During the long, long, loooooong wait between Mad Men seasons 4 and 5, I did the unthinkable: I cheated with another show. These days, I’m ridiculously TV-monogamous; I only care, really care, about one show at a time, but I can only re-watch episodes so many times before things become a bit, shall we say, stale. So I found myself gravitating towards the show that occupies the same network time slot at a different time of the year: Breaking Bad.
Honestly, I’d managed to stay away for four seasons because it just didn’t seem like my kind of show. Drugs? Violence? Squalor? I’m not categorically against such things being depicted on celluloid, but I do think there are relatively few people who do it well, and that Tarantino-esque “yummy, look at all the ketchup” stuff always made my stomach churn. But people whose tastes I respected told me to give it a try, and it didn’t take more than two minutes into the pilot before I was hooked. So here are some tidbits for those of you who are BB virgins thinking of taking the plunge, who don’t want to deal with all the spoilers for past seasons posted elsewhere.
The pilot: Evidently, this was originally filmed with a premium network in mind, so the uncut pilot, which has aired on AMC only once, runs a full hour, 12 minutes longer than the cut version. Also, if you stream this show on Netflix, they use the cut version of the pilot that is shown in reruns on AMC. Amazon Instant Video has the full uncut pilot, as does the S1 DVD. I saw the cut pilot first and got addicted, but the uncut one is even better; you get a much better sense of Walt’s desperation that drove him to make what will only be his first in a long series of tragic errors.
Season structure: So far, there have been four seasons of BB. The first, abbreviated by a writer’s strike, is only 7 episodes long; the following three seasons are 13 episodes long. The final sixteen episodes are forthcoming, eight of which will be shown starting July 15 and the other eight next summer. They are calling this a “split season 5″ rather than two separate seasons, possibly for contractual reasons. For those of you MM fans who get antsy trying to figure out how much of a time jump there will be between seasons, I can save you that trouble for BB by telling you they don’t do time jumps at all between seasons. (I know nothing about the S5 premiere, but if you’ve seen the end of S4 and then seen the brief S5 previews, it’s pretty obvious they’re continuing the practice.) In fact, only about a year has passed all together over four seasons, so really, at this point, they’re still in 2008 or at most early 2009 (which partly explains why nobody on the show has a smartphone). RJ Mitte, who plays Walt’s teenaged son, has aged from 15 to 16 in show time as Mitte himself has aged from 15-1/2 to 19-1/2. Look for him to be filmed at greater and greater distances to try to cover for this!
Acting: Oh boy. If you are a connoisseur of great acting, is this show ever for you. Bryan Cranston, of course, puts on a frigging acting clinic every week playing Walt, and make no mistake: the role of Walter White is an actor’s dream. He gets to play a guy who seems like such a harmless milquetoast that almost no one ever suspects he’s capable of doing the damage he’s done, and the transition is breathtakingly seamless; I can just picture Cranston getting the pilot script and going, “Yes! This is what I’ve waited all my life for!”
But really, every role, even the tiniest ones, has been perfectly cast. Giancarlo Esposito does an unforgettable star turn from late S2 on, and the show’s regular cast, apart from Cranston, is absolutely stellar. Anna Gunn, as Walt’s wife Skyler, spectacularly depicts a woman who has been gaslighted in ways that would make Don Draper blush, and who finally cracks under the strain. RJ Mitte is terrific as Walt’s son with cerebral palsy (Mitte has CP in real life), who alternately sasses and worships his dad. Betsy Brandt takes what could have been a thankless role as Skyler’s uptight sister, Marie, and really makes you get why Marie is so high-strung. Dean Norris, likewise, could have been a mere comic foil to Walt as his crass, crude DEA-agent brother-in-law Hank, but over time, Norris keeps deepening the portrayal until you understand the true cost of Hank’s having to play the tough guy.
And then there is Aaron Paul’s partner-in-meth Jesse, a character who BB showrunner Vince Gilligan has said would have been killed off in S1, but was saved by the writer’s strike. And what a stroke of luck that was; the thrust-parry of Jesse’s unsophisticated-but-street-smart-sometimes Bullwinkle and Walt’s too-clever-for-his-own-good Rocky is an acting pas-de-deux for the ages, even as Walt starts to become ever less Rocky and ever more Boris Badenov with every passing episode. It probably wasn’t easy to find someone only a little over half Cranston’s age (at time of casting) who could keep up with him, but damned if Paul doesn’t pull it off. Vincent Kartheiser, as wonderful as he is on MM, is going to have his hands full trying to wrest the Emmy away from Paul, especially if Paul submits Jesse’s jaw-dropping speech to his recovering addicts’ support group in S4′s Problem Dog. (Though to be fair, VK does have one of the most difficult roles on TV; Jesse, on the other hand, is almost as much of an actor’s dream as Walt.)
Writing: Much less epigrammatic than on Mad Men; the writers concentrate not so much on quotable lines (though there have been a few, like Skyler’s “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family”), as they do on making sure every word out of every character’s mouth is true to that character, and cooking up truly diabolical plot twists, especially in the last few minutes of the episode (sometimes even in the very last seconds of the episode, as in S3′s IFT). There’s a similar ratio of serious-to-funny as there is on MM, though. There’s also a good bit of science nerdery mixed in, but not so much that those less scientifically educated won’t be able to follow it. Sometimes the pacing is every bit as deliberate as that of MM; some of the episodes have spectacular explosions and heart-stopping shootouts and dramatic deaths, but you get plenty of breathers, quieter episodes where each series of events builds to its next crescendo, without ever seeming like it’s just marking time until the next earth-shattering kaboom.
And speaking of earth-shattering kabooms, nobody does explosions with quite as much wit as BB does. I won’t give anything away, but let’s just say that things blow up that you’d never expect. And since this show must tell its story within a much more limited time frame than MM (you’ll see why), there’s not much chance of it overstaying its welcome.
Directing: Yes, there’s a lot of killing (and maiming) on this show, no way around it. But for all that, they’re relatively sparing with the ketchup; most of the deaths take place in long shots, side views, even hearsay. Much of the “ketchupy” stuff takes place in scenes so bizarre that you’re more likely to notice the bizarreness than the ketchup (cf. Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency on MM), although some of the season 4 episodes (Box Cutter and Hermanos especially) are pretty brutal. Still, each death makes itself felt, it’s never just another body. You can feel exactly what the drug culture is costing us. And especially with Walt and Jesse, you see the emotional toll each death takes on them, even (or maybe especially) when they are the direct cause.
One thing I’ll warn you about: Don’t watch this show too close to bedtime unless you’re taking some very strong sedatives. It will disturb your sleep, much more than most MM episodes other than Guy Walks In and Mystery Date. But it’s art, people. Real art. You don’t see that a lot, on TV or anywhere else.
And I’m going to ask, just for this thread only, that anyone who has seen the show not give away too much about the plot in comments.