By Joe Hines
PSDC Staff & Chicago Guru
Let me begin by saying I do not ordinarily watch network television programming. I find regular network shows to generally be unimaginative and insipid. In the last five years, I can count the number of television shows that I have watched more than once on one hand. But I have seen and heard with interest the conversation surrounding Breaking Bad over the last few years. So be aware, as my story goes on here today, if you haven’t seen it, there will be spoilers galore. So if you haven’t seen it, you should probably stop reading now. But before you leave, head to the bottom of the page and give it a “like.”
Its praises have been sung far and wide. The great majority of my friends and acquaintances who watched and followed the show as it played on the AMC network hailed it, nearly universally, as the best they had ever seen.
By now the story is familiar to most, a high school chemistry teacher, the main protagonist of the series, Walter White played by Bryan Cranston, is diagnosed with lung cancer with a prognosis of only months to live. In order to make ends meet, he decides to cook methamphetamine after riding along with his brother in law, DEA agent Hank and discovering there is quite a lot of money to be made in the illegal drug business. He is married to Skyler and has a teenage son Walter Jr. Skyler is pregnant at the beginning of the show, and daughter Holly is born in Season 2, though Walter can’t make it to the hospital for the birth of his daughter because he is, of course, out delivering meth.
I don’t want to act like this is a review, critically picking apart the myriad plot twists through the course of five seasons. That isn’t my purpose here. This is meant to be my impression from a guy who doesn’t watch non-sports television and has not seen any television series of note since MASH ended in the 70’s.
After being urged by my friends to go into seclusion, order up Netflix and watch in its entirety, I did just that. So last Thursday, I settled in with supplies of popcorn and Diet Pepsi that would last for days. After the first episode, I was hooked. I spent the first day watching the first season, viewing on my laptop with its tiny little screen. Day 2, it was off to Best Buy to buy and HD cable to connect my laptop to the much more picture friendly screen of my television. Eschewing sports television for the next four days, I watched the series in its entirety. This is no small sacrifice for me, my day is typically filled with writing and watching all that is important in the world of sports, including but certainly not limited to, the Blackhawks, Bulls, Bears and of course my beloved Cubs.
After four days, my conclusions are this: Breaking Bad is Pulp Fiction violent, it is morally repugnant. It is sweet and it is brilliantly written and acted. The characters are identifiable, my favorite is Jesse, Walter’s former student who is introduced to us at Hank’s drug bust as “Captain Cook,” so named for his prolific meth production. As the series evolves, he becomes conflicted over his role in the meth business, even after collecting tens of thousands, even millions of dollars. This poor kid takes more ass kickings than Mike Tyson opponents during the course of the series, always gamely coming back for more.
Walter becomes the meth kingpin of the southwest, operating out of the series location of Albuquerque. As he becomes more adept utilizing his Ph.D. worthy chemistry knowledge to produce meth of the highest purity, I almost felt as though his efforts were socially acceptable given his personal travails. He hoards money, hiding it behind insulation in his basement crawlspace, and later laundering the millions coming in after hooking up with Gus Fring, the drug kingpin of the southwest and owner of 14 fast-food restaurants. Gus, after appearing in Season 2, meets his ultimate demise in Season 4 in Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator fashion.
The part of the show I didn’t care for at all was the killing of young children on separate occasions, two 11-year old kids are gunned down in the interest of drug dealing. Such scenes are hard for me to stomach, and I don’t think the series was any better off for having included them in the storyline. I get you are trying to depict the violence associated with the drug world, but those scenes were just simply nauseating to me.
I found myself following the evolution of Walter’s character with interest and the way the writers created what at first was a sympathetic character, and by Season 3 had me exclaiming to myself, “what an asshole!” As his marriage goes south, with Skyler filing for divorce, but never actually going through with it, he lies his way to cash hoarding success with Skyler finally figuring out what is going on and Walt admitting it eventually. Skyler then inexplicably helps Walt perpetuate the business, explaining the problems they are having result from a gambling addiction. Skyler further helps out by buying the car wash where Walt worked part time as a cashier, occasionally being instructed to work in the drying area of the wash, where he finds himself working embarrassingly on students’ cars.
Hank gets injured in a shootout with a Mexican cartel, kids are shot down in cold blood and Walt ruthlessly shoots people in the head. His cancer is now in remission. His wife has an affair with her boss in a soap opera-ish portion of the show that I thought was unnecessary and salacious. Surely writers can come up with a more imaginative way of exacting revenge for drug dealing than sleeping with the boss. But that’s just me.
After three days of dawn to dusk viewing, my last day of binging began with me wondering, how the hell did the viewers of the series handle waiting a week in between episodes? The only way to watch this is the fashion that I did. Beginning to end without interruption. The final season tries to tie a bow around the entire series, Hank is killed by hit men reminiscent of the Darling family from Mayberry, hired by Walt to take out Jesse. I would have liked to have known more about what happens to Walt’s kids, Walt Jr. tells him off over the phone after Walt has gone into hiding via the drug world version of the Federal Witness Protection Program. What happened to Skyler and her sister Marie, Hanks’ wife?
After four days, it’s time for a shower and something to eat. The Bulls play tonight and they and the Blackhawks move ahead toward the playoffs. Major League Baseball spring training is in full swing with the Cubs on the verge of becoming a very good team for a long time. But the time I took to seclude myself from the sports world, hell, the world in general, was a great decision for me. And I came to find out that the first month of Netflix is free, so I can cancel and not have to pay a thing. Breaking Bad will go down in television annals as the most finely produced series ever. Take it from a guy who knows.
I will return now to the purest form of reality television, sports. The outcome and means to the end are not scripted. It’s the milieu where I am most comfortable. I hope you have enjoyed the tale of my Breaking Bad binge. I would not trade it for anything, after all, it was only a four-day investment. You may now return to MASH reruns. I wonder how Hawkeye is gonna keep that baby quiet.