Like a Dostoevsky in the desert, this great series charts a decent, slightly pathetic man's tragic descent into moral depravity
When I reviewed the first series of Breaking Bad for this slot back in 2010, the show was almost unheard of: a little tale of a high-school chemistry teacher in a dusty corner of America, toiling away in a life of quiet desperation, only to be told he's dying of cancer. So he teams up with a wayward former pupil, Jesse, to make and sell crystal meth, to earn big bucks fast and thereby provide security for his family after his demise. At the time, it felt like a poignant Chekhovian story about a decent, if slightly pathetic man trying to shore up a failed life. The only reason I bothered watching it at all it was because I'd studied chemistry at university.
How wrong I was. This wasn't suburban Chekhov. This was, as the four subsequent, explosive seasons showed, Dostoevsky in the desert – an epic tragedy that now, appropriately, arrives in a box set thick and heavy enough to compare with anything any Russian writer ever produced. And just in time for Christmas, too.
It's a portrait of one man's simultaneous ascent (to drug lord) and descent (into moral depravity). In an extraordinary performance, Bryan Cranston, playing Walter White, takes us with him every step of the way. To get a sense of the scale of his achievement, just compare the first and final season covers: in the former, a mildly quizzical-looking man in white Y-fronts holds a gun in a way that suggests he doesn't know how to use it. In the latter, a monster looks out, a barely discernible snarling shadow. It's a different man and the same man. It's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Breaking Bad is great. But it's not perfect. Early on, we get intriguing flashbacks to Walter's early life, hinting at some mysterious backstory, but that fizzles out. And do crystal meth kingpins really care so much about the quality of their product (98% proof and a lovely shade of blue!) that they will pay our two master cooks millions? It's not like they're making sofas for John Lewis. What's more, as has been said before, this is a show about guys. The women are passive observers, carried along by the increasingly deranged actions of the men. (You should cut the slightly stuttering first season some slack, though – it was hit by the 2007 Hollywood writers' strike. And anyway, Dostoevsky could be a bit slapdash himself.)
Breaking Bad has been called the future of television, and rightly so: it allows a superb actor time and space to fully develop a character. And the bizarre trajectory of his teacher-pupil relationship with Jesse – the best sidekick in the history of television? – is at the heart of the show. And right from the start, the New Mexico desert is a constant presence, making this an epic perfect for widescreen TV. It showed, too, how today's audiences will seek out great television: the show was almost canned after its first two seasons failed to really take off, but – thanks largely to word of mouth and of course my review – people tracked it down on Netflix and DVD.
This complete box set, meanwhile, has the usual making-of featurettes and commentaries, which largely focus on the dull mechanics of making the key episodes, rather than providing any insight, as well as the slightly irritating and widely leaked "alternative ending", suggesting it was all a bad dream by Cranston's Malcolm in the Middle character, Hal.
When I reviewed the first series, I asked: What is Walt up to? Is this some desperate, incoherent scream of rage in the face of the approaching blackness? In the end, we do learn the rather simpler answer because, well, Walt tells us. And it really does make sense of everything. Almost.
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image: © jaroh