Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Breaking Bad... and Me.


About a week ago, I gave in to heavy pressure from my son and started watching Breaking Bad on Netflix. I am now into season two and feel that I have watched enough to form an opinion. What follows is a review of what I have seen so far.

I should say at the outset that I have a strange, almost neurotic aversion to depictions of drug use in movies or on television. Simply put, it makes me queasy. It’s the oddest thing since I can watch the goriest war movie, or other violent productions without hesitation, but show someone shooting up and I reach for the Pepto-Bismol. When I shared this weakness with my secretary(another recent Breaking Bad addict) her response was, “Don’t be such a baby!” So, there’s that. But after listening to my son rave about this show 24/7, Pam and I decided to give it a shot.

The central plot revolves around a 50 year old high school chemistry teacher named Walt who is married to an oddly irritating woman named Skyler, who is pregnant with a “surprise” baby. They also have a physically handicapped high school aged son boringly named Walter Jr. Early on Walt is diagnosed with a rather advanced case of lung cancer, strange since Walt isn’t a smoker. He spends practically all of season one hiding his diagnosis from his family while coughing his head off all day and night. The viewer gets the impression that although Walt is a long time teacher in the New Mexico school system, he somehow has very bad insurance, and is otherwise in precarious financial shape. With this terminal illness hanging over his head, and a baby on the way, Walt decides to do what anyone else might do under the same circumstances…he decides to put his chemistry knowledge to work cooking crystal meth for profit. In this enterprise, he is assisted by one of his former reprobate students, Jesse, himself a small time Meth chef who spends most of his time sampling the inventory and acting like the 20 year old meth addict loser that he is. Just to make the story even more bizarre, Skyler’s kleptomaniac sister Marie is married to a foul-mouthed DEA agent, Hank, whose job it is to hunt down Meth dealers. In other words, on paper, it’s difficult to root for any of these people.

So, how come eight shows in, I find myself feeling such an emotional attachment to Walt? How come I’m growing so fond of Jesse and his baggy pants, oversized sweatshirts and his constant use of the word, “Yo”? How come despite Hank’s degenerate brand of humor and his psychopathic fondness for gore, I actually like the guy? This is the genius of Breaking Bad.

Walt rationalizes his turn to the drug trade as a desperate eleventh hour bid to provide for his family, and in the beginning, it may have even been true. But as the show goes on, I get the impression that Walt is a man who has gone through life playing it safe and doing what he was told to the point where he has nothing but regrets. Now that he knows that the end is near, the violence, chaos and danger of the drug business has empowered him somehow, making him feel more alive than he has ever been. Along with the money has come a blurring of lines. Why are some things legal and other things illegal he asks his DEA brother-in-law? Aren’t the legal lines we draw as a society arbitrary? I can only assume that future seasons of the show will show fresh rationalizations.

The show is expertly written, superbly acted and brilliantly directed. There are scenes that you want to watch again simply because the humanity was so electric, the emotions so raw. Walt is a man capable of going either way, capable of both great tenderness and raw violence, an almost meek man who loves his family but can come up with the idea of an acid bath to destroy the evidence of a dead body. The central idea that pulses through this amazing show seems to be the question of how far would you go to provide for those you love if you knew you were about to die? Would you respect the law? How ruthless would you be willing to become?
Captivating television.