The Glass Teat: Breaking Bad


So Breaking Bad it's good:

The Wire meets Wile E. Coyote

Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally posted at Edifice Rex Online
Breaking Bad, Series Five promo

I kind of imagine that some of you, maybe with a certain amount of (growing?) impatience, suspect I lack a sense of humour, that I take my pulp fiction too seriously.

You wonder why I don't just sit back and enjoy Prometheus for what it is, instead of ranting and raving about how it doesn't make any god damned sense.

But if you've been paying attention, you'll know that I love me some junk — when it's done well.

Whether it's the balletic violence for violence' sake of Kick-Ass, the perverse wedding of monsters, sexual deviance and Doctor Who in the first two series of Torchwood or even the modern (un)romantic comedy of Whip It, I really can love the escapist stuff.

Which brings us to Breaking Bad, whose fifth season debuted last night.

At first glance, I thought that Breaking Bad would be a variant of The Wire, a gritty crime drama but with a domestic focus. But, not too slowly, it became something very different, as if the bastard spawn of Stanley Kubrick and Roger Corman were given 50 hours and an almost unlimited budget to play with.

The set-up is this. High-school chemistry teacher Walter (Bryan Cranston) White (who moonlights in a car-wash to make ends meet — I live in Canada; is this at all plausible, south of the border?) is diagnosed with terminal lung-cancer. White runs into a former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who deals in crystal meth. Through a series of events I can no longer recall, the two strike a deal. The teacher will "cook" the meth and the student will sell it.

Breaking Bad is not a comedy — and yet is a joke. A long, violent and arguably obscene shaggy dog story, told with the straightest of deadpan faces. The viewer must watch it as a drama; only in retrospect does the comedy reveal itself.

When I watched the first episode, the tone and style told me to expect social commentary and political satire, performed by a large ensemble cast. What we got instead was a very small cast and an almost claustrophobic setting, a program ludicrous in its extremes and thoroughly unbelievable.

Breaking Bad is perhaps the most surrealistic piece of nihilistic mayhem since Chuck Jones first crushed Wile E. Coyote with a boulder, no matter how often creator Vince Gilligan might protest in the New York Times that his show's larger lesson is that "actions have consequences".

What the hell. I'll take Gilligan at his word. But what I saw while watching the first four seasons was nothing of the kind. There are no lessons to be seen in Breaking Bad, not even one so mundane as that which Gillangan claimed for his work.

What there is, is impossible violence, implausible relationships and a complex, almost labyrinthine plot whose twists and turns almost force the viewer to keep watching.

And yet, despite that complexity, Breaking Bad could almost be a stage play, its cast is so small, its sets so limited. On the one hand a domestic comedy, in which Walter White tries (for a while) to keep secret his life as an increasingly successful street-drug creator and, on the other, a crime melodrama that takes place in a world (almost) devoid of cops or customers.

Despite its utter implausibility, Breaking Bad is so well-written, its performers so skilled that the ludicrous material takes on a dramatic life of its own. This is a show for which there is no need to suspend disbelief — nor any possibility of doing so. One watches simply for the perverse pleasure of seeing what obscene set-piece Gilligan will provide us with next, as one watches the Coyote eternally chase after the roadrunner, knowing he will crash into a rock-face, tumble over the edge of a cliff or be run down by a fast-moving train.

The end of Season Four could easily have been the end of the series. It featured enough plot twists, double- and triple-crosses, family troubles and slaughter enough for a dozen operas. Yet, here is Season Five and, for once, I am actually (almost) confident that the program's creator is not going to fuck it up, that there will be no "God did it" failure of the imagination.

I dunno if I'll report back on the show before its conclusion. Probably not, unless something goes really badly off the rails. If the final season turns out to be as good as the first four, I don't think I'll have much to say about it that I haven't already said here.

Which boils down to this. If you seek some down and dirty, blood-thirsty escape, I commend Breaking Bad to your attention. You might feel kind of ashamed afterwards, but it will have been worth it.

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