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TV Review: Breaking Bad – White Is Dark

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Desperation will do many things to a man (or a woman) and, in the moment, despair’s consequences are unfathomable. Do you risk your life, the life of others, your family?

Not that Walt White is entirely unaware of this. Last year he had to kill a man (who later turned out to be an undercover drug operative) in a gripping scene where he choked the man to death, with a steel bicycle lock no less. But that was last season, with Gnarls Barkley’s “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” playing over the closing credits.

This past Sunday marked the first episode of season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad, which is the second best drama on television right behind the same station’s early '60s-drenched Mad Men.

What Walt White (the remotely brilliant Bryan Cranston) begins to learn this season is that the consequences of his actions may jeopardize not only his life, but the life of his wife and son and unborn daughter. Episode one of Breaking Bad’s second season made it clear, early in the hour, that not only may the best of intentions have horrific consequences, those very consequences may take only days or hours to begin to manifest themselves. In short, you make a deal with the devil and you gotta deal with the devil, and perhaps sooner rather than later.

For those of you who have not seen Breaking Bad, I’d suggest you buy the full season one on DVD as quickly as possible, the sooner to plunge into the now playing season two.

Here’s the series, in summation: Walter White, a former brilliant college and post-graduate chemistry thinker and teacher has, over the years, missed one too many opportunities to capitalize on his great intellect. The friends with whom he worked and studied as a student have since gone on to win awards and amass status and honor and money — plenty of money. His best friend in college and with whom he collaborated in a series of major scientific discoveries lives the highest of possible lives (White, while a student, was in love once with the woman who is now married to this same best friend/colleague).

And what is Walt’s fate? He’s a high school chemistry teacher whose students are as interested in chemistry as they are, say, geopolitical politics — which is to say, not at all.

Then he is diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer and given about six months to live, longer perhaps if he undergoes chemotherapy (a cruel joke) and radiation. Acquiescing to his wife Skyler’s wishes, he decides to go through with the treatment — but his insurance won’t cover it.

With no money in the bank, and a family he must take care of, Walt White takes a leave of absence from his teaching job, connects randomly with a former loser student who is a low level crystal meth dealer. Turns out this kid Jesse Pinkman (played with just the right level of near-hysteria by Aaron Paul) and White form an unlikely partnership: Walt, because of his chemistry background and Pinkman, because of his street contacts for a crystal meth lab and distribution enterprise. One thing Walt can do is make one hell of a batch of crystal.

It is an unlikely alliance, but it somehow manages, no matter how often it threatens to come unglued, to remain intact — at least through the first episode of season two. White and Pinkman argue and fight like two brothers, but in the end remain “in this thing together.”

During its first season I thought Breaking Bad was filled with an enormous amount of silence and stillness. Like Walt, the camera and the characters are existential in their hidden or suppressed expressions. There are times when you want Walt to scream — in anger, in pain — and he resolutely remains quiet, beaten, defeated, silent. Underneath, though, there is a raging anger, and the high points of the series are when it explodes, sexually with his wife and in a deadly way with the seamier underside of the meth business. (The concept that death focuses the mind is brought home vividly, but even more so that it changes a mild-mannered man who, briefly, is as ravenous and treacherous as a hardened and sexually unburdened creature, who is stripped of all the patina of civilized man.)

His wife Skyler (the extraordinary Anna Gund; see, Deadwood) wants Walt to express his rage at his lot in life: no academic repute, a job far beneath him, and a deadly disease. She plays her character as though she both wants and doesn’t want him to speak up: it’s like she knows what consequences his words may have, and it scares her. She is, after all, going through an unplanned pregnancy at 40. Their son, by the way, has cerebral palsy.

All in all, most every one of the main characters has been dealt a harsh hand. Skyler’s sister is a shoplifter, who refuses to acknowledge that she is. Her husband, Hank Schrader (very nimbly played by Dean Norris, while barely staying this side of self-parody) is a DEA agent who in particular targets crystal meth dealers but is in essence a buffoon.

But White is the center of his human drama and certain to be tragedy. You feel his pain, even though he can’t articulate it. And even though he knows crystal meth causes great destruction, his greater allegiance is to his family. In the first show of season two, just after a drug deal that turned horribly ugly, he calculates how much he’ll need to pay his bills and leave his family for their financial security after he dies. He comes up with $700,000.00, give or take — and says, “That’s 11 more deals.”

Season two will clearly be about those 11 more deals, if they happen at all: because right from the opening both his and Pinkman’s lives are in danger over a murder they witnessed.

Season one unfurled itself like a flag in slow motion: long spaces of silence, and an existential quiet that pervaded the whole of these lives in the middle of something larger than they could ever guess.

Season two, at least early in, moves at a quicker pace, which makes sense since Walt is dying and his days are fewer and fewer. He’s a complex, desperate man propelled by a singular desire to help his family. The opposite may be the result, or not.

This is a world that, even though it might seem otherwise, is a real as it gets. It’s life or death, and the best thing you can do is watch the series to see this eternally epic battle play itself out yet again.

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