By Paula Hendrickson
Breaking Bad is arguably one of TV’s best drama series in recent years, but it’s not for everyone. It’s a difficult show to watch — at times it’s been downright disturbing watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) devolve from a gravely ill science teacher wanting to ensure his family’s future into a manipulative drug kingpin who keeps putting that very family in danger.
Now that his wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn), is involved in laundering his drug money at their family-owned car wash — with their infant daughter at her side — it makes one wonder if his family would have been better off if the lung cancer had killed him.
Right up until the end of the previous season, I was hoping Walt and his protégé Jesse (Aaron Paul) would evade the law — including Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent hot on the trail of the elusive Heisenberg, the science-based street name of Walt’s nefarious alter-ego. Walt even offered to help Hank review the evidence from a scientific perspective. And, of course, I wanted them to prevail over the really bad, bad guy they reluctantly worked for, Gus (a chilling Giancarlo Esposito), so much so that the fact that Walt engineered Gus’ death — although morally questionable — still felt as though it could be for the greater good, since Gus was a threat to every character on the show.
Then, the final shot of that season’s last episode totally turned the tables: Seeing a pot of lilies of the valley in Walt’s yard made it painfully clear that Walt’s transformation to Heisenberg was complete. He’s now capable of anything.
To understand how a delicate flower could be such an ominous image, you had to have seen the last couple episodes of that season. But it’s a great example of why Breaking Bad is so darn good.
A few weeks ago, I caught part of the series’ first episode, when Walt was a smart, yet bumbling teacher, with a grim prognosis, whose life changed when Hank let him ride along on a drug bust. Walt — who saw his former student, Jesse, escape undetected by police — asked to see the meth lab. He realized he could do the same thing, only better, and tracked Jesse down to be the sales side of a profitable business. Such a contrast to where Walt is now.
Walt’s initial goal was misguided but somewhat noble. He wanted to build a nest egg for his family to live on after he died, then get out of the drug business. Somewhere along the way, he got addicted — not to meth, but to the power his new business gave him. He also went into remission.
Now that we know that Walt can be as calculating and seemingly remorseless as Gus was, is Walt the baddest bad guy? In Cranston’s skilled hands, you still see glimpses of the old, kind Walt buried beneath Heisenberg’s menacing gaze and black hat. One can only imagine the fireworks if and when Hank finally discovers who Heisenberg really is.
There’s a reason Cranston and Paul have both won Emmys for their roles. They make you care about two seriously flawed people who’ve dug themselves in so deep they couldn’t get out if they wanted to.
Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season starts at 9 p.m., Sunday, July 15, on AMC.
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the July 11-17, 2012, issue