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Ron Radosh

AMC’s Breaking Bad—Simply the Best Program on Television

July 16th, 2011 - 7:49 pm

Readers: This is cross-posted from PJM’s Lifestyle, to which I shall occasionally be contributing.

This Sunday, AMC starts the fourth and perhaps final season of Breaking Bad, the Emmy award series starring Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a   high-school chemistry teacher turned top of the line drug kingpin; Aaron  Paul as Jesse Pinkman, a former student drop-out who cooks crystal meth  with him in a makeshift trailer lab, and later on, Giancarlo Esposito  as Gus, a Mexican drug lord who operates the drug cartel in the American  side of the border, while operating two legitimate businesses — a  Mexican fast food emporium and a commercial laundry, as fronts.

I  started watching the very first season; to my mind, the program was  good but not terrific, certainly not on the level of The Sopranos. It  was largely a dark comedy. White, the main protagonist, found that he  had incurable cancer, and might only have a short time left to live.  With a family to support, and desperately in need of funds to support  them, he decided to use his knowledge of chemistry to develop a method  of cooking pure crystal meth, that he thought he could sell to addicts  with the aid of a former student drop-out, who would handle cooking the  meth with him and the selling of it as well.  The student, named Jesse  Pinkman, was also an addict himself, which gave Walt the idea that he  would be the perfect person to make the necessary contacts needed in  order to sell their product.

As  the series progressed, it turned violent and almost unwatchable. Jesse  got involved with characters depraved and vile, to watch them in action  was rather hard to take. The irony of the series was that White, a  cultured and serious family man, had to involve himself in a world he  hated in order to make ends meet. To make things worse, his  brother-in-law, Hank Schrader — played by Dean Norris — is a D.E.A. agent,  on the trail of trying to find out who is supplying the new deadly  crystal meth suddenly arriving in his territory.

I  skipped the second season, only to find not only that the series and  its stars got major Emmys in the last year, but that critics began to  call it the single best show on television. After reading one such piece  a week ago, I watched the entire third season “On Demand” this past week.  For once, the critics are on target. This week, the new issue of Time features James Poniewozik’s report on the program, and he gets it completely right. As Poniewozik says:

When Breaking Bad debuted in 2008, it seemed like a dark comedy along the lines of Showtime’s suburban pot-dealing show Weeds.  Walt, a chemistry genius whose career fizzled out, is teaching kids he  resents and working part time at a car wash — then he gets diagnosed  with lung cancer. Desperate to build a nest egg for his family before he  dies, he partners with Jesse, his former student and a small-time  dealer, to cook meth. It turns out he’s amazing at it. And it feels  good. He stays in the business even after his cancer goes into  remission. ‘He wants to own this,’ says Cranston, who’s won three Emmys  for the role. ‘He’s feeling powerful for the first time in his life.’   As Walt gets in deeper, embracing his criminality and signing on to run  Gus’ pharmaceutical-grade-meth superlab, Breaking Bad becomes something incredibly compelling — and dead serious.

Rarely  has a TV program morphed in a few seasons from a breaking the mold dark  comedy into a compelling and tense thriller of a life in crime, in  which a middle-class regular family with a handicapped teenager and a  young baby, live in two different worlds. One is that of a regular  suburban family struggling to get by; the other a wealthy criminal  family whose head of the household even becomes willing to commit  violent murders in order to succeed in his new criminal endeavor. Like  “The Sopranos,” AMC’s Breaking Bad offers the viewer complex  characters one identifies with and hopes they succeed. After all, who  wants White’s family to fall into economic collapse because he was given  the bad deal of incurable lung cancer?

As  Poniewozk writes, the more White falls into the drug world, he finds  that he is a master cook of crystal meth, “and it feels good” to him.  Unlike teaching chemistry to bored and unappreciative students, he is on  top of the world—and making a bundle to boot. To quote the critic  once more, “As Walt gets in deeper, embracing his criminality and  signing on to run Gus’ pharmaceutical-grade-meth superlab, Breaking Bad becomes something incredibly compelling — and dead serious.”

The  questions raised are moral issues. What would we do if faced with the  stark alternatives Walter White faces? Would we put aside the quandary  of whether good people can and will do bad things to others, if  necessary to save one’s own loved ones? The key to the morality is the  character of Jesse. The former student is a crazed junkie when we first  meet him. By season three, he has gone to rehab and cleaned himself up, and  is dedicated to working with his old teacher in order to make a business  and build a life for himself.

But  Jesse develops a conscience and a heart, and unlike Walter White, has  trouble doing what is required to succeed in the criminal world — especially murdering others when asked to do so. In his AA group he  meets a girl he becomes involved with, and learning that she is a mother  of two young children, urges her to clean up her act and break her meth  habit. Despite his good intentions, he is dragged further into going  where he does not want by Walt, who in the last episode, orders him to  murder someone who had to be put out of the way for the two of them to  move ahead. We see him about to cross the point of no return, and are  left with the question of whether or not he did carry out the order to  murder given him by Walt.

If  you subscribe to a cable service that has “On Demand,” I urge you to  watch at least the last episode of season three. If you don’t, turn on AMC  Sunday night — I guarantee you that like those who take Walt and  Jesse’s crystal meth, you will be hooked.

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