'Breaking Bad': Enjoy your meal
The crux of any great television show is that it will inevitably reach that point where it begins to compete with itself, its splendid past and the lofty expectations spawned from its own brilliance. This is where AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” which premiered its third season on Sunday night, has now arrived.
Coming off a spectacular second season that ended on an audaciously bold note – two planes colliding in mid-air, the crash caused in no small measure by the prior actions (and inactions) of our protagonist – Sunday’s season premiere had a certain slowness to it, an easing back in, that was for the most part smartly crafted and well executed. That’s the beauty of this show: it often moves at its own measured pace, challenging the viewer to remain patient. And then it rewards that patience with certain scenes or episodes that completely ratchet up the intensity. When those moments finally arrive, they usually do so with a thump rather than a thud.
Which brings us to Sunday. Most of it I loved, especially the way in which the show eased us back into the lives of our main characters in the aftermath of the air disaster. For a while there, they weren’t so talkative. But really, after something like that, what was there to say? And so we watched as Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lit match after match, flicking each into his pool. We watched him light up a pile of drug money, too, only to rethink this mid-burn. Later, he stared at a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In these moments, we didn’t need words to know what was being said, and “Breaking Bad” has always been smart enough to recognize this.
Jesse (Aaron Paul), too, was in no mood to speak. In rehab, we watched him listen more than anything, and for him that’s no small feat. When his stint was over and Walt was there to pick him up, the two men sat in the car for a silent moment before Jesse uttered the first words between them. “Your windshield’s broken,” he said. “Yeah,” Walt answered.
All of this was perfect. Subtext is always far more interesting.
When the two men finally did begin to talk, Jesse was the one who made sense. “I accept who I am,” he told Walt, passing on the lesson he learned from rehab. “I’m the bad guy.” Depending on where the show goes from here, this could ultimately be the defining statement of this series. Jesse Pinkman seems to have accepted his place. Walter White? He’s still living in the haze of denial.
When given the microphone at the school assembly, where students gathered to talk about the tragedy, Walter didn’t know where to begin or where to stop. And so he just rambled. “Look on the bright side,” he told the kids, entering into a rant about how the tragedy could have been much worse, as nobody on the ground was killed the planes weren’t filled to capacity. “What you’re left with, casualty-wise, is just the 50th worst air disaster,” he mumbled. “Actually tied for 50th.”
Rationalizing. It’s what Walter White does best.
And in the penultimate talk with Skyler (Anna Gunn), his wife who now wants him gone, we saw this again. “You’re a drug dealer,” she fired off suddenly, and what happened next was perhaps more telling about Walter White than anything else. Since this series began I’d always imagined what this moment, The Reveal, was going to be like. I’d imagined, too, that it would be Walt who confessed to her, being that deep down inside, wasn’t he above all else the stand-up guy we thought we knew? But that’s the key to this whole thing – he isn’t the guy we thought we knew. He’s much, much worse. He is the bad guy.
And so, rather than being honest from the start, here he tried again to slither out of the truth. But when Skyler pressed further, saying there was no other way he could have made so much money, he finally conceded. But that moment of hesitation, that last bit of denial, showed us that he hasn’t really changed, after all. “Methamphetamine,” he did finally admit. But then, again, came the rationalizing: “But I’m a manufacturer, I’m not a dealer,” he mumbled, as if it would make a difference.
Later, the evening’s best scene happened at Los Pollos Hermanos, the fast food restaurant run by Gustavo Frings, the orchestrator of Walt’s epic drug score. “It’s good to see you again,” said Gus, wearing those khakis and that thin, creepy smile. He had a new offer.: $3 million for three more months of his time. “I’m done,” Walt said, lying to himself. “It has nothing to do with you personally … I’m just making a change in my life, is what it is. I’m at something of a crossroads. And it’s brought me to a realization: I am not a criminal. No offense to any people who are. But this is not me.”
Gus, played wonderfully by Giancarlo Esposito, smiled, stood and reached out to shake Walt’s hand. “Enjoy your meal,” he said, and then coolly walked away. That long, silent moment in which Walt watches him go was the evening’s best, for we all know that it just won’t be so easy, that it can’t end there.
We were also explicitly told this because, well, two very mean looking guys are on their way from Mexico. This aspect of the episode was the one thing that soured me. The opening sequence was interesting enough, with these two men mysteriously joining others in crawling along a dirt road towards an altar, then ominously pinning Walter White’s picture up near a skeleton. What we could surmise from subsequent cutaways weaved throughout the episode was that these are members of a drug cartel sneaking across the Mexican border to find and kill Walt. Which is all fine and good, but their total silence, cold stares and the ominous music that enveloped these scenes just felt a little too cartoony for my taste, a little overdone.
In the episode’s final scene, the two bad guys shot up their fellow passengers in the back of the truck, then the driver and then finally the gas tank. A cool flick of the cigarette ignited the flame, and we ended on that classic note: two men walking away from an explosion, unflinching as the fire rained down. Was it a cool visual? I suppose. But we’ve seen it so many times that it felt a little cheesy, a little too Hollywood for this show. Far more terrifying: exploding turtles, the DING! of a dinner bell or even Gustavo’s plain little smile and those blinking, bespectacled eyes.
Some notes from the Paley Fest:
-- At a Q&A at the Paley Festival earlier this month, series creator Vince Gilligan revealed that the surreal opening sequence was inspired by the religious movement of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Followers sometimes crawl to Santa Muerte altars in repentance.
-- Cranston also revealed the full truth behind Jane’s infamous death scene, which saw Walter White do basically nothing but watch as Jane lay there, choking. Apparently the first version of the script was much, much worse: In it, Walter actually shot her up with an extra dose of heroin, causing her to overdose. This was the one time, said Gilligan, where AMC and Sony executives stepped in and questioned the show's writing. “They never specifically told me no,” he said, applauding the rare creative freedom he and his writing staff is given by the higher ups, “but enough people tell you you’re drunk, you need to sit down.” So he watered it down. Slightly.
-- As for the show’s future, Gilligan said he didn’t have “any end-game in mind,” referring to how the show will ultimately end. He has certain moments in mind that he’d like to get to but refrains from writing toward them too much, preferring the story to unfold more organically. "If you’re being honest, you don’t write toward the tent poles,” Gilligan said. “It’s a dishonest way of writing because the characters tell us where to go."
-- For his part, the always hilarious Cranston actually got completely serious for a moment when asked about Walter White's future. “By the end of this series," he said to the audience, "I imagine he is going to be a blood-thirsty killer.”
-- Josh Gajewski
Photo: Bryan Cranston as Walter White. Credit: AMC.