Sunday, September 23, 2012

Breaking Bad: Cinematic Television

I have been hearing about Breaking Bad ever since its premiere in 2008, yet never felt compelled to watch. But when the show's fifth season premiered this year, I had to take notice. Every Sunday my Twitter feed would explode with people ooh-ing and aah-ing about the latest twists and developments, and I knew this was a conversation I wanted to be a part of. So now, after two months of haphazard viewing, I have finally watched every episode of Breaking Bad. And along with everyone else, I can emphatically declare, Breaking Bad is one of the greatest shows on television.

The show is about a high-school chemistry teacher, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston who has unsurprisingly won three consecutive Emmys for this role), who is diagnosed with lung cancer and despairs about leaving his family with nothing. Through a series of events, he decides the answer to his financial woes would be to cook meth with a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, also an unsurprising Emmy winner). And thus begins the string of bad choices that frame the world of Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse are dangerously incompetent and by the second episode, things have already escalated to murder. The resolution of that particular plot point is what firmly ties these two men together, and their partnership grows in leaps and bounds.

The secondary characters serve to heighten the tension - Walt's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn) initially has no idea what is going on with her husband, but is now fully implicated and trying to keep her teenage son and baby daughter safe. Walt's brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), is the show's true hero, a DEA agent who is tirelessly hunting down criminals with no inkling that someone in his own family might be involved in the meth business. And there are Walt's criminal associates, including the hilarious Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), who is his lawyer and business advisor, Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) who runs a massive meth enterprise covering most of the Southwestern United States, and Fring's "security consultant", Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who has to clean up so many of the messes that Walt and Jesse inevitably create.

The show's greatest achievement is the evolution of its characters. Walter White was a thoroughly sympathetic antihero, a man who was caught in a bad situation and made some poor choices that led him down a dangerous path. Until the season four finale, you kept rooting for him; no matter what heinous thing he did, there was always some sort of understandable justification. But after season four, everything changed. Walt is no longer the bumbling chemistry teacher who is cooking meth to support his family. He has become a drug kingpin, crazy for power, ruthlessly building an empire, and eliminating threats without compunction. Gone are the days when Walt would agonize and moralize his way through every bad decision. In the meantime, Jesse has gradually evolved from perpetual screw-up to the show's moral center. He is just as affected by his bad decisions now as he was at the beginning of the show, and his growing horror with "Mr. White's" actions mirrors the audience's own horror at how much Walt has changed.

Finally, no discussion of Breaking Bad is complete without a nod to its aesthetic. Good shows can rely solely on plot and character development, but truly great shows recognize that television is a visual medium. Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, episodes of Breaking Bad can offer endless blue skies and desert vistas that you could stare at for hours, or descend into a whirl of frenetic color and chaos that makes it impossible to know where to look first. Music is used sparingly but always to superb effect, either to build or release tension over the course of the episode. The show's opening scenes are miniature masterpieces that can foreshadow the end of the episode or the end of the entire season. Piecing these scenes together is a bonus treat to fans who have to while away the long weeks between episodes or long months between seasons.

Breaking Bad features tightly-scripted plots and pulse-racing thrills as Walt and Jesse defy all expectations and continue to survive in this ruthless business. The cliffhangers are relentless - I don't understand how people watched this show week-to-week and then waited a year for the next season. The cliffhanger for the final episode I saw was a complete game-changer (as every season finale of this show has been), and I can't bear to wait till next summer to find out what happens. But at least I only have to suffer once, since next summer will feature the final eight episodes of the show. There's a lot of debate about how the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, plans to end this story. But no matter what direction he chooses, it will be an epic television event.

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