Saturday, August 23, 2014

TV Series Review: Breaking Bad

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For a long time, me and hubby have been singling out an American TV series and watching all seasons of it. This binge watching not only makes for entertaining tv viewing but is also a great conversation medium and something to look forward to after a long day at work. We have amassed a huge DVD collection at home of movies and tv shows which keeps growing! We've watched several shows over the years - F.R.I.E.N.D.S, Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men (the one with Charlie Sheen), According to Jim, How I Met Your Mother, Seinfeld, Desperate Housewives, Lost and so on. Right now we are switching between The Cosby Show, Different Strokes and Moonlighting. One of the series that we finished watching a few weeks ago is the critically-acclaimed Breaking Bad, the final season of which concluded on television last year. I thought why limit myself to writing only movie reviews....from now onwards, I'll include tv series reviews too

Breaking bad is an American crime drama television series starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, Betsy Brandt and Dean Norris in main roles. It is a ground-breaking series that explores the human psyche by showcasing the dark metamorphosis of a man's personality when confronted with adversity. Featured as one of the top-rated tv shows, Breaking Bad is widely regarded as the greatest television show in American cable tv history. It also has the distinction of entering the Guinness Book of World Records for being the highest rated show of all time. The show received numerous awards, including ten Primetime Emmy Awards, eight Satellite Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and a People's Choice Award.

Set in the arid backdrop of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad chronicles the life of unassuming high school chemistry teacher Walter White and his junkie dropout former student Jesse Pinkman who are sucked into the dark world of the cartel, crime and crystal meth. How this all comes about is a roller coaster ride that will leave the viewer dumbstruck.

Plot Summary

The series starts of with Walter White, an ordinary middle-aged man living with his pregnant wife Skyler and teenage son Walt Jr (who suffers from cerebral palsy). Walter is a genius and could have gone places but instead decides for a career in academia and hence ends up as a chemistry teacher in a local high school. He takes up a part-time job in a car wash to supplement the family's income. The Whites are a typical all-American family who live in a modest three bedroom house in Albuquerque. Skyler's sister Marie and her husband, DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agent Hank are part of the White's extended family and share a close knit bond with the trio. 

The White's seemingly ordinary life takes a dramatic turn when  Walt receives the devastating news that he has stage-three terminal lung cancer. Initially, he keeps the news under wraps from his family and deals with the immense burden of a life-threatening disease by himself. There onwards emerges an obvious transformation in a man who now knows that he has very little time to live and is desperate to leave behind something for his family. On a DEA related ride-along with his brother-in-law Hank, Walt uncovers the financial gain to setting up a methamphetamine (crystal meth) lab. Being an expert in chemistry, he figures he can come up with a product that is much superior to what is being sold on the streets. His paths cross with an ex-student Jesse Pinkman, a small-time local drug dealer. Walt strikes a deal with Jesse to start their own crystal meth lab in a trailer. He eventually perfects a formula for crystal meth using the precursor substance methylamine which produces a distinctly "blue meth" with an astounding never-seen-before purity of around 99%. Their specialty product which acquires the street name "Blue Sky" creates a sensation in the market and marks Walt and Jesse's foray into crime. 

In order to conceal the double life he is living, Walter begins spinning a web of lies to those around him. He is particularly weary of his brother-in-law who is actively involved in drug-related arrests. Eventually the family learns of Walter's cancer and they coerce him into undergoing treatment. The escalating treatment costs and bleak prognosis drives Walter further into the dark world of crystal meth. He is fueled with an insatiable urge to rake in the moolah and in his frenzy, he makes a series of bad judgements leading to deals with unsavoury people. The consequences of these dubious dealings lead to Walter (who now goes by the pseudonym 'Heisenberg') and Jesse to commit multiple acts of cold-blooded murder. They hire an unscrupulous  lawyer by the name of Saul Goodman who periodically gets them out of hot water and protects their interests. 

Things seem to look up when Walt and Jesse team up with Gus, a well-respected businessman and owner of fast food chain who turns out to be the biggest drug dealer north of the US-Mexico border. Gus is cautious and calculating and conducts his trade with utmost discretion and well-orchestrated precision. His right-hand man Mike, helps Gus to keep a close eye on the potential things that could go wrong. But things start going downhill when Walt and Jesse prove to be a liability for Gus thus putting both their lives in jeopardy. Gus even hires a chemist named Gale Boetticher with the intention of grooming him to replace Walter after mastering the recipe for his trademark blue meth. Things go from bad to worse when the Mexican cartel gets involved in the equation. After an assassination attempt on Hank's life, Skyler finally realizes the truth about her husband's shady dealings. Although initially mortified, she eventually comes around, cooks up a gambling addiction story to explain Walt's peculiar behaviour and being a bookkeeper, starts to launder money on behalf of her husband. Together, they buy a car wash as a decoy to legitimately launder the drug money that keeps pouring in at a steady pace. In the meantime, Gus wipes out the entire Mexican cartel clan and establishes his supremacy as the undisputed distributor of crystal meth. But until Gus is out of the picture, Walt knows that his family is not safe and devises a shrewd plan to get rid of him. 

Once Skyler understands the full extent of her husband's moral decomposition, the strain of being married to a drug lord and murderer starts to take its toll on her and she starts exhibiting signs of a nervous breakdown. Still convinced that whatever he is doing is for his "family", Walter continue to run his lucrative drug empire along with Mike and Jesse. They collaborate with a woman named Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, a shipping executive who helps them obtain the methylamine essential to keep the production of crystal meth going. But as his life of crime consumes him, Walter goes a step further and gets rid of all traces of Gus's previous contacts and even manages to do away with Mike. But unknown to Walt, his wall of lies begin to slowly unravel around him when Hank finally learns the truth. Walt's relationship with Jesse also reaches a breaking point after Jesse realizes that Walt had no qualms in sacrificing the people integral to Jesse's life for his own personal gain. This compels Jessie to take sides with the DEA and provides them with a detailed account of all their crimes. As if all this was not enough, Walt receives news that his cancer (which had earlier been in remission) has returned. From here onwards, Walter's already complicated life turns into a living hell. What he does next forms the chilling climax of the series.

My thoughts

As human beings, do we all have the capacity to turn bad? Could there be a monster lurking inside all of us? Can certain circumstances in a person's life force them to change their basic good nature and begin to commit reprehensible acts? I always naïvely thought that a critical illness or near death experience brings out the best in people. That they develop a greater appreciation for life, learn to cherish each day and be grateful for what they have. It seldom occurred to me that the exact polar opposite could happen too. That in a moment of desperation, a person could do the unthinkable. That you can never fully claim to understand a person and what they may be capable of. In Breaking Bad, the sordid acts that the (initially) meek and law-abiding suburban family man Walter White perpetrate include deception, betrayal, drug trade, assault, physical abuse, murder, robbery, money laundering, poisoning a child, blowing up a nursing home, kidnapping and blackmail. Throughout the series, he continues to defend his actions, justifying them in the name of his family as if that would make it seem alright. But it is only in the end that he finally stops lying to his wife and to himself and frankly admits that he did whatever he did because he liked it. Here was a man who made excuses to indulge his own worst impulses and then selfishly expected everyone else to stand by his side. It would have been impossible for Walt to redeem himself after all that he had done because he was just too far down the road to damnation. As a viewer, you know his choices fueled his gigantic ego and that was why he was able to do whatever he did without the least bit of remorse. It was a huge relief to at least hear him say it out loud at last. It cements the notion that Walter White was never a good guy to begin with. In other words, all the elements that were needed for Walter to "break bad" were already in place and the cancer was just a catalyst for his satanic transformation.

The creator of the show, Vince Gilligan, is nothing short of a genius. The storyline, casting, character development, direction and cinematography is simply stunning. Bryan Cranston is brilliant as the ingenious Walter White aka evil genius Heisenberg. His transformation from a mundane high school teacher to a conniving and manipulative drug kingpin is sensationally showcased. You start off feeling sorry for his character as a family man afflicted with cancer who has to consider the future of his wife and two children after his demise. But as he willingly delves further into a life of crime, the pity turns into disbelief and eventually disgust. Anna Gunn as Skyler has done a commendable job. As a distraught wife and a mother going through trying times, she is convincing and compelling. RJ Mitte as Walt Jr is one of the few characters in the series who is truly affable from beginning to end. His evolution from a loving, doting son to someone who goes through immense betrayal from both his parents is heartbreaking. Betsy Brandt as Skyler's slightly loony and kleptomaniac sister Marie Schrader is effective. However, it is her husband Hank Schrader, played by Dean Norris (another likeable character) who gets the meatier role and is wonderful as the DEA agent hot on the heels of Heisenberg while being completely unaware of his own brother-in-law's disturbing alter ego. Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman and Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut are the other actors who pitch in memorable performances. But the two actors who stand out above the rest in the series (in my opinion) are Aaron Paul who assays the role of Jesse Pinkman and Giancarlo Esposito who plays Gus Fring. Jesse isn't as badass as some of the other characters are, he is just misguided and makes some very impulsive and unfortunate decisions. His character is very complex and he goes through a legion of emotions as the show progresses. Jesse exhibits signs of guilt, remorse, self-hatred, misery, empathy, shame, fear and vengeance which adds depth to his character. The "chemistry" between Walt and Jesse from start to end is explosive. Aaron Paul is perfectly cast for that role and I couldn't imagine anyone else doing a better job. Portraying Gus on the other hand, takes a lot of restraint from an actor's perspective. His poker face conceals his malicious intent and that is not typically easy to showcase. Although seemingly mild mannered and docile on the outside, his subtle expressions and body language is enough to send chills up your spine. 

If you haven't watched the show yet, I urge you to do so. It is dark, disturbing and gut-wrenching yet riveting, intelligent and insightful. One thing I can guarantee is that you wouldn't have seen anything quite like it before! 

I give this series a 4 out of 5 star rating


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