Saturday, April 16, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 1

I tried to write up more of a proper review at first, but I stalled out before getting it polished, and didn't want to wait around writing various drafts before I moved forward with watching the series. So I'm gonna do more of a "highlights looking back" thing instead. Although, I'll be recycling things I wrote previously, so this all should be from the perspective of having seen only the first season. That having been said, there will be spoilers up to and including the season 1 finale, so be warned.

Basically, I decided to watch Breaking Bad for two reasons. First, I heard lots of great things about it (including from some people who are close to me and whose opinions on TV I respect), and the whole Vince Gilligan connection with The X-Files had me intrigued (plus I was kinda craving some really good television after the disappointment that was the X-Files revival).

So, normally I'm not squeamish about fictionalized depictions of the world of hard drugs (see Blow, Christiane F., etc.), but I have to admit that a show about meth hits a little closer to home these days for me, on account of living in a city with a really bad drug problem. In the same week that I started watching Breaking Bad, local cops busted a meth lab not a few blocks from where I live. I swear to god.

But damn, this show is good. The acting is top notch - Bryan Cranston is fantastic. I've heard less good things about Aaron Paul (and he was pretty dreadful in that one episode of The X-Files he appeared in), but he nails his character in this series, yo. The other actors are similarly good. The writing and production are all fantastic. And the premise is just brilliant.

Making a sympathetic character out of a drug lord is a tough sell, but they've hit it out of the ballpark with this series. This isn't some slimy criminal pushing drugs, it's a respected science teacher and loving family man who turns to crime only after life punches him in the nuts by giving him cancer. This man has a legitimate right to lash out against the cruel world that has condemned him to an unceremonious death, and you can't help forgiving him for disregarding the normal rules that keep us all locked into our lives of civility, when life is being in no way civil to him.

The first three episodes of this series are flawless. I've seen a lot of horror movies, but never before have I witnessed such a believable depiction of the moral conflict of an otherwise good man driven to murder (and the subtle but critical difference between cold-blooded murder and self-defense). I had a dream once in which I killed somebody, and even though I got away with it, it destroyed my soul because I knew that from that point forward, I could never again convincingly tell myself that "I am a good person". Also, on the subject of horror, that acid bathtub scene trumped any of the special effects I've seen in any episode of The X-Files. (Kudos to the shout out in the title to the episode "Cancer Man"!).

The middle episodes of the season were a little lighter, starting from the point where the initial obstacle is resolved, and Walter White tries to distance himself from the meth trade for a few episodes. It was interesting to get a little more background on Jesse Pinkman - to show that he has promise, if he would just apply himself, and that he takes pride in what he does, even if that's selling drugs. It makes him a better match for Walter White's no-nonsense, goal-oriented approach, although these two characters are fantastic foils for each other. I think maybe the reason the middle episodes weren't as engaging was because we got less interaction between the two.

On that note, this series was a lot funnier than I was expecting, although in a very straight-faced sort of way (which is just the kind of humor I like). Like when Walter bluffs his way through a game of poker because, unbeknownst to all but the audience, Hank's boast about one of the casualties of Walter's criminal indiscretions is all he needs to keep his face deadly serious. And at this point Walter is still a pretty sympathetic character - we've been introduced to the school janitor only long enough to formulate a positive impression of him, and you sense that Walter may be upset about his unknowing sacrifice. But at the same time, you don't see Walter stepping up and preventing him from taking the fall, either...

I'd have to say that the highlight of the season, however, was when Walter White (after dubbing himself Heisenberg) uses his little trick with fulminated mercury ("a little tweak of chemistry") to bring the local drug lord to his knees - like some kind of sorcerer. This is one of the brilliant things about the premise. Despite being a novice drug dealer, Walter's knowledge of chemistry (something few drug lords would have any reason to have) gives him an instant advantage, so that he can just waltz in and outclass every thug on the streets.

In conclusion, this season was so good, I wanted to go back and watch it again almost as much as I wanted to plow forward and find out what happens next. Will Walter White be able to manage his home life while keeping his growing criminal enterprise a secret from his own family? Will he continue to be able to navigate the pitfalls of the drug trade, and what other exciting tricks of chemistry will he rely on in the process? Does he stand any chance in fighting his cancer, or is his fate inevitable? Will his brother-in-law the DEA agent ultimately become something of an arch-nemesis - the friendly rival turned bitter enemy? I don't know, but I'm sure it will be thrilling to find out.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're enjoying it! One of my favorite shows (and characters) of all-time. Eloquent review, as always. Can't wait 'till we get to discuss some of my favorite scenes.