“Breaking Bad” is the best drama currently playing out on television. “The Shield” is (and likely always will be) my favorite show of all time, but “Breaking Bad” has filled the Shield-sized hole in my heart. It was first recommended to me by a friend, after the first two seasons had already aired. After watching the pilot, which immediately drew me in, I burned through those seasons, and now I wait with desperate anticipation for each new episode of the show, currently in its fourth season. In a word, like “The Shield,” “Breaking Bad” can best be described as intense.
The basic premise is compelling, but you have no idea how much so when it’s brought to life by sharp writing, acting, and direction. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a high school chemistry who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to cook meth to leave his family money when he dies. He recruits one of his former students, high school dropout Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as a partner, because as he says in the pilot, “I know the chemistry, and you know the business.” Little does he know the trouble that decision will inspire down the road.
It’s a show for those who love nail-biting suspense, but that suspense is made palpable by great characters worth caring about bolstered by award-winning performances. Walter White’s transformation from mild-mannered high school teacher to calculating criminal sociopath (complete with an alter ego named “Heisenberg”) is devilishly fun. Cranston sheds whatever image he created on “Malcolm in the Middle” and quickly embodies a total badass, who still wears glasses and khakis and whose old identity still shines through with stiff, dorky mannerisms; he won three Emmys in a row for the role, and deservedly so. Underrated in comparison but equally as skilled, and perhaps more subtly nuanced, is Paul’s performance as Jesse Pinkman. He is a young drug addict, but he has a good heart, and he isn’t suited for the line of work they embark on together. The show never has to tell you this information with an expository speech from Jesse; Paul conveys it with his face and behaviors. The surrogate father-and-son dynamic between Walt and Jesse forms the heart of the show. Jesse knows there is no turning back from the choices he makes, and Walt feels guilty and responsible for putting him in that position, all while never losing focus on the business.
The supporting cast is equally as strong and often as fun to watch. The weakest links are probably Walt’s family and Jesse’s friends, who start off as underdeveloped and evolve into background noise or mildly annoying background noise. Jesse’s friends are caricatures and probably my least favorite part of the show, but they can sometimes provide comic relief or source of tension. Walt’s wife and physically disabled son are mostly there to provide a reason for his actions, but his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), has slowly grown on me, despite her driving most fans nuts.
The best part of the supporting cast is the colorful criminals they run into in the business. Giancarlo Esposito plays Gus, probably the smoothest criminal to grace any screen, large or small, a kingpin who launders his money through a fast food franchise. Gus’ muscle, Mike, is played by Jonathan Banks, in a performance so natural I wouldn’t be surprised if he was an ex-convict in real life. He is absolutely convincing as a stone-cold killer.
And no discussion of the supporting cast (or the show in general) would be complete without discussing Walt’s sister-in-law, Marie (Betsy Brandt), a nosey kleptomaniac, and her husband Hank (Dean Norris), a D.E.A. agent who will surely catch on to Walt’s criminal enterprise in the end. They represent an immediate danger constantly lurking in the background. Hank starts out as a thinly sketched meathead and slowly grows in a fully realized, extremely likable character. He is so likable that I almost want him to succeed, even if that means taking out (or at least arresting) the show’s main characters.
“Breaking Bad” certainly has its own style, which sets it apart from peers and makes each episode feel like a mini-movie. Its heavily stylized presentation could be called Southwestern with an emphasis on Western. The show always features a strong color palette and minimalist music score that imbues the show with a sense of foreboding. A lingering suspense permeates the entire show, even during the quiet moments, but especially the beginning and end of episodes, each of which rarely end on nothing short of a cliffhanger. And while the show is positively serious drama in nature, it marinates in a dark sense of humor. The opening scene of the pilot features Walter running from the cops in his underwear, but that is definitely on the light-hearted end of the spectrum. The show’s perverse sense of humor is established not long after in a scene involving acid, a tub, and a corpse.
Without spoiling anything too much, creator Vince Gilligan has stated from the beginning that he intends “Breaking Bad” to have a narrative arc similar to “Scarface,” or in other words, most GTA games, where a nobody becomes a criminal and rises through the ranks to kingpin. In its fourth season, the show is still only approaching the peak of that arc. I can’t wait for the downfall. If you haven’t jumped on the roller coaster of a show yet, consider this your ticket to ride.