Monday, 13 June 2011

Unfinished Business: Breaking Bad first season review (Ep. 3/7)


['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.]

Walt's early inroads into the crystal meth market have so far proven a constant barrage of obstacles threatening to derail him, in a Road Runner-esque way, which he has cleared by the narrowest of margins. Tonight, he faces only a single major obstacle, but it's one could cost him a much greater price than just being revealed to his family. Walter White, the timid physics teacher who took a bold decision in order to provide for his family after his death, has now taken a life. Shit just got real.

I stated my worry last week that had the series continued at the breakneck pace of its previous two episodes, it risked degrading the drama into a meaningless assault course for Walt to navigate each week. The measured pacing of this hour was therefore a great relief, with its character work more than overcoming a handful of weaknesses. It's the most ominous and intense episode so far, and the results of that last scene in the basement are likely to prove more damning for Walt than even the terminal cancer which set him on his terrible path.

I don't know whether it was an intention piece of symbolism, but having Krazy-8 chained up in the basement, meaning Walt literally had to descend into the darkness to face his fears, was very effective. It says a lot about the character that this was the first time he felt able to talk about his cancer, in the downstairs prison that had become his little corner of hell. When drawing up a list of whether he should kill Krazy-8 or let him live (a formidable piece of bleak comedy), he was as much debating his own willingness to, again almost literally, do a deal with the devil. As with many representations of a Satanic figure in mythology, Krazy-8 is seductive, offering Walt everything he wants to hear to make his decision every bit more difficult.

Walt is damned if he does or if he doesn't. Even in these first three episodes, he's already seeing the consequences of a single decision to betray his morals come back to bite him on a scale which he could never have imagined. It formed a neat parallel with the scene where Hank took Walt Jr, whom Marie believed was smoking pot, to see first-hand the consequences of drug abuse at a run-down motel - where Jessie, in a slightly contrived coincidence, happened to be staying after an argument with Walt. Hank may be pretty dumb, but he's seen enough people start with a small step into drugs that has cost them their lives and wants to make sure Walt Jr. doesn't go the same way.

Even though his fears are misplaced, watching Walt Sr. wrestling with a decision similar to that which Hank was trying to save Walt Jr. from - commit an act of absolute moral evil to preserve his and his family's lives, or save his soul but suffer the terrible earthly consequences - made Hank's decision to take action, however misjudged, the most caring thing he could do. Walt Sr. is also trying to protect his family, but while he has managed to keep his other life a secret, is actually only putting them in at greater risk. Hank may have made a fool of himself, but it shows the character's inherent decency that he'd be willing to do that in order to keep Walt Jr. from ending up on a bad road further down the line. It's easy, given how Walt is the protagonist of the programme, to see Hank as the villain. I liked how this episode reminded us that by any rational measure, Walt and Hank's roles are mixed up in our eyes and that the real 'good guy' is the one who makes himself look silly for an honourable cause, rather than compromising his morals or trying to save face.

Marie's subplot was slight, but also interesting. Having remarked at the beginning of the episode how she was forced to wear shoes she hated, she ended up stealing a more glamourous pair from a shop where the assistant was ignoring her and leaving the old pair in their place. It's the first glimpse into her character we've seen, that the self-righteous spiel she dictates to her sister Skyler is really a big act of hypocrisy. I wonder if she's going to turn out to be a female reflection of Walt, who also offers the world a persona of decency and intelligence (or in Marie's case, at least suggests that her ranting is based on some kind of moral grounding) whilst concealing their more sinister true selves. Her story also tied into one of the episode's main questions, of whether it is worth suffering outward pain for inner comfort - symbolised by the comfortable shoes whose appearance she loathed - or present a respectable face to the world even if it costs you personally, as with her decision to leave her old shoes behind and walking out of the shop in a more elegant pair, but ones which are stolen and cause her pain to wear.

The only part of this episode which I really hated - and I mean to say it that strongly, because it was truly awful - were the flashbacks to a younger Walt discussing/flirting with one of his students (that was the impression I got, as he seemed to be tutoring her and too old to be a classmate) about the 'missing element' in the chemical breakdown of a human being. The dialogue was horribly contrived and its meaning trite, bringing nothing to the episode's thematic debate. Even after that fabulously gory opening shot, of human viscera being wiped off the camera (taking a floor's eye perspective, if such a thing is possible), that first flashback was the scene which really left a sickening taste in my mouth. It was anachronistic in story and thematic terms, and in the context of the mostly excellent writing elsewhere.

Without it, this would have been Breaking Bad's first truly great hour - instead, it's just mostly. But after three episodes, to even be close to achieving that level of distinction is no mean feat, and I'm looking forward to seeing whether it can raise itself to that gold standard in the four remaining episodes of its already gripping first season.

Best Moment: Walt realises that a shard of his broken plate is missing, forcing him into the ultimate 'do or die' situation.

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