I don’t really watch series. Not my type. I get bored and, mostly, I hate waiting. I know there’s a lot of people who enjoy the suspense between two episodes or the thrilling, delicious, exciting, theories-building expectations between two seasons. I don’t. I am not thrilled. I don’t find it delicious nor exciting, I find it boring. Long story short, if I don’t have the beginning and the end, I just quit.
Don’t get me wrong. It is not the plots that I find boring and, reading articles, hearing people talk about some series often almost convinced me to take the plunge. But the truth is, since Les Malheurs de Sophie, an exquisite cartoon adaptation of La Comtesse de Ségur’s trilogy in 1998, I have never watched one until the end.
The last episode of Breaking Bad was released last year and I knew that if I wanted to, I could watch the 5 seasons all at once, in my bed, with crisps and cappuccino. It made the decision easier. And I didn’t really need to convince myself. I had just watched Pirates of The Caribbean 5. I admit, it was not my most glorious hour. I was lost. It was amongst the « popular on Netflix ». I just clicked. And I (almost) didn’t stop watching until the end.
Oh, how thin the line is between selfishness and selflessness. Ask Walter White.
Walt is selfless. He’s a dedicated father, a loving husband and a passionate physics teacher. He would do anything to preserve his family.
On the other hand, Heisenberg is a selfish and greedy methamphetamine cook and dealer, a cold-blooded and manipulative schemer and a smart, insensitive and intolerant businessman.
Oh and it happens that Heisenberg and Walter White are the same person. It happens that Heisenberg is the anything Walt does to preserve his family.
It all starts when Walt is diagnosed a lung cancer, at the age of 50, while he is struggling to earn enough money for him, his pregnant wife and his son, Walter Junior. Involuntarily introduced to the world of drug dealing by his brother-in-law, Hank, a DEA agent, and desperate for a way to provide for his family even after his death, Walt enters the meth world by the way of Jesse Pinkman a twenty-something low-class cook, drug addict who happened to be one of his students.
And here they go.
At first unsure, hesitant, clumsy, Jesse and Walt stumble, almost fall, they learn together how to develop their new activity and try and meet the appropriate people to make their business viable.
Soon, their product becomes THE product: a 99.1% chemically pure crystal methamphetamine that is unusually blue because of the innovative highly precise formula meticulously followed step by step by Walt. In order to remain anonymous he carries now in his second life the name of a German Nobel Prize in Physics, pioneer in quantum mechanics, Heisenberg.
While Walt deals with his teenage son, his suspicious mother, her tactless sister and her detective husband, Heisenberg handles is unreliable partner, their powerful and dangerous associates and makes money. A lot of it.
But how much is enough?
Let’s start with the obvious. Watching a TV show is not the same as watching a movie. You have more details, more characters that are given the opportunity to evolve, more secondary plots, more tertiary plots. But the main important things are similar: the scenario, the actors, the directing, and the postproduction. If you ask me, in order to make a production work, there must be a balance between all of these elements. Each of them has to be good without shading the others, visible but not exuberant, recognizable but not overwhelming. It is a very random formula and you can never be sure the chemistry will work.
Breaking Bad’s chemistry works.
Vince Gilligan (creator, executive producer, scenarist and director of a part of the series)’s main idea to create a series where the main character would be the antagonist in an unstable environment allows an evolution of both the situations and the personalities.
Heisenberg is getting more and more powerful but Walt is not the only one changing. Skyler, Jesse and Hank go through dramatic changes in their lives, their self-appreciations, their picturing of the world, the future and their relationships with Walt. They, all in their own way, become more proactive and since their actions don’t have the same goal, they sometimes collide. Consequently, while the main plot can be repetitive (we have blue meth, we need to distribute it, we find a way to distribute it, it works until it doesn’t work anymore, we keep on cooking, we have blue meth, etc.), the secondary plots are spontaneous and unexpected. Nevertheless, the main plot never ceases to be interesting because the characters go each time a little bit further and their reaction to what happens to them dramatically change.
Obviously, to make that believable, it is necessary that the characters are played by talented actors with a large range of emotion and the ability to show an evolution in the feelings and the ambitions. We all knew Bryan Cranston as Al, Malcom in the Middle’s clumsy, hilarious, oblivious father. In Breaking Bad, he is far from that. He’s concerned, desperate, determined, manipulative, calculative, obsessed, proud… He creates an ambivalence in the spectator: is he touching or annoying? Is he a loving father or a cold-blooded killer? Is he the good or the bad guy? Answer, he is both and Cranston is as good at being Walt as he is at being Heisenberg.
Less obtuse and more impulsive, Jesse Pinkman is portrayed by Aaron Paul. His character was supposed to die in the first season but the writers loved the chemistry between Cranston and Paul so much that they decided to forget it. They were right, the two actors are very good together and their relationship is so tense that it makes the unexpected possible. But Aaron Paul is not only a good partner. He gives Jesse Pinkman, at first, the arrogance and the unconsciousness of the impetuous youth and then the sensitive rage and the corrosive scruples of an unrested soul.
Of course, Walt and Jesse are not the only interesting characters and Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are not the only talented actors. As Hank, Dean Norris impersonates a boasting show-off that can is also smart and touching. Skyler, played by Anna Gunn is not only a respectable mother, she is unexpectedly resourceful and creative when it comes to money laundering.
It was also necessary, in order to create a smooth dynamic for the main plot, to have stable characters, ones who don’t change and who, whatever may happen, will not stop being themselves. Three of them are particularly interesting: Gus, Mike and Saul, portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito (scarily soft, cold, calm and efficient), Jonathan Banks (strongly unyielding and unimpressionable) and Bob Odenkirk (opportunist, smooth-talker and somehow attaching).They are noticeable because they remain the same while everything is moving. They don’t flinch and they are a welcome contrast to the other characters.
Despite the number of directors that worked on Breaking Bad (more than 20), the visual identity remained the same for the 5 seasons. The camera is close, following, focusing, moving when the eyes would move. The editing, mostly very dynamic, takes the time to make the emotional scenes settle and develop. The music adds rhythm and punch to it.
In the end, Breaking Bad is nothing more than a bunch of quality ingredients, cooked according to a very precise formula, with the appropriate equipment by a bunch of talented chemists. And it’s 99.1% pure, Bitch!