Complete First Season
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All photos © AMC
Reviewed by Jamey Codding
n one of the special features for the first-season DVD release of “Breaking Bad,” creator/executive producer Vince Gilligan says: “I see our series as kind of a comedy. It’s got a lot of humor to it, and that’s on purpose. Sometimes comedy makes the tragedy go down a little easier.” While calling “Breaking Bad” a comedy is certainly a stretch, Gilligan’s point is well taken. There are plenty of laughs to be had in these seven episodes, laughs that help take the edge off a dark, complex and often disturbing series. Indeed, from the exhilarating opening sequence of the pilot, one thing about “Breaking Bad” is starkly clear: This is some heavy shit.
As for the tragedy that Gilligan references, meet Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a man whose boring name matches his boring life. Actually, that’s not entirely fair to Walt, considering he once was a break or two away from the Nobel Peace Prize. Those breaks never broke, however, and now Walt, who turns 50 in the pilot, spends his days teaching chemistry to a bunch of apathetic high school students and his evenings making ends meet at an Albuquerque car wash. Regrets? Walter White has a few.
Home life is marginally better for Walt. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) makes extra money selling stuff on eBay so she can stay home with the couple’s 15-year-old son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), who was born with cerebral palsy. Complicating matters is the fact that Skyler is pregnant, a bundle of joy that, it’s safe to assume, took the Whites by surprise. So when Walt learns that he has terminal lung cancer, his thoughts logically turn toward his unexpectedly growing family. Determined to not leave Skyler and the kids penniless, Walt breaks bad and starts cooking and selling crystal meth with one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).
A leap? Well, yeah, that’s the point. Truly desperate times call for truly desperate measures. Not only does Walt need to provide for his family after his likely death, he also needs to pay for his cancer treatments. A promotion at the car wash ain't gonna cut it. And thanks to an unintended push from his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dennis Norris), Walt sees firsthand just how lucrative pushing meth can be. When he discovers that Jesse is famed Albuquerque dealer Captain Cook, everything falls into place. As Walt says in his pitch to Jesse: “You know the business, and I know the chemistry.” Boy, does he ever.
After pocketing an Emmy for his work in this first season, Bryan Cranston naturally is the face of the series. Extreme pressure forces Walt into a series of extreme decisions, and Cranston has a lot of fun with the consequences. Sure, Walt repeatedly struggles to justify his actions, but the shock to his system also wakes him up, boosts his confidence, and even improves his sex life. Those who were surprised that Cranston won the Emmy over fellow AMC leading man Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) either didn’t watch “Breaking Bad” or weren’t paying much attention when they did. Of course, Cranston gets all sorts of help from a solid ensemble cast, most notably Aaron Paul. Walter may be the most fascinating character on the show, but Jesse’s developing backstory provided some of the first season’s finest moments. Anna Gunn and RJ Mitte do a fine job as Skyler and Walt Jr., but Dennis Norris plays the hell out of the excessively macho Hank while Raymond Cruz (Tuco) and Maximino Arciniega (Krazy 8) make for two wholly convincing bad guys.
Fans of the show will no doubt dig into the set’s formidable collection of special features, including a “Making of” featurette, a series of “Inside Breaking Bad” short features, an interview with Gilligan and Cranston, deleted scenes and more. It would have been nice to include more than two episode commentaries, but considering the writer’s strike limited the season to just seven total episodes, it’s easily forgivable. Of course, the fact that Gilligan and his cast and crew brought such a rich and compelling story to life in such a short period of time makes “Breaking Bad” all the more impressive. When the aforementioned “Mad Men” took TV viewers by storm in 2007, critics wondered if AMC could strike gold again. A year later, “Breaking Bad” debuted. How’s that for an answer?