Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Dean Norris, Bob Odenkirk, Steven Michael Quezada, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Krysten Ritter, Robert Forster, Charles Baker, Jesse Plemons, Christopher Cousins, Laura Fraser, Matt Jones, Lavell Crawford, Danny Trejo
Written by: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, George Mastras, Sam Catlin, Moira Walley-Beckett, Thomas Schnauz, etc.
Directed by: Michelle MacLaren, Adam Bernstein, Vince Gilligan, Colin Bucksey, Michael Slovis, Bryan Cranston, Terry McDonough, Johan Renck, Rian Johnson, Tim Hunter, John Dahl, Peter Medak
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 2655
Date: 01/20/2008

Breaking Bad (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Cook, Line and Sinker

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Until now, I thought "The Simpsons" and "Twin Peaks" were the greatest television shows I'd ever seen. They are still great shows, but now they must bow down to Vince Gilligan's "Breaking Bad." There's something about this show that just transcends, and keeps on transcending, popular entertainment. It just keeps getting better and better, going higher and higher, until mere words, mere platitudes, can no longer do it justice. It's great, awesome, spectacular, amazing.... SOOOO good.

As it begins, high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) discovers that he has lung cancer. Not wanting to leave his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and his son Walt Jr. (R.J. Mitte), with nothing, he decides to cook and sell methamphetamines, purer and better than anyone has ever seen. Not knowing how to distribute said meth, he calls on one of his former students, small-time drug dealer Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). They form an inseparable partnership.

To raise the stakes, Walter's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) is a DEA agent. Walter and Jesse eventually sign up with a big-time drug dealer, who turns out to be crazy. They turn to a semi-crooked lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), who hooks them up with a prime-time dealer, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), where they get their own lab for cooking the finest meth on the market, as well as a veteran "security" guy, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). But things keep going south.

The terrific Laura Fraser turns up in the final act, as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, a neurotic but crucial character.

It occurred to me toward the end that "Breaking Bad" is not unlike Chaplin's masterpiece Monsieur Verdoux, the story of a man who, in desperate times, turns to crime as a means to support his family. In both, the character winds up giving a "performance" at both ends, both at home with his family, and at work as a criminal. Walter White ends up becoming more of an honest "father" to Jesse Pinkman than he is to his own son, with whom he can't tell the truth.

Chaplin's film contains a metaphor for war; men who kill for their country are heroes, but men who kill for their families are criminals. "Breaking Bad" goes a bit deeper -- it has more time -- but its theme is a lot simpler. As my friend, the great critic Richard von Busack said, it's about a guy who gets cancer and then becomes cancer.

Of course, the series runs in a giant arc, but there are standout episodes within, including Rian Johnson's "Fly," wherein Walt and Jesse spent the entire episode trying to kill a pesky fly (a possible contaminant) in the lab. Creator Vince Gillian's series finale, "Felina," is a masterpiece of sustained mood; it's among the most hauntingly quiet, resigned television I've ever seen.

Not to mention that this show has probably increased sales of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

There are 62 episodes of about 45 minutes each, equalling about 47 hours of the finest entertainment, anywhere.

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