Breaking Bad(AMC) Starring Bryan Cranston; Anna Gunn; Aaron Paul; Dean Norris; Betsy Brandt; RJ Mitte
Pre-Malcom in the Middle, Bryan Cranston was probably best known as Dr. Tim Watley, the re-gifting dentist from Seinfeld. For seven seasons (2000-2006), he was Hal in Malcolm, but from 1992 until that time, Cranston appeared in numerous walk-on television roles - a resume that includes credits on Chips; Hill Street Blues; Falcon Crest; Baywatch; LA Law; Murder She Wrote; and Sabrina: The Teenage Witch). With Malcolm came occasional movie appearances in quality films like Saving Private Ryan; Seeing Other People; and Little Miss Sunshine, but until his major break Cranston was nothing more than a television character actor. Even post-Malcolm, there is nothing in his CV that could have prepared anyone for his role as Walter White Sr. in AMC’s Breaking Bad.
With his shaved head, specs, and permanently depressed mien, Cranston owns his role as meth- dealing, Cancer suffering father, husband, and high school chemistry teacher Walter White. For his work on season one Cranston earned himself a best actor Emmy, beating out stiff competition (James Spader; Hugh Laurie; Gabriel Byrne) in the category. For a show little hailed prior to its debut, one playing on AMC - a cable station not exactly historically known for its original programming, this is nothing short of a major accomplishment. Of course, Breaking Bad, and especially the juggernaut Mad Men have done wonders in putting AMC on the map.
Creator Vince Gilligan was an executive producer for the X Files so it’s not as if the team behind Breaking Bad was unaware as to the methodology behind breaking a show on a non-big-three-network station. Originally, last years’ season one was slated for thirteen episodes, but the writers strike led to an abbreviated seven show output. Season two picked up the momentum from that shortened initial spate, however, and the show demonstrates no sign of slowing its roll.
Breaking Badis an odd show, principally because its lead character is so full of morally ambiguities and complexities. While Tony Soprano; Vic Mackey; and Morgan Dexter are all clearly sociopaths, Walt was, seemingly, a regular guy living his suburban New Mexico existence, who suddenly faced some serious health and financial challenges, and began making and dealing drugs as a solution. From there things simply began to happen. Yes, he has made some decisions that might be seen as morally reprehensible, and undoubtedly has demonstrated a certain chilling coldness when making some very tough life and death choices, but in context there are always practicalities behind his moves. Walt may be amoral, but he is not frivolous or cavalier about the dirty business he is mixed up in - he is, however, a pragmatist.
Last night Season Two came to a close, leaving more up in the air than resolved - which gives us plenty to look forward to in the already approved season three. If nothing else, season two demonstrated further that Walt’s family life is not exactly roses. Walt’s son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) has CP. Walt continues to struggle with his disease. Pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) has major issues with Walt’s secrecy, and one wonders whether this will contribute to her eventually cheating. Walt and Skyler’s relationship has a kind of wonderfully portrayed underlying resentment and detachment to it that seems to mark some real-life marriages. There are moments of tenderness between them, but it’s as if there have been too many past unresolved conflicts, too many small disagreements that went unattended. Often it feels as if each is biting their lip when in the others presence, a condition which provides ongoing tension in the show.
Hank and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his weasely former student and drug partner, are confronted with a number of challenges in the course of operating their fledgling business venture. Early on they are forced to deal with Tuco (Raymond Cruz), a raging Latino psychopath meth distributor. Later, they make a decision to cook a new batch of “the blue stuff”, and then distribute the product on their own, forcing Jesse to take on a tough guy persona to keep his recruited troops in line.
Walt’s new illegal sideline career is, of course, that much more precarious because his brother in law is Hank (Dean Norris), a drug enforcement officer who is assigned to (what else?) combating the local meth problem. Hank faces his own demons in work, getting a promotion, but dealing with anxiety issues, and finding himself in the middle of a wildly violent scene. Skyler has ongoing issues with her shoplifting sister Marie (Betsy Brandt), Hank’s wife, and the conflict within the families always feels like it has the potential to expose Walt and his dirty deeds.
Walt’s choice of drug user Jesse as partner obviously originally arose due to necessity, although Jesse’s stupidity consistently threatens to undermine their business. Because Jesse walks around in the low life world of degenerates, however, he provides Walt with an entrance he would have otherwise been without. In the process, Walt feels loyalty to Jesse, and though his immaturity and false bravado constantly aggravates and annoys, he also feels protective of him. Walt is always lying to his family, but there is something that smacks of honesty in Walt and Jesse’s dysfunctional relationship.
Several new additions to the cast brought much to dance. Jane Margolis, the attractive, dark-haired neighbor and daughter of Jesse’s new landlord, is played by Krysten Ritter. Jesse is immediately smitten by this alluring female tattoo artist, and the two develop a sexual relationship. Gianncarlo Esposito plays Gus Frings, a secretive major meth distributor and fast food chain owner. Gus becomes connected to Walt through fast-talking attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Saul is initially enlisted by Walt and Jesse to defend an underling, but in a short period of time comes to play a pivotal role as advisor, confidante, and fixer.
With no one in his family circle privy to the enormous amount of money he is making, Walt continues to try to cover his disappearances and occasionally odd behavior with a progressive series of lies. Skyler goes back to work for Ted (Christopher Beneke) at her old accounting job to help out with the financial crisis. Walt Jr. starts a fund on the internet asking for donations. Brother-in-law Hank even puts out a collection container at his DEA office. Skyler throws Hank a party to celebrate some good news on the health front, bringing over their friends to celebrate, although Hank remains distracted and petulant. Through it all Walt has to create fictional sources for the money flow that is paying for his care, which leads us to a finale in which some of his lies are finally exposed.
The season’s final episode ends with a random event that is actually not so random. And therein, perhaps, lies the message of season two, if not the entire show. Even if our actions might be motivated by a desire for self-preservation, self-defense, and a need to protect and take care of our loved ones, nothing we do is without consequence, and each of our decisions have moral implications that reach beyond our own narrow existence, affecting those close to us, and strangers alike.