Even though season one of AMC’s Breaking Bad is only seven episodes long, it quickly sets the tone for this darkly comedic drama set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bryan Cranston is Walter White, a 50-year old, under-achieving high school chemistry teacher who’s ordinary life is rocked by the news he has terminal lung cancer. Instead of taking the news straight home to pregnant wife, he makes the unpredictable choice to cook crystal methamphetamine, asking former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to sell the goods.
With each decision Walter makes, creator Vince Gilligan gives us the opportunity to ask what we would do. The first season shows us the sequence of events that eventually leads to his cottage industry, despite the moralistic debate that rages in every episode.
White is not a vehicle for this plot; he is the plot. His reactions to every situation – the pride he displays when peers offer to help him with a new well-paid job or a loan for medical bills, his nerve when he takes matters into his own hands to make an explosive deal with violent local dealer Tuco Salamanca – redefines his life and takes control of it where he can. In spite of ourselves, we cheer him with each step.
Not since The Sopranos has television given us such a finely balanced blend of genuine domesticity and full-on violence. It is necessary to know the stakes are high, win or lose. Anything less brutal would not be great writing – and this is great writing, enhanced by a brilliant ensemble cast. The warmth and fear of White’s wife Skyler is portrayed elegantly by Anna Gunn. RJ Mitte plays Walter’s teenage son Walt Junior, who, like Mitte, has cerebral palsy. Together, they keep Walter focused on why he has chosen the meth-encrusted path less travelled.
Subtext drips from the scenes between Walter and Hank, whom Dean Norris plays with aplomb. A DEA agent married to Skyler’s light-fingered sister Marie, Hank is only one or two steps behind the new kingpin in town, Heisenberg, the alias used by Walter. Aaron Paul’s sensitive yet jaded Jess, meanwhile, still calls him Mr. White. There’s great texture and depth to enjoy in every minute.
Season Five Part One may only just be hitting DVD (it’s been on Netflix for some time), but this is a great time to start watching Breaking Bad from the beginning; with its final season airing in the US in August, you have just enough time to catch up before the spoilers arrive. If the opening 3 minutes and 47 seconds of episode one don’t have you hooked, you should seriously consider making an appointment with your doctor. You may be missing a pulse.
Breaking Bad is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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