Monday, June 8, 2009

Breaking Bad

I think it is now safe to say that, after the rather stunning conclusion to its second season, Breaking Bad is one of the best television shows being made these days and on the short list for best ever. The only serious competition currently out there for the top spot, a show that equally blazes new trails in proving what can be done in one weekly hour of television, would be Mad Men (and Wipeout, of course). But it wasn't always that way. The first season, while good TV, was more predictable in its characterizations and no where near as heartbreaking for me to watch as this past season that just wrapped up last Sunday. In case you've been unaware of this brilliant show (it is on AMC after all), it's a one hour drama about a high school chemistry teacher (Walter White – played with heretofore unknown gravitas by Bryan Cranston) who's diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and decides to make and sell crystal meth in order to pay for his hospital bills and ensure his wife and son will be financially secure after he's gone. I'll be picking at the final episode of this season here so if you've yet to watch it, you may wish to return some other time.

It's rare for a television show to be at the top of its game in its first season. Shows like Mad Men, Deadwood and The Wire managed to hit their stride after only a few episodes, just enough to establish their cast of characters, but should be considered the exceptions since we're talking about the best shows ever to be made for TV. More often then not a show will take a look at its first year, what worked and what didn't, and refine and improve. There's usually a grace period involved where the writers synchronize with the actors and their particular strengths -- it's rare that a show like Deadwood comes along where every character comes out the gate feeling well worn, lived in and fully realized. The second season of Breaking Bad is a perfect example of taking a character to the next level. Jesse was fun enough in the season one, but he and the actor Aaron Paul were a revelation in the second season -- practically stealing the show from Walt and Cranston.

Jesse started off as a fairly typical teenage tweeker character; inept comic relief for the most part and Walt's guide into the world of meth. But something happened this season and he became the soul of Breaking Bad. The show found a sweet spot and it resonated all season long as we watched Jesse realizing his limitations at the same time Walt discovers his limitless ambition. At the end of last season Walt stepped up and became something of a badass, but it turns out to be a slippery slope for him and it isn't long before Badass Walt becomes Ruthless Walt. People start dying but Walt keeps pushing until Jesse reaches his breaking point -- finding solace in heroin and his enabling would-be girlfriend, Jane. But Walt's tunnel vision can't see that his actions have consequences until they explode in the sky above him and come falling to his feet.

Ultimately it comes down to a choice Walt makes at the end of the penultimate episode. He finds Jesse and Jane once again passed out after shooting heroin and as he's trying to shake Jesse awake he accidentally bumps his girlfriend onto her back causing her to begin choking. He can either put her back on her side or allow her to choke to death. Now you're not exactly sure about Walt's motivations for being there in the first place. Has he really begun to look at Jesse as a second son or does he just want someone he can boss around with o questions asked? Does he want a confidant or a servant? Does he let Jane die for Jesse's own good or does he let her die to get rid of his competition for Jesse’s allegiance?

How you view the murder of Jesse's girlfriend will have a lot to do with how you respond to the big season finale. It turns out Jane's father is an air traffic control operator and on his first day back to work, after weeks off to grieve, during which time Walt recuperates from a successful surgery, he ends up causing two planes to collide in mid air. Just so happens that air is right above Walt's house. Now, leading up to this point we've been shown little flash-forward glimpses of body bags and rubble scattered around Walt's house and a burnt teddy bear floating in his pool. Many episodes have started off this way. (If it wasn't for these little flash-forwards I doubt there'd be any animosity towards the season ending at all.) They're effective little teasers and it made it easy to assume Walt’s house had exploded or some such disaster had befallen the White household. Therefore, it makes it easy to look at the final moments of the episode as the writers thumbing their noses and having a good laugh at pulling a fast one over on us. But another look at the disastrous event is that it is in fact a logical conclusion to this season. Walt’s been killing people all season. None directly, but every one of the deaths this season has been the end result of Walt’s actions. He hasn’t had to directly deal with the mess these deaths have caused, only Jesse’s reaction to it all. He’s been a wall that’s collected all the bad karma and upon Jane’s death, the wall has collapsed. The collision of two planes over Walt’s house is that karma raining down on Walt. A season’s worth of death and destruction has caught up with Walt, it accumulated like a brewing storm, and it has broken open. A year's worth of questionable, fuzzy morality, of selfish, myopic choices has been answered and it has been unavoidably dropped at the feet of Walt - he can't tell Jesse to deal with this problem and that makes it a perfect ending for this season.

Oh, and the addition of Bob Odenkirk as semi-regular Saul Goodman: Lawyer to the Criminals --pure brilliance.

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