Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Breaking Bad Experience

Last Sunday night, the Season 5 premiere of Breaking Bad aired on AMC. If the first four seasons were all set-up, then the fifth season, expected to be the final, will be all pay-off. Whether you're a BrBa fanatic or not, the show has become popular enough that just about everybody has an idea of the basic plotline: High-school chemistry teacher learns that he has terminal cancer and teams up with an ex-student to cook meth so that he can leave his family with tons of money. Like any great piece of art, one sentence usually isn't enough. For BrBa, there's the story, and then there's the execution, the style and substance, the magic touch that breathes life into a plot idea.

In my own words: Breaking Bad is about Walter White, a man with great intelligence but not much to show for it. At age 50, he's been pushed around, controlled by his wife, and has a lot of self-loathing built up inside him. When he sees the chance to become something, not just to gain money but to gain power and notoriety, he takes it. This path, obviously, is a lot more dangerous and depressing than he expects. Jesse Pinkman is a troubled guy with great creativity but not much ambition. In his mid-twenties, he's become a local meth cook and drug dealer, and has all but thrown his life away. When he is offered the chance to make real money and keep his partying lifestyle going, he takes it, under the threat of his criminal activity being exposed. This path, obviously, is a lot more difficult and tragic than he expects. Out of the pair, he's actually the moral compass. But Walter's brutality and desperation for self-preservation rubs off on Jesse in the worst ways. From the beginning, they establish a 50/50 partners rule, a theme that runs throughout the entire series.

Add to this: A manipulative and just plain annoying wife, a naive and well-meaning son, an infant daughter, a brother in law who's a DEA hotshot and obsessed with finding the newest meth cook druglord, a couple of psychotic and wreckless drug dealers, a partner's junkie girlfriend with a mind for blackmail, a crafty but clumsy criminal lawyer, a pair of brutal murderers, a chicken restaurant chain owner who ends up being a very dangerous nemesis, a couple of murders, a couple more murders, a bunch of manipulation and life-ruining, and about a billion lies. What you've got is a hell of a journey for Walt, and a hell of a crime drama. And that list is only a sample of the problems that Walter has to deal with.

Since its pilot episode, Breaking Bad has become a television cult hit with a very passionate and intelligent fan-base. The image of the blue meth, and Walter White (aka Heisenberg), are quickly becoming pop culture icons that fans love and others at least recognize. The one thing a BrBa fan has in common with all other BrBa fans is a fierce loyalty for the show they love. And that's about it. Depending on who you speak to, every viewer of the show has a different opinion, different theory, and finds different aspects to love about the show. Some people watch it for the violence, the showdowns, the explosions, the action. Others watch it for the humanity, the relationships, the quieter moments of character development. In one scene, Walt is seen laying with his baby daughter sleeping on his chest, a beautifully tender moment. Elsewhere in the series, we see a cartel informant's severed head riding on a bomb-rigged tortoise. This sort of range in mood is bound to attract various tastes and interest. And still, others just watch it for the style and imagery, the unique cinematography, and the non-linear storytelling technique. And while there are some very sombre and very disturbing scenes, some fans watch it for the humour, which is quite dark and quite subtle, if you aren't looking for it. Some people feel sympathy for Walt (though this is becoming much harder as the series progresses), other loathe him and hope he pays for his actions. On top of that, there are about a dozen other areas of contention between BrBa fans, which is an indication that the show is more complicated than a typical straight forward 'man goes bad' crime story.

I'll admit here that I wasn't an original fan of the show, from the first episode. I heard the buzz about Breaking Bad and knew the basic plotline, but for whatever reason I just wasn't interested in checking it out. I knew that people loved it and thought the show was revolutionary for television, but I just didn't believe that it'd appeal to me. When it comes to television drama, I gravitate towards the serialized murder mystery style crima dramas. Eventually, Breaking Bad proved to me that someone doesn't have to die every single episode for me to be interested. The mysteries in BrBa are much more complex than the typical police procedural, and the resolutions aren't nearly as neat and tidy. With one season left, I just don't see BrBa being wrapped up in a neat little package. A couple of years went by and I kept hearing about the show, with friends who tastes I respect recommending the show to me. It was summertime, my main favourite shows were on break, so I decided to finally check the series out. At that time, they were in between Season 3 and Season 4. Any die-hard BrBa fan will tell you that you can't just jump into the show randomly or casually, you have to really study and appreciate Walt's transformation. So I started at episode 1, season 1, and of course, I was hooked.

There are many aspects that help elevate Breaking Bad above the typical crime drama. The number one strength of the show is Bryan Cranston's performance as Walter White. The show is known for its characters, who are realistic, hilarious, and bad-ass, depending on who you're talking about. But Cranston brings so much humanity to the role. He isn't just a bitter man, he isn't just a power hungry criminal, he isn't just a father and husband, he's all of these things. Throughout the series, we see Cranston go through a whole rainbow of emotions, sometimes lashing out in his renowned 'Heisenberg' growl, and other times he stays low-key, with the slightest twitch or blink that tells you exactly what's going on the character's mind. Before this show, Cranston was best known for being the dad on Malcolm in the Middle, and the kinky dentist on Seinfeld. From here on out, he will forever be known as Walter White, and for me, he'll forever be known as a theatrical master.

While Cranston's acting chops should overshadow the abilities of the rest of the cast, somehow, it doesn't. Aaron Paul, as Jesse Pinkman, also shows an amazing range of emotions, and brings much more realism and heart to the role than if he had played Pinkman as simply the 'idiot sidekick'. Anna Gunn, as Skylar White, is quite loathesome. I can't tell if I hate Gunn herself, or if the actress is just so effective in her portrayal of the self-centred and calculating Mrs. White. Dean Norris, as the DEA brother in law Hank, plays much more than the 'tough guy'. While he brings most of the comedic relief to all the tension, his character has been my second favourite to watch his transformation. Having seen Norris in other typical cop roles, I never would have guessed that he could bring the drama and inner-turmoil that Hank's character has shoved deep down. And of course, I have to mention Giancarlo Esposito, as Gus Fring. Like Walter, he hides in plain-sight, managing a fast food chicken joint and industrial laundry, while also living a double life as a druglord. Esposito is absolutely chilling as Fring, with just a look or minor adjustment to his glasses or tie resonating throughout an entire scene. He is (was) the show's primary bad-ass, plotting and planning like a master chess player, while also walking into the line of fire of a sniper who's already killed one of his men. Special shout-outs to Bob Odenkirk as the slippery Saul Goodman, and Jonathan Banks as the deadly but wise Mike Ehrmantraut. One of my favourite parts of this show is the fact that the term 'breaking bad' doesn't just apply to the lead character. At one point or another, all of the characters I've mentioned 'break bad' and make choices that lead the audience to question who they really want to support and cheer for.

A true BrBa appreciation post wouldn't be complete if I didn't discuss the cinematography and storytelling style of the show. It isn't just about following plot points and letting the actors shine, the creative eye of the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, and his team of directors help to add much more to the experience. One technique they like to use is the flash-back and flash-forward. I've never been a fan of straight linear storytelling, so I love that the story jumps around from time to time. We'll be given a scene that makes no sense and has no context, then nine episode later, it'll all come together. Just when you think you've seen a plot hole or they've left a loose end, a scene will appear that wraps it all up with some of the tightest, most self-aware writing that I've seen on television. Another theme that runs throughout the show is the use of various symbols and objects. When we first see these symbols, like a pair of pants floating in the wind, or a burnt teddy bear underwater, they are just objects with no meaning. If you aren't watching closely and constantly studying and thinking about what's being presented, many viewers can find themselves lost, not understanding what they are watching. This may be a lot of, or too much, work for some viewers, but I totally appreciate that the show leaves some of the work to us. As an english major for life, give me a symbol or metaphor or subtext, and I'll find great pleasure in trying to explain it. Finally, there's the camera work on the show. I've found myself thinking on many occasions that BrBa looks exactly like I would make it look, if I were directing the show. The array of camera angles and filming styles that they use throughout the series helps to keep the show fresh and to keep our minds active and entertained. This aspect is difficult to describe, so I'd suggest just watching the show and seeing for yourself.

Going into Season 5, Walter White has lied, betrayed, manipulated, and murdered his way to the top of the criminal food chain. His main nemesis is gone, so now, he's his own worst enemy. This season will be all about White trying to maintain his position on top, while great dangers, such as secrets that his partner may discover and DEA agent Hank getting closer to the truth, looming over his head. Should be very interesting and exciting, all the way through to the series finale, which every fan has a different theory for. For someone who doesn't appreciate or understand television, this all may just seem like fanboy ramblings, why does this dude waste his time, there's a whole world out there. I'd argue that 90% of the shows on television are embarassing wastes of space with no artistic or intellectual value. But every once in a while, a show comes along that means much more to it's fanbase than just an hour of television once a week. There's the speculation, the theories, the anticipation. There's finding a whole other group of people that you can share and interact (and fight) with. Sure, it's a just a show about a good-natured man going bad, but since it's done so well, it's also a way for us to question our own role in life and our own moral choices. It's entertainment, it's drama, and it's thought-provoking. And when Breaking Bad comes to an end next summer, there will be a void in the television airwaves.

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