Breaking Bad is too good for TV. That’s what I’ve thought every time I’ve watched an episode of its shortened first season on AMC. It has an engaging hero and important themes, it deals with real problems, and it never ever glamorizes drug use or crime. Far from it. The supporting characters are excellent, the plots are clever, and the acting is first rate. It makes me laugh. Still, I hesitate to recommend this macabre comedy.
For one thing, the hero is a teacher, and for the program’s purposes, his profession is used as evidence that he hasn’t made much of his life. He wants fast money, and Breaking Bad has never yet examined that motive, although time after time we see his rage used as an explanation for his actions. Also, he and a drop-out felon are synthesizing high quality methamphetamine in an RV in the desert.
Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) is a fiftyish chemistry teacher in a mid-life crisis. He’s been diagnosed with lung cancer even though he never smoked. His health insurance is inadequate. His pregnant wife, Skylar (played by Anna Gunn), is more interested in her tiny Ebay sales than in Walt-at least until she learns he’s ill. His cute wiseacre teen-age son, Walt junior (RJ Mitte), has cerebral palsy. How will Walt White provide for his family? How will he get the outrageously expensive treatments he needs?
Walt gets a drug-addled loser for a partner. Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is a young drop-out whom Walt had flunked in chemistry. This feckless partner provides many laughs, and also watching his predicament illustrates very clearly the harm drugs do to a user and to his family.
On Walt’s trail, although neither of them is aware of it, is his brother-in-law. This DEA agent is portrayed as a testosterone-poisoned guy, loud and overconfident, who confesses to Walt’s son that he himself once smoked weed. The DEA actually advised the production, which gives certain scenes an extra edge of believability.
Other characters include Walt’s pushy sister-in-law, who recommends tranquillizers; Walt’s college friend, who is now rich from selling drugs though his pharmaceutical company; and an innocent maintenance man, who gets drawn into Walt’s troubles and arrested because of his drug-using past.
Episodes can be tough to watch, even grisly. Buildings get trashed, and people get killed. Characters visit the seamy side of town, and also a chemotherapy (drug) dispensing emporium. Sexual relations are nearly shown. There’s an Intervention, staged to help Walt with his (non-existent) marijuana habit. We laugh until we hurt.
It’s set in beautiful Albuquerque, but we can imagine it happening next door. Because milquetoast Walt is such an everyman, we can put ourselves in his place. Can anyone really make money that fast? How hard would it be? How harmful?
Breaking Bad shows us the harm.