LLUSTRATION: Edwin Fotheringham
Breaking Bad,” a new drama on AMC, was created by Vince Gilligan, who was a writer and producer of “The X-Files” for most of its life, and the two series are like night and day. The work of Mulder and Scully, the two F.B.I. agents who investigated the paranormal in “The X-Files,” seemed always to take place in the cool eeriness of nighttime, and was about darkness—the unseen and the unexplainable—and the possibility that “the truth is out there.” “Breaking Bad” isn’t about possibility—in this series, the truth is right here, and it’s ugly, and it’s made uglier by the harsh daytime light of Albuquerque, where the show takes place. Though we are often in a suburban setting, in ordinary middle-class houses, some of the action does occur in the desert, and over all there is a bleached-out look, a glare, to the show; you feel you should be watching it through Ray-Bans, to keep out the desert dust and the unforgiving light. Really, it is we who should not forgive the light, for the way it makes the world look.
In “Breaking Bad,” the main character, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), having just turned fifty, finds out that he has inoperable lung cancer. It’s shocking (he has never smoked) but somehow fitting, since the show’s environment is a kind of dead zone, not fit for any form of life more tender than spiders, snakes, or scorpions. This piece of bad news—in Walt’s words, “Best-case scenario, with chemo, I’ll live maybe another couple of years”—comes in the very first episode, before we really find out who Walt is or before we care much about him. He’s a high-school chemistry teacher who apparently was destined for bigger things: a wall plaque in his house says he contributed to research that was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1985. Now he can’t even inspire his own students. Walt is almost the dramatic correlative of the hapless sitcom dad Cranston played in “Malcolm in the Middle.” He’s pale and unsmiling, he can’t read his students, he has an unbecoming mustache, and all his clothes are in the bilious family, ranging from yellowish green to greenish yellow. Financially, his life is less than fulfilling as well—he supplements his income with an after-school job at a car wash, though in the show he holds that job only as long as he needs to for viewers to get how abject and humiliated and frustrated he is. He even has to wash the car of a jerky student who disrupts his class and then takes a picture of him squatting and soaping the tires. The sense of suffocation extends to his personal life, too. For his birthday breakfast, his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn, who played Sheriff Seth Bullock’s wife in “Deadwood”), serves him a plate of bacon and eggs; not only has she arranged the slices to look like the number 50 but she’s also substituted “veggie bacon” for the real thing. They have a teen-age son, Walt, Jr., who has cerebral palsy (as does the actor who portrays him, RJ Mitte); that condition isn’t seen specifically as a weight on Walt—it’s just a given. But there is an evident paltriness to his home life; something’s missing, or out of whack, and even though Skyler is pregnant, you don’t feel that this is a family with a future, because it doesn’t seem to have much of a present. One night in bed, Skyler is sitting up, working at her laptop computer, waiting to see how an eBay auction ends; at the same time, with a free hand, she distractedly attempts to boot Walt’s hard drive. A fine romance this is not.
The last thread holding Walt to his own life is cut when he finds out he has cancer and decides not to tell his family; at that point, the disconnect is complete, and Walt goes from being desperate to being a desperado. (The show’s title is slang for what happens when someone’s actions take surprisingly uncharacteristic, often law-breaking turns. If St. Francis of Assisi had held up a liquor store, for example, we would, if I’m not mistaken, say, “Man, the dude really broke bad when he hit that joint.”) Gilligan, who wrote the first four episodes—and is the executive producer, along with Mark Johnson, whose producing credits go all the way back to “Diner,” in 1982—has done some clever plotting in order to make Walt cross the line in a credible way. Or, at least, a TV-credible way. Walt’s interest is piqued when his brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), a D.E.A. agent, talks of the huge sum of money found at a meth-house bust, and he asks to ride along with him someday on a bust; the day he accompanies Hank, Walt has the good, and bad, luck to see a former student of his, a slacker named Jesse (Aaron Paul), running away from the crime scene. He tracks him down and makes a deal: he won’t turn him in if Jesse becomes his partner in crime.
There are, it is impossible not to point out, similarities to the Showtime series “Weeds,” a suburb-spoofing comedy starring Mary-Louise Parker as a pot-dealing entrepreneur; as with Walt, her turn toward the illegal was driven by an extreme, untimely occurrence—her husband died of a heart attack, and she needed money. (There is also an unmistakable whiff of “American Beauty.” Asked by Jesse why he has descended into drug dealing, Walt replies, “I am awake.”) But the two shows have very different tones and different preoccupations. “Weeds” has more to say about America than it does about life-and-death matters; in “Breaking Bad,” comedy and horror have more to do with the problem of being alive, knowing that you’re going to die, and figuring out how to manage your soul’s business in the meantime. (A salient everyday element of the show, however, is the fact that Walt’s teacher’s salary has not enabled him to insure his family’s welfare after he’s gone.) But Walt’s plan isn’t just desperate; it’s also possibly the worst idea anyone has ever had, and things go entirely off the rails. He and Jesse quickly get themselves into serious trouble—trouble on a Lady Macbeth scale. Out in the middle of the desert, inside an R.V., Walt is cooking meth—and, because he’s a responsible grownup, looking ridiculous doing it. He’s stripped down to his underpants, so that his clothes won’t smell when he goes home, and he’s wearing a green lab apron. Suddenly, there’s a brief, violent cascade of errors and misjudgments. Walt’s quick thinking, and his knowledge of chemistry, saves his and Jesse’s lives but causes the death of one man and the near-death of another, leaving Walt and Jesse in moral agony: they can’t bring themselves to kill the man near death, and they can’t let him go. They’ve also got a body to dispose of—and anyone who sees how they do it won’t forget it anytime soon. It’s a chemistry experiment gone wrong in a novel and nauseating way.
And things just keep going downhill. Jesse and Walt can’t quite cover their tracks, and neither, separately, has the skills necessary to pull off this subterfuge. Walt actually makes a list, on lined paper, of the pros and cons of killing the man they didn’t finish off. His resolve shifts after each little interaction with the man, whom they’re keeping in Jesse’s basement. One of the interesting oddities of “Breaking Bad” is that it doesn’t rush to explain itself. Characters are not always what they seem surely to be: Jesse’s background is not what you would infer from the way he lives; Skyler’s sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), who’s married to Hank, the D.E.A. agent, doesn’t hesitate to report, erroneously, to her husband that her nephew is smoking pot, and she also doesn’t hesitate to steal a pair of shoes from a shoe store. And Hank, a stereotypical swaggering enforcement officer—slightly charming, very boorish—indeed remains that but also turns out to be more as well. (Norris, drawing on aspects of Bruce Willis and Michael Chiklis characters, is by far the most fun actor to watch and listen to in the show.)
But “Breaking Bad” is at times weighed down by its ideas, and by the metaphor of chemistry for getting at life’s existential conundrums. Walt talks to his students about chiral molecules—molecules that are mirror images of each other but behave in different ways. On the day of his fiftieth birthday, he tells his class that life is an endless cycle of solution and dissolution, “over and over and over.” These are his preoccupations, but they don’t quite become ours. I don’t feel won over by the show. It’s more than two-dimensional, and yet somehow less than three. Eighteen years ago, “Twin Peaks” gave us the thrill of artfulness, black humor, weirdness, and mystery combined with the letdown of meta-shaggy storytelling and notional characters. A wide range of shows in the post-“Twin Peaks” television landscape have occupied the same inorganic, two-and-half-dimensional world. “Breaking Bad” is very well done, but it has a bleakness that seems to be manufactured for no good reason. In its spiral down toward nothingness, “Breaking Bad” pulls viewers down with it, just because it can