I’m highly impressed with Breaking Bad. The premise – a high school chemistry teacher starts cooking meth with one of his ex-students after he’s diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in hopes of leaving his family with some money after he dies – is just excellent. The followthrough is also quite good. The writers haven’t glamorized anything; rather, they seem to do a pretty good job thinking of the kinds of snags that a fish-out-of-water like Walt would run into trying to run a meth business with a bonehead sidekick. Also, they’re not afraid to draw scenes out when it’s warranted, which is important to me. A lot of scenes – especially scenes involving Walt’s interactions with his family – go on past the point of comfort, but they’re always more believable for it. The characters work as well. In fact, I’ll go ahead and second what Jonah Goldberg says: that it’s a nose ahead of Mad Men BECAUSE the characters are better. Mad Men pulls you in faster to be sure – but think about it too hard and the spell evaporates. The truth is that it’s easier to write people like Don Draper, whose motives we don’t really understand, than it is to write people like Walter White, whose motives we in fact relate to. Mad Men is pulp fiction: it’s all in the style. The plot is ultimately a cheat because, like Lost, the writers get to make it up as they go along; they control the revelations. Breaking Bad doesn’t have any mysteries. It lives from its characters, and so it’s fortunate the writers get this right. For the most part. And the acting is simply superb.
That’s not to say it isn’t without its problems. First and foremost, a lot of what’s right about the characters is actually right about the actors. In particular, Jesse would be a cartoon without Aaron Paul in the role. And I know this because Jesse’s henchmen all are. I also know this because Dean Norris doesn’t do quite as good a job as Aaron Paul keeping Hank from venturing into cartoon territory. He does a great job too – don’t get me wrong – but the lack of attention paid to minor characters shows in the comparison between the two actors. It’s even more pointed in the case of Marie, Hank’s wife: Betsy Brandt plays her by the book, and it can be a bit hard to take. Another thing: I’m not sure the writers did their research as thoroughly as they could’ve. The situations the main duo finds itself in ring true, but a lot of the details don’t. There’s no way Skinny Pete was cellmates with Tuco and got out thinking they were friends, for example. Nor does it seem possible that Jesse the drug dealer lives in that big house without constant campers. And does he really have only two friends? And how did he – as “Captain Cook” – get a bigger reputation than Crazy Eight, who’s definitely the bigger badass? Some thematic details are wrong too. Which is not to malign the themes: the ripple effect of choices, the workings of the Law of Unintended Consequences, are worthy themes – but this show lays it on a bit thick. Everyone’s luck is always incredibly good or incredibly bad and never just so-so. When you stretch causality as far as they frequently do, the moral lesson wears thin. Sure, it’s believable enough that drug abuse “caused” that plane crash at the end of season two Rube Goldberg-style (and very neato it being Q who’s the dad who got so fatally distracted by his daughter’s death), but it’s not as though air traffic controllers only ever get distracted by drug-related tragedies. That kind of thing probably also happens because hikers fall off of cliffs, you know.
As for the politics, I’m on the fence. For better: there was at least one episode where they made it very clear just how hypocritical a lot of the law enforcement is – not just in terms of what they’re willing to count as an unforgiveable crime, but also in terms of just how arbitrarily the lines on what’s acceptable and not in terms of substance use are drawn. Also, while they make it crystal clear that drug abuse ruins a lot of lives, you always have the impression (with, of course, that One Glaring and Gratuitious Exception at the end of Season Two) that the worst offenders weren’t going much of anywhere anyway. The people who can control their habits might have charted a better course, but it’s hard to imagine, say, the ATM lady being a winner in any possible universe. For worse: there are no corrupt cops, nor is there any Bootleggers and Baptists dynamic to speak of, nor do we ever meet anyone who headed down the wrong trail after serving time for an otherwise-harmless marijuana bust. The human cost of the War on Drugs just isn’t portrayed. The worst we ever see of the goodguys is that they’re sometimes self-congratulating douchebags. At the end of the day, their hearts are never in the wrong place, and they never have much to learn about what they do. The biggest annoyance by far so far (writing at the end of Season Two) is that Walt and Jesse just never make any money. The show just seems entirely too careful to avoid giving the impression that crime pays, and so there are endless setbacks to actually accumulating any cash. It’s only at the end of Season Two that we learn Walter managed to pay most of his bills. All the time leading up to that, he was just headed nowhere. Now – I get that they don’t want anyone to get any ideas on their account – and I get that without conflict there’s no drama. Walter’s need for money is the show’s MacGuffin, after all, so maybe thinking of this as a moral lesson is ultimately wrongheaded. Even so, the setbacks are too absolute for my taste. It’s a giant pimple of the Voyager reset button on an otherwise smooth face of slow spiral out into chaos.
About that. The slow spiral out into chaos is what really attracts me to the show the most – especially because it’s clear that low self-esteem has a lot to do with Walter’s choices. You look at his family and you wonder what about them makes it really worth it? Skyler isn’t terribly understanding, and whatever Walt says about Junior, he doesn’t seem to actually care that much for the boy. You get the impression of a man trapped in a social role who knows he’s trapped in a social role, but doesn’t feel like he has anything else. It’s nice to write uplifting stories about people who get sick and realize too late what life really means – but in truth I think most reactions to terminal cancer are probably more like what we see on this show. OK, OK, so very few people go off to peddle meth to make ends meet – Walter’s extraordinary that way, at least – but honestly, people who are capable of knowing what else to do with their lives aren’t the ones who get trapped in social roles. It isn’t always that people lack courage. More often, I suspect, it’s that they lack vision. Can’t go out and grab life by the horns and get what you want out of it if you have no idea what that is.