Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: Breaking Bad (Season 1)


It may be better to join a party late than never, but how does a show live up to five years of fanfare and notoriety? Moreover, how can it still manage to surprise when so many of its details, bits, and bobs have been revealed piecemeal over several years? Breaking Bad manages to surprise because from its first episode the writers outmaneuver our expectations. Watching the seven episodes of Season 1 it seemed as if every time I thought I knew what was going to happen, some unexpected variation played out. It's not as if we're being tugged in meaningless directions just for the sake of surprise, though, and in fact several episodes begin with their endings. We know how these episodes will end, just as we know how Walter's battle with cancer will ultimately end, but neither Walter nor the show are going to go down an easy or predictable path. Breaking Bad surprises us with the expected.

The premise, for the uninitiated, is that high school chemistry teacher Walter White is diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer. The quiet, even timid man teams up with an old student to turn his chemistry skills into a nest egg for his wife, Skyler, and their children after he's gone, by cooking crystal meth. Yet from the outset Walter's path diverges from our expectation. In the first episode we think their meth-cooking outfit is going to take off and become the center of the show, but it's a complete disaster with such aftermath that it takes two episodes to resolve the mess. So instead of a light-hearted montage in which Walt and Jesse go into business, we find them holed up in a house wondering what to do with a corpse and the tied-up drug kingpin in the basement.

It's not just the plot, though, which subverts our expectations but the characters. For example, we expect Walt to adopt a devil-may-care attitude after his diagnosis, breaking out of his old timid habits. Now he does, but not how or when we expect. Walt doesn't suddenly become a different person after his diagnosis, but acts like Walt having been diagnosed with cancer. So he doesn't launch into a verbal tirade against the boor in the bank, but he does short out the jerk's battery at the gas station. Walt doesn't flip out on the teens mocking his son with cerebral palsy, Walt Jr., in the clothing store, in fact he walks out the back. Regression? No, rather he re-enters the front and using some knowledge of physiology and a lot of attitude, get the bully to retreat.

Likewise we expect Walt's partner and former student, Jesse Pinkman, to be a complete degenerate because of his coarse appearance and habits, and because he's a drug dealer and user, but when he returns home out of desperation, we see him in a new light. How childlike and vulnerable he seems sleeping in his old bed, still folded and clean like mom used to make, in his shabby clothes. When his father seems resolved to kick him out again, he finds Jesse setting the dinner table. He laughs to himself at his old doodles, especially an unflattering one of Mr. White, but then he flips it over to find a test which he failed and on which Mr. White had written, "Ridiculous! Apply yourself!" We're thinking of Walt as the role model and stereotypical inspiring teacher, until we remember that the role model is soliciting the student for drug dealing.

Even the supporting characters have depth and life. After his churlish display at Walt's 50th birthday party, we expect Walt's brother-in-law to be brutish lout. Hank shows off his gun and swigs beer, freely cursing and cracking crude jokes. In one early scene we think he's yelling at his wife, but it turns out he's calling from work where as a DEA agent he's chewing out some perpetrators. For all of his fratboy manners, Hank turns out to be a sensitive guy, worried about his family and willing to step in and say the honest, difficult things that need to be said. His wife Marie looks like a controlling self-centered nuisance, but she comes out at Walt's intervention to advocate for Walt's right to refuse treatment. Walter Jr. seems as quiet and reserved at his father, but comes out to call him a "fucking pussy" for being willing to lay down and die. Even a one-off character like Walt's old classmate and friend–who made millions while Walt went to teach–turns out not to be corrupted by his opulent lifestyle and is touched by Walt's sentimental gift. Or is he only so because he knows about Walt's condition?

If one thing is predictable in Breaking Bad, it is the domestic life. Perhaps it's not so much predictable as familiar and truthful. We can see when a character is going to say something which he'd kept quiet, try and level with his family, or simply say I love you. We see all the tells because they're authentic. That doesn't mean these scenes are cookie-cutter patterns. Take one which occurs at a family barbecue. We see in Walt's eyes that he's going to reminisce about when he met his wife, and as he does she starts to weep. We think it's sentiment and nostalgia until she loses control and excuses herself, when we realize that Walt has told her about his diagnosis, a revelation which we didn't see. When she gets up the tone and context of the whole scene–preceding, present, and future–changes.

All of this character development is occurring interwoven with Walt's battle with cancer and chemotherapy, his wife's pregnancy with their daughter, and his DEA agent brother-in-law poking around in places which will inevitably lead back to Walt. The plots move rather slowly because the characters stop to reflect, doubt, and be afraid. Walt doesn't want to suffer the treatments, make drugs, break the law, or sneak around, and each step of the way he's evaluating how far he'll go. Hank thinks Walt Jr. is smoking marijuana, Skyler doesn't know where Walt is sneaking off, and all the while Walt is cooking meth in Winnebago and making deals with psychotic drug dealers. The show is so engaging because the characters don't simply react to one another, but often act on information we know to be untrue or incomplete, leading to an array of conflicts which are necessary for other reasons but because they off-base, don't resolve anything. Instead we learn about the characters and their world in ways and times we do not expect.

Overall, Season 1 of Breaking Bad is an rich and prudently varied introduction to a promising show. It spends its time building characters rather than recklessly hurtling the plot forward and cashing in on cheap thrills. Breaking Bad is not at all the hipster-fodder I expected, and it's not interesting because its subjects–drugs and cancer–are taboo, but because we're anxious to go together with these characters down their tortuous paths. Not the light-hearted fare I expected, in fact quite a bit more.

No comments:

Post a Comment