Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad pilotBreaking Bad is gearing up for Season 4 this Sunday, which is sort of a spoiler in and of itself if you’ve never seen the show, but perhaps, like me, you are behind the curve. If so, here’s a look at where it started.

This pilot opens in media res–an intense scene where the hero is in deep s**t–before flashing back to tell us how he got here. It’s a technique used in everything from The Odyssey to Ratatouille. I must say, though, Breaking Bad threw me for a loop. Our hero, Walter’s (Bryan Cranston) life is such a mess when we open, I thought we were going to take a whole season to get there. It only takes one episode.

As the show opens, a pair of pants fly through the air just as an RV careens into view. It is driven by a pants-less man in a gas mask while another man is passed out or dead in the passenger seat and two others roll around the floor. The driver loses control and runs off the road, then grabs a video camera to record what we expect may be his final words.

No-pants is Walter Hartwell White of Albequerque, NM. He tells his family he loves them and, he says, despite what they are about to learn about him, “I only had you in my heart.” He leaves his wallet and the camera on the ground and steps into the dusty road aiming the gun at whatever is headed his way.

We then flash back three weeks, into “a day in the life” mode. It’s Walter’s 50th birthday and he shares a simple, low-cholesterol breakfast with his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) Other than the fact that Skyler is a bit of a nag and teenage Walter Jr. is a bit of a smartass, they seem like a pretty loving middle-class family.

The next succession of scenes gives us a taste for how mundane Walter’s life is, but it’s not tragic. The writers could have made Walter into a Lester Burnham (American Beauty), and there are parallels, but Walter’s even more middle-of-the-road, if that’s possible. And, we have to like him to make this show work. Walter teaches a high school chemistry class, giving a presentation that you can see he thinks is snazzy and hip, which his students receive as if Ben Stein is teaching.

Next, Walter moves on to his night job at a car wash, where his boss bullies him into staying late–after Skyler has specifically asked that Walter not let this happen. He arrives home late to find a surprise birthday party in progress. Here we meet his brother-in-law, a loud-mouth cop who just made a big meth bust.  Walter’s curiosity about the bust, specifically the amount of money involved, is the first spark we see in him that he just might hold aspirations for something else.

As if to top off–or put into perspective–his sad existence, Walter soon learns that he has inoperable lung cancer. But for a guy who’s just gotten really shitty news, his luck seems to be changing. A series of serendipitous events including bumping into one of his former students while on a ride-along with his brother-in-law, leads him on a fast spiral into making crystal meth. He blackmails the former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), into help him, snags some lab equipment from the school and buys an RV, and there’s no looking back.

While Jesse is an arrogant, punkass kid who prides himself on the artistry of his “cooking,” Walter is his antithesis. Walter’s methods are meticulous and thorough. He’s the kind of guy who, if he’s going to commit crime, he’s going to do it the best he can. And that’s why we like him. He may be “breaking bad,” but he’s got fierce integrity and devotion to his family. A scene where he stands up to some bullies picking on his son in a store is inspired. It gives us a sense that being faced with death is giving Walter a new-found confidence. Walter turns out to be a genius at making meth, which leads him and Jesse to run afoul of some drug dealers, eventually leading to the chase scene we see at the beginning. But Walter doesn’t die. Or get arrested. Or suffer any consequences at all. It’s as if a condemned man is suddenly leading a charmed life; it’s a fascinating premise to kick off a highly original show.

Check out this post on how AMC has become a force to be reckoned with where TV drama is concerned.