No one would shut up about how great Breaking Bad is. They’d never quantify it, because in retrospect, I suppose that lures too many spoilers. I knew of the show, but my only exposure came from friends or a behind-the-scenes special they shot for the pilot, involving a not-bald Bryan Cranston stumbling around their RV meth lab in a green shirt and his whities, cracking jokes about how fun the shoot was. On that alone, I didn’t ever want to see the show. I eventually caved and took the red pill (or blue crystal, depending on who you ask) and got sucked in something deep, mainlining the series in less than a week. With a full eight episodes left to go in the entire run, it seems premature to rate the whole effort, so I’ll save a score until later this summer when those have finally aired. In the meantime, let’s talk about Breaking Bad. There will be major spoilers, so if you haven’t caught up yet, you should.
It Was Albuquerque, Born And Raised…
The series’ biggest omission may be in not presenting more of Walter White’s backstory. Just to refresh, the fulcrum of the entire show is Walt’s Stage IIIA cancer diagnosis. He’s coughing out of turn and often, then he collapses on the job at the local car wash. From the pilot, we’re not given much Walt time before he decides that the most rational and effective way to avoid burdening his family with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt is, as a brilliant chemist and under-utilized high school teacher, to cook meth. He enlists former student and slacker extraordinaire Jesse Pinkman to help him with the operation and smuggles baking equipment from his own science department to get things going. Both find themselves quickly over their heads as Walt’s 99% pure meth is a long way from distribution and they realize they’re at the bottom of an epic drug cartel totem pole that they spend the series climbing rung by rung.
We don’t know enough about Walt, at least I don’t think we do. We know he was once at the center of a ground-breaking startup called Gray Matter and he got the short end of the stick in accepting a five-thousand dollar buyout while his former partners would go on to make millions. These partners would end up offering the money to pay for his treatment, even let him be an employee with a hefty paycheck, something that seemed like it could have ended the show prematurely if it had been me in his Walt’s shoes. But Walt is far too proud and one of two minds. In one hemisphere, he’s the calm and cool family man that cradles his daughter and enjoys the science for the sake of its wonder. In the other, he’s an angry man who could destroy someone – and ultimately does – that I feel we get less of an explanation for. He storms out of his shitty job at the car wash when asked to ditch the register and hand wash cars in his best clothing. It bubbles up like his chemicals most notably when he offers his sixteen-year old cerebral palsy-suffering son, Walter Jr., multiple glasses of tequila while his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader looks on, Hank pulls the cup from Junior and Walt shifts into mean mode. We see this many more times over the series as Walt becomes more confident. The cocked head, the descending growl of his tone, the shaved head lending an air of credibility to some searing cauldron deep inside.
Breaking Bad rarely lets you feel like you’re on the straight and narrow. It’s hard for me to even explain how they manage to keep the show exciting and dangerous from episode to episode when you’re only dealing with two cooks trying to distribute meth. Walt tracks Jesse down after catching him escaping a DEA raid and begins to learn the trade. Jesse cooks his own dirty meth with chili powder as a special ingredient, but Walt isn’t interested in his shit, he wants Jesse for his street smarts, for distribution. They start small, but he works up to local distributor Krazy 8 and by the end of the pilot, they’re left dealing with Krazy 8 and his accomplice Emilio, the cook that Jesse ditched in the raid. What follows is maybe the most harrowing events of the entire series. Emilio dead, Walt suggests they dissolve the body and any evidence in acid, which will not be the last time they’ll do this. Jesse ignores his advice to get a specific plastic container and commits the act in the upstairs bathtub. Mid-conversation, Emilio’s half-dissolved remains crash through the floor, leaving a mess of sizzling chunks of pink and brown bits. My pal Greg called it one of the best moments in American television and it’s hard to believe that such an epic event would occur so early in the run of the show, but its severity sets a cruel tone for the seasons to follow.