Monday, 6 June 2011

Unfinished Business: Breaking Bad first season review (Ep. 2/7)

['Unfinished Business' is a feature where I take up an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it.]

With BioShock 2 done and dusted, my coverage of the first season of Breaking Bad - leading up to the premiere of the programme's fourth season on July 17th - becomes the second entry in the 'Unfinished Business' feature. You can read my review of the pilot episode here.

Last week, chemistry teacher Walter White discovered he had cancer, embroiled himself in the crystal meth black market with former student and new parter Jesse Pinkman in order to provide for his family, then discovered that two local drugs kingpins were not about to let him move in on their territory without a fight. After gassing them in the back of his RV-turned-meth lab, he returned home to his wife for some enthusiastic post-slaughter coitus. Episode two picks up immediately where the pilot ended.
Once the adrenaline rush of his furious first day as a drug dealer has worn off and Skyler, his wife, has had the most vigourous night with her husband in what we can safely assume was a very long time, Walter heads to the bathroom to cool down, only to find himself unable to return. With the thrills over, real life has caught up to him. He still hasn't told his family about his cancer. There's still a mess of consequences from the previous day's events waiting to be cleaned up. The Walter who returned home a man reborn wasn't the real Walter after all. The real Walter is lying on the bathroom floor, unable to go back into the real world.

In a fantastically timey-wimey twist, we flashback to events which took place within the timeframe of the first episode, which we're only now seeing in the second. Walt and Jesse manage to get the RV out of its ditch and drive it back to Jesse's home, only for one of the two bodies inside - amidst the shattered remains of a whole lot of incriminating meth lab evidence - to splutter back to life. Walt's day, it seems, is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets... slightly less worse.

'The Cat's In The Bag' continued the madcap pace of the first episode, but in a slightly different way. The Pilot crammed enough action into its hour to fill an entire season and while 'Cat's' is just as dense, it's less a question of a storyline moving forward apace than of Walt having to think on his feet as he is barraged with every conceivable obstacle that could be thrown in his path not only to stop him achieving his goal of making enough money to look after his family once he is gone, but simply to tidy up the mess that overcoming the last obstacle left behind. Moving forward would be a luxury for Walt, when he's at his wits' end just trying to not go backwards.

In order to avoid being killed, Walt had to kill the two drug kingpins first. As a consequence of that, he had to get the RV containing their bodies back to Jesse's house to work out what to do with them. Since one of them isn't quite dead, Jesse ends up making a hugely ill-advised call to the White household, which makes Skyler suspicious of Walt, who is already acting strangely, and calls the number back. Walt then has to make up a story to his wife of who Jesse Pinkman is, leading his wife to go over to the house as Jesse is trying to dispose of the remaining dead body and... well, you get the idea.

It's edge of the seat stuff. The law of cause and effect is dialled up to eleven, with every effect turning out to be the worst one possible for Walt and Jesse. Those guys are so insanely out of their depth that there's a great deal of excitement to be found in watching them survive each fresh disaster either by the skin of their teeth or pot luck. (Pun intended). When Walt flips a coin to decide whether he or Jesse has to be the one to kill the surviving drug dealer, Crazy 8, it's an appropriate summation of where the character finds himself throughout the episode: at the mercy of pure chance, which always seems to be acting against him. 

Not only does it leave Walt faced with having to go further into the moral abyss than he could ever have imagined - performing a cold-blooded murder - but even Pinkman screws up his task in such a way that the two end the episode watching acidic viscera come splattering through the ceiling in an hysterically dark sight gag. Walt's demonstration to his students in the previous episode, of how chemistry is all about change, takes on a very different meaning here: where it previously suggested that Walt breaking the shackles of his old life was setting him free, it now appears that those shackles are being replaced by ones which are dragging him straight to hell. His life isn't dull anymore, but his thrilling new existence may cost him his soul when all he wanted was to do good by his family before his impending death. What seemed like a minor moral compromise made for a greater good is bringing his life crashing down around him before it's even over.

As I said, it's an exciting watch. The downside, though, is that it's toeing the line between exaggerated drama and Tom & Jerry levels of madness. The strongly written characters give it some vital grounding and Bryan Cranston is once again extraordinary, but I worry a little that if the series keeps up this frantic pace, it won't be long before the scenes between Walt and Jesse turn into a cartoon. I give showrunner Vince Gilligan great credit for not making the events of this episode seem in the slightest bit illogical, but having so many disasters, however justifiable in isolation, occur within the course of a single hour of television is straining the reality of the programme. There is much to admire about the relentless energy of Breaking Bad's first two episodes, but let's hope it doesn't end up like Walt awakening on his bathroom floor, realising that the fast life was all an illusion after all.

Best Moment: Skyler turns up at Jesse's house as he's trying to get a body into the car, a fantastically suspenseful scene.


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