EW's pop culture columnist explains why AMC's strange, violent crystal-meth drama is his pick as the best scripted show on TV
Stephen King: Why I love ‘Breaking Bad’
The first thing we see in the second season of Breaking Bad is an eyeball floating in a swimming pool while sirens rise and intermingle in the background. Police sirens? Fire sirens? Both? There’s no way to tell for sure. The eye is sucked into a circulation duct and we sink deeper, discovering a soaked one-eyed pink teddy bear that is somehow worse than a dead body. Episode 2 begins with a leisurely panning shot of a desert wasteland littered with discarded toys, home appliances, and spent cartridge casings. In the background, something is churning frantically. It sounds like a washing machine but turns out to be a car, shuddering in mechanical death spasms. It is the most disturbing sequence I’ve seen on film since Dean Stockwell’s Blue Velvet lip-synch of ”In Dreams.”
I wish I’d been a fly on the wall at the pitch meeting where Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan explained the show’s concept to AMC execs. I imagine him saying: ”Okay, guys, here’s the deal. Our main character is a high school teacher named Walt White. Although he doesn’t smoke, he finds out in the first episode that he’s got terminal lung cancer. He recruits his ex-student, a drug pusher/slacker dude named Jesse. Together they go into the crystal-meth manufacturing business…and, as a chemistry teacher, Walt makes skull-poppingly good meth. Jesse only wants to make a bundle, but Walt has got bigger plans: to make sure his wife (pregnant with a change-of-life baby) and his teenage son (who suffers from cerebral palsy) will be financially okay after he dies. Which could be soon. Got it?”
And they said yes! AMC said yes! God bless those guys! As a result, this modest basic-cable network is now broadcasting the best scripted show on TV. Your Uncle Stevie may not care much for Mad Men, but he has never seen anything like BB on the tube. The only thing that comes close is Twin Peaks, also by Blue Velvet auteur David Lynch. But Peaks lost its focus once it moved beyond the death of Laura Palmer. Judging by the first three episodes of Breaking Bad‘s second season, the story is more tightly plotted than ever.
NEXT PAGE: ”It’s like watching No Country for Old Men crossbred with the malevolent spirit of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Our heroes (if you can call them that) are complete babes in the woods, you see. Walt may make the best crystal the world has ever seen, and Jesse may have a few drug connections in the parched New Mexico town where BB takes place, but once guys like Krazy 8, No-Doze, and Tuco enter the picture, these two naïfs are hopelessly out of their league and struggling just to stay alive. Aaron Paul is terrific as Jesse — a puffy-eyed whiner reminiscent of Bill Paxton in Aliens. You can almost hear him groaning, ”Game over, man! Game over!” But the real revelation is Bryan Cranston as Walt White. Now bald thanks to his character’s chemotherapy, Cranston uses his craggy features to convey weariness, illness, and incipient madness. He’s an American Everyman living under a constant Condition Red threat-level alert.
Whatever reasons American Movie Classics had for greenlighting BB, the payoff for viewers who like their suspense cocktails a little stronger than the usual Law & Order mojito is a big one. The second episode (”Grilled”) is a perfect case in point. No spoilers here; suffice it to say that Walt and Jesse’s involvement with hellish drug kingpin Tuco (Raymond Cruz) comes to a head at a desert hideout where Tuco’s stroke-afflicted uncle sits watching Mexican TV in a wheelchair with a little bell affixed to one arm: One ding means ”yes,” no ding means ”no.” Or is it the other way around? There’s no way to be sure; the only thing we can be completely sure of is that Tuco’s nuts and someone’s gonna die. It’s like watching No Country for Old Men crossbred with the malevolent spirit of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Thank God for basic cable, if it can produce programming as strange and compelling as this. Breaking Bad invites us into another world, just as The Shield and The Sopranos did, but Walt White could be a guy just down the block, the one who tried to teach the periodic table to your kids before he got sick. The swimming pool with the eye in it could be right down the block too. That’s exactly what makes it all so funny, so frightening, and so compelling. This is rich stuff.