If Weeds would have us believe that there is a funny side to dealing pot in the suburbs, Breaking Bad suggests, or at the very least insists that the opposite is true for crystal meth. Where Weeds’ Nancy Botwin could, in her own cute way, get away with drug dealing with a cheeky grin, and her neighbours and friends could imbibe (hilarity ensues), Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is steel eyed and determined. He knows the stuff he’s making with his lowlife partner Jess (Aaron Paul) is destructive, but he doesn’t want to know the hoary details. The consequences are real, intense and deadly serious.
The second season, a full (for cable) run of 13 episodes (expanding the shortened eight episode arc of season one, abridged by the Writers Guild Strike of 2007/8) takes Walter into darker emotional waters. His terminal lung cancer looks to be less terminal, but the web of lies he constructs to live the double life while his pregnant wife remains oblivious starts to ensnare him. Steps into the darkness he may not have considered in the past become more and more easily taken, and his stance as ‘the innocent man forced into a difficult situation’ becomes more and more cloudy.
Like the first season showed, Cranston is immaculate in this programme. Nothing about what he does rings false, and all we see of him is as far removed from actor vanity as is imaginable. His Walter is a simmering volcano – almost at the end of his fuse and ready to blow at every second, his notes ring true at every step of this amazing 13-part journey. Cranston’s back-to-back Emmy wins are among the more deserved in recent history. Aaron Paul is strong in equal measure here as the ambitious peddler. Anna Gunn as Walter’s pregnant wife Skyler comes to the fore in season two, becoming increasingly suspicious of Walter as his frequent absences gnaw away at her trusting nature; then taking steps towards her own liberation by taking on a new job with an old would-be flame who may provide the stability and emotional security she needs.
The show’s framing device is beautifully handled – any number of concluding outcomes could be suggested by the premiere episode’s shot of a floating glass eye. The conclusion is stunning, drawing the drama’s players together and showing the very real, indirect yet consequential ‘butterfly effects’ of the drug trade.
Breaking Bad remains one of the best shows on TV. We can only hope for more of this, and more often.