Breaking Bad

(or The Ballad of Walter White)

Walter White is a high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque with a disabled teenage son and such a perilous financial situation that he has a second job at a car wash. In the space of a few weeks, he turns 50, finds out his 40-someting wife is unexpectedly pregnant, and is diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer.

Walter takes up his brother-in-law Hank, a DEA agent, on a long-standing offer to ride along on a meth lab bust. Walter realizes two things — there’s a boatload of money in illegal drugs. And making the drug, for somebody with his skills, is no big deal.

Walter figures he will just cook the meth, and rake in the cash; he can hire other people to do the dirty jobs, like actually selling the product.

Things don’t go as planned.

Vince Gilligan, the series creator, has said he wanted to create a show in which characters had  story arcs. And so he has. All the characters evolve (or, in Walter’s case, devolve) over the course of the series’ 5 seasons. Things happen slowly — Clark Kent doesn’t become Lex Luthor overnight. But the fault lines for Walter’s tectonic shift are set up early. Something about Walter’s story — how does a guy with a Ph.D. from Caltech wind up teaching in a public high school? — doesn’t add up.

Although Walter is the heart of the show, most of the other characters are richly imagined too. Skyler White, Walter’s wife, who never stops loving her husband but eventually can’t stand to be in the same room with him. Hank, Walter’s DEA brother-in-law, seemingly a blowhard but an outstanding detective. Saul, the strip-mall criminal lawyer who takes his job description a little too literally. Jesse, Walter’s lab partner, who separates the wheat from the chaff and somehow manages to find inspiration from Walter’s mis-spent life. Even characters who appear in only a few episodes — the paraplegic drug lord who communicates only by bell, or Bogdan the carwash guy, are memorable.

The whole effect is more like reading a novel than watching a TV series. I imagine it’s the closest we’ll get to the 19th C version of reading Dickens’ novels in serialized form.

The writing is uncommonly good, and the show benefits from having a relatively small, relatively consistent, writing team. Individual shows are never predictable. In some hardly anything happens — Walter and Jesse spend one entire episode looking for a fly that has contaminated the lab. Other episodes, like one documenting an audacious train robbery, are as action-packed as any movie. Although the show pushes the limits of believability, it usually stays just this side of remotely plausible (at least until the final episode) — this is not 24.

The writers set up long-term story arcs which reward patient attention.  If a gun is introduced in Act I, you can be sure it will be used in Act III. But Act III may not occur until several episodes, or even several seasons, in the future.

The show also makes creative use of musical references (a technique pioneered, I believe, by The Sopranos). Although most of those went over my head, the use of the old cowboy ballad, El Paso, to foreshadow the series’ finale was masterful.

The series is shot in and around Albuquerque, apparently for financial reasons (New Mexico offers substantial tax breaks for filming there). The show runners decided to use the location, and the stunning photography of the high desert landscape, unfamiliar to many Americans, makes the location almost a character in itself.

By the series finale, few will sympathize with Walter. You certainly can’t empathize with him. But you feel for him — an outstanding achievement, given some of the activities Walter eventually gets up to. Walter White is a character for the ages.

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