Monday, July 18, 2011
Why Breaking Bad is the best show on television.
If you are like me, you have been waiting with feverish impatience for last night's season premier of Breaking Bad. You've been cranky, irritable and a little fidgety. You've been looking at the clock, wondering "When is it gonna get here?" Pacing the room, fighting with people for no reason. And then when it finally arrived, you took in that first dose and the minute it got into your system... Ahhh, euphoria! Is it a coincidence that the anticipation for a show about meth is almost like waiting for the man to show up with your drugs? Given the insanely high quality at which Breaking Bad has delivered since the very first episode, I don't think it's a coincidence at all. I think Vince Gilligan knows exactly what he's cooking up, and it's the best stuff out there, bar none.
I was literally on the edge of my seat when my reminder kicked me over to AMC with 2 minutes on the countdown clock to the season 4 premier last night. I had just watched the season 3 finale on demand an hour or so earlier, to get back up to speed (no pun intended) on the cliffhanger and I was right back in that mode of "AHHH DAMN! WE GOTTA WAIT THE WHOLE OFF-SEASON TO FIND OUT IF JESSE SHOT GALE!?" If I had known it would be a year and a half before we found out the answer, I might have done something desperate, like steal a car or something. Meth makes you do some crazy shit...
So, the new season started last night and it didn't disappoint at all. As I was sitting there, riveted to the screen, soaking it all in - from the wrap-ups of the season 3 cliffhanger, to the building up of the tension that's going to drive season 4 - I was just so impressed at just how amazing this show really is. By the time it was done, I had that feeling in my stomach that I do after every episode - it's like the same feeling you get when you just barely talk your way out of a speeding ticket, or an ass-kicking. Like a mix of tension and relief and a weird depression. Like, the endorphins are leaving your body and, even though your stomach was just in knots the whole time, you miss the rush of trying to get through that whole experience without losing it. THAT'S writing, folks! THAT'S acting! THAT'S the inspiration for today's blog post!
Bryan Cranston as Walter White
Malcom's dad. Which, by the way, he was awesome in too.
Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman
In 2010, Paul won a best supporting actor emmy for his role. In my opinion, that was the year he most deserved it too. The first 2 seasons saw Jesse sort of coming into his own as a character, and Paul finding his comfort zone in Jesse's skin, but by the 3rd season, it was really apparent how deeply flawed and emotionally wrecked Jesse was. Aaron was on fire, going through the roller coaster ride of emotions with Jesse, from the highs of their success to the lows of his friends getting killed, his girlfriend dying and feeling like he was becoming trapped by the very world he was so excited to help create over the first two seasons. The same way you saw Walt's family life being torn apart by the secrets he had to keep, you saw Jesse's life being torn apart by the demons he couldn't overcome. These two guys have given everything to the cook, and even though they're both sitting on stacks of money as a result, they both look like they're on the brink of homelessness every episode, because they are emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. By the time Jesse confronts Gale in his doorway with that gun at the end of season 3, you know he's on the verge of either a breakdown or a breakthrough, and given his disassociated attitude for most of the season 4 opener, you assume it's the former. But, at the end of last night's premier, when Jesse and Walt are sitting in that Denny's, Jesse sums up their situation with a remarkable clarity and resolution. He may or may not be still headed off the rails towards a disastrous end, but he seems to have a clearer vision of that path than even Walt does now.
Giancarlo Esposito as Gus
Tuco was, his character wouldn't be nearly as effective, or frightening. It's because he's so quiet, so small and unassuming behind his emotionless, bespectacled eyes, that he's scary as all hell. When you look into Gus' eyes, you see nothing. His are the eyes of a man who will take a life without a second thought if it interferes with his business. Those are the cold, dead eyes of a man who has long since given his soul and his compassion to the demons that Walt and Jesse are still fighting off. In fact, in many ways, when Walt looks at Gus, he's looking at himself in 5 or 10 more years, if even that long. He's looking at the man he must become if he's going to survive in this business. More than that, he's looking at the man he must replace.
Anna Gunn as Skyler White
Much like Jesse's transformation over the last 3 seasons, Skyler has grown as well. She's gone from being the stereotypical wife and mother, living her normal suburban life, to dealing with the sudden news her husband had life-threatening cancer and coping with all the stress of that, while still trying to stay strong as a wife and mother, to discovering she was pregnant and having a second child, to learning that her husband's increasingly odd behavior wasn't a mid-life crisis brought on by the stress of fighting cancer, but the effort to hide his secret life as a meth cooker. Skyler went from thinking Walt was her whole world to thinking he was the bane of her existence. In the episode, cleverly named simply "I.F.T", Skyler finally gives in to the stress and desperation that has been imprisoning her and has a brief sexual affair with her boss, Ted, which she confesses to Walt for no other reason than to give him a small taste of the pain and betrayal he has inflicted upon her. It's at this moment that you see Skyler harden, and come to her own emotional crossroads - does she leave Walt, take her children and get as far away from him as possible before all hell breaks loose? Or, does she also "break bad" and follow Walt into hell? By the end of season 3, it's beginning to look like she's leaning towards breaking bad. She sees how lucrative his business is, how easy it is to get caught up doing the wrong things for the right reasons, and it's appearing to give her a level of sympathy and understanding of why Walt did what he did, even if she hasn't yet come to the point of forgiveness.
The way they all come together
Maybe it's the fact that Bryan Cranston is just so damn good as Walt that made everyone else seem like distant supporting roles compared to him in the early episodes, and as they've all stepped up their game they've all become stronger in their respective roles. Or, maybe it's just the superb writing and that was the intent all along. Develop Walt, invest the viewer in his struggles and demons, and then gradually show how everyone around him deals not only with his drama, but with their own. What we're seeing, more than anything, over the course of this show is that everyone around Walt is a mess too, not just him. That maybe the reason people like Skyler and Jesse are so hostile towards Walt isn't because of his imperfections, but because they're becoming forced to deal with their own. Without Walt to take care of Skyler and be the rock in their marriage, she has been forced to do it on her own and deal with the fact that maybe she's not perfect either. Without Walt forcing Jesse to confront his inability to control his demons by constantly dragging him back into the world that chews him up and spits him out over and over, Jesse is realizing he hasn't been in control of his life for a long time, even when he thought he was "Captain Cook." Even Gus, thanks to Walt, is being forced to deal with the fact that, try as he might, he cannot maintain total control of his empire, and that he has to either deal with the risks associated with continuing to do business with Walt, or settle for much less, something he clearly refuses to do. He also is becoming aware that Walt is every bit as intelligent as he is, if not more, and perhaps behind those cold, empty eyes is a hint of fear that maybe Walt has a stronger hand than he even realizes in this game now.
Really, who knows how Vince Gilligan is going to play this story out in the future. I thought I had seen everything when Walt choked a guy to death while being stabbed with the sharp piece of a broken plate, when Jesse screwed up by using a bathtub to dissolve a body in acid instead of a plastic container and ended up eating a hole of pink sludge through his two-story house, when Hank avoided the assassination attempt by the cousins and killed them both, when Walt ran over and shot the drug dealers who murdered an 11 year old boy, when Gus took that box cutter and...
All I know is that, much like the chemical reactions that create the meth Walt cooks better than anyone else, Walt himself is a catalyst in the lives of all the characters around him. He's not creating bad people, he's exposing the bad that was already inside them. It's so brilliant and miles ahead of nearly everything else on TV.
The season just started!
We still got 12 more episodes to go! Granted, this is going to be the fastest 3 months ever, but so much is going to happen, I can already tell. Walt has realized, without a doubt, exactly the kind of person he is dealing with in Gus. He's seen the real man that exists behind those unassuming glasses and the sharply-pressed suits. He's going to have to go all-in if he's going to survive in this game. Like the title of the season 3 finale - "Full Measures" - like he said to Mike in that episode "You told me yourself, no half-measures", Walt knows he's going to have to become the bad guy if he's going to beat the bad guy.
At the same time, Jesse is at a turning point too. He also knows what they're dealing with, perhaps with a clarity that not even Walt possesses at this point. However, Jesse is still an addict, he's still fighting a losing battle with those demons and they always seem to take over at the worst possible moment. He could either emerge stronger than ever, or completely fall apart. If he's going to survive, he's going to have to get in lock-step with Walt, and the two of them are going to have to become a team, watch each other's backs and be someone the other can trust. They've both fucked each other over big time in the past, but right now, they're the best - and only - friends the other has. Nobody else understands what they're dealing with, nobody else understands what they've done and what they're going to have to do. The sooner Jesse gets his shit straight and gets on board, the sooner they'll turn the tables on everybody and come out at the top.
And what of Gus? Last night's episode showed Gus that he's not dealing with a dummy in Walt. He knew Walt was smart when it came to cooking and doing business, but now he's seeing the tactician in him. He's realizing that Walt was a step ahead of him in the game and knew what he was going to do before he did it and countered his move, successfully. He sees now that Walt can either be a valuable asset or a formidable enemy, and will most likely be both. He knows what Walt is expecting him to do, so he's going to have to change up his strategy entirely, but does Walt already expect that? Just how many moves ahead is Walt? Or, did Gus expect exactly what happened and he's the one holding all the pieces?
And Skyler? She's seeing the bills pile up for Hank's care. She's seeing the struggles that her sister is going through and realizes that Walt's cooking is the only way she can do what needs to be done. She's committed to her family and knows that if she's going to be the person she wants to be to everyone in her life, she's going to have to resolve herself to the lifestyle Walt is involved in. Her feeling of helplessness and lack of any other reasonable alternative is not unlike Walt's own moral dilemma in the first season, will this cause Skyler to finally understand why Walt did what he has done? Will she recognize that, however this whole thing has mutated, whatever monster it has become, that it all started with a man who just loved his family more than anything and was willing to do whatever it took to see them properly provided for? As she realizes this is her reason for using Walt's drug money to help her sister and Hank out, will she see that she and Walt aren't so different after all? She could be Walt's greatest ally, or his ultimate undoing.
I can't remember the last time I've been this emotionally vested in a TV show. I wait with rapt anticipation for each new episode. Breaking Bad is the best show on television. It's not even up for dispute. If you don't agree, you either haven't really watched it, or you just don't like good TV. Sorry, not trying to be a dick, just telling it like it is. If you are in the group of poor, unfortunate souls who hasn't given Breaking Bad a fair day in court yet, please, if you listen to nothing else I tell you, go download the first 3 seasons and watch them. Get yourself caught up and join the millions of fans who understand that this show is brilliant, perfectly written, wonderfully acted, tense and gripping and unrelenting in it's pace. It's an emotional roller coaster. Watching this show is like being on meth, it's got extreme highs and crushing lows, it can make you feel amazing or on the verge of throwing up, and when it's over, you immediately want more. There are damn few shows in the history of television that take you on the emotional ride that Breaking Bad does. If you're not watching it, you're missing out!