Creator/Exec. Producer: Vince Gilligan
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt
I was just beginning a Masters Degree program when this AMC series debuted back in 2008, and thus was (regrettably) too deeply buried in my studies to have the time to be watching much of anything. Hence my being so unforgivably behind in starting this phenomenal series. I’d heard and read a lot of positive feedback about it, but wasn’t sure whether I could stomach the subject matter…for those of you who don’t already know, Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who learns he has inoperable, terminal lung cancer and proceeds (though a series of events) to put his chemistry skills and knowledge to use for cooking crystal meth in order to make the money necessary to leave ample support for his family. A weighty (and some might argue, farfetched) scenario, to be sure (echos of the Showtime series Weeds notwithstanding, which won me over in its first few seasons), so it is utterly astonishing to see how brilliantly Vince Gilligan (the series’ creator and head writer) and company make such a premise work. It is somehow entirely believable and without a doubt, one of the most addictive (no pun intended) television shows I have ever seen.
The list of reasons for which the series works so well is long (fantastic writing, a surprisingly deft balance between comedy and drama, and excellent cinematography, to name just a few), but HIGH among them is the incomparable Bryan Cranston, who inhabits this role so convincingly, so completely, that he holds you rapt with his every word, expression and action. No matter how much you may at times question (or disagree with) his decisions, you can’t help but feel the deepest empathy and understanding for this wonderfully complex and tortured man. He manages to be both hilarious and heartbreaking; timid and reserved and strikingly powerful, even viscerally sexy; both a naive, introverted geek and a ferociously headstrong and confident force to be reckoned with. That Cranston can so completely make all of these dichotomies believable is a testament to his extraordinary talent. His Emmy win for Season 1 was clearly well-deserved. Who knew that Malcolm’s Dad (Cranston played the father on the long-running FOX sit-com Malcolm in the Middle) had so much range?! Ah, if only I had been watching Breaking Bad when I saw Cranston at my neighborhood Whole Foods market a few years back…I think I’d have had to break my cardinal rule of not bothering “celebrities” going about their daily business in order to sing his praises in person for the amazing work he does on this show. Gilligan hit pay dirt in casting him as his central character. To watch the transformations Walter undergoes ~ both physically and emotionally ~ over these first seven episodes that comprise Season 1, is remarkable. And ceaselessly riveting. Cranston alone makes the series worth watching.
But there are SO many other reasons to watch as well! The entire cast is top-notch…
Anna Gunn is exquisite as Walter’s beloved (and pregnant) wife, Skyler. She and Cranston have great chemistry and their relationship is fascinating to watch. In a rarely seen, and hence both welcome and admirable choice, Walter & Skyler’s son has ~ and is played by a wonderful young actor (RJ Mitte) who has ~ Cerebral Palsy. It’s refreshing how underplayed that fact is, yet it lends another meaningful and interesting layer to the complex dynamics at play.
Walter’s brother-in-law Hank (played by Dean Norris), is a crass, abrasive, arrogant (yet at his core, loving and well-meaning) goon of a DEA agent (because of course it would be all too easy if Walt didn’t have a relative who could bring him down at any time, right?!) Hank’s wife/Sklyer’s sister, Marie, is played by Betsy Brandt, who, in the final episode of Season 1, is getting her own intriguing story arc.
And…last, but certainly not least, no discussion of this highly capable cast would be complete without inclusion of the magnetic Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s former (failed) student and new “business partner”. Paul is fantastic as the shifty, sometimes drug-addled, lost soul with a heart underneath all the aimlessness. He is deeply funny and the scenes between Walt and Jesse never bore; in fact, they are often some of the best. The pair’s chemistry is priceless.
(As a sidenote, Aaron Paul nearly became one of the lead actors in an ensemble cast for a pilot I worked on a couple of years before this series began ~ he could not be a nicer guy and I could not be happier for him ~ or for them to have found him for this! In fact, Gilligan recounts in the commentary that the original intention was to kill Jesse off in the first season, but once they saw what Aaron brought to the table, that plan changed. As it should have!!)
There are certain scenes and images from these first seven episodes that you will be hard-pressed to erase from your memory ~ some of them humorous, some revolting (I didn’t say you’d necessarily want them to stay with you), some chilling, some truly moving. But ALL of them leave an imprint.
The series is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the desert location shots are stunning, oftentimes employing gorgeous time-lapse photography to connote the passage of time. The landscapes and colors are spectacular. The editing is also superb ~ of particular note are the sequences in which they are “cooking” meth, which are nothing short of masterful. And in fact, the Breaking Bad pilot, from the very first frame of an inexplicable pair of pants floating through the air just before getting trampled by a speeding RV (manically driven by our protagonist in his tighty-whities and a gas mask, no less) and then coming full circle to the (anti)climactic conclusion (the “anti” in that is by NO means a statement on the effectiveness of that conclusion) is quite possibly THE best pilot episode of a series I can recall. Thankfully, that Episode One brilliance is sustained throughout the first season. And all indications point to it being sustained throughout the series. I can hardly wait to dive into Season Two.