The first season of Breaking Bad was truncated by the writers’ strike at seven episodes out of a planned ten, though this did not stop Bryan Cranston for winning an Emmy for his portrayal of Walter White, dying chem teacher turned crystal-meth cooker (nor did it keep the season off mine and other year-end top-ten lists).
I don’t know exactly how creator Vince Gilligan dealt with the foreshortened parts of the story this year, but the first episode—on AMC Sunday night—plays like the finale season one never got, bringing Walter’s meth-dealing business to crisis, as well as his life on the home front. (Speaking of which, Cranston tends to get all the attention, but it’s a great cast all around, not least Anna Gunn as his tolerant but tough wife Skyler.) Then the season hurtles forward from there—week 2 is especially harrowing.
I know from arguments over the past year that Breaking Bad is not everyone’s kind of show. People who had no problem following Tony Soprano are put off by Walter’s decision to provide for his family after he dies by using his talents to make a dangerous drug that ruins (and ends) lives. But I don’t see Breaking Bad as endorsing his choices, and while in some ways going criminal gives Walter a new lease on life, the beauty of Cranston’s performance is that he also shows Walter’s weakness—both physical and moral. He has an aptitude for the chemistry of the job, but in some ways he’s over his head; his horror at what he’s gotten himself into—and his inability to think of another option—is constantly written on his face.
Also, while I hesitate to say that drama’s work because they speak to the current news, in Breaking Bad’s case I think this is true. Walter is an extreme case. But he’s also a 50-year-old man, underemployed (as a high school chemistry teacher), underbankrolled and underinsured. He’s of the age and social class whose members—in real life—may not be dying or turning to crime, but who are losing jobs, being bankrupted by health-care costs and seeing their retirement portfolios shrivel, while the time they have to make up ground is getting ever shorter. His moral choices may not be universal, but the worst-case fantasy he embodies—what is your Plan B if it all falls apart—is all too familiar.
In any case, I was surprised to see the ratings for the first season, which I believe were on a par with that of Mad Men (not a high bar, but better than I thought the show would do). Let me know if you’ll be watching.