Breaking Bad is a series that’s getting a lot of rave reviews from US critics. Loosely speaking, it’s a dark comedy. At its centre is Walt, a high school chemistry teacher. In the pilot, he finds out he’s got lung cancer and the prospect of having to go into debt to pay for lengthy treatment convinces him to use his chemical knowledge to cook crystal meth. He manages to recruit Jesse, a minor drug dealer – and with Walt’s book smarts and Jesse’s street smarts they become unlikely ‘business partners’.
The pilot itself is perhaps a little misleading, as it highlights the comic potential of the show at the expense of the more dramatic and emotional elements that are utilised as the season goes on.
You see the deeper you get into the season, the more you realise this is a show about cancer. Yes, cancer: The impact it has on the sufferer, the impact it has on their family and friends, and how facing your own demise gives you a whole new set of priorities.
It’s difficult for me to think of a show that’s dealt with this theme so unflinchingly. It seems as though not even ten minutes can go by without Walt having a coughing fit: reminding the viewer this illness is something that’s always on the main character’s mind and something that’s impacting ever decision he’s making.
The emotional truth of the piece is such that at times it’s difficult to watch. Such is the quality of the writing, you’ll sometimes feel uncomfortable listening to conversations: as they discuss the rights and wrongs of various types of treatments and the impact it has on each member of the family.
For these reasons it’s easy to see the necessity of the humour in the show. A lot of the funny comes for Walt’s perceived lack of long-term future. This means he will take risks and put himself in situations he would do his utmost to avoid. Whether that’s taking on teens bullying his son, blowing up cars or taking down rival drug dealers.
Alongside Walt is Jesse. A character who grows and develops a lot as the season progresses. Another theme of Breaking Bad is the American Dream. Jesse, when the series begins, is a waster: making money to feed his drug habit by cooking low-grade crystal meth.
However, after producing what’s now the best ‘product’ on the market, he finally has a chance to be successful at something. Part of the interesting dynamic between Jesse and Walt, who used to be student and teacher, is Walt’s constant pressure on Jesse to push himself further. Through doing something as bizarre as dealing drugs, we see him grow in confidence in himself, as he finds this is a market he knows plenty about and can make a lot of money from.
Aside from these two characters, the rest of the ensemble are incredibly well written. Characters that appear one note quickly grow and develop. The writers are experts at giving each of them a unique ‘voice’: so you can understand and sympathise with each of their points of view, without necessarily agreeing with their specific opinions.
The first season is only seven episodes long, so it requires very little commitment to see if it’s a show worth investing your time in. For me, it has been well worth the effort, since this is a show whose characters and world get under your skin in a way only the best television can.