Breaking good

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All that's going on in the world today and in my life lately has apparently not been enough to drag my short attention span away from Twitter*, but there's a television series that just managed it.

A few minutes ago, I finished watching the season 2 finale of AMC's original series Breaking Bad. I should be working on my novel right now, but I've been awake since 3:30 this morning when thunderstorms woke up the dog and consequently woke us up. As long as I was up anyway, I took the dog to the couch and started watching TV shows from the DVR. I watched an episode of Reaper, then an episode of Lie to Me, and then, because I just couldn't resist putting the reward off any longer, last night's episode of Breaking Bad.

If you're not familiar with the series, it's the story of a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White (Malcolm in the Middle's Bryan Cranston) who is diagnosed with lung cancer and starts a meth lab to provide money for his family for after he's gone. I love the series not just for the impeccable acting and directing, but for the pitilessness of the writing. Even when Walt makes his best and smartest decisions, the remorseless logic of his situation (and in fact of his own pride and anger) twists him deeper and deeper into a trap of his own making. His bid to save his family—and, it must be said, his desire to demonstrate to himself how smart he is—only ends up driving them all apart, and the consequences for the lesser players who enter his orbit are even worse.

Why does this relentless arc make me so happy to watch, even when watching sometimes feels like taking a knife in the gut? Maybe it's something of the same impulse that makes Eminem's rapping so compelling, even when (as in "3 A.M.") the content is repulsive. It's the thrill of watching artists in utter control of their tools.

Take Breaking Bad's second-season arc (which I will attempt to discuss without major spoilers). The season opened with a half-burned teddy bear floating in a swimming pool. That image (and the episode's title, "Seven-Thirty-Seven") would not be explained for thirteen more episodes, but gave the viewer confidence that the minds behind the show were not merely flying by the seats of their pants but knew exactly where they were going from the beginning. The season finale opened with the same image, and went further to show workers in hazmat suits laying two shrouded bodies in the driveway of Walt's house.

From there, the season finale (like the season itself, in miniature) took absolutely none of the expected turns, and even offered a cryptic glimpse of the teddy bear in a wall mural. In its third act, the episode jumped suddenly seven weeks ahead to detonate the emotional bombs that had been planted all throughout the season. If Walt thought he was finally out of the woods with his family, he was wrong, and the revelation of what Jane's father Donald (John de Lancie—yes, Q.) does for a living sets off a countdown of dread when it dawns just where that damn charred bear is going to come from.

Is it presposterous? On one level, yes. But on a more important level, it's absolutely perfect because it illustrates for us, if not for Walt, just how far-reaching the expanding ripples of his first unwise decision have grown. It's a superb example of unity of theme. All kudos to series creator Vince Gilligan, a veteran writer/producer of The X-Files.

But to climb down from my ivory tower, I simply find Breaking Bad a thrilling viewing experience. If you appreciate crime drama with nuance and consequence, you should watch it. Season 1 is available on DVD, and I can only assume season 2 will be also before the third season comes along.

* Okay, a much larger part of it is that I'm about halfway through writing a novel called Technomancers, and my larger chunks of time go to reading manuscripts for an upcoming workshop and re-editing old audio files for my new podcast.
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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on June 1, 2009 9:27 AM.

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