19 October 2013

The Incredible Story of a High School Teacher Who Fell in With a Bad Crowd -- Himself (AKA My Month With Breaking Bad)

Great white arcs. A fist crushing a sad face. The addict desperate and dying but unrelenting. Cold desert morning and men at work. The cough so ugly and hurting and persistent. Always the persistent and the unrelenting. The hardened American man of law obsessed with pursuit and capture but taking time for the poolside barbecue. Morning cereal or pancakes and consumers happy with normality. Craving it. The bored stone faced listening to the lecture. The magic man spinning his web and unknowingly caught in it. Twisted. Always twisted. The death of reason and the rise of the ego and the id and the superman and the victory over compassion. Cerebral Palsy. Cancer. Poison. Retching over toilets and outward appearances and blood everywhere. The innocent killed. As are we all innocent and dead. And you Walter White are in all of us. Heisenberg. Bang!

So the story goes of an American dream.

And so now its over. After watching 62 episodes in 30 days I am left on my own. The greatest TV show binging of my life the hungry consumption of every detail every raised eyebrow every nook every cranny every gunshot every threat every shocking turn of Breaking Bad. The best television drama I've ever seen. For the last two weeks it was twice a day. Sometimes three times. All that time with Walter White. With Jesse. With Hank. With Gus. With the murderous Uncle Jack. With poor Walter Junior who suffered so to see his hero his father exposed as a dirty no good skunk of a drug lord. I was enslaved by Breaking Bad. I was powerless over it. I was mainlining it. Breaking Bad coursing through my veins. I couldn't wait to finish it all. Now I miss it. God how I do.

It took me awhile -- longer then I care to admit -- but I finally figured it out. Walter White was a very very bad man. This is a great part of the genius of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad which ended its six year run on the telly last month. We are witness to the devolvement of a human being from an earnest educator and family man diagnosed with cancer to a sadistic megalomaniacal drug boss and killer. It's as fascinating as anything that cinema has put forward and I include The Godfather's Michael Coreleone in the mix. No less a personage than Sir Anthony Hopkins called Bryan Cranston's portrayal of Walter White as the greatest acting performance of all time. Who am I to argue with the likes of Mr. Hopkins?

Walter. He is the one who knocks. But who will protect the family from the one who protects the family?

We can't help but root for Walter from the very beginning. What's so stunning is how long we stay with him and how subtlety he changes from accomplished chemist to evil genius. I remember watching him as he watched Jesse's girlfriend Jane choke on her own vomit after a night of heroin. It made rational sense for him to let her die but it was so callous so morally indefensible that I actually finally thought that this Walter fellow was an abhorrent character. But I stayed with him. Until the end. I often hated the way he treated poor Jesse. Walter was contemptuous and dismissive of his underling from the beginning. He ultimately used and abused him. But the most shocking moment was when Jesse was being led away seemingly to be executed and Walter just had to tell him that he had watched Jane die. Jesse looked back at him in wonder unable to believe that such a cold heart hadn't frozen. And so did we.

Jesse (Aaron Paul) was also a compelling character. Troubled and tortured by inner demons. Falling in love twice with tragic consequences. It seemed he could never find his purchase in life. No wonder he was beaten so often and so brutally. He was a small man a bit of pretty boy playing in a world with brutal criminals and hard-nosed cops. Jesse was everyone's whipping boy. But he was never pathetic. There was something totally redeemable about him. He was after all able to love -- though with tragic consequences -- was good with children and was young and vulnerable and resilient. We admired Walter but we liked Jesse. Liked. He was ultimately unbeatable. The kid could bounce off the canvas.

Was this a show about choices? The choices we make. The old bit about the road not taken? I dunno cause Walter took a lot of roads. Like a lot of great fictional characters he just kept going and his ego let him. Down the rabbit hole. It started out as small time stuff. Cooking meth in an RV to raise cash to fend of creditors with cancer treatment costs ready to mount. Really it was for the family. Hey somebody was going to supply the stuff. Why not Walter a man who could cook it damn near 100% pure. But you know these things have a way of just taking off and there you go. Thousands become millions. As in dollars. Then tens of millions. And when is it enough?  You hire people you have enemies you make deals you're working with people contemptuous of human life you make compromises and you strangle someone and shoot someone else and tell big bold lies and that stuff you make being so good and all that money coming in and you winning all these battles you go quickly from cancer victim to Mr. Invincible. Hell you've beaten the cancer. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING. Once you shoot one person it gets kind of easy. Power is as power does and all. You can't see the forrest for the trees when your the fucking forrest.

Skyler. The missus. (Anna Gunn.) She's a strong woman with a healthy independent streak. A damn good mom and devoted wife. You meet her type all the time all over this great land of ours. Salt of the earth and the modern wife/mother who knows and speaks her own mind. Can she believe what her Walt is up to? Can she countenance his means of supporting them? Can she turn a blind eye? Here's the thing: Skyler is not comfortable with any of this wants a divorce she can't get has an affair that she rather enjoys (its revenge you see) and next thing she's laundering money and in on the lie. Expands the lie. Happens.

The poor lady was trapped in an eddy reaching for a tree root. Took to smoking and staring off into space and wondering how the hell....

Ya ever notice in life how some of our choices are no choice at all. Decision points come to as disguised as choices we have to make but there's really no alternative and lord have mercy if that path we're stuck in flies in the face of proper morality law and the like. Poor Skyler. She was the ultimate combo of victim perpetrator.

Life happens fast sometimes. There's no time for contemplation until the deeds are done. The meth is cooked its sold Gus has been blown up others have been paid off or bumped off and we're left to live with the consequences of actions we had barely any time to consider or reconsider.  And one of our gang shoots an innocent kid because he was at the wrong place. At the wrong time. Aren't we all.

In the last episode Walter finally tells Skyler an important truth: he did all for himself. One reason being that he was so good at it. It's hard to keep from displaying our talents. If our skills lie in singing or architecture or teaching this is a good thing. If they are in producing meth and running a drug empire...not so much. But Walter was true to himself. At least give him credit for that.

I watched all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad and enjoyed each one. Not a clunker in the bunch. That falls under the category of AMAZING.

The writers stayed true to the characters and the reality they created never straying too far building from within. There was no supernatural or extended dream sequence or tedious back story or sidebars. It all fit. The characters were fully realized and allowed to develop without detracting from the momentum of the story line. Betsy Brandt as Skyler's sister Marie was dead on as the busy body kleptomaniac wife of DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). She seemed like so many people we have known or met in other words so goddamned real. So for that matter was Hank as the obsessed pursuer of Heisenberg -- Walter's non de plume -- and the jolly uncle and brother-in-law. Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman flirts with going over the top but because he doesn't is a masterfully colorful and interesting character who contrasts nicely with the uber serious personas of Walter and Jesse.

Walter and Jesse. There's a relationship worth studying. Father figure much? Son or student? Their's is the ultimate love hate relationship. A stunning fist fight. An awkward hug. Guns to the head. Business partners. The complexity of their reliance on one another and their coldness to one another and their constant battling is particularly compelling theater. What were they to each other?

More. Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) the wealthy philanthropist businessman who is really head of a drug cartel. Now there's a character and a story and an acting performance and a creepy depth and soul and an oh he got his just reward. Jonathan Banks as Mike is first his and then Walter's right hand man. Chews nails for breakfast this one. Streetwise and tough and a devoted granddad. He has Walter sussed out from early on. Trouble he sees and trouble het gets. And Laura Fraser as Lydia the uptight little business woman in heels adding the illegal meth business to her lengthy agenda. She is so vulnerable and fragile and yet not unwilling to order hits on a dozen men. Lydia seems more in the self preservation business than anything else.

Breaking Bad. One month. Binge watching. Consumed me as I devoured it. For many it was spread out over five years and nine months. I can't imagine a week let alone a month long wait between episodes. I hated waiting 24 hours. Now I'll wait a lifetime for  TV that's as good. What a ride.

(This post is dedicated to youngest daughter my fellow Breaking Bad lover. Even though she says I can't get the Heisenberg hat.)

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