Saturday, February 22, 2014

Breaking Bad

I've finished. Box-set parts 4 and 5 passed very quickly and I loved it. It's been a blast.

Enough has been written in praise of this excellent series, cleverly conceived, brilliantly written and superbly acted. So I'd like to have a wee ponder about the nature of the 'bad' in the title. No major plot spoilers follow but I will talk about character development which involves giving a little away.

The premise, in case you haven't been paying attention, is that Walter White, a chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with lung cancer. Seeking to leave his family secure he stumbles across the possibility of manufacturing pure methamphetamine (crystal meth) with a former pupil, Jesse, as his partner and guy with the contacts in the bad, bad world.

The series is a comedy drama. This may be controversial but it is. The mistake most comedy dramas make is to try and be funny first and dramatic as an add-on. The best ones, and Breaking Bad is the best ever, are dramatic but the comedy is all black as black can be. The characters descend into greater and greater levels of evil. They do things consequent upon their previous actions that nobody normal would choose to do. And that is funny. Thus we laugh at things that aren't really amusing, probably as a defence mechanism? Or maybe there is a Shakespearean quality to the bad-things-happening-to-bad-people funniness.

Walt begins by genuinely wanting to help his family but we watch him begin to inhabit his evil character and carry out worse and worse atrocities 'for the sake of his family'. Each bad act has to be covered. He finds, and seems to enjoy, his ruthless side. He comments towards the end that he has felt more alive in his criminal life whilst terminally ill, than ever before.

Jesse is a druggie and a no-hoper but he cares for people. He is the one moved by the deaths of the innocent along the way. He tries to escape the drug-world on several occasions but finds it has its teeth into him.

Walt's wife Skyler appears to stand for purity and innocence. Everyone believes the best of her. She is always immaculately dressed but, bit by bit, she suspends her wondering about the origins of Walt's money in order to secure her future. Love disappears from their relationship but practicality keeps them together. As the first series opens she is pregnant. The child that is eventually born spends many episodes being tugged between two adults. We wonder who she will grow into. Can Skyler keep up the pretence? And keep quiet? She begins by challenging a boss about false accounting. She ends laundering money through her own business.

Walt and Jesse end up crossing paths with a variety of low-life petty criminals and druggies as well as some serious players in the world of organised crime and drug trafficking. Most of them watch their backs, or are so evil they don't care who gets in the way. One character, introduced late, Todd, offers death and suffering to all and sundry with a permanent semi-smile. Is this what it is like to have no conscience?

Walt and Jesse use the services of Lawyer Saul 'Just Call Saul' who gets things done, deviously and illegally but with a front to the operation that is totally legit. He introduces them to Mike, who cleans up mess. Sometimes he has to mess people up to clean up. Bad is often improved by different bad. People in prison can be recruited to murder. New identities can be bought. Bad money can be kept safe.

Walt Junior has cerebral palsy. It is an interesting play as the only other character with something desperately bad to live with turns out to be morally superior almost every step of the way.

Marie is Skyler's sister and struggles, as we meet her, with kleptomania. It is her 'bad' but it fades as the series progress and we find her intent on the good of her family. But she comes over as devious and manipulative in the way she obtains her wishes. She hangs very loose to any promises of confidentiality she keeps.

Hank, the lead police investigator, a determined man, is married to Marie and so the set-up is that he is Walt's brother-in-law. This leads to him swallowing, for the most part, all of Walt's lies and misdirects about his behaviour. Eventually he has to face the truth, that admitting he failed to see the serious crime being committed in his own family will cost him his job.

What is the bad without which this series wouldn't have worked?

Is it that most people become manipulable in the face of huge sums of money? Is it that we would all go to great lengths to protect our family? Is it the US health-care system which leads two characters to obtain their healing using dishonestly obtained money? Is it that people find life so low that many are looking to pay money for a high? Is it that once on the bottom rung of 'bad' you will not be able to climb down?

Some discussion questions maybe?

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