Critical Hit with Drew Nordman

This past Sunday marked the halfway point for the final season of AMC’s massively popular show, Breaking Bad. If you haven’t seen the show by now, then I’m just disappointed in you. Seriously, stop reading this right now. I don’t care if you sign up for Netflix, or pirate it, just go watch it. If you have even an ounce of interest in story telling, you owe it to yourself to experience this series. With its previous season holding a rating of 99/100 on Metacritic, and a record 5.9 million viewers tuning in to watch the season premier, you’re obviously missing out on a significant contemporary cultural landmark.

If you are one of those weirdos who hasn’t yet partaken in the show’s majesty, here’s the Cole’s notes; white collar chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) gets cancer and becomes a meth cooking drug lord, while his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris) is none the wiser. So how is it that a show with such an absurd premise has resonated so strongly with critics and audiences alike? It happens to be a perfect storm; a rare series whose sum is exponentially increased by the superlative quality of its parts. 

The show’s leads, Cranston and Aaron Paul, have spent the last five seasons flipping expectations based on their previous work around (as a good actor should). Cranston, best known for his bumbling patriarchal role in family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, has hit his stride and proven his immense versatility in playing White. You’d expect that his ability to portray such a complex character so profoundly would overshadow the rest of the cast, however the opposite is true. The cast’s chemistry (no pun intended) seems to thrive upon Cranston’s tenacity. This is especially apparent in Paul’s portrayal of Walt’s sidekick, Jesse Pinkman. Though initially appearing as a hyperbolic wannabe gangster, Paul proves there’s more going on under Pinkman’s hoodied head than just pot and girls. Jesse goes from an unfortunately necessary annoyance who facilitates Walt’s cooking, to one of the series’ most sympathetic characters. It’s a far leap from the commercials for Juicy Fruit and Vanilla Coke the actor previously appeared in. 

However, all of the actors’ performances would be worthless if not for the writing of creator Vince Gilligan. Getting his feet wet fifteen years ago on the X-Files, Gilligan has all but perfected his craft. In contrast to such shows as Lost, whose writers seemed to make it up as they went along, Gilligan’s meticulous use of thoughtful design is a breath of fresh air. It’s been noted that Gilligan carefully crafted Walter White’s evolution from pushover teacher to sympathetic cancer patient to the eventual kingpin known occasionally as Heisenberg, as to have the audience love such an evil guy.

That said, the program falls into a popular category - shows involving middle-aged men who keep secrets. White joins Tony Soprano, Don Draper and a host of other protagonists who may or may not have had second cell phones, getting away with murder while their blonde wives look on. The ability to binge-watch these shows on AMC’s marathons, Netflix, DVD or otherwise also plays into their success. Since the Breaking Bad story is one cohesive piece told in a serialized fashion, usually with the action happening in the final moments, prompting the viewer to want to continue immediately (not unlike Twin Peaks) it makes it all the more addictive. That Breaking Bad’s events happen over the course of about a year also plays into its watchability - it seems like it’s happening in real time. 

So what will happen when the show has reached its conclusion in just under a month? While I have faith that Gilligan and company will leave us with a satisfying end to Walt’s saga, the team is already gearing up for a spin off series centered around Walt’s scumbag lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). I honestly feel a lot of ambivalence towards the existence of this project. While I have nothing but respect and admiration for Mr. Odenkirk, I’d rather the Breaking Bad universe be left as a self contained masterpiece.

Published in Volume 68, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 4, 2013)

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