‘I am the one who knocks’. Even if you’ve never heard of Walter White, chances are you know his catchphrase. My first encounter occurred during year one of University. Whilst looking for posters to fill my empty room, I came across a certain goateed bald-man, accompanied by a specific quote….
At this stage, Breaking Bad already had five seasons. I’d heard the buzz, particularly about its ‘Shakespearean’ qualities. For an English student, this was more than enough to peak my interest. However, with fifty-two episodes to get through, there never seemed the time to start. Having just finished the second year of my degree, this is no longer an issue. So let’s get on board with the first two seasons of this drug-fuelled extravaganza!
In season one, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is very different from the man I saw on the poster. For starters, he’s sporting a full head of thick brown hair. Joining him on his fiftieth birthday, Mr White is having something of a mid-life crisis. His fifteen year-old son has cerebral palsy, his wife is pregnant with an unexpected child and, to top it all, he’s diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Already holding-down two jobs to support his family, the prospect of expensive chemotherapy doesn’t bode well.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Having worked for years as a high-school chemistry teacher, Walt applies his scientific knowledge to a more lucrative purpose. After meeting an ex-student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), they go into business producing and selling methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth…
It’s the only show on television to feature death-by-ATM-machine!
What could possibly go wrong? The premise sets-up multiple opportunities for wry humour, largely from Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), who happens to work for the drug enforcement administration (DEA). This results in several tense but amusing run-ins, almost leading to Walt’s exposure. Factor-in Jessie’s tendency for mistakes, and you’ve got a recipe for dark humour. Typically, it’s their fractious relationship that brings home the most laughs. Whether we’re watching Jessie dispose of a body, or Walt cooking meth without his clothes, their ensuing arguments are hilarious.
This unrelenting weirdness is undoubtedly the main draw of season one. However, things take a different turn in season two. By this point, we’re introduced to a whole host of supporting characters. These include (but are not limited to), a psychotic drug-dealer, a shady lawyer and a mysterious landlady. Each plays their part in dragging Walt and Jessie further into the criminal underworld. This leads to a deeper exploration of their respective characters, particularly the moral implications of their actions.
Despite this, the episodes never becomes didactic – far from it. There’s still plenty of dark humour. It’s the only show on television to feature death-by-ATM-machine! However, this time the quirky storytelling has a layer of seriousness. It raises questions, and forces us to re-evaluate our heroes’ motives. Previously, Walt’s ‘questionable’ actions were carried-out to save money for his family. But when he refuses to share takings with a now-homeless Jessie, we have to ask ourselves – is this justified? He’s already saved a considerable amount. Is greed altering the judgement of this once noble man?
Since many of the thrills come from plots-twists, it’s pointless to discuss events in-detail. However, you’re in for a treat. The performances are fantastic. Bryan Cranston won four Primetime Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Walter White, and it’s not hard to see why. The supporting cast are also incredible. Anna Gunn strikes the right balance between caring and tenacious as Walt’s wife, Skyler, who’s equal parts admirable and frustrating. At the other end of the spectrum, Bob Odenkirk makes Saul Goodman the sleaziest lawyer imaginable, with hilarious results.
In its first two seasons, Breaking Bad walks a fine-line, creating characters that are instantly likeable, but morally dubious. Admittedly, season one is a little slow. There’s a lot of exposition and backstory. However, once it finds its feet, there are few missteps. It fully embraces weird, with plenty of laughs along the way. Season two picks-up right where the first left off. It builds on its predecessor’s success the way a good series should, enriching the story with more characters and complicated scenarios. I can’t wait to see what’s in store with season three!
Verdict: Highly recommended