Tuned In

A Second Look At: Breaking Bad

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Walt and Jesse clean up in the meth business. / AMC: Lewis Jacobs

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot details about upcoming episodes of the series.

When I reviewed Breaking Bad on the basis of the first three episodes, I had one main reservation: that the dark and comic elements of the show were having a hard time meshing, making the tone seem inconsistent. Also, I made a lot of jokes about Bryan Cranston in his underwear.

After having seen the fourth and fifth episodes, I can say one thing hasn’t changed: Bryan Cranston is still willing to show off his middle-aged man-body in the name of drama. But I’m more hopeful that the show can pull off its balancing act.

Really, the weakness in the first three episodes had a name: Jesse. I hate to say it because Aaron Paul really brings it in his suburban-gangsta role. But it’s an easy kind of character to treat as comic relief, and too often in the first few episodes, that’s what he was. (That’s not to say he can’t be comic relief, but he also needs to be a real person whose problems have real stakes: think Paulie Walnuts, who cracked viewers up just by showing up, but was also scary and sometimes pitiable.) Episode 4, which followed him back home to his disappointed parents and his not-quite-so-perfect younger brother, started to bridge the gap. After all, Jesse’s situation may not be as stark as a man facing death at age 50, but a kid whose life may be wasted by age 20 has real troubles too, and we should be invested in them. For the unlikely partnership between him and Walt to work, we need to see that–however disturbing their criminal alliance is–each needs something from the other, and I hope we’re moving toward that now.

As for Walt’s story–wow. It would be very easy for a show like this to try to skirt its dark premise by skating past the scenes where Walt reveals his situation to his family. But last Sunday’s barbecue scene, where Walt’s secret came out in front of his in-laws and his son, was unflinching and right-on. I’m amazed at how well Cranston gets across Walt’s sense of perpetual burden; he seems literally to be carrying an invisible weight. And the coming episode, in which Skyler and Walt clash over whether he should get treatment and how to pay for it, finds poignance and humor in the situation, while tying it into the larger story of Walt’s life–his disappointments, his regrets and his dawning sense that dying may actually give him one last chance to get his life right. (By the way, I know some people have found Skyler’s character too shrill, but I don’t get that; to me, she’s a woman who balances dreams and practicality and is strong–pushy, sometimes–because she needs to be. In this sense, she’s probably the most real character on the show to me.)

Look: 50-year-old chemistry teacher turned meth dealer, dying of lung cancer, with debts, a loving wife, a great son and a baby on the way–this is simply not going to be everyone’s thing. But I have to give Vince Gilligan (and AMC) credit for not running from what the show is, and asking people to either take it on its tragicomic terms or find something else to watch. I’m in it for the long haul. Are any of you still watching?