TROUBLE CITY

SCHWARTZBLOG: BREAKING BAD, SEASON ONE

BlogsAl SchwartzComment

I love Breaking Bad.  I mean, I love it the way meth-heads love crank or bad writers love opening with obvious analogies made by thousands of others over the last 4 years.  And it starts up again in about 2 weeks (2 weeks!), so I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and watching some old episodes.  Of course, this being the internet, everyone asshole with a blog can and will be writing episode recaps as the final season airs, so I will have no shortage of places to read and comment about the new episodes very shortly. But the other day my mother told me something that got me thinking.  She told me “Al, you’re an asshole.”  Classy dame, my mom.  But I checked with my brother and best bartender, and it turns out that I am, in point of fact, an asshole.  I also have several pieces of paper from various institutions of Catholic education attesting to my ability to read and write at a 6th grade level, which means I’m actually well above the minimum qualifications required for talking about TV on the internet.  So now this is happening.

Before we get to the new stuff, I’ll be taking a quick spin through the earlier seasons to document their highs and lows.  I’m kidding, of course.  It’s pretty much just highs and dizzying highs and cirrocumuli (that's right, bitches, I also SCIENCE at a 6th grade level).  I’m not going to spend time recounting the plot, but I’m also not going to talk around spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the show, wh-what??  I...why...would you even?  It’s the best show on TV, full stop.  The seasons are dirt cheap and the first 3 are available on Netflix Instant.  Go, go now.

My take on the 1st season:

Now that’s a fucking pilot.  The cold open alone is maybe the best introductions to a series I have ever seen.  I’d say Lost gives it a run in terms of the very first scene being instantly-gripping, but nothing else is springing to mind.  And I love how immediately things go wrong.  Our poor hapless heroes can’t even sell their first batch before things go just absolutely, completely to hell.

The two-parter that follows, focusing on the body removal process that most shows would gloss over in a scene if not a line, shifts into a lower gear but brings more of the show’s strengths to light. Aaron Paul does some great physical comedy with the plastic bins, as does Cranston with his inept attempts at joint rolling, in “Cat’s In The Bag”.  That episode goes a long way to establishing the dark (dark, dark, Jesus God dark) comedy that will come to define the show, as well as the quiet, drawn out pacing.  I don’t think the show is as slow as its reputation suggests, but I’ll elaborate on that next season, partly because...

“Cancer Man” and “Gray Matter” are both as wheel-spinning as Breaking Bad gets, although the former does have the intervention scene which is a highlight of the season and the latter serves as our introduction to Badger, who is a national treasure.  They just don’t have much else of consequence going on, and this is a show that is all about consequences.  Really, 2 episodes in a season, even a shorter  cable one, is not really a huge amount of running in place.  But the first season was shortened even further by the writer’s strike, so counting the entertaining-but-not-terribly-eventful “Cat”, we have almost 50% of the season in that mode.

We rebound with “Crazy Handful Of Nothin”, which returns to the pilot's method of opening with a flashforward to its slam-bang finale.  This is a device BB will continue to use, but never quite as effectively as here.  It leaves one with the impression that the episode is more action-packed than it is, but this is not a show that is uninteresting in its slower moments (hi there, Dexter and even some of Boardwalk Empire), so that’s an observation rather than a criticism.

It also, I believe, marks the first usage of time-lapse photography of Albuquerque to denote the passing of days.  I guess that some people find this kind of thing ostentatious, but I've always liked that BB, for all its grounded depictions of crime and character, has some of the flashiest cinematography ever put to the small screen. Especially compared to the other relatively realistic crime dramas that it evolved from, like The Wire or Sopranos.

The introduction of the volatile, meth-addled Tuco provides a jolt of energy and tension that was lacking from the previous episodes.  Raymond Cruz is terrifically unhinged in the role, and while it’s an enormously “big” performance, it’s no mean feat to pull so much of the spotlight away from the powerhouse regulars.

Speaking of the regulars, that Cranston and Paul are immediately fantastic shouldn’t be a surprise considering all the awards and critical acclaim they’ve accumulated for the roles.  But that’s also because the writers really had those characters pegged from the pilot.  Like every show that has ever existed, though, it takes them more time to figure out the supporting cast.  Dean Norris will come pretty close to being the heart of the show as it goes on, and Betsy Brandt will develop into one of the most underrated supporting actors on TV, but their characters are broad to the point of just being dumb in the early going.  Their most interesting selves will appear in later seasons, when not coincidentally they will seem much more with it.

Some of the same goes for Skylar.  She is possibly the most controversial of all the wives of TV anti-heroes; Carmela Soprano and Betty Draper may be hated for the wrong, misogynistic reasons, but their characters are also rather odious in their own rights throughout their shows.  Anna Gunn is good at whatever she’s asked to do, but in establishing Walt’s general dissatisfaction early on, they make her rather obnoxious in her henpecking ways.  This turned a lot of people against her immediately, but I have my suspicions that even if she started out as the smarter, more well-rounded character she becomes, she would’ve been widely-hated anyway.  That’s what happens when your character stands in the way of the protagonist committing the crimes we tune in to see, never mind how boring the show would be if he were a full bore, gun-toting, ass-kicking kingpin with no conflicting human connections at the start of episode 2.

The season ends rather abruptly, with an episode that cannot really be viewed as a climax or even an extended denouement from the prior episode's climax, as some cable series are wont to do.  But that was essentially out of the writers' hands due to the strike, so it pretty much gets a pass there.

Now to run some numbers and look at some of the ways we will track Walter’s progress.

 

Estimated Profits: $15000 (Krazy 8) + 1300 (Jesse’s street deals) + 62000 (Tuco) - ~10k (chemo) - ~$5k (miscellaneous supplies) = ~$65,000 ahead

Murder Count (only those Walt has a direct hand in) - 2 (Emilio, Krazy 8)

Lesser Included Offenses - We’re going to take the big ongoing stuff like felony drug trafficking, tax evasion, and withholding evidence as a given from here on.  Also theft (various equipment from a very well-equipped high school chem lab), burglary (30 gallon drum of methylamine), destruction of property (one douchebag’s Corvette, one drug lord’s headquarters), assault and battery (one douchebag teenager, several Mexican meth dealers).

Collateral Damage - One innocent janitor loses a job and goes to jail on a bullshit marijuana charge.

Sequences To Make Hitchcock Proud:  The opening video not-a-confession (“Pilot”), Walter returns to the basement after discovering the missing plate shard (“...And The Bag’s In The River”), Heisenberg meets Tuco (“Crazy Handful Of Nothin”)

We Are Done, Professionally - Walt and Jesse break up for the first time, momentarily, in the opening of ep. 2, then for realsies at the end of ep. 3, having decided that their foray maybe hadn't gone so well.  They're back together at the end of episode 5.

Heisenberg Certainty Principle (Walter’s most badass moment) - “This is not meth.”

Official Walter Jr. Breakfast Count -  4  ("Pilot", "Cat's In The Bag", "Gray Matter" , "Crazy Handful of Nothin")

Best Lie - Thinking on his feet, Walt tells to Skylar that he buys weed from Jesse.  Works because it’s bad enough to be something he would hide from her, but nowhere near as bad as the truth, or as he puts it “somehow it seemed preferable to telling her I cook crystal meth and killed a man.”

The Erlenmeyer Flask Is Mightier - Walt poisons Emilio and Krazy 8 with a cloud of phosphene gas, disincorporates Emilio’s body with hydrofluoric acid, burns through a warehouse lock with thermite harvested from kids toys, and uses fulminated mercury to blow up Tuco’s lair

It’s The Little Things - Jesse’s yo-yo-yo answering machine message is entirely right for the character, but manages to catch me by surprise and amuse every time it pops up throughout the season.  On Walt’s Pro/Con list to decide what to do with Krazy 8, he lists “Judeo-Christian Values”.