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TV Weekend: Breaking Bad's White-Hot Slow Burn

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I liked Breaking Bad from the get-go; it had one of the best drama pilots I’ve ever seen, and I put it on my list of the 10 best shows of 2008 its first season. But season one did have its problems, chief among them a common affliction of cable dramas: a sense of frenzy and hurry, as if the show felt we’d lose interest if it didn’t pile twists and complications on its teacher-turned-meth-maker Walter White every episode. (We’ve seen this in dramas like FX’s Nip/Tuck; Breaking Bad’s companion on AMC, Mad Men, can sometimes have the opposite problem.)

A show that does this can burn out fast and young, and the even better season two learned to manage the show’s pace. The series has set up an engrossing, sometimes harrowing situation: White (Bryan Cranston) used his skills as a chemistry genius to cook high-grade meth when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and saw no other way to provide for his family after his death. He clung to his rationalizations even after his work threatened his very family, after it made him a killer and now, after his actions indirectly led to a passenger jet-crash that killed hundreds.

Season three, returning Sunday night, picks up from that point and uses a much more effective technique to build tension: it takes moments of drama and slows them down, practically freezing time. And it’s that much better for it.

As season three opens, the big-picture gangland story is still developing. White, under the scientific pseudonym “Heisenberg,” has come to the Mexican drug cartel’s attention, and they’re closing in. But the first episode’s moments of most staggering drama come as the show lingers on the repercussions of White’s actions, at home and in the larger world, and his increasingly implausible efforts to convince himself that he’s still a good man.

One of the series’ best scenes comes at a school assembly, where students and faculty are trying to cope with the massive disaster that only White knows he caused. (The crash happened because of a distracted air-traffic controller, whose junkie daughter died when White let he choke on her own vomit, because she was a threat to his business.) The scene shows Bad’s gift for mixing personal drama and dark humor; one student takes the microphone to ask that students get all A’s for the semester because of the trauma. Then White takes his turn, giving a rambling, confusing speech in which he tries to minimize the plane crash as not so bad in the grand history of accidents; before our eyes, we can see him desperately trying to rationalize the incident and failing to convince even himself.

At home, White’s criminal activity—and the way it’s caused him to distance himself from his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) with lies—has all but ended their marriage. But even as she moves to legally separate and kicks him out of the house, White refuses to accept that the marriage is over, or even that there’s a serious problem. (Maybe more despicably, he passive-aggressively allows his son to blame Skyler for the breakup, knowing that she’s holding back the truth from Walter Jr. for his own sake.) Meanwhile White’s partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul)—who started out as the ne’er-do-well who gave White entree to the drug world—has strangely become the more mature of the pair, seeking counseling and trying to take responsibility for his actions.

On all these fronts, the early episodes of season 3 gain power from taking the opposite tack from season 1. Rather than rush, they linger; they stick with scenes, often to the point of discomfort, as if to underscore the fact that White’s problems, and the problems that he has brought on others, are not simply going to go away.

It can be tough to watch, but it’s ultimately satisfying, thanks largely to performances like that of Cranston, who makes you feel White’s every exposed nerve. Cranston’s White is both brilliant and willfully obtuse; he’s a complex thinker who genuinely and deeply loves his family, and yet uses his every ounce of intelligence to avoid realizing that, in trying to provide for them, he may have cost them more than a duffel bag full of cash can make up for.

And entering its third season—with Cranston now the winner of two Emmys—Breaking Bad has grown confident enough that this performance, and the show’s psychological acuity, will keep us watching. (That, plus great supporting performances from Paul and Bob Odenkirk as White’s shady lawyer, as well as the series stunning visuals.) It’s a drama that has chosen the slow burn over the flashy explosion, and it’s all the hotter for that choice.