Thursday 1 August 2013
Breaking Bad Season 1 Review
However so much of what has elevated Breaking Bad to it's current masterpiece status cannot be seen in the first season on first watch. The stakes haven't hit their highest point, secondary characters remain one dimensional and Walt's descent doesn't even approach the dark depths that would characterise later seasons. However on a second viewing, with knowledge of how the story unfolds, the first season is a much stronger piece of television, a tremendous exercise in restraint. If Breaking Bad was to truly make good of its premise then it couldn't show its hand whenever it liked, it had to give each part of the story a completely different side of Walter and his growing double life. Because Walter becoming a monster needs to mean something when it eventually happens Vince Gilligan was forced to make do with merely suggesting the potential that this story has. This is particularly admirable when you remember that Breaking Bad was not unveiled with the deafening hype of, say, a new HBO series. It debuted with little fanfare as the first program aired by AMC after Mad Men. Viewers were in short supply, the season was cut short by the writers' strike, there was barely any star appeal attached to the series and cancellation was always on the table (in fact the show was almost not picked up in the first place). So it's incredible that the writers stuck to their guns and let the story unfold at a pace that suggested an assured five season run. Furthermore, the talents of the writers, directors and actors made sure that the slow crawl forward was as rich, engaging as satisfying as possible. This is not another example of "it gets better after the first season", it's an assured and restrained debut that has a unique place within the series overarching structure. While Gilligan is known to disdain reverse engineered plots, never letting pre-planning get in the way of a good idea, he was playing a long game from the beginning.
Although the Pilot kind of betrays everything I've just said. In many ways there is an understandable difference in pace between the first episode and the rest of the season. This hour of television, and this hour alone, had to prove to Network executives that Breaking Bad was a show worth buying and so it milks its offbeat premise for everything it's worth. However much it may seem at odds with how the series would develop, the Pilot still feels like a masterpiece of ruthless efficiency, using every frame to repeatedly communicate the man Walt is and the man he wants to become. The various, often silent, establishing moments of the humiliating existence that has become his life are packed with so much character detail that by the time Walt actually does break bad, only twenty minutes into the episode, there's a strong understanding of the significance of this moment. Once we are in White's head-space, perfectly communicated subtly but strongly by Bryan Cranston, we are introduced to the secondary characters who are all well defined although inevitably one dimensional. The genius of the pilot, not having the luxury to delve into each plot development, is that it fills every functional turn of the narrative cogs with as much little character detail and atmosphere as it can. Before the show was picked there was suggestion of extending it into a feature film and it's easy to see why, it's truly cinematic. By the time Walt and Jesse start cooking in the desert and we approach the tantalising moments of the cold open everything has fallen into place and the story has nowhere to go but forward. In fact if there's one problem with the pilot it's that it may stand too strongly on it's own. After finishing it for the first time I felt like I'd watched a reasonably complete story (unlike the intrigueing but unsatisfying Pilot's of The Wire or Game of Thrones) and continuing the wacky adventures of Walt and Jesse didn't seem entirely necessary. Alan Sepinwall, in his book The Revolution Was Televised, discusses an alternate first season that moved at a much faster pace, killed Jesse off early and pushed Walt into full Heisenberg territory relatively early on. You can see how this vision would have unfolded from the Pilot's pacing and while it perhaps may have been a more immediately satisfying season, the rout ultimately taken proved stronger.
This is why The Cat's In The Bag... ...And The Bag's in the River, the next two episodes, feel like a second attempt to demonstrate what the series was aiming for. Gilligan makes sure that the seams aren't visible by placing the first scene of the second episode immediately after the pilot but if you examine it critically you can see the writing process has changed during the long gap between the Pilot and a full series commission. The slow motion nightmare that Breaking Bad came to be famous for is first on display here, as Gilligan takes the seemingly innocuous loose ends of the pilot and milks them for everything they're worth, dragging out the deaths of the two stock baddies who were seemingly dispatched off at the beginning into a two episode arc. The Cat's In The Bag... is the first perfect 40 minutes the show produced, not bad for a second episode, zeroing in on what Walt and Jesse will do with one dead drug dealer and worse; one living one. As Walt drives through suburbia, seemingly insulated from his new double life, his two world's collide as he is confronted by a disfigured Crazy 8 wandering the streets. The chemically damaged drug dealer feels so out of place in these streets that the scene takes on an edge of unreality, without the need for much suspended disbelief. Crazy 8 lurches about like a zombie until he is chained up in the basement exuding an inhuman wheeze that further characterises him as some sort of monster. From a logically developed plot Breaking Bad has already managed to pack its second episode with horrific and almost surreal imagery. Of course this is all crystallised (pun sort of intended) by the episodes' draw dropping climax where an acidic mix of melted ceramic and sinew collapses onto the bottom floor of Jesse's house right in front of their eyes.
...And The Bag's In The River continues on in a very similar fashion (the first three episodes are all penned by Gilligan) with the focus shifting solely on Walt's dilemma of whether or not to kill Crazy 8. In a classic character moment Walt distills his complex moral quandary into a strictly scientific pro and con list that is divided between all the usual reasons why an antagonised drug dealer may be a problem and the single con, 'Judeo-Christian principles'. We're so used to our cable anti-heroes having a sense of self-awareness about their moral shortcomings (that is what constitutes a lot of the appeal) that to have such a naive sentiment thrown into a dark drug saga is both shocking and hilarious. Walt's refusal to confront his own moral shortcomings, to rationalise his horrendous behaviour, eventually becomes his defining character trait but here he is doing the reverse; trying to rationalise the most righteous action. Luckily for Walt's conscious he doesn't actually do the deed until his hand is forced, but unluckily for it he has to dispatch of someone in one of the most awkward and gruesome ways possible. The most ballsy aspect of this two episode arc, and something that got me intrigued the first time round, is that it completely undoes the entire foundation of the show by the end. Walt and Jesse part ways, agreeing to never acknowledge what they've done and the episode ends with the elevator pitch and the series title being completely reversed.
Which leaves the middle two episodes of the season, Cancer Man and Grey Matter, to explore exactly what normal life holds for Walt and Jesse. It's two hours of slow and subtle character development with almost no mention of meth or murder. For Jesse, there is absolutely nothing on offer for a drug-peddling inarticulate high school dropout. His sad and awkward visit to his parents (who are, shock horror, upper middle class) is the first major attempt at deepening and humanising a walking punchline that was mainly elevated by Aaron Paul's performance (he was meant to be killed off). When he tries to break good and get a 'proper job' he finds his options so aimless and demeaning that he's barely left with an option. For Walt things are decidedly more complex and messy. His family are clearly devastated by his diagnosis but they see him more as a depersonalised function in their lives then an actual person. It's all beautifully encapsulated by sister-in-law Marie's 'talking pillow' which seems to function purely to rob Walt of a voice in the decision of his life. But the real twist comes towards the end of this meth-free detour when Walt is given an easy out by his extremely wealthy friends Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz but refuses to accept their help. It's easy to miss the significance here but this moment completely re-establishes the show's premise and was singled out by Vince Gilligan as the most important turning point. Suddenly the series isn't about a man forced to break bad but a man who chooses to break bad, a distinction that defines the entire series from here on out. Walt and Jesse are eventually drawn back to one another, not out of actual necessity, but out of a need to do... something.
But as Walt finally makes progress in the drug trade, loose ends are starting to appear around him. His DEA brother-in-law Hank is starting to investigate the 'mysterious new kingpin' and Tuco is proving to more volatile then even Crazy 8 had prepared Walt for. The season ends suddenly with a seemingly anti-climactic moment that on second viewing seems perfect. Tuco randomly, and savagely, beats one of his lackey's to death while Walt and Jesse look on with disbelief. The briefly-dominant Heisenberg has once again been reduced to a spectator, a point underlined by Tuco himself who screams "look at that, look at that"! Walt hasn't got here through just a series of unlikely circumstances, he put himself here and now he must fully appreciate the new bloody reality.
In the study of change that is Breaking Bad's first season Walt must learn to react to the forces that have converged to make his life miserable. Across 7 episodes he experiences an unparallelled growth, decay and transformation in the wake of the cancer and gangsters that threaten his life. But now that Walt has learned to take initiative, a new issue is about to crop up. It's one thing to take control but will he be able to handle the ever-expanding web of consequences that he causes? With great power comes great accountability, the one thing that his meek ineptitude has shielded him from and from now on all his misery will be of his own making.