interested, he starts sharing the meth with his addict friends. After visiting his family and finding how little they trust him and failing to get a real job, he eagerly goes back to the lifestyle of making and selling meth. Eager to overcome his own limitations, inspired by an old paper from Walter, he strikes out on his own trying to cook a good batch of meth. When Walter finds him after his medical bills begin to mount, he eagerly pairs back up with Walter,

Hank Schrader – A DEA agent who is a braggart and heavyhanded. He is married to Marie, Skyler’s sister. After trying to scare Walter White Jr. straight, he helps rescue the boy from police when Junior tries to get an adult to buy him and his friends beer. Otherwise, he seems to luck into finding clues related to drug busts, as opposed to any innate talent on his part,

Marie – Cleptomaniac, who believes that Walter White Jr. is smoking weed. She is the only one to side with Walter during the intervention Skyler stages. She steals a tiara for Skyler and Walter’s unborn daughter,

And Walter White Jr. – Skyler and Walter’s teenage son, he suffers from Cerebral Palsy and Walter’s new view on life makes him violent to those who mock Junior. He wants Walter to fight his cancer, arguably because he sees cancer as less of a struggle than he has to deal with day to day from his CP.

The first season of Breaking Bad slowly develops to the iconic look of Walter White as the meth cook Heisenberg. The arc is an engaging one, even if Walter is only somewhat sympathetic. Walter is smart and fast-thinking, but he is an almost-constant liar. That makes him harder to empathize with than one might expect. Still, the first season has some real fun moments, like the gross and wonderfully ironic moment when the acid eats through the bathtub at Jesse Pinkman’s house and Walter has the chance to give him a cold lecture.

The performers in the first season of Breaking Bad are also decidedly split. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are amazing in their roles of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. They have amazing on-screen chemistry and both are thoroughly credible in their roles. Unfortunately, the women and young man of Breaking Bad are not nearly as good. Anna Gunn is stiff as Skyler and Betsy Brandt (who was pretty wonderful on The Michael J. Fox Show) is entirely unlikable in the role of Marie. R.J. Mitte might be just saddled with a horrible role, but the scenes he is in as Walter White Jr. are almost unwatchable. Mitte plays Junior as bratty and snotty as opposed to tortured by his body or overcoming his adversity with dignity.

Ultimately, the first season of Breaking Bad is watchable, but it mortgages its social significance by starting with characters who are unlikable and some performances that are mediocre.

For other shows from the 2007 – 2008 television season, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Family Guy - Season 7
How I Met Your Mother - Season 3
The Big Bang Theory - Season 1
Heroes - Season 2
House, M.D. - Season 4
Boston Legal - Season 4
Pushing Daisies - Season 1
30 Rock - Season 2
Dexter - Season 2
Weeds - Season 3
Lost - Season 3
Psych - Season 2


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

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