By lex, on October 23rd, 2010
I get most of my news on line, so I don’t watch much in the way of live television. The vast majority of what you see out there seems filled with empty space. We have TiVo and I get Netflix, and every once in a while I do obsess. I catch “Sons of Anarchy” on Tuesday nights, and have recently concluded the second season of “Breaking Bad“, watching episode after episode on DVD. Both shows share this: A fundamentally decent person caught in a terrible situation and forced to make choices between bad and worse.
In Breaking Bad we are introduced to Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston, who has won three consecutive Emmy Awards for the role), a high school chemistry teacher who discovers early in the first episode that he – a non-smoker – is afflicted with what is thought to be incurable lung cancer. White is initially a sympathetic character: We see that he has struggled mightily to teach an undistinguished muddle of teenagers, intuit that he eschewed – or had stolen from him – the wealth that might have been his in commercial endeavors, and lost the love of his young life to the man who turned their joint research into a proprietary fortune. His life may have been a series of minor disappointments, but we see in him the determination to make one last grasp at the ring in his leaving of it.
When he learns of his impending death, and with little material wealth to leave behind to his pregnant wife and physically disabled son, White faces his own demise with stoic indifference. What really concerns him is his family, how they’ll live after he’s gone. Because he has only a little time he makes a tragic decision to “cook” meth for the local market, enlisting the assistance of a former pupil who has failed at life. Aaron Paul plays the role of Jesse Pinkman, an entirely unsympathetic character at first, who was kicked out of his well-to-do family for drug use. Lacking any other skills, Jesse takes to hustling on the fringes of the local meth culture in Albuquerque.
The acting is superb, the cinematography excellent and the plot lines carefully inter-woven without needless complexity or dead ends. Everything tends towards a purpose, which in this case ends up being a 21st century morality tale. The show is not what I would call “pleasurable entertainment,” but it has the riveting intensity of a slow-motion car crash: You can’t look away as each moral degradation leads inevitably – if only in retrospect – to the next, greater slide into decay. At the end of season two we see that our once sympathetic protagonist has won a reprieve from the cancer that had threatened him, but lost his family while turning into a monster. His well-meant actions cost him not only his own marriage, but by extension the lives of many innocents. His loser student has risen above him in moral stature by standing still; he at least has things that he will not do.
It’s a very old story of course – “What should it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” – but it is thoughtfully updated and some of it falls entirely too close to home.