AMC’s Breaking Bad, about a terminally ill chemistry teacher who builds a nest egg for his family by manufacturing crystal meth, is not a great show. But it has the makings of one, and it’s already striking for a number of reasons, one of which is its status as latest in a string of promising, flawed series dragged across the finish line by a revelatory central performance. Like Michael C. Hall in the first season of Dexter and Hugh Laurie throughout the entire run of House, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston (formerly Malcolm in the Middle’s frantic dad) is turning in the strongest work of his long and varied career. The show’s gimmicky premise is helped immeasurably by Cranston’s willingness to play it straight. In its strike-shortened first season, which ended Sunday, Breaking Bad seemed as though it was building towards realizing its strengths and ditching its weaknesses. If AMC sees fit to give it a second season, it could become richer still.
The premise invites comparison to Weeds, a surprisingly weak satire on status-panicked Americans, anchored and enriched by a strong central performance (Mary Louise-Parker as widowed mom turned pot dealer Nancy Botwin). Weeds, though, is more outright satirical than Breaking Bad, and too proud of the way it socks it to the suburbs; many of its characters are smugly drawn stereotypes, and it engages with its heroine’s chosen profession, drug dealer, too cutely; it’s interested in the consequences of Nancy’s actions mainly for their potential to inconvenience her. Breaking Bad goes too far in the other direction, to the point where you can imagine series creator Vince Gilligan, formerly one of the strongest writers on The X-Files), re-reading his old college ethics textbooks, highlighter in hand. The series offers too many fun little object lessons about how and when we choose to cross the line of acceptable behavior, and they serve mainly to defuse the possibility that we’ll view Walt unsympathetically. Gilligan stops short of implying that when Walt’s sister-in-law, Marie (Betsy Brandt), commits petty theft, or when his straitlaced DEA agent brother-in-law, Walt (Dean Norris), smokes an illegal Cuban cigar, it’s the moral equivalent of Walt cooking up pure meth designed to feed the habits of bottom-trawling junkies, but these touches still smack of special pleading on Walt’s behalf. Only Walt’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn, last seen on Deadwood, another series interested in the construction of individual and societal moral codes) seems mostly exempt from Gilligan’s “Well, we all sin” shrug of the shoulders. And Gilligan seems inclined to shield his characters from the harsh scrutiny to which The Sopranos subjected its extended family, cutting off rich sources of conflict in the process. Consider Walt’s decision to hide his meth dealing from Skyler: it’s defensible from a plot standpoint, but when you think of all the unsettling drama that The Sopranos mined from Carmela’s attempts to reconcile her beliefs with her lifestyle, you sense what this show is missing.
Yet in some of Walt’s scenes, Breaking Bad displays a Sopranos-like ability to acknowledge the impact of main character’s horrible acts while still letting us empathize with him. After the pilot (which too often went to the “Yeah, but he’s got dying; can’t you just sympathize with the guy?” well a few too many times), Gilligan put all of his trust in Cranston to convey the gravity of Walt’s evil deeds—from standing by idly when others are arrested for his crimes to becoming a player on the local drug scene to committing murder—while somehow keeping his actions recognizably human.
The most interesting aspect of this equation is that neither Cranston nor Gilligan view Walt’s actions as necessarily proceeding from his fear of mortality. It was smart of the series to treat “Walt Is Dying” and “Walt Cooks Meth” as two separate plot motors; its realization that the former does not excuse the latter goes a long way toward patching up other flaws in the template, and lets the full weight of inevitability play as subtext. Anxiety about death is the impetus for Walt’s initial decision, but season one offered him two chances to get out of the life and showed throughout that Walt’s secret profession is not value-neutral. Too many series have viewed drug addicts as pathetic clowns and dealers as seething brutes. On Breaking Bad, drug dealers are presented not just as thugs, but as ruthless entrepreneurs to whose level Walt must sink if he is to prosper, and the addicts, while glimpsed only briefly, are clearly living ruined lives—a fact chillingly acknowledged in Episode 6, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”, in the sequence where Walt’s former chemistry student turned meth partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul), deals his product to a succession of jittery addicts in a series of queasy jump cuts.
Breaking Bad’s finest moment came in Episode 3, “...And the Bag’s In the River,” in a sequence where Walt and Jesse locked their meth dealer of choice, Krazy 8, in the basement of Jesse’s aunt’s house. Quiet and slow-moving (two adjectives that are anathema to advertiser-supported TV), the scene occupied nearly a full act, took its time establishing Walt and Krazy 8 in relation to each other and gave Walt a confidante he needed (at a time when the show was keeping up the bizarre conceit that Walt would keep his lung cancer diagnosis a secret). It also showed that Walt and the dealer lived in the same world—that, indeed, Krazy 8 was the son of a local furniture dealer who appeared in his own TV ads, and that Walt bought a crib at his store. (The series’s central locale, Albuquerque, like The Office’s Scranton, is not quite a tangible community, but it’s grounded enough in reality to seem more a distinct place than a generic quirky town.) Their wide-ranging conversation touched on death and hopes and dreams, but it was consistently underplayed, aiming not for the lofty but the touchingly mundane. Ultimately Walt, who had been struggling with the realization that freeing Krazy 8 would endanger his family, learned that the man aimed to shank him with a shard of broken plate, and decided to kill him. Walt swears he’ll never kill again, but how can he not? He’s resourceful enough to scare another drug dealer, Tuco, with nifty chemistry tricks, but he can only rely on parlor magic for so long.
This all circles back around to Cranston. It’s telling that the series’s unevenly-rendered supporting characters—Hank, refreshingly portrayed as a skilled professional and a concerned family main rather than an oaf; Marie, a shrieking stereotype; Jesse, too often reduced to comic relief early on—all make sense as people when they share a scene with Cranston. He was an expert clown on Malcolm in the Middle and many other comedies, from Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother, and one should never diminish the challenge of pitch-perfect sitcom mugging; nevertheless, his Walter White is something else entirely—a man driven by hosts of contradictory impulses who is given opportunities to do the right thing but avoids them out of convenience or a desire to take control of his life. (The latter goal is often viewed as “the right thing” on TV, but it’s presented far more ambiguously here.) He lets you feel the full weight of every choice Walter makes, every second the clock brings him closer to death. In the impromptu season finale, Walter looks into a video camera and addresses his unborn daughter, who will likely only know him as a shadowy presence at the edges of her life; although the moment takes place in view of many witnesses, Cranston underplays it, turning it into a private confession even as the Awwwws reverberate around him. It’s a scene you’ve seen a million times before, but in Cranston’s hands it becomes something small and perfect.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.