It’s a tricky thing, measuring the quality of a good television series. Some need a wobbly first season to find their footing before finding a confident stride. Others start with a cracking first series, with subsequent ones failing to live up to what originally seemed to be a brilliant premise. Sometimes you’ll even come across shows that have more of a seesaw feel to them, where disappointing seasons are made up for with a surprising return to form.
ABQ’s most wanted – the cast of Breaking Bad, headed by Bryan Cranston.
Breaking Bad is the rarest of beasts: a show where the quality never dips and somehow manages to remain consistently gripping and innovative throughout its whole run. Praised by critics and feverishly embraced by viewers, it has recently earned the accolade of “highest rated TV series of all time”. What makes this feat all the more surreal is that the show’s concept doesn’t exactly spell “addictive crime drama”, not in mainstream terms at least.
In the series’ pilot we are introduced to a protagonist who looks remarkably like a real life version of Ned Flanders, but with none of his cartoon lookalike’s sunny disposition. Walter White is an introverted high school chemist teacher who needs to work shifts at the local carwash to make ends meet, even if it means being the laughing stock of his underachieving students. He has a son with cerebral palsy and a daughter on the way with his wife Skyler, all of whom he struggles to maintain on his minimal salary. All seems lost when he is diagnosed with lung cancer, as Walt begins to worry about his family’s future. That is, until he comes across ex-student turned crystal meth dealer Jesse Pinkman. With Walt’s impressive knowledge of chemistry and Jesse’s connections on the street, the two of them might just be able to make a few bucks on the side…
There’s an old proverb that chillingly sums up Breaking Bad’s overarching themes of corruption: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. What makes Vince Gilligan’s show so irresistible to watch is the way it gets you to witness Walt’s almost imperceptible transformation from frail victim into ruthless monster, before challenging you to keep rooting for him no matter what. By identifying with Walter White, you are to some degree complicit in the crimes he commits throughout the series, each one sinisterly eclipsing the previous you thought would be his worst.
It’s all the more distressing that it’s the dad from Malcolm in the Middle committing these acts. Bryan Cranston was arguably the best thing in the wacky family sitcom, but not in a million years would you have expected him to pull off such a complex performance that, depending on the tone of the episode, ranges from funny (pizza? Meet roof) to downright scary (“I’m the one who knocks”). Those three Emmy awards are thoroughly deserved.
But make no mistake, while Heisenbeg’s mug and pork pie hat adorn all the fans’ t-shirts and bedroom walls, Breaking Bad is most definitely an ensemble effort. It is a testament to the show’s quality writing that not one of these characters ever feels one-note. If Walter White is a good guy gradually giving into the darkness within, then Jessie Pinkman (a brilliant Aaron Paul) is a low-life criminal who is at his core a decent human being. Hank Schrader, Walt’s brother-in-law and DEA agent, starts off as an irksome knucklehead but somehow ends up being one of the most rounded, sympathetic characters in the whole show. Saul Goodman’s ridiculously corrupt lawyer always feels like he’s just stepped out of a Coens Brothers film. Mike Ehrmantraut, who could’ve so easily remained a taciturn bouncer throughout the series, reveals more hidden layers than a Siberian duvet. Even the show’s big bads, from Tuco and Tio Salamanca all the way to Gus Fring and Uncle Jack, all come with their own distinctive quirks and mercurial personalities.
All of which makes it a grueling task to pick out a standout season from the show. If held at gunpoint, BB’s sophomore year arguably stands out from the lot by a couple of inches. Why? For starters, it is the only season that revels in teasing viewers with what’s to come, in various, astute ways: those foreboding black and white opening shots of a crime scene; that horribly disfigured purple soft toy, floating around aimlessly in the Whites’ pool; the episodes titles, four of which cryptically give away the season’s tragic ending… not even Lost managed to pull this stuff off so good. Also, while season 1 was all about setting up Walter and Jessie’s relationship, this time we were introduced us to a host of new characters and mainstays of the series, including Gus Fring and Saul Goodman.
But most importantly, this was the season in which Walt started revealing the darkest side of his character. Two scenes come to mind: the one in which he manages to scare off a couple of dealers, simply by standing his ground and snarling “stay out of my territory”; and of course, the one in which he pays a visit to Jessie and his girlfriend’s bedroom, where he… well, now that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Seriously, if ever there was a reason to get a one month free trial of Netflix, this is it. Sign up now, bitch.