Posted on 18 June 2011, 2:33
Walter White is sitting in a physician’s office at the hospital in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, staring into space in a lights on, no one’s home sort of way. On the other side of the desk, the physician’s lips are moving in slo-mo, but Walt is fixated by a tiny stain of mustard on the lapel of the man’s pristine white coat.
‘Mr White? You understood what I’ve just said to you?’
‘Yes, lung cancer. Inoperable. Best case scenario, with chemo, I’ll live maybe another couple of years.’
The scene, like a ball of sodium dropped into water, sets off a chain of action and reaction in Breaking Bad, a US television drama series, which fizzes and bangs with tremendous energy throughout the three seasons and 33 episodes which have aired to date. Vince Gilligan, executive producer of the show (who also produced The X-Files) says that ‘breaking bad’ is a southern colloquialism for ‘raising hell’.
Walt (played by Bryan Cranston, best known from the comedy series Malcolm in the Middle) is a struggling high school chemistry teacher who supplements his meagre income by working at the local car wash. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) is pregnant with their second child, while their first, Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), has cerebral palsy.
With no savings to help pay the medical bills, Walt decides to help himself and provide for his family when he’s gone by cooking crystal meth (methamphetamine) and earning money beyond the drug-fuelled dreams of avarice. It turns out that his dull chemistry career has been the perfect apprenticeship for his new secret life as a narcotics master chef.
Gazing in awe on Walt’s first gleaming tray of crystals, his sidekick and former failed student Jesse says, ‘You’re a goddamn artist. This is art, Mr White.’ The two of them form an unstable chemical bond which gives the show its elemental energy and frequent meltdowns.
Breaking Bad is part Book of Job, part Dante’s Inferno and part Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Walt’s descent into the drug underworld, which is unfolded in scenes of suspense, dark comedy and occasional horror, is not the easy trip to the bank he hoped it would be. Gradually, this shy and mild-mannered family man is revealed as a resourceful and ruthless protagonist caught between his life of quiet domesticity and the savage world of the drug cartels.
Despite this, Walt remains the hero of the story partly because he is fully aware of the dire consequences for his family and for others in the cruel moral choices he is forced to make. His journey is that of a damned soul through the most colourful regions of hell – many but not all of them inside his own head.
It’s no surprise that Breaking Bad has been praised by Stephen King, who hails the series as ‘the best scripted show on TV’ and Walt as ‘an American Everyman living under a constant Condition Red threat-level alert’.
The praise from King and a host a TV critics is well deserved, because the show easily takes its place in the tradition of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire and other superbly realised shows flowing in this golden age of American television drama. It’s produced by AMC, formerly an unremarkable cable channel also enjoying well deserved critical success with Mad Men, set in the world of 1960s advertising.
The only fly in the ointment (or smell in the lab) for British viewers is how hard the television companies have made it to watch Breaking Bad legally. No UK channel has bought the series for broadcast, which is a surprise given its commercial success in the US. Unaccountably, BBC Four is airing the plodding spy thriller Rubicon, also from AMC, which was cancelled after its first season.
Seasons one and two of Breaking Bad are available in the UK on DVD, but the first of them was released almost two years after the US audience started to watch, tweet and blog about the compelling episodes. With no word over the past year on whether season three will ever be released here, illegal file sharing is currently the most plausible and straightforward distribution channel for fans of the show who want to continue beyond season two.
It’s no way to treat a global audience. But somehow it seems fitting that this 21st century morality tale poses moral issues for those who simply want to follow it.