Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.
This special edition of Recurring Episodes will differ from the usual format a little bit. Instead of taking on a single episode of TV, this recap will cover the third season of what has to be the best show on television today (sorry, Mad Men), Breaking Bad, newly released on DVD, in advance of the fourth season’s July premiere. Spoilers beyond the jump.
The Show: Breaking Bad premiered in the writer strike-shortened television season of 2008 with a premise that was intriguing but, for serialized cable fare, not too far out there. Like Weeds, Breaking Bad is the story of someone who gets into the drug business because it feels like the only option to provide for a family. There, though, the similarities end, and Breaking Bad comes into its own, a good-guy-doing-bad-things-for-good-reasons show that actually examines the consequences of its protagonist’s actions.
At the center of Breaking Bad is Walter White (Bryan Cranston, three times an Emmy-winner for this role), a high school chemistry teacher living a mundane life with his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and their son Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte, who actually suffers the same condition of cerebral palsy as his character). Even as Walt, in the series’ pilot, tries to be animated in his teaching of bored high school students, his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), married to Skyler’s sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) outdoes Walt in every way in his son’s eyes, a tough, alpha-male of a DEA agent in the bureau’s Albuquerque office. With that family dynamic set, Walt gets a surprise diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, and, with only a few months to live, decides the only way to provide for his family is to use his chemistry skills (far more than the average chem teacher) to make crystal meth.
In this scheme, he enlists the help of a former student, a slacker and meth cooker, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, also an Emmy-winner for the show). Jesse is reluctant to go along at first, until he realizes that the meth Walt cooks is the best he’s ever seen (and smoked, and snorted). From there, though, comes the problem of selling it, and that’s where the real trouble begins.
Throughout the strike-shortened first season and the second season, stops and starts come as Jesse and Walt struggle to make a go of it as very inexperienced, fish-out-of-water drug dealers, coming into contact with bad people from all sides, trying to steer clear of the law (not least of which, Walt’s brother-in-law Hank with the local DEA), and, for Walt, trying to keep all the unsavory things he’s doing to provide for his family completely secret.
Why Breaking Bad? Breaking Bad is the rare show that takes its original premise and runs with it, consequences of character likability, mortality, and plot convenience be damned. It is the most compelling serial drama on television because it is always moving forward, rivaled only by The Shield for “how are they going to get out of this?” cliffhanger moments not just between episodes and seasons, but over commerical breaks. Its characters, particularly Walt and Jesse, are immediately compelling, well-written, and amazingly portrayed; they are identifiable, fallible, often funny, and always human.
It is also a show that truly blurs the lines between good and evil, exploring that gray area that has become such a cliche in the era of the cable TV anti-hero. Walt and Jesse, and everyone around them, truly do “break bad,” in the show’s parlance, so much so that it’s hard to watch at times. It’s truly ballsy how irredeemable the show threatens to make some of its characters, yet heartbreakingly human how it can still make the audience care.
Beyond that, it has yet to run out of steam. Only a show this dark and twisted would have solving the initial problem of the show (Walt’s cancer going into remission) as an event that negatively impacts the main character, and have an idea of how to run with it, and beyond that become even more tragic. Only a show this well-constructed would turn what was seemingly its weakest element (a manic-pixie-dream-girl type love interest subplot for Jesse in the second season) into the show’s most heartbreaking and shocking turn.
The Season: Season Three of Breaking Bad begins with Walt estranged from his family following the disastrous conclusion of the second season, and picks right back up there. He swears off cooking meth, telling himself he’s no longer a criminal. Jesse, just out of rehab, is a broken shell of his formerly innocent self. Even the alpha-male Hank is less himself than he once was, following a near-death experience working a border task force for the DEA in Season Two. Rarely has a TV season begun on such a bleak note, but things are even bleaker, as two Mexican hitmen are on their way north to kill Walt.
Through its thirteen episodes, Season Three of Breaking Bad puts its characters through even more tests, its plot twisting and turning and exploding in huge moments of catharsis, including a shootout in a parking lot; a moment when one of its protagonists arrives at the last minute to save the other in one of the show’s biggest “HOLY SHIT!” moments; and, finally, the murder of an innocent that may be the show’s darkest turn yet.
On its way there, it goes through several episodes that are among the show’s best, and, with its consistent forward movement, character development, tension, moments of sick throwaway humor, the season ends up being the show’s strongest, even as its original premise, a man making meth in secret to provide for his family before his death from terminal cancer, has all but disappeared.
Three of those episodes show the broad range of what Breaking Bad can accomplish: the bottle episode “The Fly” (3.10) and the show’s two-part finale “Half Measures/Full Measures” (3.12 & 3.13).
Breaking Bad is somewhat known for its bottle episodes (episodes mostly filmed on one set, with a limited set of actors, to save budget costs for episodes that might run over-budget), and “Fly” is in that tradition. But for a few extras seen at the beginning, only Walt and Jesse appear in the episode, and it is basically staged as a two-character play as they are confined together in their meth lab, trying to remove a contamination (the titular fly) that maybe, just maybe, is a sign of Walt losing his mind from stress, from guilt, from lying, hiding who he is and what he’s done not only from everyone else but from himself and from the person who, through the show’s strange saga, has become his closest “family,” Jesse himself. While at times the episode suffers from an inevitable dash of pretension, it’s amazing how much drama is conveyed through two actors at the top of their game working off one another, playing characters who are lying to one another while still managing to try and tell the truth, even though they know they can’t.
The two-part finale (though it’s hard to really define as a two-part episode, since the show itself is so serialized and quickly-moving) is the exact opposite. Where “Fly” does everything with subtle camera angles and actors at their best, “Half Measures” and “Full Measures” are epic, sprawling, encompassing the developments of all the show’s main characters, as well as the steadily growing repertory of awesome character actors filling out the rest of the roles. Machinations are set into motion from all sides. Characters die. Other characters, surprisingly, don’t. The “HOLY SHIT” moment that concludes “Half Measures” seems like it can’t be topped, until an even bigger one concludes “Full Measures,” and the season.
If you’re someone who hasn’t seen a single episode of Breaking Bad, it’s not one of those shows where you can drop in and easily catch up. In fact, that may be the show’s one true weakness—it’s so intensely serialized, not just in plot but in the progression of its characters, that dropping in for an episode here or there will seem almost incomprehensible. But if you have seen Season One and Season Two, be prepared to be taken even further by Season Three. And hurry, so you can get caught up for Season Four.
Odds & Ends: Breaking Bad was created by Vince Gilligan, who got his start writing for The X-Files. Many other writers and crew members also did time on that earlier show.
The cast of side characters assembled for the show by this point is truly remarkable. Among the most notable are Jonathan Banks, one of those tough, grizzled guys who’s played a heavy in every TV show and every other movie, as Mike the Cleaner, a hitman and problem-solver and genuinely scary presence; Mr. Show’s Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman, the shyster lawyer who plays consigliere to Walt and Jesse (and brings much-needed comic relief); and Giancarlo Esposito as maybe the quietest, most unassuming, and as such, most menacing, drug kingpin in TV history.
The aforementioned episode “Fly” was helmed by Rian Johnson, director of the strangely appealing high school noir Brick, which helped Joseph Gordon-Levitt break into serious movie fare.
The DVD set’s special features are well-done but inessential. The miniature interviews about each episode were previously available online, and the commentaries are likely only of interest to those looking to enter the TV business themselves. In that way, though, they are illuminating and interesting.
Season Four of Breaking Bad premieres July 17 on AMC.
Recurring Episodes returns to regularly shed-jeweled programming next Thursday, June 23