Better Living Through Chemistry
When the AMC drama “Breaking Bad,” about a terminally ill scientist with a doomed career, inadequate health coverage and a newfound taste for drug dealing, made its debut last winter, its aggressively dismal mood struck some viewers as groundless and a bit much.
The Dow, then, remained comfortably above 10,000; the insurance industry seemed robust, and most Americans did not know the name Bernie Madoff or wonder whether, in his baseball cap, he looked more like Barry Levinson or Larry David. The End of Everything as We Know It did not seem imminent. Now, of course, the extremist misery of “Breaking Bad” (which begins its second season on Sunday) feels virtually like reportage.
Even at the moment, it would be hard to compete with the misfortunes of Walt White, a former Caltech chemistry genius who failed to live up to the legend of his graduate student days. At 50, he is teaching high school chemistry in Albuquerque. Although he contributed to the work of a Nobel-winning team, the job, inexplicably, is the best he can get — there is no adjunct position at the University of New Mexico even remotely on the horizon.
Adding to the injustice, Walt’s best friend at Cal Tech has applied his talents to amassing a fortune and married Walt’s brilliant and ethereal-looking ex. At a birthday party for his friend, Walt discovers that all his other classmates are also living in houses of vast square footage. One brings a guitar that belonged to Eric Clapton, despite an invitation that specified no gifts. Having obeyed, Walt is mortified to add to a pile of lavishly wrapped presents some packets of ramen noodles with nostalgic value.
Walt is given to us by Bryan Cranston, who won an Emmy for his performance last year and deserved it largely for avoiding a tenor of bitterness that such collected indignities might easily engender. He plays Walt, a suburbanite with so much more to complain about than anyone out of a mid-20th-century American novel, as a man bewildered by his circumstances but loftily above grievance. There is a sustained Zen quality to Mr. Cranston’s performance; he seems like someone utterly immune to agitation.
And yet there is more and more to unnerve. That Walt is living out his grim existence in the combatively sunny Southwest is just another cruel joke, the chief one being that he is suffering from lung cancer — Stage 3A — even though he doesn’t smoke. The series began with Walt partnering with a former student in the crystal-meth business. Walt is so skilled around the test tubes and compounds that he doesn’t even need Sudafed as a base ingredient. He can cook up top-quality methamphetamine — the Château Lafite Rothschild of methamphetamine — essentially from scratch, which provides him with a more expansive supply than his competitors and thus the money to pay for the top oncologist in town.
Initially, Walt isn’t even moved to seek treatment — it is his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who forces him out of his passivity. Since its outset, “Breaking Bad” has drawn the inevitable comparisons to “Weeds,” but the two series have very little to say to each other, partly because Walt is diving into underground economies out of a more gripping sense of fiscal necessity, but also because the drug trade seems to provide him with a sort of existential rejuvenation. He is making the most potent crystal meth in the city; he is excelling at something. And his decision to do so appears to be the first real choice he has made in years.
The show’s current season quickens the pace, but not at the expense of its meditative spirit. Walt is in trouble with his kingpin distributor, a gold-toothed psychopath who also happens to be under the surveillance of Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration who seems close to figuring out what Walt is doing when he isn’t receiving chemo.
There is a genuine suspense and thrill to the show now, but it succeeds largely as a treatise not on the tragedy of cancer but on the sheer monotony of it, the relentless waiting around. Aided by a camera that largely sits still and lingers, the series has a way of acutely portraying the attendant uncertainties and discomforts of severe illness as something like dull routine. In the first season Walt’s hair fell out in tidy patches in the shower, and whenever he retreated from class to go throw up, the same janitor was around to help him. The doctors are dependably tone deaf to the stresses of his condition.
In a stunning evocation of medical insensitivity, Walt, forced to see a psychiatrist when he disappears from his family for a few days, is asked why he took off. “Doctor, my wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we did not intend,” he explains in serenely blunt summation. “My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable, and within 18 months, I will be dead.”
“Breaking Bad” could make even Detroit or A.I.G. look, briefly, on the bright side.
AMC, Sundays at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Created and written by Vince Gilligan; directed by Bryan Cranston; Mr. Gilligan and Mark Johnson, executive producers; Karen Moore, Stewart A. Lyons and Melissa Bernstein, producers; Sam Catlin, co-producer; Diane Mercer, associate producer; Lynne Willingham, editor; Michael Slovis, director of photography; Robb Wilson King, production designer. Produced by High Bridge Productions Inc. and Gran Via Productions in association with Sony Pictures Television for AMC.
WITH: Bryan Cranston (Walter H. White), Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), Anna Gunn (Skyler White), Dean Norris (Hank), Betsy Brandt (Marie), R J Mitte (Walter White Jr.) and Raymond Cruz (Tuco).