The TV season is winding down, and before it does, I want to throw a little love at “Breaking Bad,” the other show airing at 10 p.m. Sunday. I’m working then, but that’s why God made DVRs. Like “Treme,” “Breaking Bad” rewards second and third viewings, although it’s not what you’d call nuanced or subtle. The story of a 50-year-old high-school chemistry teacher who decides to take up methamphetamine production could easily become a cartoon, but in its third season seems to have hit its stride as a sort of waking nightmare of evil’s effects on those who choose it.
Walter White tells himself he got into meth-making as a way to leave his family financially staked for life without him — he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in the pilot episode — but as his condition improved and the cancer went into remission, which it had to do if the show was to have more than one or two seasons, the tone shifted and Walt began to grasp the dimensions of the monster he’d loosed into the world. Bodies began to fall. His partner, a hapless man-child aptly named Jesse Pinkman, fell victim to all manner of misery, from heroin addiction to the O.D. death of his girlfriend. The climax of last season was the mid-air collision, a mile or two above Walt’s house, of two commercial aircraft, an accident caused by a distracted air-traffic controller. Who was? The father of Jesse’s dead girlfriend. His attention wandered when a bit of radio traffic used her name in a transmission: Tango Delta Jane two oh three…
This season, the stain is spreading, and reaching closer to Walt’s immediate family. His wife, Skyler, now knows where the money came from, but she’s unmoved by his motivation, and has left him, along with their teenage son and newborn daughter. The latest victim is his brother-in-law Hank, a DEA agent who fell victim to a pair of identical-twin Mexican assassins gunning for Hank, and…
This is sounding ridiculous, I know, but it isn’t. Or rather, it uses its made-for-TV improbabilities well enough that you don’t find yourself rolling your eyes. If I have one criticism of the narrative as it’s unfolded, it’s the abandonment of one of the most interesting themes of season one — the crumminess of a certain middle-class American life, and how one living it can be so easily seduced by money, i.e., a way out of it. Walt’s very survival is threatened because his health insurance doesn’t cover the good chemo drugs. He and his wife attend a birthday party for a college friend of Walt’s, also a chemist, whose path took a different turn, and who lives in lavish splendor. The friend offers Walt a job at his company (with much better health insurance) out of pity, concealing it well, but Walt figures it out. The shame and humiliation such a gesture inspires in the one it’s bestowed upon is a difficult emotion for an actor to summon. But Bryan Cranston does.
The producers are starting to circle around back to it, a little bit. Now that Skyler knows there’s almost a million dollars in cash in a duffel bag in her crawl space, she’s starting to think about its implications. The scene where she walks into her lover’s bathroom and glories in the radiant floor heating was priceless. The things money can buy! (Although if I were her, I’d start with a kitchen reno. Her kitchen is almost gloriously ugly. But at this point, she might as well just buy a new house. Torch the kitchen. Remove the duffel bag from the premises first.)
I hope they continue in this vein. Identical-twin Mexican assassins can only take you so far. Although, sooner or later, the violence and misery has to reach Walt himself. He’s dodged so many bullets, many of them literal, that delaying it will soon be counterproductive. He made a big decision early on that sets everything in motion, and another one this season to keep it that way. But until he loses a finger or a child, it hasn’t cost him enough.
One final thing: I’m struck, watching this show, by its depiction of masculinity. I mentioned Jesse was a man-child, although he’s becoming more of a man. (He’s shed the overgrown baby clothes favored by so many young men these days, anyway. And the loss of the child isn’t doing him any favors.) Walt’s sense of himself as a failed father, husband and provider — especially the latter — is what made him start down this tragic path. Hank, the DEA agent, is a macho cartoon. So far, the most fully integrated man is Gustavo Fring, the kingpin mastermind played by Giancarlo Esposito. Calm, cool, ruthless — just a little more seductiveness and he’d be the devil himself.
We’ll see what happens to Walt & Co. before the month is up. (I think.) Please, no more plane crashes.
And now I must skedaddle. Although I’m sure the Hoosiers among you would rather talk about MARK SOUDER’S RESIGNATION?!??? A SEX scandal? Someone wanted to SLEEP with him? I have just fainted.