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TV Review: AMC's 'Breaking Bad' Season Three Premiere
Bryan Cranston and company are off to a dark, moody, spiritual start
The end of 2009 become an epic orgy (and not of the sexy sort) of listing for me, between a Top 20 for last year and a Top 31 for The Aughts. During that process, readers weren't shy about informing me when I had gargantuan gaps in my television viewership.
Fortunately, I watch a lot of TV and I usually have a pretty good explanation (in my head at least) for the things that I don't watch. Also, while I'm stubborn and entrenched as a person, I'm also committed to my craft, so if enough people insulted me (sometimes rudely, sometimes kindly), about a particular show, I've probably taken steps to rectify those failings.
I'm nearly finished with the fourth season of "The Shield," a show which didn't hold my attention as a week-to-week police procedural, but has proven absolutely compulsive viewing when watched on a nightly basis on DVD. I'll be prepared to write a full-length mea culpa in five or six weeks, as there's no doubt that "The Shield" belonged in my Top 31 (specific placement TBD after I finish the series).
If "The Shield" was the most pervasive "Why Did You Leave Off..." on the Best of the Decade front, "Breaking Bad" was the clear winner on the Best of 2009 front.
To be fair to me, it's not like I hadn't watched episodes of both "The Shield" and "Breaking Bad" and it's not like I was in some dark cave where I didn't know the admiration both shows were held in by many (most?) of my peers. The combination of personal preferences and time just sometimes make fools of us all (or just me).
Just as I can admit to error in the absence of "The Shield" on my Best of the Aughts list, I'll also cop to the reality that if I listed 20 superlative shows for 2009, the second season of "Breaking Bad" belonged there somewhere.
Honestly? I'm not as enamored of the series, as a whole, as some of my nearest and dearest comrades seem to be. I take issue with the occasionally clunky or meandering storytelling. But one thing I won't dispute is the sheer excellence of Bryan Cranston's lead performance. Before plowing through both of the first two seasons, I had reservations about Cranston's recent domination of the Best Actor Emmy field. I don't have those concerns anymore. Even in a group of Hamms, Lauries, Halls and more, Cranston is, at worst a first among equals. And with Cranston and Aaron Paul, "Breaking Bad" has TV's best male one-two punch. The show also is capable of delivering the sort of ballsy audacity that you don't even get on HBO and Showtime these days, that only FX seems comfortable doing.
"Breaking Bad" returns to AMC on Sunday (March 21) and the new episodes find the show veering somewhat from its core premise, but mining some of its richest human territory to date. As a result, the show returns with Cranston at his best and co-star Anna Gunn raising her performance to meet him.
Full review of the start of the "Breaking Bad" season, featuring only minor spoilers (for the third season, major spoilers for the second season), after the break...
I didn't buy the ending of the second season of "Breaking Bad." I have no issues with a Butterfly Effect-style snowball effect of tragedy, but it felt like flimsy logic that the end effect of Walter White's (Cranston) season of escalating criminal activities would be a grief-stricken air traffic controller and double plane crash over Albuquerque. I know some people loved the ending and the way it was clever concealed within the earlier episodes. I guess you either buy the domino run of events, or you don't. I didn't.
But I absolutely bought the domino run of events that led to Skyler (Gunn) basically figuring out her husband's secret, or enough of the secret to have her eyes all-too-fully opened, and ordering him to move out, leaving his son (RJ Mitte) confused by how things fell so thoroughly apart.
The first three episodes of the new "Breaking Bad" season focus on Walt rationalizing his progression from cancer-stricken milquetoast chemistry teacher to notorious, increasingly sociopathic drug kingpin. The things he did were awful, they led to tragedies both intimate and large-scale. In the process, he cured himself of cancer and established a substantial nest-egg, but if he now finds himself living in a flophouse hotel and prevented from seeing his wife and his kids, what's it all been for? Walter White did everything he did for the right reasons, right? But if the choices he made couldn't protect the only thing he cared about, is it possible that "the right reasons" no longer matter and all he's left with are his misdeeds. Is Walter White, in fact, a bad man? An evil man?
The transition of "Breaking Bad" into full-on Coen Brothers territory is nearly complete in the early episodes. From "Blood Simple" to "Raising Arizona" to the increasingly relevant "No Country For Old Men," the Brothers Coen have long been fascinated by what happens when people who do bad things for good (but selfish) reasons run up against genuinely venal, amoral people who do bad things for bad reasons. In the marvelously evocative opening scene of the premiere, we meet Walter White's nemeses, the two-headed equivalent to Javier Bardem's Chigurh. But why Chigurh was a terrifying tool of cosmic entropy, a soulless killer willing to leave life and death to the flip of a coin, the approaching Cousins (Daniel and Luis Moncada) are silent, deadly agents of a greater criminal order. Walter White has set off unfortunate ripples within the underground and the Cousins just want to restore the status quo.
[The Coen Brother echoes can also be felt in Cranston's careful and methodically framed direction of the pilot, which also has hints of a Southwestern "In Cold Blood." Cranston, who also directed last season's premiere and multiple "Malcolm in the Middle" episodes, clearly has an eye for this stuff.]
"Breaking Bad" begins its third season with a trio of episodes that concentrate on those ripples stemming from Walter's actions, rather than the juicy core premise of an over-educated white family man who happens to cook up the best crystal meth in the American Southwest. Spoiler: While people want Walt to get back to cooking, no meth is prepared in the season's opening episodes.
AMC is becoming a network of disintegrating marriages based upon lies. Somehow, I suspect that Don Draper won't return for Season Four of "Mad Men" as unravelled as Walter White is here, but I can definitely imagine Betty Draper taking the path set by Skyler White, one that I'd describe as controlled, saddened vengeance. She knows the kind of man Walter has become and wants to move on, but it's hard. This is the toughest and best Gunn has been in the series and physically she's never looked better, finally freed from two seasons of pregnancy. In contrast, Cranston has never looked weaker and more frail. No longer the secretive, powerful Heisenberg, he's reduced to screentime in his tighty whities, a callback to the pilot and a reflection of the character's in-progress development.
[I'll wait until after "Mad Men" returns to fully craft my thesis comparing the Draper and White marriages. I'm sure it'll be a doozy.]
So far, Paul's Jesse is working the steps and trying to stay clean, but he's haunted. After three episodes, I can't predict what the character's arc for the season is likely to be, which is probably an appropriate way of looking at the arc for any recovering addict. He's just going one episode at a time and Paul remains excellent.
"Breaking Bad" is off to a moody and miserable start, but there are still moments of bleak and absurdist humor. It happens that even when I started watching the show two years ago (I stopped after three or four episodes simply because the pace of weekly viewership wasn't gripping me at the time), I preferred to think of "Breaking Bad" as TV's most twisted black comedy, rather than as a "drama," which is the way critics often refer to it and the way that award shows categorize it.
Watching now, I'd still argue that "Breaking Bad" is much more of a comedy than something like "Hung" or "Nurse Jackie" or "The United States of Tara." I prefer to view "Breaking Bad" as a black comedy with serious dramatic elements rather than the reverse, because otherwise I'd get irked by the show's fetishizing of low-income misery, which either fits in as caricature within a tonally variable comedy, or stands out as sketchy in a serious drama. The issue of genre defining also comes up when you view Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman, another character who's played with a broadness that goes beyond the scope of what I'd find acceptable in a pure drama, but who fits well within my view of the show. [Giancarlo Esposito, as internalized as Odenkirk is externalized, is now a cast regular and this is some of the veteran character actor's best work.]
"Breaking Bad" remains one of TV's best-looking shows, dating back to Oscar-winning DP John Toll's work on the pilot. The show has done so well with establishing its location and local texture that the start of Season Three has a slightly disappointing misstep: Several scenes, including the opening that I raved about before, are set in Mexico and those scenes are lensed with an amber tint. If you aren't "Traffic" and you aren't balancing three or four different locations with color-coding, it's pretty lazy cinematography to feel the need to make Mexico brown-ish for absolutely no reason. It's a crutch "Breaking Bad" has used before that just happened to annoy me more now, because it hampered my enjoyment of material which would have seemed eerie and alien all on its own.
That's a quibble and it may be my only quibble about the way "Breaking Bad" is starting this season. After watching up on the first two seasons in a burst over the past month, I'm now sufficiently hooked that I'll be on-board for the duration this season and I'll be ready to include "Breaking Bad" on my Best of 2010 list, should the rest of the season continue at this level.
"Breaking Bad" returns on on Sunday, March 21 at 10 p.m.