‘Breaking Bad’: Appreciating A Despicable Classic

by | May 8, 2010 at 10:41 AM | Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad. (AMC)

Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad. (AMC)


The noose continues to tighten around Bryan Cranston’s neck in ‘Breaking Bad,’ one of the darkest TV series in history, and, along with HBO’s ‘Treme’, the best show on the tube right now.

Last week’s ‘Breaking Bad’ episode started with a flashback of the two menacing Mexican drug cartel assassins as boys, their “tio” holding the head of one of them in a bucket of water to test their devotion to one another, noting, “Familia es todo,” (“Family is everything”), which fuels all the characters’ actions in this black comic portrayal of middle-class, angst-fueled desperation.

Watch a sneak peek of the latest episode.

One of the more remarkable elements of Vince Gilligan’s noir—which echoes the morbid humor of Coen brothers movies like Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men—is how Cranston’s mild-mannered, seemingly well-meaning chemistry professor has turned, in the course of three seasons, from a sympathetic cancer victim trying to take care of his family to a scheming, conniving victimizer capable of the greatest cruelty and calculation.

And while leaving us with virtually nobody to identify with, Breaking Bad has created some indelible characters whose exploits are impossible to ignore as they careen towards their inevitable fates, including brother-in-law Hank, the relentless DEA agent marvelously played by Dean Norris, zeroing in on solving the case while unaware he’s become a target himself; Walter White’s hapless sidekick Jesse Pinkman, a breakout performance for Aaron Paul as a stoner dude dealing with his own inner demons, and Bob Oedenkirk’s slimy but resourceful attorney, the memorably named Saul Goodman.

Get more about Bryan Cranston.

The show walks the tightrope between almost impossible-to-bear intensity and slapstick humor, moving back and forth in time to foreshadow events, or fill in the blanks, a narrative style that is suffocating in its suspenseful tension. While a happy ending is beyond reach at this point, the apocalypse we seem headed towards should prove at least somewhat cathartic, if not satisfying.The noose continues to tighten around the neck of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad, one of the darkest TV series in history, and, along with HBO’s Treme, my favorite shows on the tube right now.

See a haunting ‘Breaking Bad’ photo gallery.

Last week’s episode, which Bad fans are terming one of, if not the best, in its three seasons, started with a flashback of the two menacing Mexican drug cartel assassins as boys, their “tio” holding the head of one of them in a bucket of water to test their devotion to one another, noting, “Familia es todo,” (“Family is everything”), a homily which fuels virtually all the characters’ actions in this black comic portrayal of middle-class, angst-fueled desperation.

One of the more remarkable elements of Vince Gilligan’s noir—as close as TV gets to the morbid humor of Coen brothers movies like ‘Blood Simple‘, ‘Fargo‘ and ‘No Country for Old Men‘—is how these characters change before our eyes.

Cranston’s mild-mannered, seemingly well-meaning chemistry professor has turned from a sympathetic cancer victim trying to take care of his family to a scheming, conniving victimizer capable of the greatest cruelty and calculation. Likewise, his brother-in-law, Dean Norris’ implacable, relentless DEA agent Hank Schrader, has turned from a devoted cop to an obsessed, psychotically violent Captain Ahab or Crime and Punishment’s dogged detective Porfiry Petrovich.

The seeds for Hank’s deterioration have already been planted, from the exploding Tuco/Tortuga which wiped out several of his colleagues, to beating up Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman (whose threat to expose the whole operation to the Feds leads Walter to consider dumping his new lab assistant to re-hire him as cook). After being forced to give up his gun and badge, Hank breaks down on his wife’s shoulder in the elevator, one of the show’s most devastating moments.

With the two Mexican killers zeroing in on Hank as their new target—their resolve reiterated in the show’s ominous opening—a meticulously choreographed shootout erupts in a supermarket parking lot, starting with the disgraced agent backing his car up into one of the brothers, smashing him into another vehidle, then gunning down the other, who inexplicably leaves the scene to lug back his axe, slowly, inexorably dragging it along the asphalt as we hold our breath for the final, bloody conclusion.

According to USA Today, the scene took 2½ days to film last October, followed by more shooting in freezing winter weather, quoting Norris, a veteran of many action shoots over the years: “This was particularly brutal.”

If ‘Breaking Bad’ ends up leaving us with virtually nobody to root for, the show has created some indelible characters whose exploits are impossible to ignore as they careen towards their inevitable fates, including Walter’s increasingly hapless sidekick Jesse, a reformed stoner dude dealing with his own inner demons.

His bedside rant of taking revenge on Hank, squeezing every last penny out of him while he cleans toilets, is a classic, as is Bob Oedenkirk’s slimy but resourceful attorney, the memorably named Saul Goodman, a seeming buffoon who provides some serious counsel to his clients, suggesting that Walt should consider his “options” when it comes to dealing with Jesse’s unpredictability in the future.

The show walks the tightrope between almost impossible-to-bear intensity and slapstick details (Walter meticulously cutting the crust off his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Jesse’s frequent “bitch” exhortations, Oedenkirk’s surprisingly pragmatic cynicism).

Time-shifting to foreshadow events, or fill in the back story, ‘Breaking Bad’s narrative style becomes suffocating in its suspenseful tension and inexorable conflict. While a happy ending is apparently beyond reach, the inevitable cataclysm we seem headed towards should prove at least somewhat cathartic, if not particularly satisfying.