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'Breaking Bad': A study of change

January 21, 2008 | 12:45 pm

Cranston This is what we learned on Sunday night: A man wearing nothing but his underpants and a gas mask can actually be taken seriously. For this feat alone, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Bryan Cranston around this time next year, in a tux instead of tighty-whities and holding a Golden Globe instead of a gun.

Sure, this is crazy talk -– next year’s awards after just one episode and not even a month yet flipped off the 2008 calendar -– but then again, “Breaking Bad” wasted no time in getting a little crazy itself. The pilot’s opening featured Cranston at the shaky wheel of a speeding RV, his middle-aged gut hanging over those undies and his face hidden beneath that mask. As the vehicle swerved, so did a couple of lifeless bodies along the floor behind him.

And this is where you may have rolled your eyes.

And this is where Cranston lost control, crashing the vehicle alongside a desert road and spilling out of it. Thankfully for us, he managed here to ditch the mask and pull on a shirt.

“My name is Walter White,” he then told a handheld video camera outside the RV. “ … To all law enforcement entities, this is not an admission of guilt. I am speaking to my family now. Skyler, you are the love of my life, I hope you know that. Walter Jr., you’re my big man. There are going to be some things, things that you’ll come to learn about me in the next few days. I just want you to know that no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart. Goodbye.”

Our seemingly doomed new friend then walked to the middle of the road and pointed a gun toward the sound of approaching sirens.

Cut to the opening title credit and then a “Three weeks earlier … ” subtitle. Bada bing, bada boom.

Was it too much too soon? Maybe for some who couldn’t immediately get Hal, the goofy dad from “Malcolm in the Middle” and Cranston’s best-known TV character, out of their minds, or get past this new look of his, what with the exposed milky legs and a mustache that’s perhaps better left for the Tom Sellecks of the world.

But if we can take anything from last night’s pilot, maybe it is this: Too much too soon is a line this show is unafraid to straddle. If you tuned in expecting something akin to “Mad Men,” the breakout AMC series of the last year (note that the cable channel wouldn’t let us forget this fact, looping throughout a commercial that reminded us of “Mad Men’s” critical praise and the two Golden Globes it took home for Best Drama Series and Actor the previous week), you instead saw apples and oranges. Or maybe better stated, oranges and tangerines -– see, whereas “Mad Men” took great care in ever so slowly peeling away the thicker skin of its lead character, the dapper and charming Don Draper, “Bad” removed Walter White’s shell –- shell, clothing, whatever -– right at the get-go. 

Not long after the opening credits, we learned the root of his desperation and what set him onto such a wild path: Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque forced also to work the cash register at a car wash to make ends meet. He’s got a pregnant wife at home (played by Anna Gunn), along with a teenage son that has cerebral palsy (RJ Mitte). And then he’s told he has terminal lung cancer, maybe two years to live.

What to do? Why, start a mobile methamphetamine lab to provide for his family’s future, of course.

While all of this again teetered on that “overdone” line, where Cranston and series creator Vince Gilligan really triumphed were the little touches of quiet sprinkled into the absurd. Indeed, the show’s two finest moments were largely wordless. When being told he was going to die, White’s ears fell deaf and his eyes remained dry. Instead of a tearful “Why me?” moment, our hero instead narrowed his eyes onto the stained lapel of the doctor’s white coat.

“Mr. White?” the doctor said twice to reclaim his patient’s attention. “You understood what I just said to you?”

White: “Yes. Lung cancer. Inoperable.”

“I’m sorry,” the doc said, noticing his patient’s still-flat look, “I just need to make sure you fully understand.”

“Best-case scenario, with chemo, I’ll live maybe another couple of years,” White repeated. “It’s just … you’ve got mustard on your … there, right there. Mustard, there.”

An absurd observation, both perfectly timed and delivered. He’s dying but the world around him isn’t. There will always be these doctors and mustard stains and the little idiosyncrasies of life we never really notice until we realize that they’ll soon be going on without us.

Where some other shows may have at that moment chosen to go with the trusty tear-rolling-down-a-cheek, Cranston’s White instead saved that emotion for later, when the show came full circle to him again standing there in the middle of the desert, those sirens approaching. His waterworks arrived only when he thought his meth operation was squashed –- thus leaving his family not just fatherless, but penniless to boot. Now this is a man we can like.

And credit Gilligan for the show’s other quietly brilliant moment, the final scene. Drug bust having just been averted (turned out those sirens belonged to fire trucks, not police cars, whew!), Walter returned home to his bedroom and settled in beside his wife.

“Where were you?” she asked, but instead of answering he stared straight up at the ceiling, keeping certain little details -– you know, like the terminal diagnosis, the meth lab and a standoff with drug dealers who end up dead in the back of his RV -– to himself.

“Walt, I don’t know what’s been going on with you lately,” his wife pressed on, “but whatever it is, I’ll tell you this: I don’t like it when you don’t talk to me. The worst thing you can do is shut me out.”

And it’s here when Walter’s silence was again golden. He leaned over his wife, looking into her eyes and perhaps seeing her more clearly than ever before. He caressed her with a hand and in a sudden burst of passion, turned her over on her side. “Walt? Is that you?” she asked.

No words. Time was now of the essence, and so the new Walter White simply sprang into action, telling us all we needed to know.

-- Josh Gajewski

(Photo courtesy AMC)