Simply The Meth
Tripwire continues its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. Counting down to its first choice at the end, here’s its 2nd entry, AMC’s Breaking Bad…
2. Breaking Bad
Creator: Vince Gilligan
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Bob Odenkirk, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks, Betsy Brandt
Breaking Bad has the distinction of being the only show that has two entries in this Top 30 since its prequel Better Call Saul is also included here. It raised the bar by dealing with the connection between the Mexican drug cartels and Middle America, a subject that had rarely been seen in crime shows, and the extent of methamphetamine’s invasiveness, and how it dominates frontline cities like Albuquerque.
Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, really did appear like a surreal bolt from the blue. Walter White, played by former Malcolm in The Middle actor Bryan Cranston, is a chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who feels compelled to enter a life of crime because he is terminally ill with lung cancer. After learning how lucrative the drug trade is, he joins forces with perennial ne’er-do well Jesse (Aaron Paul), a serial dropout dealer, to cook meth and sell it to the Mexican criminal cartels who operate in and around White’s home town.
The fall from grace of White, who begins life as a very ordinary figure in a suburban American setting, is brilliantly handled by Gilligan and Cranston. It doesn’t take long for the protagonist to fully embrace the violent lifestyle that replaces his previous existence, and unlike gangsters in other series, he has no qualms about appearing normal. Even from the pilot episode, everything that follows is cleverly foreshadowed by the script. And what we learn is that White always had it in him to become the tyrannical monster that he morphs into. It only takes a few short steps to push him over the edge, operating in a world of meth dealing, casual murder and Machiavellian double crossing. White attempts initially to justify his behaviour in a Manichean fashion. His decision to murder dealer Crazy Eight early on is rationalised by White, who even goes so far as to write down on a piece of paper the pros and cons of taking another person’s life.
The double act of White and Jesse Pinkman, a character who at first glance is seemingly the antithesis of the school teacher, is one of the greatest created in modern television.
As the series progresses, its scope and ambition continues to expand. Once we are introduced to criminal mastermind Gus Fring (The icily calculated Giancarlo Esposito) and the bizarre magic realism of season three which takes us to Mexico and the heart of the show’s dramatic darkness, suddenly Breaking Bad moves beyond its more simple earlier concepts and approach. By this point White doesn’t even bother to pretend that he has any connection to his former life. He even comes up with a new persona, Heisenberg, to complete his dramatic transformation. It is with this third season that the show genuinely goes off on a unique tangent. We are introduced to lawyer and sleazy enabler Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) back in season two but he really starts to strut his law-bending stuff from the third season.
Gilligan hasn’t stinted on the rest of the characters in the show either. Breaking Bad is a true ensemble piece with everyone from White’s somewhat naïve wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) to his fearless brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris, almost the true human heart of the show) adding to the richness of this outlaw stew. Aaron Paul is exceptional, offering a human face to the hapless and guileless Jesse while Esposito as Fring smoothly commands the screen every time he appears. Gilligan’s gaggle of colourful Mexican mobsters gives us a dramatis personae like no other TV show before or since. Cartel mavens like Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) and the Salamanca twins Marco and Leonel (Daniel and Luis Moncada) lend the show a feral, Western feel. Hitman Mike Ehrmentraut (played by grizzled veteran Jonathan Banks) is also one of the surliest, dourest villains ever to appear on television, although there is an intricacy to Banks’ performance.
The depiction of the show’s drug cartel as an industrial-sized, well-oiled, adaptable corporate machine is an innovative development, with the organization inevitably let down by petty squabbles and tribal feuds. Gilligan uses this to critique corporate America at its most ruthless, inhuman and pragmatic.
The downfall of Walter White is written into the show’s DNA from its first episode, and it is testament to Cranston’s compelling performance that despite his horrendous behavior, his total disregard for human life and societal mores, in a strange and perverse way, you continue to connect with the character. Breaking Bad looks at just how far America can push its citizens if they feel that they are cornered, providing an insight into systemic and moral failure. It also succeeds thanks to its manifestly unglamorous and unappealing portrayal of parasitical drug culture. Pinkman lives in near poverty as a low-level user/ dealer, swapping his inertia for paranoia, insanity and existential threat once his path unfortunately intersects with his former teacher.
Gilligan’s series has proven to be an immense pop cultural touchstone, going one stage further than other shows by toying with the audience’s expectations as the protagonist turns into antagonist, weaving humour with despair as Bryan Cranston’s magnificent turn disintegrates, from family man to pariah. By the last series he is an onlooker on his previous life, forever barred from it due to mistakes he initially made in good faith. It is that central delusion and burgeoning psychosis that carries the show, while several of the extensive cast could have had series of their own as well. The show also includes tar-black humour as part of its dramatic menu, in scenes like the planning of the robbery in the fifth season and the gruesome cleaning of the bath in the first season, which offer an occasional shift in tone, and moments of cartoon violence. Breaking Bad took chances, offering to go one louder in its quest to blindside and tantalise the viewer, while doing that with cinematic finesse. It rarely if ever disappointed.
Breaking Bad is on Netflix in the UK and on Netflix in the US as well now