BREAKING BAD: Not Really Better Living Through Chemistry

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AMC’s Breaking Bad joins a growing number of cable shows (The Wire, The Sopranos, Rescue Me, The Riches, and Weeds, just to name a few) that seem to challenge the reality of the American dream. Tony Soprano might have the lovely wife and the spacious house, but the price for that is occasionally having to kill friends and family. Cops, teachers, and politicians alike try to do the right thing on The Wire, only to be crushed under by the inexorable weight of powers and institutions bigger than they are. Maybe cable is taking the television place that William Goldman claims independent film holds: network shows give us the world the way we want it to be, while cable shows gives us the world as it really is.

The American Dream has skipped over Breaking Bad‘s Walter White (Bryan Cranston), too. He seems to be living a life of desperation so quiet that his day-to-day existence alone throws the Dream into question. The show asks a pretty pointed question–when a hard-working family man who could never get ahead in the first place is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, why shouldn’t he start using his chemistry skills to cook the best meth in town and leave his family with the nest egg the meritocracy never granted him?

The show gives some pretty pointed answers to that question: start cooking the best meth in town, and you might find yourself being chased by your meth lab in your underwear while trying not to be killed by rival drug dealers. That’s…rough, and the show can be tough to watch. I’m not going to pull any punches here: someone’s getting dissolved by hydrofluoric acid on this show. And pieces of that someone are going to end up on the floor. And…wow. At the same time, human flotsam and jetsam provides both some of the funniest moments in this surprisingly witty show (Walter must dispose of a second rival because, as his addict partner reminds him, “the coin flip is sacred”) and some of the most moving (Walter’s recollection of the chemical components of the body is capped with the question of how the soul fits into that equation).

Vince Gilligan (you might remember him from such wonderful X-files episodes as “Paper Hearts” and “Small Potatoes”) brings all the threads of darkness, wistfulness, and biting humor from his previous work into full relief here. The real treasure, though, is Bryan Cranston, who is brilliant in bringing all of the shades of Walter’s increasing frustration, desperation, and mortification to the screen. AMC is showing a “marathon” of the first three episodes tonight (starting at 8pm EST), so I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you new to the show, but Cranston created more shock and awe more with a single tear in the most recent episode than any other show has created this year. Check out the marathon tonight for some high-quality drama–but eat your dinner beforehand.

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