Monday, December 07, 2015

"Breaking Bad": a review 2.5 seasons in

My now-departed coworker had recommended some TV series to me some time back; one was "Breaking Bad," and the other was "Hannibal." I've finished almost three seasons of "Breaking Bad," so I feel I've got a good handle on the main characters and can write something of a premature review of the series.

For those five of you on the planet who have no idea what "Breaking Bad" is about, it's primarily the story of Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who used to be part of a Nobel-winning scientific team. Walt discovers that his increasingly frightening coughing fits (and at least one fainting spell) are the result of terminal lung cancer. Walt's perspective on life changes as he realizes that he has nothing, no nest egg, for his family to inherit when he dies. Desperate, he gets the idea to start cooking methamphetamine with a former student of his, a stoner named Jesse Pinkman (played to consummate junkie perfection by Aaron Paul). Walt now leads a double life as he tries to keep his criminal secret safe not only from his pregnant 30-something wife Skyler and his cerebral-palsy-stricken son Walt Junior, but also from Skyler's sister Marie and her husband Hank, who is a Drug Enforcement Agency officer.

That's the train-wreck, black-comedy premise. From there, the show is about Walt's attempts at evading discovery: the meth he cooks is good enough to attract unwanted attention from dangerous, south-of-the-border cartels; he must constantly dodge and lie to Skyler and Marie, whose feminine intuitions tell them that something bad is up with Walt; he must also make sure not to piss off his partner Jesse to the extent that Jesse might rat him out; he also has to keep his local meth distributors happy by turning out a consistently superior product on time and in proper volume. Everywhere Walt looks, there's danger, and the irony (a rather obvious irony, and perhaps not the central irony of the series) is that Walt's attempts at providing money for his family are, in fact, destroying that very family.

As is true of other series that have weekly episodes ("Breaking Bad" ran from 2008 to 2013), the show has an "of the week" component to it: in this case, it's "bad guy of the week." In the very first episode, we meet Krazy-8; he gets replaced by even crazier Tuco Salamanca; where I am in Season 3, right now, we've got "The Cousins," i.e., the cousins of Tuco, who are out for revenge; there's also Gustavo Fring (or "Gus," as he's called) who, far from being a mere bad guy of the week, is more of a recurrent character—a puppet master working quietly, methodically, and ruthlessly in the background.

I think I mentioned in my previous post on "Breaking Bad" that the show is written to be riveting in the way that a train wreck is riveting: you watch Walt's life turn to shit all around him, and you're left to conclude that none of this can end well for anyone involved. I already know how the series ends, of course: it was impossible even for non-viewers of the show to avoid the tsunami of commentary that accompanied the series finale. But that's not a spoiler to me: Walt's destiny is written from the first moment he chooses to "break bad."

Let's devote the rest of this review to talking about the characters and the actors who portray them. Bryan Cranston is outstanding as the beleaguered, but clever when cornered, Walter White. His actor's mastery of facial tics and moody expressions is without equal. I can see why Sir Anthony Hopkins got so excited, after watching the series, and wrote Cranston an amazingly laudatory letter. Cranston brings Walt to gritty, poignant life, helping us understand—if not exactly sympathize with—a man whose choices grow darker and darker with each successive season.

Anna Gunn plays Skyler, Walt's not-so-longsuffering wife, and I recently read that the Net is full of Skyler haters. I can kind of see why: Skyler spends a lot of time being controlling and acting morally superior. In short, she can be a bitch. That said, at least up to where I am in the series, she gets my wholehearted sympathy. Walt isn't cheating on her, but he's piled so many lies onto their marriage that it's no wonder she's served him with divorce papers. We viewers are frustrated by the fact that Skyler's sharp intuition takes her almost to the brink of figuring out the truth about Walt's double life, and it's only in this season that I'm watching now, Season 3, that Walt finally spills the beans as to what he's been doing all this time. Skyler, not wanting to ruin her teenage son's idealized image of his father, follows her maternal instincts and refuses to rat Walt out. This, too, is touching: she's not protecting Walt for Walt's sake: she's thinking about her children's welfare... and slowly, ever so slowly, she's being seduced into following Walt into the shady business he's involved with. Hats off to Anna Gunn for a performance that combines subtlety with operatic emotions like rage and sadness.

RJ Mitte plays Walt Junior. Mitte actually has cerebral palsy, although he's more functional in real life than his character on the show is. On the show, Walt Jr. can barely use his legs. In real life, Mitte gets around just fine thanks to extensive, years-long therapy. Mitte's reading of Walt Jr. as a troubled teen who is hit with the double-whammy of his father's cancer and his parents' slide toward divorce is spot-on: Walt Jr. acts out, calls his mom a "bitch," gets sullen, and tries to make a GoFundMe-style website to rack up cash for his father's cancer treatment—not knowing that his dad is already rolling in cash thanks to his meth production.

Aaron Paul, who plays Walt's stoner partner Jesse Pinkman, is alternately screamingly funny and genuinely saddening. Paul, too, hits all the right notes. Jesse's signature word is "Bitch!" (see the Jimmy Fallon parody for more on this verbal quirk*), which he uses quite liberally. He makes for a convincing stoner, easily on a par with John Travolta's heavy-lidded Vincent Vega from "Pulp Fiction." Jesse Pinkman's character arc currently includes a dry period: he's making meth, but after the vomit-choking death of his girlfriend, he's no longer using. Aaron Paul also has a huge talent for physical comedy: if you're not laughing during the Season 2 porta-potty disaster scene, you must be made of wood.

I have to give a special shout-out to Dean Norris, whom I've seen in all sorts of films: he was Tony in Schwarzenegger's "Total Recall" (the bald mutant with the flap/flop of flesh that covered one of his eyes); he was an ill-fated LAPD officer in "Lethal Weapon 2," who gets blown up by those dirty South Africans; he was a commissioned officer who presided over Johnny Rico's public lashing in Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers." In none of those films did I really see what Norris was capable of as an actor, and it turns out the man is as much of a comic genius as is Aaron Paul. Norris's character, Hank Schrader, is a DEA officer with a loud, crude sense of humor, no political correctness, and a complete lack of social grace. At the same time, his character is written as one of the smartest DEA officers working in Albuquerque, with an unerring instinct about criminals, and hunches that almost always seem to pan out. He's also not bad in a firefight—whether or not he has a gun on him at the time. Dean Norris, as an actor, must have rejoiced when he found out what sort of character he'd be playing: "Breaking Bad" definitely offered him many moments to shine, and his Hank is easily one of my favorite characters on the show.

The rest of the cast, as Sir Anthony Hopkins said in his glowing letter, delivered a master class on acting: Betsy Brandt as Hank's wife (and Skyler's sister) Marie Schrader, Bob Odenkirk as sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, Giancarlo Esposito as shadowy drug overlord Gus Frain, and Steven Michael Quezada as Steven Gomez, Hank's partner and brother-in-arms at the DEA.

I'm at the point, in Season 3, where things are starting to become less comic and more sinister; I assume this trend will only continue, which ought to make for some very interesting viewing. To you five who haven't seen "Breaking Bad": go watch it. It's quite a ride. Bitch.

*Be warned, though, that the parody contains a lot of in-joke references that you won't get if you've never seen the series—like the moment when Bryan Cranston throws the pizza. Then again, since only five of you have never seen "Breaking Bad," this shouldn't be a problem.



Bratfink said...

I'm one of those five people. Stop picking on me.

Maven said...

If you get the opportunity and availability there, I highly recommend checking out the t.v. show Fargo (it's on FX here in NY).