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Review: Breaking Bad, Season One (2008)

December 1st, 2009

On the recommendation of a work colleague I picked up AMC’s second hit drama, like Mad Men, currently in its third season.  Breaking Bad is a show I had not heard much about, nor did I have much familiarity with the subject matter.  Nevertheless, I pushed it atop my Netflix Queue and readied for some serious viewing while working out at the gym.

Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston as Walt White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, unlikely cohorts in the meth trade.

Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston as Walt White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, unlikely cohorts in the meth trade.

The show stars Bryan Cranston, probably best known from his role as the father in Malcolm in the Middle, as Walt White, a high school chemistry teacher who has a string of bad luck culminating in a diagnosis of stage 3A lung cancer.  In order to provide for his family after he passes, he takes a profession uniquely suited to his profession and introduced to him on a ride-along with his DEA Agent brother-in-law: cooking meth.

Walt partners with a former high school student, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul), who he discovers to be in the meth trade.  All this is to provide for his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his disabled son Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte), who has mild retardation.  In supporting roles are Dean Norris as DEA Agent / brother-in-law Hank and Betsy Brandt as his wife Marie.

The show smacks you right in the chin from the start with a gritty Pilot that effectively introduces Walt as a desperate man in desperate circumstances.  Those circumstances draw him to somewhat effete Jesse, whom he corrals back into the drug trade.  Developing more as the season progresses are Hank (who comes off as unlikeable in the Pilot) and Skyler (who is initially a character who is pitiable and clueless).

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The relationships that intertwine the season are developed quite effectively in seven 47 minute episodes, with in depth analysis of Walt’s relationships with his wife, son, brother-in-law and employers.  More importantly, the show delves into Walt’s relationship and ability to come to grips with cancer and breaking bad for the benefit of his family.  For a man that tries his hardest to maintain integrity and pride, it is truly compelling watching Walt turn to and justify bad acts.

Cranston is nothing short of brilliant.  At first, you are fooled into the stiff upper lip that Walt shows.  Much like Joseph Fiennes gruffness on Flash Forward or Keanu Reaves blank idiocy in, well, everything, you wonder if Walt is simply a one dimensional character stuck in a more one dimensional actor.  But somewhere around the 40 minute mark of the Pilot, you realize you’re seeing a world class actor coming out of his shell in a well crafted script.  And it carries throughout.

Of particular brilliance are the interactions between Walt and Walter, Jr.  I was both amazed at and treated as a revelation learning that the actor portraying Walter, Jr. (Mitte), himself suffers from mild cerebral palsy.  Mitte could, as Thurgood Marshall used to say, “pass” under most any test; however, in this role he embraces a disability that he fought so hard to defeat and put behind him in real life.  This USA Today article goes into the subject in far greater detail than I could.  As Walter, Jr., Mitte brings to life both an empathetic portrayal of someone with mild retardation and brilliantly manages to play the role of just a normal son dealing with the issues faced in the family.

Walt (Cranston), Skyler (Gunn) and Walter, Jr. (Mitte) before the fall.

Walt (Cranston), Skyler (Gunn) and Walter, Jr. (Mitte) before the fall.

Also somewhat of a revelation is Paul, who prior to playing Jesse had been in a succession of anonymously mediocre roles, most recently in Last House on the Left, which is actually a decent horror film.  But as Jesse Pinkman, Paul is outstanding in a very bizarre and complicated role.  A secondary character in the Pilot, the later episodes (particularly Cancer Man) allow Jesse to develop as a multidimensional character who one wants to believe will do right, but for whom there is no evidence of a capacity to do right, or even to do bad well.

All in all, the first season of Breaking Bad is an outstanding work and a truly unique storyline in an arena of sub par dramas.  With The Wire and Battlestar Galactica vacating the airwaves last year, I was worried about finding a high level replacement still on the air.  I believe I may have found that in Breaking Bad; provided, however, that the only currently available viewing is season 1.  Season 2, which features 13 episodes, ended on May 31st of this year, but no DVD has been released and no release date has been set.  Presumably, it will come before season 3 starts on AMC.

On a 1 to 10 scale, Breaking Bad earns a very solid 8.5.  With only 5 hours of programming in season 1, there’s quite a bit further to go before this show can crack all-time great status, but it’s impressed me greatly.  Furthermore, it provides a bit of a window (however skewed) of the meth epidemic ravaging the American landscape.  A definite must rent, if not a buy.

  1. Marcia
    December 4th, 2009 at 12:03 | #1

    You’re welcome for recommending it. It’s an awesome show. What did you think of the scene where Walt is strangling the drug dealer in the basement with the bicycle lock? For some reason that scene really sticks in my head.

  2. admin
    December 4th, 2009 at 12:09 | #2

    @Marcia
    There’s little in the show that wasn’t done well. Maybe the opening birthday scene where Hank is just too much the cop stereotype. But that scene was pretty gripping. Especially actually showing the blood vessels in the eyes.

    Very good recommendation.

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