Sony // 2008 // 346 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 16th, 2009
Impending death? Try cooking meth.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston, Malcolm in the Middle) is a high school chemistry teacher. Once upon a time, he was a rising star in the world of chemistry, but left that world in order to help teenagers memorize the periodic table. Walt is a family man. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, Deadwood) is pregnant with their second child. They have a teenage son named Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) who is afflicted with cerebral palsy. Walt has been feeling a bit sick lately, and one day he collapses and is taken to the hospital. The doctor has bad news: Walt has lung cancer. There's not much of a chance that Walt is going to survive. Initially, Walt determines not to tell his family about this new development. He just doesn't think they're ready to handle news like that.
Walt's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) is a D.E.A. Agent who has dedicated his life to ridding the streets of punks who sell drugs. One day, Hank takes Walt with him on a bust. When the bad guy is caught, lots of drugs and hundreds of thousands of dollars are recovered. This experience gives Walt an idea: what if he were to cook some crystal meth? He's a chemistry teacher, so it should be easy to do. It obviously brings in a lot of money. He could cook meth for a while, save up some money, and make sure that his family is taken care of when he passes away, right? What happens when a high school chemistry teacher decides to break bad, and how long will he be able to avoid getting caught?
AMC is quickly becoming one of the most exciting stops on television. First came the period drama Mad Men, a sensational examination of the world of advertising during the 1960s. That program alone was strong enough to suggest that AMC could compete with the likes of HBO, and such suspicions were confirmed by the arrival of Breaking Bad. What a terrific program this is. This seven-episode journey through hell provides just under six hours of gut-wrenching drama, thought-provoking social elements, and ferociously dark comedy.
The first season of the program may have been shortened by the writer's strike, but these seven episodes are still very engaging and satisfying. The program begins on a particularly striking note, with Walt preparing to shoot at law enforcement officers headed his way. It's a violent moment of desperation that immediately grabs the viewer's attention, and the show never lets go over the course of the season. The first three episodes in particular are simply remarkable. Things take a sour turn for Walt very quickly (that opening teaser winds up re-appearing by the end of the first episode), and the opening arc of the show forces Walt to play an incredibly difficult and sickening game of clean-up.
Through a series of circumstances that I will not reveal here, Walt and his young cohort Jesse (Aaron Paul, Big Love) are forced to engage in battle with two very unsavory thugs. One of the thugs dies, and one of them lives. In the second episode, the difficulty of getting rid of a dead body without leaving any evidence behind is examined in gruesome detail (don't watch it right after lunch). The third episode is even more harrowing, as the meek and mild Walt must figure out how to deal with a living human being who knows way too much. After these unbearably tense moments, the show cools off a bit and digs into some less violent but equally compelling areas.
When I first heard about Breaking Bad, I was told that it was a show about a teacher who decides to sell crystal meth. "Oh, kind of like Weeds but with meth," I thought. The show may eventually turn out to be precisely that, but that description would be a gross oversimplification of the first season. The first part of the season (episodes 1-3) is not about a teacher selling meth, but a horrific dark comedy about a failed attempt to do so. The second part of the season (episodes 4-5) is not about a teacher selling meth, but about the financial challenges offered by the American healthcare system. By the time the meth-selling third part of the season (episodes 6-7) arrives, Breaking Bad has evolved into a mature, complex, unpredictable show about a man's realization that the world is not as simple as he once thought. So yes, it's technically a show about a teacher who decides to sell crystal meth, but it's also so much more.
The majority of the critical praise for the program has deservedly gone to Bryan Cranston, who breaks away from his family-friendly Malcolm in the Middle roots to play one of the most riveting characters currently on television. Walt is a character who is forced to transform a lot over the course of the season in a variety of different ways, and Cranston makes all of these subtle adjustments believable. He's convincing as the sheepish chemistry teacher, and later on he's equally convincing as the scary dude who's willing to take on the most dangerous gangster in town. Cranston definitely carries the show, but he's backed by a solid supporting cast. Early on it seems like Anna Gunn's role will be little more than to complain about her husband's secret activities, but Gunn turns her into a much more interesting character by the season's conclusion. Aaron Paul finds the hidden pain behind the the seemingly one-dimensional personality of a young junkie, and Dean Norris sports an appropriately irritating brand of macho posing.
The transfer here is reasonably solid, capturing the dusty New Mexico setting very effectively. Some of the darker scenes are a bit on the murky side, but the show generally looks solid. It's not quite a knockout television show transfer like Heroes, but it's perfectly respectable. The audio is mostly quite effective, offering a well-balanced mix that works in a fairly subtle way. I did notice just a couple of louder scenes that get a bit distorted in the dialogue department, but they're not too bad. Extras include two engaging audio commentaries featuring Cranston, creator Vince Gilligan, and others. "The Making of Breaking Bad" (11 minutes) offers an EPK-style look at the creation of the series, while "Inside Breaking Bad" (30 minutes) goes a little further in-depth. There's a 16-minute segment from the AMC Shootout program, some screen tests, deleted scenes, and a photo gallery. A decent batch of stuff.
My only real complaint is that the final two episodes suffer from some pacing problems. They move a little too quickly through a whole bunch of material, reportedly so the show could have an appropriate ending before the strike began. Considering that, I think it's a flaw that is easily forgiven. Even so, I do wish that the final developments had been given an extra episode or two.
Breaking Bad is one of the most riveting new shows on television. I can't wait for Season Two.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 346 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* AMC Shootout Segment
* Screen Tests
* Photo Gallery
* Official Site
* TV Verdict Interview with Bryan Cranston