When mild-mannered, underachieving chemistry teacher Walter White (Cranston) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he’s desperate to ensure his family are financially secure after he’s gone. Surprised at how genuinely lucrative the drug trade is and discovering that dropout former student Jesse Pinkman (Paul) is a dealer, Walt reluctantly partners up and uses his considerable chemistry skills to cook top-grade crystal meth. Though initially struggling with this darker path, Walt increasingly comes to terms with his secret lifestyle, breaking bad as he becomes a serious player in the drug trade…
Breaking Bad isn’t just the best show under the radar that many aren’t watching - it’s one of the best shows on TV full stop. Created by veteran X-Files producer and writer Vince Gilligan (geeks in the audience will note the Erlenmeyer Flask in-jokery), it’s a compelling mix of human drama and crime thriller, all laced together with wonderfully unpredictable writing, well-measured pinches of black comedy and impressively natural acting. Though the first season was sadly truncated to a mere seven episodes by the writer’s strike (meaning the finale doesn’t feel particularly finale-ish), Gilligan’s series quickly establishes itself as dazzling, superior viewing which sits comfortably among the finest on the box.
Importantly, despite often opening with striking, pre-credits teasers (Walt standing in the desert in his y-fronts with a gun, two men in gas-masks scrubbing blood and guts, a skinhead Walt striding away from a city-centre explosion), Breaking Bad is a slow-burn ride that ratchets the tension before detonating in remarkably gripping fashion. Inevitably, the premise takes us into some unpleasant, harrowing territory, but it’s balanced nicely with subtle doses of much-needed dark humour (see Walt’s wife giving him a handjob while browsing Ebay). Though not quite as relentlessly realistic as, say, The Wire (well what is?), there’s still a flawless dedication to realism throughout, with each genuinely surprising twist remaining firmly loyal to the characters and internal logic.
As Walter progressively breaks bad and awakens from the life-slumber he’s presumably been in for years, you could make comparisons with Michael Douglas’ antics in Falling Down, but this is a more poignant affair. No doubt, the most satisfying moments occur when Walt fights back against the bullies and little niggles that affect us in everyday life but we usually choose to suffer through in silence (asshole jocks, big-mouth salesmen talking on headsets). But yet, as our formerly submissive hero (and he is a hero, despite, erm, selling drugs) finds that mouse-that-roared spirit while becoming increasingly capable of morally-questionable acts, the frequently-underplayed storytelling coughs up some wonderful dilemmas as food for thought. What if, for example, circumstances left you with a captive hostage who would slaughter your family if you let him live, but you couldn’t bring yourself to commit murder?
Enveloping this all together is a phenomenal turn from the moustached lead, Bryan Cranston, who likely won the role from his experience on The X-Files in a Gilligan-penned episode. Though widely known as the comedy Dad from his time on Malcolm In The Middle, Cranston is a natural at serious dramatic material, evolving subtly and believably over the short-run from hen-pecked family man to intimidating meth-player with nothing to lose. He won an Emmy here, it’s fully deserved.
And, unlike other shows with a magnificent lead, time spent with the supporting ensemble doesn’t feel like a waste. Anna Gunn as Walt’s wife Skyler, RJ Mitte as their son Walter JR who suffers from cerebral palsy (which Mitte does in real life too), Betsy Schrader as sister-in-law Marie… they’re all so naturalistic it never seems like anyone is acting at all. Aaron Paul deserves plenty of credit for ensuring that the potentially-clichéd Jesse has surprising depth, while Dean Norris is a stand-out as macho, well-meaning brother-in-law Hank who works for the DEA, and is beginning to follow a trail that leads to Walt…
Dark, compelling and unpredictable television, Breaking Bad mixes all its ingredients together for a potent reaction – much like Walt’s cooking. The best thing you’re not watching.