Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bad Company

Walter White, schoolteacher

I have an instinctive aversion to hype. Many times when I start reading about how some new TV show is the most awesome thing in the history of mankind, I'm immediately skeptical and avoid it for a long time, catching up long after the initial fuss has died down if then.  I've heard such things about the show Breaking Bad over the years and I paid little attention. It seemed as though every other new show coming out on cable the last few years shared this one's storyline of a decent person being corrupted by something or other. The very plot line of this show, a suburban parent getting mixed up in the drug trade, was paralleled by another program, Weeds. Still I saw that Breaking Bad seemed to scoop up awards every year so there looked to be something to it.  Recently I noticed that the show was available on Netflix Instant so a few days ago I finally sat down and began to watch the first episodes. My initial impression is...Holy Crap!

This show is about Walter White, a chemistry teacher living quietly in a New Mexico suburb with his pregnant wife and disabled teenage son. He is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and immediately starts worrying about what he's going to leave for his family when he dies. When his brother, a DEA agent, starts telling him about how lucrative the local drug trade is,  he decides to join forces with Jesse Pinkman, one of his former students who's now a small time drug dealer, to make and sell crystal meth. They try to sell the stuff to a bigger local dealer and things go very badly with Walter ending responsible for the deaths of two people  and an hitherto pent-up dark side starting to emerge.

I'm only four episodes into the first season so far and I'm really impressed by the focus of the storytelling and the depth of the characters.  I can already tell that Bryan Cranston deserved every acting award he's gotten for playing Walter White. Without often saying anything he expresses through his face and body a world of swirling emotions like horror, anguish, and rage. He looks like a man totally out of his depth most of the time but when pressed, there's an anger and potential for violence that takes less and less prompting to emerge. It's probably going to be significant that so far he has gone from beating up a high school jock making fun of his son and killing a drug dealer in self defense to destroying a man's car just because he's an obnoxious loudmouth. All the scripts so far have been by creator Vince Gilligan and I love the way that he has neither Walter nor any of the other characters give long soliloquies explaining their actions and thoughts. Most of their inner feelings are conveyed through gesture and expression.

This also applies to the Jesse Pinkman character played by Aaron Paul.  At first the guy is practically comic relief, a white suburban B-boy wannabe who talks in thick hip-hop slang and has a whacked out response to everything Walter says or does. As the episodes go on though, he starts to ripen into a real person.  In the last program I watched "Cancer Man"  he spends some time in his parents' house after running from his own place in a paranoiac, drug-fueled panic and it's poignant to see his futile attempts to connect with his parents and highly achieving kid brother.  You get the feeling there is basically a good man inside him and I have a feeling that knowledge is going to become wrenching as things go along.

I know I'm catching up with this show late. I'm just up to the point where Walter has told his family and friends about the cancer and he starts using the money from his one (and supposedly only) drug deal for his treatment.  Five seasons have been broadcast and the sixth and last starts in August, so I've got a ways to go.  I've heard a couple of general plot developments, that Walter gets deeper and deeper into the drug trade, his cancer goes into remission and his wife finds out what's he's doing.  Other than that I don't know any of the rest of the story and I don't want to yet. I have no idea what happens to the son, the drug cop brother-in-law or anyone else who comes into the plot.  I'm just very confident this show is going to be one hell of a ride.

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