Friday, May 18, 2012

Breaking Down: Season One of Breaking Bad

As this is the first proper piece in the series, we'll be kicking things off with a quick recap of what's transpired in the episodes being discussed as a refresher to some of you who've seen these episodes but for whom it's been a while.

Recap of Season 1: Meet Walter White, a once award-caliber chemist turned prudent high school chemistry teacher stressed to provide for his pregnant wife and teenage son with a disability. In the very first episode we get a hardcore glimpse into how far south Walter has gone in less than a week, driving a methed-out RV, rummaging the desert half-naked, and putting a gun to his own head. It is understood later that the catalyst of Walter’s actions stem from his inoperable lung cancer diagnosis. In two years Walt must make enough money to support his family before he dies.

Along the way we meet his overbearing wife, Skyler, and his brother-in-law, Hank, a brash DEA agent. On a ride-along meth bust with Hank, Walter discovers an ex-student, Jesse Pinkman, and corners him into a methamphetamine partnership, making the purest form of the drug while struggling to peddle it for the money Walter needs. The first three episodes chronicle a botched drug deal with an undercover informant and the subsequent actions Walter and Jesse must take to cleanse their hands of the dead bodies. The remaining episodes follow Walter’s interactions with his family and Pinkman as he undergoes cancer treatments while running a meth lab on the side. In order to find a distributor, the series introduces Tuco, a crazed cartel kingpin, that beats Pinkman nearly to death. Walter returns to Tuco’s lair in Episode 6, blowing it to smithereens with a homemade concoction, thus securing a deal to distribute methamphetamine; this is how Tuco operates. The season ends with Team Walter/Pinkman intact, entrenched to the neck in Tuco’s violent, drug-addled world, unbeknownst to Walter’s family and undetected by DEA agent Hank Schrader. 
Walter White grilling/jogging au natural

Stan Earnest: Rummaging back through Season One, I am rather shocked at how much happens in the Pilot. I began watching the show based on the high praise from Alan Sepinwall on a random Bill Simmons B.S. Report. Sepinwall was adamant that, to fully indulge oneself in the dramatic enterprise that is Breaking Bad, any queasy viewers had to shove past the first three episodes. The weird part is that most of the basis for the first season is packed Mike-Tyson-uppercut style into the first episode. 

Craig Scholes: I can't remember the exact reason I started watching the show, but it very well could have been the same episode of the B.S. Report, and at this point I'm such an AMC fan that I'll pretty much watch anything they air (at least at first). There is actually quite a bit of television viewing that I've watched because of Bill Simmons, but, yeah, that show jumps right into it. Just looking at my notes I can hardly believe how much was crammed into that episode. The first episode really is a microcosm of the entire show, you even get the first glimpse of "Heisenberg" when Walt takes down the idiotic jocks making fun of his kid's condition.

SE: I like that the first thing we see is Walt on a rampage through the New Mexico desert in a Cousin-Eddie-Johnson RV. As a family man struggling to provide the best life for my children, I can't remember a scene quite as disturbing as that opening monologue and subsequent failed suicide attempt. What could have driven a man to that point? Thus begins the endless kudos to Bryan Cranston, and I didn't even realize he was the Malcolm in the Middle guy until the third episode.                                      

CS: The first time I watched the show I actually stopped five minutes in to make sure that I was actually watching the first episode. Then I thought I had a corrupt copy because I just could not believe that they would start a show that way. It's funny, on second viewing I find myself nitpicking some of the most stupid stuff. I've never been a teacher, but there is no way a high school chemistry teacher would have time to moonlight at a car wash. Also, did that drug bust seem a little bush league to you? I live in a very small SE Kansas town, and even they use a helicopter for drug busts.

SWAT vehicle purchased from Satan
SE:  I totally believe Walt moonlighting, because I have a friend that is a vice-principal and teacher at a middle school by day and a bartender by night, true story. And the drug bust was a little shady, but I figure it was Hank leading, just having some fun on a small-time bust. My hometown has an old ambulance painted black with custom flames that is the "SWAT" drug-bust vehicle (sans helicopter).  In a quiet Missouri town of only 10,000 that is a tad over-the-top, so I just figure the DEA of New Mexico is a little less careful and a little more forceful than most units, dealing with cartels and what not. The point you've made is the questioning of the show's reality, which might be the number one selling point of Breaking Bad.

I know, solely based on what I've seen in my life, the show has a pretty realistic flare to it as you've mentioned. The scene I thought was remarkably sublime at driving that point home, yet some might not envision it that way, was the one in which Walt is told he has lung cancer. I've unfortunately borne witness to this scene too many times in real life, and the doctors will iterate and reiterate each diagnosis and each treatment. They do this specifically for life-threatening illnesses as the trauma of the event interferes with attentiveness, so I found it ingenious that the edit included muffled speech from the doctor and a small reveal of Walt's anal retentiveness.  Hey Craig, you have some mustard on your shirt.

CS: Actually that's queso (true story). Well the only other thing I've found to be asinine was Skyler using the phone book to find Jesse Pinkman’s ghetto website, but I'm splitting hairs now. I've been pretty lucky on the disease front, but my life has intersected the sketchy meth world more times than I care to count. I've never dabbled in the wonder that is meth, but I have family members that have talked about the accuracy of that world. Heck, one unnamed relative swears that the show mirrors his life in some ways, which really just makes me want to change the subject.

On a lighter note, how about that glorious bathtub scene? I'm dead serious when I say that is one of my favorite scenes in a TV show ever. Yeah, after the first episode I was totally into the show, but that bathtub scene sealed it for me. Episode two, "Cat's in the Bag..." is really where Walt begins to realize he might be in over his head. For what it's worth, having an Engineering degree and having taken several plastics classes, I’m always looking at the bottom of plastic containers to see what they are made of, and now I know when I want to decompose a body with acid stick with low-density polyethylene.

SE:  That's fantastic. I was a big fan of the bathtub scene for the sheer purpose of how clearly it represents the ugliness Jesse and Walt fear they have gotten into. Want to sell meth? Clean up some gnarled acidic flesh and reassess. As far as scenes I had forgotten, Skyler charging up to Pinkman's house as a dead body remained strewn on the ground was the perfect concoction of darkness and absurdity, the bathtub was icing on that disaster cake.

CS: How fitting is it that Walt drives a Pontiac Aztec? Considering the overall attention to detail the show has, that had to be a well-thought-out choice. It is one of the ugliest cars ever manufactured, but hey it came with a tent. It seems like the perfect car for Walt though, it’s about as utilitarian as it gets as well as one of the most panned cars ever produced, but Walt doesn't care about that. It’s even missing a hubcap. Compare that to the complete piece of shit Monte Carlo that Pinkman drives; those cars really sum up the characters at a glance.

SE:  Amazing breakdown of the Aztec. I always thought the same, but couldn't put it to words. I will say that I love all the little choices the writers make to explain Walt, from drinking Canada Dry to the pastel button-ups. This isn't an ordinary guy. He was on the cusp of full academic and monetary actualization at one time, choosing family life and high school education. Somewhere along the line a thousand-pound chunk of pride got buried inside. Let's talk about Episode Six: "Crazy Handful of Nothin'." That episode has it all, the harrowing chemo scenes, the bleak irony of the group therapy session, and, ah yes, the full-throttle birth of Heisenberg.

CS:  Ah yes, the Waltervention, such a great scene. Clearly the downfall of Walt has been Walt, just too much pride.

Blowin' up lairs with rock candy: This is how we do it.
Before I get into "Crazy Handful of Nothin'," I believe the birth of Heisenberg was the fourth episode ("Cancer Man," surely a nod to The X-Files, Gilligan's first big gig) when Walt blew up the BWM. He just didn't have a name yet. Aside from that, it’s crazy how fast the first season goes. And I love the character Tuco, pretty much the definition of wild card, pretty much the antithesis of Walt. Can you imagine if Walt finally goes off the deep end and starts rocking a platinum grill? I once bought some rock candy at Silver Dollar City that looked pretty similar to what Walt used to blow up the Tuco lair. I doubt it was the same thing.

SE:  I don't know, some of that rock candy is pretty explosive. I know I had a buddy that told me he dared a kid to drink some cinnamon oil once, and a trip to the ER was the result. Too bad Tuco didn't take a bump, Walt could have taken all the loot. If there is one thing that I have found unbelievable, it was the explosion that blew out all of Tuco's windows, yet didn't severely injure any of the thugs, but the camera shot of Walt launching the mercury fulminate was rad enough that I suspended belief. One thing I have noticed the second time through is that the first season isn't exactly "fun" to watch at times.  With a show like Justified, or even The Walking Dead, there are some distinct rooting character interests, where Breaking Bad you have to be careful who you find yourself rooting for. I feel it's very The Wire-esque in that, other than the obvious reason, the viewer is left consistently wondering what the next move is (what is Walt going to do to get from point A to point B), with the added bonus of conflict of morality in that we see a guy making the moves that has never been part of the game, never grew up in the game, and so far removed that he thought it was a good idea to send Pinkman straight to the highest distributor he could find.  (By the way, The Wire stands alone for its social commentary alone. I just wanted to poke light at the impossibilities of a prim high school teacher in the seedy underbelly of America.)

CS: I’m not sure it’s a good idea to send Pinkman to do anything to be honest, aside from actually slinging rock that is.

SE: Yet Pinkman is the one with the most common sense in a lot of different situations. What a sublime paradox. A lot of folks I have talked to really enjoy Pinkman's character, including the older generations. What's your take on that?

CS: I waffle on Pinkman. At times I really like the guy; at other times I really hate the guy. In many respects, he mirrors the unnamed family member I referenced earlier. Pinkman is the classic loser that had every opportunity and resource to succeed on top of actually being intelligent and talented, but just couldn't keep his shit together. Pinkman also is one of the neediest characters ever, which is probably why he is constantly trying to fill the voids with either drugs or just other shady people.

SE: There is definitely an A Clockwork Orange effect going on with Pinkman: you hate him, you like him, you hate him again, then you feel sorry for the chap, only for him to come back with his cheap catch-phrase, "Bitch." I feel like suburban America is littered with Pinkmans, kids that either find a path and eventually do something with themselves or get lost in their own needful absorption, sucking up college loans for drug use.

We haven't talked about Hank. He is a real crowd pleaser. It's fun to seem him constantly spew his special brand of chauvinism in contrast with Walt's demureness. Hank visiting Walt at the high school is a scene I haven't heard or seen discussed by many. Cranston looks like he actually took chemo for the role in that scene. And I didn't realize it on first viewing, but that scene sets the table for a lot of later Hank vs. Walt interactions, complete with a Hank joke about Walt stealing the meth-making equipment.

CS: I felt bad for the janitor, and so did Walt. Hank is such a dude, you know he is one bad career choice away from being the guy who mows the lawn at his high school Alma Mater’s football field whilst talking about the good ol' days 3/4 liquored-up on Natural Ice. Having said all that though, you know his heart is in the right place. I like Hank. Not a fan of his klepto wife though.

SE: I guess we're all criminals in one way or another. I like the tension Marie brings to certain scenes, although I would like a Craig-Scholes-Pontiac-Aztec breakdown on the decision of Marie's quirky character flaws. One subject that normally gets glazed over during most internet recaps is the issue of morality and the morality of crime, pitting petty morality issues like misdemeanor theft or something as minor as one of Hank's crude comments versus larger, more complex issues like cooking meth to support your family. I feel like Gilligan and Co. really weave the morality flaws of each character together nicely. Where do all the little white lies Skyler has been telling herself fall on the Walter White scale of immorality? And how long before Hank finds Walter Junior in that seedy hotel with an ounce of crank?

CS: Marie just bugs me. I guess her heart is in the right place, but the idea of getting a tiara for a baby shower just bugs me to my core. As for the morality, I dunno. To me the show paints more of a dog-eat-dog world, and that you gotta get yours. The thing that gets me is that Walt's pride is more important than his morality. Walt would much rather break every law to provide for him and his than to admit to even the slightest defeat and take any sort of handout. I’m more curious about when Walt Jr. starts trying to use his condition to his advantage; of course, it didn't work when he tried to score some beer. 

SE: It must be mentioned that Season One was shortened by the writers' strike, originally set for nine episodes.  The season ends with Heisenberg and Pinkman in a junk yard, appalled by Tuco's business practices.  Clearly there is more of the story to tell, but I actually like this end point for Season One.  The main characters have been introduced, and the overall plot theme has been established.  The viewer gets a glimpse into the absurd world of the Southwestern methamphetamine trade, along with a how and why someone would ever become involved.  Walt and Jesse are still taken aback by the gruesomeness of it, but the wheels are already set in motion. They are in whether they like it or not. 

CS: At least the writers' strike had one good positive outcome (I'm looking at you, Friday Night Lights!), but yeah, season one ends perfectly. Especially with the way the show is continuously capable of stepping it up with each episode. I can't really remember how Season Two starts, but I'm quite excited to rewatch it.

So in summation: The first season pretty much runs the gamut from the mildly insane to the full-on batshit crazy. From the half-naked Walt with a gun in his mouth to the curbless curb-stomping of a mouthy subordinate, with all the Aztec-driving, cancer-diagnosing, drug-raiding, drug-dealer-kidnapping, bath-tub-dissolving, coin-flipping, car-explosioning, Walterventioning, drug-lair-infiltrating, PTA-meeting-fingerbanging you could want in a show. And yet the sky is still the limit.

1 comment:

johnson said...

Thank you for your interesting and informative blog. I have enjoyed reading it and appreciate the work you have put into it. Here is some relevant information for you to review .
Kids SWAT Commander Vests

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...