Saturday, May 15, 2010

Maggie 2010: Breaking Bad

#67. Breaking Bad S1

You're fifty years old. You're a chemistry teacher with little to show for your life except a modest home, a wife who accepts you for the middle-of-the-track achiever you are, a sixteen-year-old son who loves but doesn't admire you, and a baby (and its mountain of debt) on the way. Then you find out you have lung cancer, and aren't likely to live to your impending child's first birthday. As a decent man trying to support his family by his own bootstraps, what do you do?

If you answered, use your latent crystallography skills to cook meth and make enough money to support your family in your absence, you might be the next Walter H. White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad.

This series is exceptional -- not for its premise, but for its rigourous and meticulous follow-through: Walter doesn't just hop into the meth cooking industry overnight, but has to find help, in the form of past student and all-around meth-head layabout Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). And then they need a place to cook. And supplies. And distribution. And all of these elements come with huge prices, including the need to embark on far, far more serious crimes in order to protect their own lives and their secrets. It is not an easy road. Nor, in this first season, is it at all truly lucrative -- for all Walter's hard and illegal work, he still ends up having to inform his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn) that he has cancer, which brings its own host of problems and looming new debts. Life for a man just trying to make his way by his own labour and system of integrity is hard. And the drug trade is one unforgiving S.O.B. Oh, and to make matters worse, Walter's brother-in-law is a DEA agent. Yeah. It's intense.

In short, superb writing, a measured, realistic narrative pace, exemplary performances, and an eye for detail makes Breaking Bad an unmissable TV event.

#68. Breaking Bad S2

Season two of this superb series, about Walter H. White and Jesse Pinkman's struggle to make good on a superior quality of meth production, made possible by Walter's rigourous chemistry background, is ripe with nuance. While Walter tries to keep his lies straight with Skyler, protecting his family, his high-handed engagement with criminal proceedings forces Jesse to make risks on their mutual behalf that land Jesse in hot water. Around this point one starts to realize that the titular act of this series, "Breaking Bad," might not just refer to Walter: before Walter came around, Jesse was a layabout, sure, but he was a decent guy who generally lived and let live. This season finds Jesse forced by Walter's actions to do things that tear him in two, to think himself to blame for some of the worst possible acts one can endure, and still get lectured for being an incompetent, unreliable good-for-nothing with no prospects whatsoever.

Watching this season, one gains an exceptionally clear understanding that criminals are made, and that pre-judging someone's character while relying on that presumed character to do your dirty work for you can be one of the surest ways to make anyone "break bad." A heartrendingly well-wrought series continues to expand in interesting and provocative ways through its second season. I thoroughly, emphatically recommend it.

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