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Cooked To Perfection: Why You Have To Watch Breaking Bad
David Stubbs , September 27th, 2013 05:38

With its final installment about to arrive, David Stubbs casts an eye back over the exquisitely bleak, hyperreal vista of one of the most unique TV shows in history and asks - why haven't you watched Breaking Bad yet? (contains mild spoilers)

This Sunday, the final episode of Breaking Bad will be broadcast in America. A few hours later, it will be available on Netflix, as well as a host of bittorrents. Its legions of ardent fans, who have been appalled and engrossed by it since it first broadcast in 2008, have come to know the show like it was a scar, or a burn on the back of their hand. It may not necessarily be the greatest TV drama ever broadcast but it has impacted like no other show in the history. Not The Wire, not The Sopranos, not Game Of Thrones, the company with which it deserves to be bracketed in the very highest pantheon. We who watch the show, when we're not watching the show, spend large parts of the days and weeks thinking about the show, savouring its acrid aftertaste, pondering what fresh hell it has in store for next week. And yet, as it converges towards its final, probable Mexican standoff, few if any of us can confidently predict its ultimate outcome. This might involve an aggrieved, disconsolate widow with unhinged criminal tendencies, a wife who, wholly against her will, has been forced into the role of Lady Macbeth, a neo-Nazi biker gang featuring one of the politest, all-American, "pardon me ma'am as I shoot you in the back of the head" psychopaths ever to prowl across our screens, a once pretty vacant young methhead languishing in both a physical and emotional dungeon . . . and Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, whose transition, as the show's pitch famously had it, from "Mr Chips to Scarface", represents a descent into the underworld, from check-shirted suburban family man to Ozymandias-like bringer of bloodshed and despair, which makes Michael Corleone's transition in The Godfather seem like a good kid who fell in with the wrong crowd by comparison. 

I was once like some of you. I didn't immediately watch Breaking Bad. I was browbeaten constantly to do so by a friend, Ben. He wouldn't let it lie; in fact, he became positively irritating about it. Watch Breaking Bad. Watch Breaking Bad. Have you watched it yet? No? You've got to watch Breaking Bad. Watch Breaking Bad. Eventually, in sheer exasperation, I told him that unless one was to spend one's entire life passively soaking up cathode rays of fiction, it was necessary to draw an arbitrary line somewhere. It's the problem in this age of the much-lauded longform series, Balzacian and Dickensian in their scope, but which can be daunting to 21st century attention spans, with the multiple windows of distraction and demands on our leisure time. I daresay it's as good as you say, Ben. However, I consume far, far more popular culture than is good for my physical and moral complexion. I won't watch Breaking Bad. Whereupon he practically frogmarched me to an armchair, pinned my eyelids back and slotted a DVD into a machine. Within just 30 minutes of the pilot, I had modified my views, which are, today, as follows. Do not make the mistake of wasting your days walking in the woods or enjoying one-on-one quality time with your family and friends. Not until you have closed the curtains and watched Breaking Bad. All five series of it.

For those still unfamiliar with the show, it tells the story of White, a chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Once, he was the co-founder of a company called Gray Matter, but for obscure reasons he sold his shares for a few thousand dollars before it went on to be worth billions. Now, he is having to work a humiliating second job at a carwash to make ends meet. His misery is apparently complete when he discovers he has terminal lung cancer. However, his life is about to begin. Riding in the backseat on a patrol with his brother-in-law Hank, a DEA officer, he chances on one of his old pupils, Jesse Pinkman, now turned crystal meth cook, fleeing a bust. White figures that with his chemistry skills and access to school equipment, he could go into business with Pinkman and, in the time left to him, cook up and sell sufficient batches of high quality methamphetamine to provide financially for his family after he has gone. And so, they head out into the desert where it's nice and quiet and start working. Initially, the Jesse-White relationship is a comic one. Despite being a grown man, Jesse can never shake the habit of calling his old teacher "Mr White", or lapsing into his old, back-of-the-class habits of insolence and inattentiveness, while Walter White exhibits a pedagogic peevishness at his young sidekick's poor attitude and failure to apply himself to the criminal enterprise in hand.

It could have rested there. However, Walter's involvement the drugs world draws him into a deeper and wider vortex, a quicksand of implications and complications. He is out of his depth. He is trying to be something he is not. To his continual, open-mouthed horror, he finds himself pitted against frightening, scary, actual criminals, with the stone-cold poise of a thousand kills, utterly hardened to their lifestyle. And yet, by dint of his scientific cunning and a raging, egotistical will at last unbound, he survives and finds that he has somehow scrambled, as if on a giant, slippery rockface dashed by unexpected, heavy waves, atop a drugs empire worth millions. He acquires a hat, and with it, a mythical alter-ego, that of the enigmatic and ruthless criminal Superman Heisenberg, regarded as the kingpin responsible for his operations. Walter White, however - for all his tragic success, which leaves in its wake a trail of ruin, slaughter and even brings planes falling from the sky - never acquires cool. The show's makers pass up no excuse to show him in his underpants. It was considered quite a transition for Bryan Cranston - previously best known as Hal, the dad in Malcolm In The Middle - to play such a grim and straight role as White. However, it is not really quite so improbable a leap. 

Like Hal, Walter White falls clumsily short of the all-American male and family provider. The turmoil of this realisation generally has hilarious, slapstick consequences for Hal. However, Cranston brings a similarly awkward physicality of not-quite-maleness to his playing of the unfailingly gauche chemistry teacher. He frequently writhes in impotent, fist-waving, paroxyms of frustration. He bristles with pique at slights to his male ego, which lead him to make calamitous, murderous decisions. When his cop brother-in-law Hank, investigating the sudden proliferation of near-100% pure blue meth on the streets, is on the point of closing the book on the case (still oblivious to the fact that his man he's hunting is sitting at the family dinner table with him), a slightly drunken Walter rekindles his interest, suggesting his man might still be out there, purely because he can't bear the lack of recognition of his genius that comes with the necessary discretion of a criminal life. 

He makes millions but can never enjoy the money; he spends much of his time tearing about Albuquerque, unseemly, blue arsed and sometimes trouserless, screaming into a cellphone, frantically trying to put out the fires of the unintended consequences of his chosen life's path, or lying unconvincingly to his increasingly suspicious family, particularly when he goes missing for long stretches only to turn up on the front step beaten and bloodied. ("It's – it's nothing."). In a recent episode, he can be seen pushing a barrel containing millions of dollars across the desert. It reminds a little of the final scene of Von Stroheim's Greed, with McTeague stranded and cuffed in Death Valley, unable to reach his money. However, among Walter White's many sins – ego, delusional vanity, the draining away of his conscience – greed is not one of them. His initial decision to cook meth, after all, was movingly altruistic, poignant and noble – a stricken man trying to do good, by stealth, for his family. However, "family" has a sinister resonance in the criminal underworld, from its euphemistic use in The Godfather onwards, carries with it a terror vividly illustrated here:

Family is all – fuck society, kill all the rest. When his ultimately twisted desire to preserve the family comes back in a holocaust of misery to haunt him, in a domestic scene whose knife wielding is reminiscent of The Shining, Walter, exasperated as ever at the failure of others to stick with the programme he has set out, pleads with almost delusional banality, "We're meant to be a family!"

Breaking Bad is rooted in the reality of life for the present day American middle class, overworked and underpaid, in which public service work is cruelly under-rewarded. It also raises the very political issue of US healthcare costs. Here is a suggestion as to how the series might have panned out had it been set in Britain.

Immigration is also touched frequently upon, with the series set so close to the Mexican border. However, Breaking Bad is not The Wire. Creator Vince Gilligan disappointed some when he declared himself "agnostic" on the War On Drugs, so vociferously lambasted by Wire creator David Simon - and only in the ravaged features of a motel hooker featured early in the series does he really touch on the toll taken by crystal meth consumption. It is not about urban reality, but rather, is set in the hyperreal periphery of America - the parched, vivid landscape of Albuquerque, in which the blue sky blazes unmercifully, in which the dusty, orange rocky outcrops are Martian in their indifference to humanity, in which, as we all too painfully witness, the forces of law and order do not prevail, and accounts are settled Spaghetti Western-style, far away from civilisation and surveillance. We're not quite in American time and space; the five seasons of Breaking Bad have been spread over six years but cover only two, as we see Walter pass from his 50th to his 52nd birthday. When is this? Still 2009? Does the world beyond Albuquerque exist? There are precious few city scenes, and virtually no familiar brands, save for the fried chicken franchise owned by Gus Fring, a criminal mastermind of quite awesome sang-froid. Breaking Bad's parable unfolds in a world unto itself, a dry run for Hades, almost, its visual effects enhanced by fast-cut photography and mirage-like motifs, full of foreboding (why the pink teddy bear with a missing eyeball? Oh, but we find out). 

Against this beautiful, unforgiving backdrop are set a formidable, satellite cast of utterly memorable, stereo-atypical characters. There's Walt's credulous son Walt Jr, aka Flynn, whose innocent hero-worship of his dad is one of the show's most enduring features. Hank Schrader's DEA cop initially seems like a lumpen hick by contrast to the reflective, cerebral Walter, but who emerges as one of the show's least affected, most heroic characters. There are a host of villains, from the silent, lethal Mexican brothers to a murderous, disabled old man reduced to dinging a bell in a wheelchair. Although Anna Gunn, who plays Walter's wife Skyler, complained pertinently of the misogynistic response to her character, she is a superb creation, shifting between conscience, protector and accomplice to her husband. Her sometime kleptomaniac sister Marie, meanwhile, is a potential powderkeg waiting perhaps to explode in the last episode. Then, there is the nervous, squeamish, chamomile tea-sipping executive and drug supplier Lydia, whose nervous caution only bolsters her ruthlessness in ordering hits. Oh, and there was lab assistant and libertarian Gale.

And there is Jesse Pinkman, whom the show's creators had initially intended to kill off but who, for all he survives, must surely all but wish himself dead. He exudes the delinquent, whiney, youth-of-today air of a specimen spawned in a stagnant marinade of neo-grunge and hip-hop. He barks the words "Yo!" and "Bitch!" with a loud, empty defiance at all and sundry.

However, he is the one who has been slapped by life. If Walter is a dispenser of damage, Jesse has been damaged since childhood. We see that he was actually a bright and promising kid, but his oppressively high expectation, middle class upbringing has pitched him off the rails. Whereas Walter sheds his scruples one by one, it is Jesse who absorbs most of the physical tribulations of their co-adventure, and who develops a tear-stricken sense of the enormity of their situation, who through dreadful adversity gains a soul, all the while that his supposedly disciplinarian mentor is losing his. 

Few, if any shows match Breaking Bad for sheer, infernal strife. During one recent episode, I swear I did not draw breath for two minutes. However, one of the most show's joyful add-ons is its brilliant moments of comedy. There's Bob Odenkirk's sleazy, strip mall solicitor, Saul Goodman, who provides both practical assistance and necessary comic relief from his hapless charges. A spin off series, Better Call Saul, is planned. 

Or how about Jesse's drug buddies, whose chemically assisted conversation leads them to break off during one particularly tense episode and expound his idea for a Star Trek script?

Finally, however, Walter White is the black hole at the centre of Breaking Bad's universe. How unlike Tony Soprano is Walter White; inept with his fists, invariably fazed by the violence of the underworld, utterly unable to relax and enjoy the spoils of his illegal activities, seemingly unborn to the gangster life. Walter appeals not so much because he is an "everyman", one of us, but because he is a character apparently so unimpeachably embedded in the world of legality and propriety. A man of the baggiest, whitest underpants. And yet, there is something dark and implacable at his core that is unleashed by events, a bad, terrible seed that could exist in any of us if we identify so strongly and travel so far with him. Actually, he was born for this. He's a natural. Deep down, in some ultimately unreachable place, Tony Soprano is troubled by what he is, how he reconciles the contradictions of his life – hence the trips to the psychiatrist. Walter White, however, draws on his scientific prowess, his expertise in chemistry, botany, his precise knowledge of formulae, weights and measures, not in his mind to commit terrible deeds but to do precisely what has to be done, kill precisely who has to be killed; and is maddened, as if by recalcitrant students, when others do not follow his reasoning. It's for the family, don't you see? He sleeps well. Our journey over the course of Breaking Bad is our journey away from Walter, as we recoil further from the man he ultimately reveals himself to be (who we at first believed to be our sort of man, with our sort of values) and the slow hell he wreaks. It's like watching the ruinous pragmatism of a Tony Blair, another sound sleeper and pretty decent sort of guy who rained down fire from the sky because, you understand, it was the only thing to do. 

His cruelly effective decision making, and its often quantum results, are reflected in perhaps the show's greatest strength – at every plot juncture, the turns it takes are generally the most dramatic, the least expected, the most jawdroppingly right. When Breaking Bad finishes, when that slide guitar theme and rattlesnake motif are heard for the last time. it'll feel like a bereavement for many, regardless of whether the key characters who've riveted our attention live or die. The TV history it has made will die with it – for there will never be a series that involves and haunts the viewer quite like it. 24 was similarly concussive in its perpetual cliffhangers, until after a couple of series you realised it was utterly far-fetched and reactionary nonsense. Game Of Thrones offers a similarly rivetingly bleak depiction of the dreadful things humans are capable of in the pursuit of power, but is spread over a much wider canvas – it lacks the lingering, concentrated feeling of loneliness of Breaking Bad, out there in the desert. Breaking Bad has created its unique language and slow cooked vibe, extending the visual lexicon of TV, mindful of the capabilities of wide screen home sets now that we're out of the era of box-shaped television. 

Of course, right now, cretinous TV execs who couldn't find their arse using both hands or with a crowd of people shouting at them "it's behind you!" will be seeking out and considering TV pilots looking to replicate That Breaking Bad Feeling, and the results will be abysmal. As for the UK, once again, no doubt executives at both the BBC will justify their failure to broadcast the series, but having also failed to pick up either The Wire (first time round) or Game Of Thrones for terrestrial viewing, you have to wonder, what do they do at the BBC all day? Count beans? Or at Channel 4? Watch Channel 5 for inspiration? Breaking Bad should have been a universal, water cooler experience, seen by many millions more in the UK than its core audience, many of whom, ironically, had to resort to illegality to get their BB fix. Breaking Bad. It's blue, it's almost 100% pure. Breaking Bad, yo. You've got to watch Breaking Bad