Thursday, March 21, 2013

Make Mine Meth!

I know I am the last person to this official party, but I just have to say officially that OMG YOU GUYS BREAKING BAD IS SO GOOD!

On the off chance that anyone reading this is even further behind on the zeitgeist than I am and is not in the know about this show, Breaking Bad is the story of a high school chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) who discovers he has “incurable” cancer and decides to start cooking meth in the high desert surrounding Albuquerque in order to raise enough money to provide for his family after he dies. Turns out, having a chemistry degree is a pretty good asset for cooking a highly-addictive drug and it’s not long before his product is so pure that it (sometime literally) sets the meth world in the southwestern US on fire. From there, hilarity ensues.

Warning, mild spoilers below. Nothing huge, but I do dish on character developments and evolution.

On the surface, Breaking Bad shares a lot of the same DNA as Showtime’s Weeds, another show about a suburban normal person who decides to become a drug kingpin because why not, really? The similarities end pretty quickly. Weeds’ Nancy Botwin is a pot-dealing soccer mom prone to making really comically unfortunate decisions that roil her suburb. Breaking Bad’s Walter White is much more Machiavellian. The comedic aspects are much more downplayed and the drama and tension is much higher. Series creator Vince Gilligan has admitted that the suburban parent-turned-drug kingpin plot is really secondary to the main point of the show, namely watching how an otherwise perfectly nice, innocuous person can eventually turn into Scarface.

Which is exactly what’s so compelling about watching the show, frankly. As the series begins, we sympathize with Walter and even kind of understand where he’s coming from – his entire motivation is simply to ensure his family’s survival after his rapidly approaching death. It’s almost sweet, insofar as cooking meth in a dirty RV in the desert and frequently dissolving dead bodies in tubs of acid can ever be described as sweet. But a funny thing happens on the way to the cancer treatment center – eventually Walter’s treatment starts to work and the timeline for his demise gets pushed back. Suddenly, the certainty of death becomes more nebulous and Walter is left with a nascent meth empire that needs tending. And that’s when we start to see the real Walter White, who begins to go by the name “Heisenberg” in drug circles to protect his identity. For this first time in his life, Walter is starting to get the one thing that high school teachers don’t usually have – respect. He’s making the best meth the world has ever seen and for once, he’s being handsomely compensated for what he’s doing, not only with money but with recognition that he’s a major player in this underworld. If Walter started down this road with the goal of earning money for his kids’ college and his wife’s home-ownership, he’s discovering that being feared and honored is even more rewarding than the money.

Pride goeth before the meth lab explosion

It's also no small miracle that, when it comes down to it, this is a show about chemistry. Evil chemistry, sure, but the show does a legitimately good job of showcasing how science actually works. A couple of the episodes even border on the MacGyver-ific, given that more than once, Walt has to get out of a pair of handcuffs or figure out how to restart a dying RV in the middle of the desert with no electricity but just the chemicals he has on him. It's indiscriminate science to be sure - as one of the characters says at one point, "Let's keep it real, alright? We make poison for people who don't care." Nevertheless, my nerdy little heart grows a few sizes when I consider that the "hero" of the show is, at his core, a scientist, and the creators aren't afraid to give him technical lines and show him using a lab.

And they don't even insist that we do this while being big-breasted women in low-cut shirts!

Breaking Bad’s stock in trade is the attention it puts onto its characters. It’s fascinating enough to watch Walter slowly become less and less sympathetic as time goes on, but he’s not the only one with myriad motivations and complex relationships. Walter’s fellow cook, his former slacker high school student Jesse (Aaron Paul), is equal parts surrogate son to Walter and Walter’s punching bag. Jesse vacillates between wanting to be a drug boss and then cowering in his home, broken after killing another character. For all his bravado and sneaking into AA groups to covertly push meth, he’s really a good kid. Likewise, Walter’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) moves from nagging, emasculating housewife to horrified co-conspirator as she gradually over the seasons begins to piece together Walter’s secret life. Skyler is the moral center of Walter’s universe, which makes things all the more purposefully confusing when she gets drawn into illegal activities of her own. Meanwhile, Walter’s brother-in-law, a DEA agent, comes across as both the arrogant braggart who’s desperately trying to be cooler than he is and also at the same time an ironically good field agent who is the only person who’s actually close to figuring out who is behind this sudden influx of highly potent meth hitting the streets. And that’s not even getting into the variety of criminal types, including a cool as a cucumber meth emperor and a hitman/cleaner who’s tough as nails but really just wants to go home and drink a beer. All of the characters are multi-faceted and layered and just when you think you’ve got one of them figured out they display a completely new part of themselves that is not only organic, but surprising.

They're just like your dysfunctional family. Only with more meth. (Most of you.)

Breaking Bad is in its fifth and final season on AMC. Still plenty of time to mainline the entire series on Netflix before the final eight episodes of the series begins this summer.  


Arsenic Pie said...

NERD!! (Says the girl watching a bio lecture from UC Berkeley during workbreak.) Sounds interesting. I've seen Weeds, but I thought it got little...I dunno...repetitive, I guess. I haven't gotten into Breaking Bad as of yet, but AMC dramas are generally pretty sterling. I'd also recommend Hell on Wheels for future marathoning purposes.

Maggie Cats said...

I also haven't jumped aboard the Breaking Bad bandwagon (yet). I always think to myself "one day when things calm down and I have free time..." and then I never get around to it.

This might be the perfect thing to put on my summer viewing list though! Do you know if the past seasons are streaming?

Clovis said...

Seasons 1-4 are streaming on Netflix. True story - I binged them all the other week when I was home sick for four days and so miserable and dosed up on foggy meds that I had nothing else to do. Given that I watched four solid seasons while doped up, I honestly felt like I had just gone on a meth binge. Good times.

Short story - you NEED to watch this series. I could write dozens of more blog posts just about how much cool stuff is in this and how stupidly smartly (oxymoron?) it's written. Maggie Cats, I feel about making people watch this show the same way you felt about Friday Night Lights. Which, btw, is next on my streaming Netflix queue, so there's that.