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

This Sunday, AMC starts the fourth and perhaps final season of Breaking Bad, the Emmy Award winning 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 on 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, which 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 DEA 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 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.