Monday, 20 June 2011

Unfinished Business: Breaking Bad first season review (Ep. 4/7)


['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.]

After three episodes which moved at a hundred miles per hour and left Walter White with two murders on his conscience, one the result of a particularly brutal strangulation by bicycle lock, Breaking Bad slows things right down in its fourth hour and allows its characters a moment to adjust to everything they've been through and done.

Both Walt and Jessie want to leave the whole debacle behind and head off in different directions to recuperate and work out where to go next. For Walt, this means clearing the air with Skyler and finally telling her about his cancer - which by extension, means that Hank, Marie and Walt Jr. all find out after she breaks down at a cook-off, with typically humiliating results for our protagonist. Jessie, meanwhile, also retreats to his family, although where Walt finds himself the centre of attention despite it being the last thing he wants, Jessie's parents are less than delighted to see their wastrel son turn up in the middle of the night, with his foot through their garden furniture.

In terms of plot development, not a great deal happened this week, since the Krazy-8 plotline which  dominated the previous three episodes has effectively concluded, and we're now watching the aftermath -  or at least, the calm before the next storm. Where those episodes were gripping on a dramatic level, 'Cancer Man' is thoroughly engrossing as a character study. In particular, getting a sense of Jessie's background is satisfying as it makes him a little deeper than the straightforward junkie drop-out we've seen to date. It could be argued that it's a cliché for him to come from a stable middle-class family, especially one with a more accomplished son whom his parents don't want him associating with, but it opened up plenty of opportunities for some great gags - this was by far the funniest episode to date - and the scenes were played with enough sincerity that their familiarity didn't get in the way too much.

In his surly way, Jessie seemed to care about his family. A character like him would never state it outright, mercifully relieving viewers of a teary 'But I love you, mom!' scene, but in his silently laying the table, trying to connect with his little brother before covering for him (another funny twist), or even in his choice to return home when his old life became too much, appeared less exploitation and more an honest attempt to recapture a lost childhood and bond with his family, even if he's too far gone to express himself. As much as he'd like to, walking back into an old life - a lost life, even - isn't as easy as it seems. He has a reputation at home and though the discovery of the spliff was the catalyst for him once again being tossed back to the street, it seemed only a matter of time as his parents clearly had little patience or trust left to give him. At least he got his moment of nobility, sacrificing himself to preserve the image of his brother in his parents' eyes. Will he regain his conscience as Walt loses his?

That seemed to be broadly hinted at in the contrast between Jessie's plotline and Walt's. Where Jessie makes an unsuccessful attempt to rejoin his family, Walt seems increasingly irate at having his loved ones become involve themselves in dealing with his cancer. Jessie wants to be welcomed back into his parents' circle, where Walt appears to want to push everyone away, even to an extent Skyler and Walt Jr.

For sure, he's doing it because he wants to protect them, but now that he's had a taste of living life on his own terms, no matter how chaotic it has proven, he seems to want it all the more. He visits the oncologist, but doesn't for a second appear interested in listening to what he has to say, especially compared to Skyler's frantic note-taking. When Walt Jr. angrily asks his father why he doesn't just hurry up and die if he's not prepared to try the treatment, it clearly breaks his heart - do I even need to say anymore how fantastic Cranston is? - yet doesn't seem to change his mind. As for Hank and Marie, they're just annoying and clearly have no understanding of how he's feeling: Hank's promise to look after Walt's family in particular is greeted with a filthy scowl.

It's also telling that Jessie's story finishes with him doing the right thing, where Walt's ends with him becoming quite the badass, blowing up an insufferable businessman's car with a windscreen washer - far removed from the timid, risk-averse character we met back in the Pilot. He may want to take things back to how they were and be able to deal with his cancer in a more normal environment, but he's a different man now. He's killed twice, made his own choices and feels able to act on his frustrations. This time, the guy on the end of his wrath sort of deserved it - someone having a bluetooth conversation on TV is pretty much shorthand for 'detestable bastard' - but it's still pretty drastic, and doesn't bode well for his rational judgment. He might not seem to have long to live (I'm trying to ignore that the programme's about to start its fourth season) but as we saw in the last three episodes, an awful lot of hell can be raised in a short space of time.

As much as I'm becoming ever more enthralled by Breaking Bad, there has yet to be an episode without one notable flaw to dampen the myriad other qualities elsewhere. Tonight, it was the inconsistency in showing Jessie's meth-induced paranoia. He's been on a serious crystal binge lately, and whilst my knowledge isn't exactly extensive, his 'symptoms' seemed pretty ridiculous, essentially amounting to a single hallucination replacing two delivery men with psychotic bikers, and some jumpy editing. Otherwise, he speaks fine (albeit in his usual hilarious wigger lingo - see 'Best Moment' below) and even sleeps perfectly well, contrary to everything you read about the effects of addicts on a comedown. Considering how important the drug is to the programme, this representation came across as distractingly sanitised and pulled me out of the story's reality. Maybe I'm completely wrong, but it seems unlikely that meth would be considered such a serious problem if its effects were so short-term and relatively mild. Breaking Bad continues to be a very good programme, but needs to iron out those kinks in order to become a great one.

Best Moment: So many great sight gags - Walt despondently fishing money out of the swimming pool for one - but Jessie's use of the word 'mad' had me cracking up twice, the first time in calling fake pop tarts 'mad tight' and the second in praising his little brothers 'mad inroads into the business community'.

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