As the curtain goes up on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad on AMC, we see a middle aged man in his underwear driving an RV frantically with a passed out partner, both in gas masks. The RV hits a ditch, the man gets out takes out his camera, doffs his mask and we see a desperate message. Is it a confession? Is it a suicide note? The desperation, the pace has been set up. Yeah, we’re not sure why we are here, but the moment is gripping. Hell yeah, THIS is a freakin’ television show.
Desperation is what crackles throughout the abbreviated first season of Breaking Bad. There is the desperation of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the old man we left off in the ditch back in the first paragraph. He is a chemistry teacher in his 50s, in a loving marriage, but with a lot of bills stacking up. As he gets a dicey cancer diagnosis, he looks at his chemistry background and access to chemicals, sees the bonanza from crystal meth – even has a DEA agent brother-in law to give him a ride to do some research, and suddenly voila! A job opportunity. At this stage in the game, Walter gives off a man just beaten up by life – between his bills, his family stresses and his own disease.
Desperation also oozes out of Jesse, Walter’s old student who has been put out of the meth business by the DEA. Or at least he was, until Walter finds him and makes the offer. One of the great pleasures of the show is the humor in their exchanges. There is a definite comedy team sort of chemistry going on, but the comedy comes as they stumble from desperate position into another. It is one thing to start the meth business game, but how do you find customers? Jesse can do that, but it involves dangerous folks – folks who could rough Jesse up good. Suddenly Walter is in with these thugs who are trying to steal his formula – or even worse, kill him. So there is another desperate situation. But what if this gets resolved – what next? Bodies don’t just disappear, do they? Like any good thriller, these sorts of conflicts are dealt with at the most elemental, ground level. We see the decisions Walter and Jesse make, and they all make sense – I am not sure I could be a meth dealer, but if I were …
The desperation is at home too. Skylar, Walter’s wife, loves him and wants to take care of him. But he runs off for hours at a time. What can she do? The family is running low on funds. She has to worry about him and a son with Cerebral Palsy. She is desperate too – and the family interactions are true and tense. Everybody here loves each other, but the equipment to communicate it just isn’t there – but how hard they try. Even Jesse is desperate, trying to reconcile with his parents, and trying to at least show something for his little brother to mentor.
This show does even more than I’ve hinted though. We see the desperation certainly, but we also see Walter dealing with it, and working his way around both his domestic life and his newfound criminal one. How would we deal with his situation? Would we be able to make correct moral decisions? Would the moral compass shift? It’s easy to see Vito Corleone as a good man when you are just in his shoes after all. Right now, clearly the groundwork is being laid, but especially towards the end of the season – we maybe see the birth of a man who is not exactly where Walter saw this story headed. This is the sort of show that bursts with life and energy – something Scorsese would have directed perhaps … it is just a lot of fun.