Breaking Bad (TV 2008 – 2013)

There are some shows that I really know I should watch but stubbornly refuse for far too long, mainly because I have missed the start and am put off by the commitment that would be required to catch up, should I really enjoy it. Often these are shows that friends and colleagues will discuss, leaving you outside of the bubble, with no understanding of their references or critical appraisal of the latest episode. Big Bang Theory was one. The show had reached its fifth series before I finally relented and purchased the first series on DVD, only then finding out that I loved it and subsequently becoming properly addicted. Game of Thrones is another which I still have yet to explore but know that I really should.

Breaking Bad probably topped the list. I didn’t watch a single episode until several years after the finale aired in 2013. I knew it was good. I had received too many recommendations for it to be anything else. I knew I was likely to enjoy it, yet I consciously avoided it until I accidentally stumbled across it on Netflix when I was really struggling to find something new to watch.

What a programme. The first episode made me realise instantly what I had been missing, the spectacular opening two minutes was more than sufficient to hook me, reel me in and not let me go for the duration of the sixty-three episodes spanning five series (the last split into two lots of eight). This is quite simply one of the very best television shows ever made. Not just in my view; it is the opinion of over a million IMDB users who have voted it as one of the top three fiction TV programmes ever. One episode (‘Ozymandias’ - series five) was scoring a remarkable and unprecedented ten out of ten after ten thousand votes cast. Now with over ninety-three thousand ratings submitted, it scores 9.9, along with the series five finale, ‘Felina’. No single episode of any show in history has rated higher after so many votes cast.

The story focusses on Walter (Walt) White, played by Bryan Cranston, stuck in an unfulfilling job teaching Chemistry at high school and supplementing his income by working part-time, cleaning cars in a car wash. After being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer shortly after his fiftieth birthday, he makes the decision to put his chemistry skills to an alternative and more creative use, teaming up with Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) an ex-student and junkie drop-out, to produce the drug, ‘Crystal Meth’. His plan is to make enough money to provide for his wife and children’s needs once he has gone.

The application of his skills coupled with his meticulous attention to detail results in the creation of the purest form of the drug ever seen. Initially the scheme is small, but as it rapidly grows so do the ripples that affect the protagonists, their families and more. Before long they are struggling to keep the peace with rival drug gangs and the Mexican drug cartel. Walt’s own family become entangled and endangered, with his own brother in law, Hank Schrader, a United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Agent leading the criminal investigation into the production and distribution of the drug.

The subject matter is dark and often unpleasant with violence never far away; within the first two shows Walt and Jessie are forced to dispose of the dead bodies of rival drug dealers in an acid bath. There are car chases, shoot outs, explosions, murders and worse, with one episode seeing them hold up a train to steal a thousand gallons of Methylamine, a key (and hard to come by) ingredient required for the production of the drug. There is tension throughout, but along with the grittiness there is a wonderful dark humour. Even within some of the most unpleasant or dramatic scenes, a single line can sometimes temporarily break the moment and genuinely make you laugh out loud.

The performances of both Cranston and Paul are nothing short of stunning, earning them both multiple Golden Globe and Emmy awards. While the show centres upon the production the drug and the various methods used to ensure its sale and distribution, the real story is that of the long term effects on the central characters. Writer and creator Vince Gilligan has said that the programme is about change, turning (in Walt’s case): “Mr Chips into Scarface”. Jesse also undergoes a major and disturbing transformation as he falls increasingly under the control of the manipulative Walt.  It is testament to both the quality of the writing and performances that these changes, while significant, are subtle and occur very gradually. It is only in the very final episode, when Walt experiences a flashback to a conversation from the first, do you see the stark contrast in how far he has come. Cranston’s performance is particularly notable in that that throughout the whole five series, no matter how evil he becomes (and he does have some very dark moments indeed) he manages to always retain the empathy of the viewer. Considering the subject matter and his actions as the story unfolds, this is a knife-edge balancing act and it is delivered with a mastery rarely seen on the small screen.

The show isn’t all violence and drama though. For long periods things can tick along quite happily, making it almost feel soap-like. While this may be considered a negative, with the pace sometimes slowing significantly, these lulls are absolutely essential to maximise the impact for when the tension is ramped up, which still happens with sufficient frequency to keep the viewer completely engaged. If the show simply lurched from one dramatic episode to the next, there would be no edge, no surprise when things kick off. There needs to be light and shade, so that when those big moments come around they produce the full shock effect. Make no mistake, the tension is conveyed astonishingly well, at the end of some of the explosive episodes I would realise that I hadn’t breathed in what felt like several minutes!

While produced and shot as a television series, the whole thing retains a film like quality which oozes excellence throughout. The cinematography is spectacular, from the utilization of unusual and creative camera angles to the use of the vast and beautiful landscapes provided by the New Mexico desert as a backdrop, the show is frequently sprinkled with some absolutely stunning shots that would not look out of place in a film release.  

I haven’t been writing long. I am making it easy for myself, picking my subject matter carefully as I ease myself in, as it is far easier to review something that is either excellent or appalling than it is to critique something that is average. There are far more adjectives that cover the extremes than the mundane, which is odd since 90% of things sit in that middle ground, being neither extraordinarily good or bad. Happily, Breaking Bad is extraordinary, it is extraordinarily good. It is a rollercoaster ride of excitement, tension and thrills. It is wonderful, gritty, dramatic and genuinely ground-breaking entertainment, delivered with a skill rarely seen. It tackles the most extremes of emotion possible to imagine and does so with care, skill and utter conviction. It is more than television, it is a life event. As addictive as the drug on which it is based, if you watch the series on Netflix or DVD, as one episode concludes the temptation to continue with the next is almost overpowering. If you haven’t seen it before, prepare yourself for some very, very late nights…

AG 20/05/2018

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