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Entries in bryan cranston (7)


In Which Everything Breaks Right For Once



That homie's dead, he just doesn't know it yet. Walt H. White (Bryan Cranston), the high school chemistry teacher-cum-drug lord at the center of the most queasily compelling morality play on television, AMC's Breaking Bad, is going to die. Whether it's his case of terminal lung cancer or collateral damage from the whole drug thing, he's hurtling towards the end.

The looming threat of Walt's inevitable death is what makes Breaking Bad such a satisfying show. There's space to ruminate on the show's funhouse mirror look at utterly American worries like health care, immigration, and the drug trade, all the while staying focused on a man discovering his inner psychopath — and liking it! — on a nihilistic ride to the bottom. The show is gorgeously, strikingly filmed with an eye on big sky and neon like Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas or a William Eggleston photo. Breaking Bad's portrayal of the terrifying drug trade on the border is enough to make the casual viewer get an idea of the fear driving the state of Arizona insane.

And there is a dramatic pull beyond the pitch of "the ever-syndicated in perpetuity sitcom dad, Hal from Malcolm in the Middle, becomes a meth dealer!" — as the narcocorrido band put it in episode 2.7, "Negro Y Azul," "that homie's dead/he just doesn't know it yet."

For the uninitiated, Breaking Bad starts in media res — Walt is in his tighty whities and a gas mask, crashing an RV in the desert and recording an anguished goodbye message on a videocamera for his family. Then we speed backwards to see how such a buttoned down man got into these circumstances. It starts, of course, with a terminal cancer diagnosis where his HMO won't cover anything beyond lower quality care. Walt's situation is complicated by a middle class lifestyle in Alberquerque, New Mexico: no significant savings, a disabled son, and a pregnant wife who's willing to pay for cancer with credit cards.

With a diagnosis like this, some people would be staring into the abyss, flailing around in an attempt to square up finances and to figure out what really matters. Walt has no reaction; and he appears to take this death sentence as a blessing. He doesn't tell his family about his diagnosis for weeks. And when he does tell them, he refuses to seek treatment. Walt has become death.

While Walt is a chemistry genius with a degree in crystallography, he is also a stubborn, prideful bastard. So when his DEA brother-in-law takes him on a meth bust where an ex-student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is leaving the scene, and he learns about the easy money to be had — of course, the clear path is to go into business with Jesse as meth cookers and dealers. And soon enough, Walt is arguably a very successful meth cooker, with an accidental reputation as super-gringo meth lord "Heisenberg."

It's a choice motivated by money, pride, and desperation, and the bodies and fuck-ups pile up. Jesse is a dopey drug-addled degenerate speaking in 'yo's and 'bitch's, whose soft heart renders him potentially redeemable — whereas Walt is on a journey of discovery into his own innate psychopathic nihilism.

Breaking Bad is sharply plotted over the course of its strike-shortened first season, the amazing season two, and the currently-running season three. Creator Vince Gilligan (The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen, Hancock) and his team are amazingly adept at sending the audience through a variety of paces and subverting expectations every minute; some examples include one of the most disturbing hours of television that I'd ever seen (2.6, "Peekaboo," where Pinkman tries to extract justice on methheads while coming across their neglected, heartbreaking, smudge-faced and silent ginger kid) and an episode that's as tense as the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men (3.7, "One Minute").

Avoid watching Breaking Bad before bed, as it messes with your nervous system like a gory report on the evening news, encouraging visceral verbal reactions. Any episode will give you violence, explosions, and death: it's all surprising.

It's been quite a ride watching Walter White change from beige to drug lord, from ostensible hero to true anti-hero, and how his actions have affected Jesse's junkie spiral (season three Jesse is a clean Jesse, and finally Aaron Paul is allowed to be as attractive as he actually is), wife Skylar's Carmela Soprano-esque bitterness, and his DEA brother-in-law Hank's route from genial buffoon to PTSD suffer badass enough to chase after the great "Heisenberg" while taking out Mexican cartel thugs right and left.

Unlike other critically acclaimed dramas (what's up Mad Men?), something of game-changing consequence — not necessarily thoughtful symbolism — happens every week. And yet, it shares a certain clarity of vision with shows like Mad Men and The Wire. First off, it shows a man driven to psychopathic behavior by the stress, which is a hell of an indictment on the modern age. The cause and effect is clearer — since Walt is staring down death, his pride and worry snap him out of stasis, telling him to do something with his life, and the consequences are mighty.

In what is becoming a pattern on cable TV, Breaking Bad is as indebted to Cormac McCarthy as The Wire was forever 'Dickensian' or as Mad Men's blend of Don DeLillo and John Cheever fuels its mid-century American ennui. According to McCarthy, a story isn't worth telling if it's not about life and death, and Walter White is certainly a kindred spirit.

The show is preoccupied with the same issues surrounding McCarthy's Biblical tales of Southwestern justice and fate. Walt turns into a straight shooter out of a western, ready to kill or be killed for the sake of his manliness and to justify his existence. Scenes take place in a symbolic sunset under the wide-open desert sky. Judgment comes piling down on the characters. There are always indestructible sociopaths looming who would take Walt out in a heartbeat.

And ultimately, there's the wonderfully craggy face of Bryan Cranston. Playing a man of science and verve, he wipes all memories of Malcolm's Hal out the door. Walt's a man who lives in his head. He plays things close to the vest. To really understand what he's feeling, look at the wrinkles and worries in the canyons of his forehead. As long as he's wrestling with demons in New Mexico, Jon Hamm's slow burn is likely to remain seated come Emmy time.

Perhaps that's the way it should be; Cranston is the anchor of a show that reveals the screwy beauty, risk and emptiness underneath what was sold as the American dream. He's a man becoming himself in the light of life and death — and that is what's truly terrifying.

Elisabeth Donnelly is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here.

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