Monday, 30 May 2011

I Am Awake: Breaking Bad review


TELEVISION REVIEW

BREAKING BAD: 'Pilot'

Breaking Bad is one of those programmes that I've meant to watch since it first aired in 2008, as I've been a big fan of Bryan Cranston since his comedic tour-de-force as Hal in Malcolm In The Middle, and showrunner Vince Gilligan was responsible for one of my favourite X-Files episodes ('Bad Blood'). As sometimes happens though, I never got around to it until now. (Incidentally, once the second half of my BioShock 2 feature goes up tomorrow, the rest of these reviews will be written under the 'Unfinished Business' label). The fourth season of Breaking Bad begins in about eight weeks' time, which gives me just enough time to cover one episode of the first season per week, while catching up on later episodes where I can, before deciding whether or not to take up the new episodes for review.

Expectations couldn't be set much higher, not only because of the talent involved, but as I keep hearing how Bad is one of the best programmes in currently in production, perhaps even better than my beloved Mad Men (whose fifth season I will definitely cover, whenever it arrives). I find that pilot episodes rarely represent a programme at its best, since neither the characters or the actors have had time to settle in and find their rhythms. To again use the Man Men point of reference, there's a lot wrong with that first episode, yet the programme quickly blossomed into what I consider one of the best televised dramas to ever get on the air. Breaking Bad makes a pretty confident start, but I'm more excited for what it sets up for the future.
 
For those who are reading about the programme for the first time (if so, maybe follow it along with me? It would be interesting to read your comments), Walter White is a timid, middle-aged physics teacher struggling to make ends meet, working part time at a garage where he is humiliated by having to polish his more affluent students' cars. As if his life weren't already difficult enough, he is told he has terminal lung cancer after being taken to hospital following a blackout. After being invited by his DEA brother-in-law to watch a drugs raid, he discovers how much money there is in selling crystal meth and believing it may be the only way for him to support his family after death, teams up with Jesse, a former student turned drug dealer, and uses his knowledge to make inroads into the crystal meth black market.

The concept is undeniably hokey, what with the DEA Agent brother-in-law and unlikely couple element of a teacher and former student teaming up to sell drugs, but this opening episode moved at such a rate that most of the questionable material is dealt with fast enough that it doesn't have time to become an issue. It's still noticeable, but doesn't feel like it will have any lasting damage on later episodes. In fact, enough ground is covered in a single hour to fill several episodes of the average drama. It doesn't feel rushed at the time of watching, but by the time the credits roll, an entire movie might as well have just gone by. 

Everything mentioned in my short synopsis is established early on, allowing Walt to grow in confidence by breaking out of his oppressive old routines and then for he and Jesse to get into conflict with a pair of psychotic rival drug dealers who don't appreciate newcomers impinging on their territory, especially offering the high quality product that Walt is cooking up. 

At the centre of all this is a compelling performance from Cranston, who shifts Walt between impotent pushover to invigorated (and terrified) amateur meth chef by playing on subtly altered versions of the same beats. There's no doubt that he's the same character at the end of the episode as he is at the beginning, yet his old anger has turned into action, his crippling self-doubts into improvised forward momentum. Up until the revelation of his cancer, Walt has had to live one day at a time to get by, surviving each difficult hour by blanking out the fact that there will be years more of them to come. By putting an endpoint on his life, the terminal illness rids him of those shackles. He has something to achieve in a limited amount of time, necessitating a new philosophy driven by that long-term goal.

That said, while he's working towards something for what appears to be the first time in his life, that doesn't mean he's terribly good at planning for the more immediate future. Habits are difficult things to break out of, and it doesn't appear that Walt has yet adapted himself to planning out the consequences of his actions. In his old life, he avoided taking any actions which would risk breaking the routine in which he had trapped himself. Now that he has done so in such a big way, he's struggling to adapt to the idea of thinking a few steps ahead. 

Jesse, for one, proves an unreliable partner, a competent salesman when under the thumb of people who can give him clear instructions to carry out, but unable to make those calls by himself. When Walter charges him with selling the meth they've cooked up, his first port of call is the dealers he used to work with, who predictably force him to take them to his new partner and their RV lab. Held at gunpoint to reveal his recipe, Walt instead creates a toxic gas which kills his two assailants - but stuck in the middle of a desert and with a fire starting up from a discarded cigarette, he's then forced to get back in the RV and drive to safety. The buttoned-down physics teacher who started the episode with a steady job and predictable life ends it standing alone on a desert motorway, a gun in his hand and trousers lost, with two dead bodies and an unconscious partner in an RV full of smashed meth lab equipment as the sirens in the distance grow ever louder.

Breaking Bad introduces itself as a hurricane of raw energy. Its unpredictable storytelling and pace is at once thrilling and clumsy and its characters skim the line of cliché before moving in unexpected directions. The themes are laid out in the broadest terms, but play out at excitingly reckless extremes. In the episode's best scene, Walt gives a heartfelt speech to a class of students on how chemistry is all about change, only to look around his classroom and see nothing but indifferent faces waiting to go home. It's a tragic moment, more difficult to take than any of the ritual humiliations the character faces elsewhere, but makes it all easier to cheer when he takes his fury out on a gang of teenagers in a clothes shop who laugh at his disabled son. I'm not sure whether or how the series intends to keep moving at two hundred miles an hour like it does in its pilot, and it'll need to find some subtlety to compensate for when the pace and bombast settle to  more manageable levels, but with this much confidence on show so early, I don't have any worries that it'll find the right recipe for success soon enough.

BEST MOMENT: Walt makes the case for the glories of chemistry to an entirely unenthusiastic class.

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