Thursday, June 4, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Breaking Bad

Critics hailed this show from its very first episode last year, and Bryan Cranston picked up a surprising Emmy win for his breakthrough performance as high school chemistry teacher-turned-methamphetamine cook Walter White. It took me a bit longer to get into the show, and I was only truly impressed when Walt strangled the drug dealer with the bicycle lock. By the end of the season, I was ready for more of the innovative series’ story.

This year, in retrospect, was actually quite good. I can’t say I completely loved every episode while I watching them, but after reflecting on all the episodes and the level at which I was engaged and intrigued while watching every episode, I have to say that I was satisfied. Walt’s journey deeper into the drug business was fascinating to watch, though it was hardly pleasant. None of the characters on “Breaking Bad” are terribly sympathetic, and getting past the fact that no likeable character exists is tough. Then again, “Breaking Bad” was never a happy show.

Bryan Cranston continues to turn in a finely muted performance as Walt, eons away from his comic dad on “Malcolm in the Middle.” I’ve read several takes recapping this season of “Breaking Bad,” and the most interesting notion I’ve come across is the idea that Walt is really not a good person anymore. He’s constantly said that he’s trying to pull money together for his family, but he never seems interested in actually developing any kind of relationship with his wife or his son. He seems to be turned on by the drug world and gets thrills from defending his territory. It’s a rush of power that he’s not accustomed to, and his motivations for getting into cooking meth have become blurred: it’s not to make money, but to ensure that people can respect him. The transition from sad, hopeless Walt to this subtly power-hungry wannabe drug lord was impressive, and each episode only hinted at his transformation, so that the end result was all the more shocking.

Jesse got a bigger role this year also, finally stepping out of Walt’s shadow in his attempts to amp up the distribution side of their business. Tom O’Neil over at Gold Derby, among others, has been praising Aaron Paul for his breakout performance. Jesse’s really not a likeable character because he starts out at such a low point, but Paul has done a great job of making him somewhat sympathetic in the face of his struggles. Jesse’s doomed relationship with his now-deceased girlfriend was an interesting foray into his sentimental personality, and how he still values culturally elite aspects of society, like museums and romance, despite his lack of a completed formal education. His standout episode, of course, was where he encountered a couple far more deranged and desperate than he was, and saw a man murdered in cold blood by a vindictive wife’s deadly use of an ATM machine. His character becomes immensely relatable in a scene that should seem completely improbable and fantastical.

The side plotlines weren’t quite as fully effective as they could have been, but the effort made was interesting. Skyler was endlessly frustrating because she was rarely upbeat, and it was never truly in support of something actionable that Walt did. Her potential fling with her boss didn’t quite go anywhere, and her (understandable) refusal to accept Walt’s too-late apology is unfortunate because I really would have loved to see her reaction to what he’s been doing. Walter Jr. wasn’t terribly interesting, but another family member got a well-deserved spotlight that hasn’t quite gone anywhere. Hank got a promotion and then immediately returned to his own job, and I really hoped also that he would get to the bottom of Walt’s business first. I think that’s what this show needs – someone has to discover Walt’s secret. Skyler was so close when, in his delirium, Walt asked which cell phone she meant. There were a bunch of those kind of “almost” moments this season, like the cell phone vibrating in the ceiling, and I’d like to see more of those next year.

The season finale was immensely promising in its dramatic intensity and reassertion of the off-kilter nature of this show. The ending scene, which saw two planes brought down right above Walt’s house due to the mental breakdown of Jane’s father (played marvelously by John de Lancie, also known as Q from various Star Trek series), was wonderfully symbolic of the havoc Walt has wreaked on everyone’s lives around him (analyzed extensively by Alan Sepinwall). The final few episodes were great in firming up the fantastic recurring characters of the drug pusher and the crooked lawyer. I’m excited for their hopeful returns in the show’s third season, probably a year from now, and to see how Walt and Jesse handle putting their lives together.

Season finale: B+
Season grade: B+
Season MVP: Bryan Cranston/John de Lancie

No comments: