Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 at 8:00 pm
Breaking Bad – Seasons 1-3 Netflix Streaming
Season 1: DVD | Blu-Ray
Season 2: DVD | Blu-Ray
Season 3: DVD | Blu-Ray
Created by Vince Gilligan
Starring Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks, Danny Trejo, Raymond Cruz
Originally Televised: January 20, 2008
Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, is often explained as a crime drama. When the high school teacher with a genius background in chemistry Walter White (Bryan Cranston) learns he is terminally ill, he takes matters into his own hands by teaming up with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to cook crystal methamphetamine – in an effort to ensure his family is financially secure after he succumbs to cancer.
But the series is so much more than that.
Superficially, yes, it is a crime drama – following the ins and outs and the depth of the illicit drug industry – but more importantly, the series’ determined focus on characters makes for compelling viewing. Beyond the felonies and the drugs, Breaking Bad is essentially about one thing: choices.
We’ve seen TV shows over the last ten years or so that have wandered into the territory of moral ambiguity. From Dexter to Weeds, the ethical dilemmas faced by the characters and forced towards the viewers becomes challenging television to watch, where black-and-white disappears and everything is muddied by unlimited shades of grey.
Breaking Bad is no exception to this development. Throughout Seasons 1 and 2, every single scene in every single episode is about a choice a character must make. Sometimes they are mundane choices; other times moral choices, and quite often could be choices that mean the difference between life and death. There are very little moments of pointless exposition or scenes that should have been culled (as a matter of fact there’s a lot of off-screen action, with the filmmakers respectfully assuming the audience can make deductions on their own); everything that occurs in the show happens for a specific reason, even if that reason does not become apparent until several episodes (or even seasons) later.
This unyielding elemental control is part of the success of the writing. The plot through all three seasons is incredibly solid, following a gradual layering of escalation as each episode progresses. There is even an episode that focuses merely on Walter trying to catch a fly, which on the surface sounds rather inconsequential, but the character interactions and dialogue in that specific episode point to key moments of the series and is perhaps one of the deepest examples of character versus relational development I have ever seen on screen.
Breaking Bad begins quite exactly as its synopsis states. White is diagnosed with lung cancer, and has very little hope. He is essentially broke, and even facing the eventual mounting costs of treatment, has no idea how he can possibly provide for his family posthumously on a ceasing salary of a teacher. His brother–in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), is a DEA agent and (by chance) invites Walt along as a witness of a meth lab raid.
Being a genius of all things chemistry, White is aghast privately of the “lab” set up, and surprised upon learning about the profit potential for those who sell drugs. Figuring he has nothing to lose, he unites with a reluctant former student, Pinkman, to cook meth. As soon as they make this pronouncement, they set to work on working in a secure and safe manner.
And that is when everything starts to go wrong.
The first couple of episodes are quite literally about Walter “breaking” into becoming a “bad” guy (based on the slang “to break bad“). He makes some clumsy and stupid mistakes, which becomes complicated with Pinkman’s carelessness and nonchalance. This leads to the death of two gangsters, which eventually becomes some of the most grisly and gory television I have ever seen in my life – with an acid-eating end that would make even the hardened of horror film fans proud.
It is these moments in the initial few episodes that sell the series to the audience completely. Like a tweaker becoming hooked for the next hit, the viewer is quite addicted to the series very early on. It is difficult to turn away, or even take a breather from the series. Every moment is absorbing and commands your attention, with its intense focus on choices, and strong emphasis on characters.
One of the magnificent things about Breaking Bad are the moments where Walter uses his keen knowledge of chemistry to “save the day” or confront the bad gangsters. These moments are key scenes in the series, and I have to congratulate the writers in using these moments sparingly across the seasons. It could have easily become tacky or formulaic if they simply turned Walter White into a chemistry version of MacGyver, but the creators stick to their guns to move on with the story telling – and it makes these rare moments even more powerful, stark, and enjoyable.
Although the first season focuses on Walter breaking into the drug scene, the second is clearly about escalation, as both White and Pinkman work on moving from just being cooks, to being in charge of distribution in some method. With the DIY attitude in place, things look positive for the team, but things do not remain peaceful in this series for long.
By the time I reached the third season, the concentration of the escalation and character focus is so raw and harsh (at times) that I found myself overly caring for the characters with the decisions they make. I was reacting verbally and sometimes physically (the good old facepalm). It is rare that a viewing experience does this to me, and for me, it speaks powerfully of the television series.
The performances in Breaking Bad are astral, with Bryan Cranston clearly stealing the show. His fatherly role in Malcolm In The Middle was always memorable to me, but he has managed to outshine all previous efforts in his craft with his role of Walter White. Cranston seems to put his heart and soul into the part – and quite literally disappears onscreen and becomes Mr. White. Not only that, the series makes an exerted effort to highlight that there is always more than one side to people, something that Cranston outclasses at magnificently, sometimes with disturbing and frightening results.
It is his secondary identity, that of moniker (or pseudonym) Heisenberg, which manifests itself in dark, alpha, and Godfather-like fashion. White’s personality is undergoing an overhaul, albeit on a slow continuum, and he sometimes experiences grief and pain and perilous decisions based on this; such as the closed eyes driving on a desert highway scene. But when the Heisenberg personality comes out, he becomes the anti-hero on the very fine border of villain, and takes actions that are ethically questionable, but notably badass. An example of this is his confrontation with meth-head distributor and gang leader Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), which reaches a climax of epic proportions.
This specific scene with Tuco also alludes to another aspect of Breaking Bad for which the writers deserve accolades, is the application of chemical properties and scientific theory to the writing style. I’m not talking about the insertion of science, I am referring to the way the show develops actually mirrors aspects of science.
For instance, the entirety of Season Two is highly reliant on the scientific view of chemical reactions, or more appropriately, the properties of cause-and-effect. Everything that leads to the season’s climax is based heavily in this conception, taking what some would consider a seemingly random tragedy and highlight how it would not have happened if not for the actions of key players. Everything that happens in the season occurs because of an earlier choice or action of an individual.
There are other scientific allusions throughout the scriptwriting. Concepts of balancing equations, rates of chemical reactions, and aspects of entropy, all manifest themselves as overarching structural bases for the writing, or alluded themes or overarching plots, to deliberately correspond to the chemical and scientific underpinning of the show itself.
Aaron Paul also does an admirable job as Pinkman, a role that could have easily become tacky very quickly with its gangster overtones – but he pushes hard with the emotional development of the character. You can feel his emotional anguish so much in the second and third series that it breaks your heart.
But what is undoubtedly more important is the chemistry (pun intended) between both Cranston and Paul throughout all three seasons. The two begin as unlikely partners, essentially both falling into the “stranger in a strange land” or “fish out of water” characters, but eventually developing into a close-knit relationship that is volatile most of the time. The two hate each other as much as they love each other, another allusion to chemical properties and the physical properties of “opposites attract”. Their relationship is infectious, and bolsters the foundation of the show incredibly well.
Anna Gunn acts as Skyler White, Walter’s wife. I wasn’t overly blown away during the first season with her role, but as we move from the second season and deep into the third, Gunn pushes forward and breaks new ground for her role in a manner that truly makes you stand up and pay more attention to her. In retrospect though, I truly wish I paid more attention to her performances in the earlier episodes, because a lot of what she does during the first season does indeed force on her character development into the third season.
Aside from brilliant efforts of Bryan Cranston in this series, my other favorite role was that of Mike Ehrmantraut, played by Jonathan Banks. Mike’s place in the scheme of things is similar to that of Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction – he’s a professional who scrubs up mistakes. He has a dry wit that is highly amusing at times, but also a frightening detachment that makes him a complete badass as well. I am intrigued to see where his character’s journey will be going into the future. Also worth noting is that Danny Trejo makes a few guest appearances through the series, acting as a member of the Mexican cartels who is an informant for the DEA.
The cinematography should also be mentioned as significant. There are many eye-catching shots throughout the series, which define its appearance and ambience. From the remote loneliness of the meth lab RV at work, to Walter’s very first appearance in underwear holding a gun, the camera work is highly professional and significant for the tone of the story – without dominating it or overtaking it. The camera work also employs what I nickname the “Bottom of the Barrel View” – where a scene begins with the camera at the bottom looking directly at the characters looking down directly into the lens. The practice is not overused, but used well enough for it to become a staple and signature of the show.
Sound is also considerable for Breaking Bad. Besides the obvious careful work done with foley work and sound effects, the inclusion of mundane background noises is often of strong symbolic importance. Quite often, there is a reason there is a ticking of a clock or the echo of sirens in the distance, playing off in the background. While it does set the tone, often it’s employed to underscore an element of importance in a specific scene.
On that note, the music soundtrack of Breaking Bad is also exceptional. Of the popular music, the wide range selected and used is rarely done by chance, and is usually employed to bolster the style and feel of a specific character. From Jesse’s love of hip-hop, to Bryan Cranston crooning “The Horse With No Name” before being pepper-sprayed by a state trooper, each inclusion of popular music is of extreme importance.
The original music by Dave Porter is similarly brilliant, and unique to the series. His flavor and approach is so identifiable to Breaking Bad, that it can only be compared to the unique attachment Mark Snow had to The X Files, or Daniel Licht’s efforts on the keynote music in Dexter. Dave Porter’s music for Breaking Bad is as important as the story itself.
While Netflix only offers the first three seasons to this point, there are some who have claimed Season Four is the best of the show overall. I am one of the hivemind that agrees to this sentiment, but I have to emphasize that the impact of the fourth season is absolute zip if you have not viewed the first three seasons. Season Four has an incredible payoff and an amazing climax that brings a nice resolution to the overall story, and it pays dividends to have the previous viewing experience of seasons one through three.
Breaking Bad is an extraordinary achievement for a television series. We are regularly offered sloppy work on TV screens, but every so often, a gem such as Breaking Bad appears that is not only of the highest quality, but is clearly a labor of love and pride by the creators of the show. In some ways, the series itself is analogous to Walter White’s blue crystal meth – the purest and best available, made by someone who has immense pride in the quality of the work.
The ethical/moral ambiguity of the series and the intense focus on character choices will compel you to keep watching. Breaking Bad is a must-see series that will keep you hanging on in anticipation for future episodes and seasons.