By: Aleks Chan
BREAKING BAD is one of the most difficult shows to try to get people to watch. It sounds downright depressing: after high school chemistry teacher Walter White (two-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he turns to cooking meth to leave his family (his pregnant wife and son with cerebral palsy) a nest egg after his death.
Drafting the help of former student Jesse (Aaron Paul), his desperate attempt to provide for his family puts him in the company of competing gangs, murderous druglords and just under the radar of his DEA agent brother-in-law (Dean Norris).
Then there was last season’s finale, where Walter indirectly caused the collision of two airplanes: the air traffic controller who slipped up the flight paths was distracted and devastated by the death of his addict daughter (and Jesse’s girlfriend), whom Walter allowed to choke on her own vomit after she threatened to expose him. The crash coincided with Walter’s own: the flaming debris raining down over Albuquerque was like the wreckage of his worlds colliding – he missed the birth of his daughter to make a lucrative trade. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), fed up and afraid of his secretive behavior and unexplainable riches, sends him packing.
It can be excruciating to watch, especially with a cast as great as this, but if you can make it through BREAKING BAD’s gloomier moments, you’ll find a darkly humorous, strangely entrancing tale of morality, mortality, and what sacrifices can be justly made in the name of family. There’s a great scene in the season premiere that’s indicative of this: during a school-wide assembly, the students at the school where Walter teaches take turns expressing their grief – one opportunistic student proposes that they all receives As to get them through the tragedy. Everyone has blue ribbons pinned to their chest in remembrance and as a constant, inescapable reminder to Walter of how his behavior has affected hundreds. He takes the microphone himself and begins bumbling an awkward, incoherent speech about how worse things have happened and to look on the bright side.
This is a habit of Walter’s, trying to rationalize his actions to both his family and himself. At one point, he is sitting in a booth in the fried chicken fast-food shop owned by his reticent distributor, and he can barely say aloud: “I am not a criminal.” Acceptance appears to the theme of the season, with the major players all being forced to deal with whatever is facing them. For Walter, it’s accepting that in his attempt to save his family from his death, he has broken it. It makes for a slower pace – though there isn’t a lack of grit (the first three episodes I screened contain plenty of pyre, decapitations, and bar brawls for anyone worried that BREAKING BAD might be in a weepy stupor), focus has been diverted from the laboratory to more domestic locales.
Skyler has initiated divorce proceedings, much to the confusion and frustration to their teenage son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), whom she can’t fully explain the situation to for his own good. Her fears of what Walter has become have been confirmed and she’s forced to reconcile her anger with sparing her children the sight of their father incarcerated – to spare herself as the person to turn him in. I’ll admit I took Anna Gunn’s performance for granted these past two seasons, but to deny her talent further would be foolish, she’s so good.
Things lightened up, however briefly, when Bob Odenkirk’s oily Saul Goodman reappears as Walter and Jesse’s lawyer and drug world liaison, looking to get the duo back into business as soon as possible. Jesse is fresh out of rehab, still mourning Jane’s death in the silence and solitude. In the first three episodes, no meth is actually cooked, and the cookers themselves share only the occasional scene together. Which is fine, considering how rich a relationship drama the show has turned out to be. The combustible nature of the White marriage rivals that of the Drapers on MAD MEN.
None of this of course would be remotely possible without Bryan Cranston: three seasons in, and he’s already surpassed his character on MALCOM IN THE MIDDLE, ably portraying a man as tragic, principled, and prideful as Walter White. His performance is as realized as his character; even in scenes where he’s down to his underwear, he is amazingly committed to the role. More importantly, his performance keeps us from outright hating Walter as deluded and selfish – his actions can be horrible, but Cranston makes us want him to succeed.
The season premiere (directed by Cranston himself) opens with the show’s usual Lynch-ian tableau: a desert is dotted with people crawling across the ground to a strange shrine, headed by a set of mute, deadly twins (Luis and Daniel Moncada). Walter has elicited the mire of a Mexican drug cartel, but getting their hands on him proves tricky. It seems that we will be spending more time with heady psychodrama before we get back into the dusty RV-turned-meth lab – and so far, I don’t mind. Grade: A-
BREAKING BAD airs on Sundays at 10PM on AMC