Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Breaking Bad: AMC’s Amorality Tale

As most of the TV-watching universe is waiting patiently for Mad Men to launch its fourth season next Sunday, the third season of AMC’s ‘other show’ has come and gone.

Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after an unexpected diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, turns to cooking crystal meth. The show was created by Vince Gilligan (The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen), and, along with Mad Men, it is one of only two original series ever broadcast on AMC. (A third show, the promising conspiracy series, Rubicon, will premiere this August.) After production on its first season was cut short due to the 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America strike, Breaking Bad returned a year later with a sophomore season that took an interesting and likeable TV show and elevated it to one of the best shows on television. Everyone I know who’s watched it has become hooked. But that’s the catch: you’ve got to watch it. And there are many reasons why you probably haven’t.

First of all, you don’t normally go to AMC for original programming. AMC has only the two shows, both with compressed 13-episode seasons, and they understandably don’t air them at the same time. To watch Breaking Bad, you’ve got to seek it out. And from a distance, it is easy to see why you might not have bothered. It’s a basic cable show about a middle-class school teacher who turns to manufacturing drugs, played by an actor best known for his portrayal of Hal, the father on FOX’s Malcolm in the Middle for 7 seasons. It sounds like a low-estrogen take on Showtime’s Weeds, but without any of the sex appeal. This assessment, while perhaps understandable, could not be more misleading.

Watch the pilot episode for four minutes, and witness the intensely pathetic and moustachioed Cranston standing in the middle of an empty New Mexico desert highway, wearing only a button-down shirt and Jockey shorts, pointing a wavering gun in the direction of oncoming police sirens, and I dare anyone to stop watching! This stunning sequence might be the best opening scenes of any TV series ever. (Though the opening minutes of FX’s Damages might be stiff competition on pure intensity alone, Cranston’s delivery, pathos, and sheer humanity pushes his scene into a whole different territory.)

For three seasons, Cranston and his co-star Aaron Paul have been playing their hearts out as the show’s lead characters. Both have been nominated for acting Emmys for their portrayals; Cranston has won for 2 years running, and he is up for another in August. And the cast of recurring actors is equally impressive: watching comedian Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show) as White’s sleazy lawyer is as fun as TV ever gets, as is Danny Trejo (Spy Kids, The Young and the Restless) in his brief but shocking stint as a DEA informant for a Mexican drug cartel. Along with strong acting, the show also boasts masterful writing, a wickedly playful visual sensibility, and a fearless refusal to bow to TV’s more established narrative conventions. A TV series is often about protecting the franchise—at its core, a show needs to secure the consistency and familiarity of its central characters and situations, sometimes for years on end. As in the cases of Archie Bunker, Hawkeye Pierce, and Fox Mulder, even the strongest shows try to give you what you expect. We have seen brilliant series like Seinfeld and Arrested Development self-consciously stage the comic absurdity of these conventions, as they worked the inherent inability of their characters to learn from experience into the very fabric of the stories they told.

But Breaking Bad takes a different tack. This is not only a series which let its characters change and grow over time: it is a show about transformation. In interviews, creator Gilligan describes the show as the story of one man’s transformation: the powerless victim of life and circumstance step-by-step becomes a villain of the highest order. (Gilligan’s pitch to AMC executives for the pilot was apparently “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.”) This is not a show where decisions and actions are only allowed to matter for three acts. With the patience of a serial novelist, Gilligan is telling a long story. Despite its dark comedic excess and Dickensian nods to often incredible coincidence, the series remains somehow unflinchingly realistic. In Gilligan’s world, like ours, all actions (unfortunately) have consequences. Every decision, every lie, and every extra-legal shortcut our characters take will, ultimately, play out to their most far-reaching and most destructive effects. The show's most dramatic moments are the result of the painstaking resolve to follow every transgression, large or small, to its ultimate destination. And even as the criminal plots become deeper and broader in the show’s later episodes, the show never fails to keep the everyday in view. It knows that the real drama isn’t found amid the Mexican drug cartels or the desert shoot-outs. Instead, it happens during what Gilligan calls “those in-between moments”: in living rooms, AA meetings, doctor’s offices, and classrooms. These are where the full consequences of our decisions play out—this is where we live.

Breaking Bad is a show about change, and as a result, it is a show that is itself in a constant state of transformation. (E.g. The much looser structure of the third season is dramatically different from the brilliant and tightly-controlled second season.) It begins with cancer, unchecked growth par excellence. But the corruption of the body isn’t the subject of Breaking Bad. Despite its storylines involving cancer and drug addiction, the real subject matter of the show is the corruption of the soul. The show, as much as Walter White himself, flirts with crossing uncrossable lines. It mixes dark humour and excessive violence into a modern fable of moral corruption, fearlessly transgressing norms and conventions, and along the way risks becoming unknown even to itself. If you jumped from the pilot episode to the second season finale—only 18 episodes later—you’d barely recognize the character of White.

I’ve seen the odd episode of Malcolm in the Middle since Breaking Bad premiered, and it is an uncanny experience. Cranston is a chameleon, but you don’t need to see him play Buzz Aldrin (in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon) or Tim Whatley (the dentist on Seinfeld who converts to Judaism “for the jokes”) to see it in action: it is there on display in Walter White himself: loving father, insecure husband, tormented cancer victim, beleaguered high school teacher, hardened drug manufacturer, brilliant scientist. There is no doubt that this is a career-defining role for Cranston, and his first season portrayal of a man stricken with lung cancer is stunning to witness. The physicality of his performance in those early episodes makes the show worth watching in itself. But Breaking Bad is more than the story of one man. As the show reveals, and White himself learns, no man ever truly stands alone. The choices White makes slowly transform the people and the very world around him. With every choice, with every action, we are building not only ourselves, but the world around us—a ‘chaos theory’ of moral life.

While this commitment to tracing out the consequences of our actions leads us to the show’s more shocking and excessive scenes, it is also what keeps the show watchable. For all the trauma that the show heaps on its characters, they never lose their free will. Characters rarely cease to be masters of their own fate—doomed as it may be. Call White whatever you will, he is rarely a victim. The characters are being put through hell, but they are hells (and characters) of their own making.

With Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan has created a show with a unique look and sound, creating dialogue and situations that can be funny, horrifying, and painfully human all at the same time. It is testament to everything that is possible on television: slow and patient storytelling, with a long view and a fearless willingness to let characters go to the places they are going.

How far will they go? Only time, and Gilligan, will tell.

-- Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television and popular culture.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I've been following Breaking Bad from the beginning and it's nice to read a bit about Gillegan. Lately I'm a little less convinced by the changes in Walter White's character. To be believable, the series needs to show more of the intervening steps that lead to the dark places he ends up. But, aside from that, it is a stunning bit of TV.