Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Breaking Bad (Season 1-2)

Breaking Bad; crime-drama series, USA, 2008-2009; D: Vince Gilligan, Adam Bernstein, Jim McKay, Tricia Brock, S: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk

Albuquerque, New Mexico. On his 50th birthday, the underpaid chemistry teacher Walter White discovers he has lung cancer. Refusing a sympathy offer by his ex-partner Gretchen and Elliot to pay for his treatment, Walter instead teams up with Jesse, his ex-student, in order to produce meth in an RV. He hopes to earn enough money to leave his family - son Walter Jr. and pregnant wife Skyler - a safe financial legacy. Walter and Jesse are plagued by numerous problems - their first sell out ends with two dead people; their potential distributor Tuco is a primitive brute; Walter's brother-in-law, Hank, a DEA agent, is trying to stop drug traffic in the city... - but they manage to team up with sleazy lawyer Saul and drug kingpin Gus and earn 480,000 $ each. However, sick of his lies and strange absence, Skyler leaves Walter soon after their daughter Holly is born.

Vince Gilligan's crime-drama series "Breaking Bad" caused quite a stir during its premiere which ensured it attention and critical acclaim. The first two seasons are not quite as good as you might want them to be, considering the series' reputation, but they have a steady build up of intrigue. The first season is the weakest, since it takes for way too long to set up the story, and features some strange or misguided moments. For instance, the situation in episode 1.2 where Jesse does not think and decides to decompose the corpse of a gangster in hydrofluoric acid in his bath tub, thereby causing the acid to create two holes through the ceiling, and a mass of blood falling down to the ground, is not the best ending to an story. Also, the way Walter and Jesse escape from drug lord Tuco in a deserted outpost in episode 2.2, is kind of sloppy and unconvincingly gimmicky. Some moments where Walter is suffering from cancer tend to become a tad too melodramatic. The dialogues are also not quite as inspired as, let's say, "House, MD". Still, the main concept slowly, but steadily creates a pervasive energy: Walter (brilliant Bryan Cranston) is a man who finds out he has cancer, that 99% of his life is thereby over, and thus decides to spend the rest of his 1% of life audaciously, without any fear, trying to secure a financial legacy for his family after his death by "cooking" meth.

His gradual shift from a quiet, decent guy to a determined, even selfish and evil person, is surprisingly engaging, and also surprisingly logical: even though he is an academic, an intellectual, poverty forces him into crime. Through his transformation, the storyline gives one of the most subversive dissertations about neoliberal capitalism ever: no criminal character is completely evil, they are all just victims of a system of limited resources and financial shortage, and thus battle each other only to survive. The film that instantly comes to mind in thematic similarities is De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" - it also shows that the system itself creates a criminal out of a father because he cannot secure his child's financial safety through legal means. Some of the best moments arrive when Walter uses his knowledge of chemistry to make the mill run his way: for instance, in episode 1.7, when he uses dozens of Etch-a-Sketches to extract the powder and create thermite in order to break into a factory; and the episode 1.6 when he seemingly enters the drug lord Tuco's hideout without any weapons, just with a crystal, but still manages to use chemistry as a weapon, is fantastic: sufficient to say that you will never forget Mercury(II) fulminate after you have seen it. Some of the characters are also great, and slowly grow on you: one that stands out the most is Walter's brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, a DEA officer, who is fascinating to watch due to his slow-burning character development, as well as Dean Norris, who probably gave the performance of a lifetime. Some of the violence is gruesome (at least four moments), yet there are episodes without any violence at all, which shows that drama and the series' theme are the main highlights and cylinder. The storyline becomes almost addictive in season 2, and reaches a climax in episode 2.11 - a one that strangely drops and falters in uncharacteristically slow and lukewarm final two episodes, which do not reach its level. Maybe the fault for that is that several directors exchange for each episode and thus cannot continue the previously established mood entirely. Still, the story is rich with symbolism (Walter achieved what he wanted financially, and yet, almost as a bad karma, he lost something on the other side of his life spectrum in 2.13), is very fluent and offers food for thought.


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