Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Breaking Bad, badder and baddest

If you’re a devoted follower of AMC’s Breaking Bad like me, then you’ve noticed how the body count has gone up during this current half-season, just concluded Sunday, September 2, 2012.

Not only have bodies piled up, the main character, Walter White, has been either directly or indirectly responsible. In the penultimate episode, White killed Mike Ehrmantraut, who wouldn’t provide him with a list of names of people in prison who could finger him. White is, as you may know, the meth-cooker for a distribution network. At the end of last season he killed cartel leader Gustavo Fring, and created his own operation. I wrote about Fring’s killing here. (Warning. Graphic gory pictures.) The men whose names Walt needed were Fring’s cartel members in prison. They were being paid by Ehrmantraut to be silent, but when Walt killed him, he then needed to go after them.

Perhaps my description makes it sound a bit Shakespearean. It is.

As the series has progressed we have seen Walt go from high school chemistry teacher to cancer patient to meth-cooker to ruthless gangster. (Vince Gilligan, who created the show said his goal with Walter White “is to turn him from Mr. Chips into Scarface.”) Walt went into the crystal meth business using the street name, “Heisenberg,” enlisting the aid of his stoner student, Jesse Pinkman. At the time Walt was more or less honorable. Or at least as honorable as someone who uses his talent to provide a dangerous and illegal drug like methamphetamine. Walt and Jesse have been through several encounters with killers where they managed to escape death. When the series opened Jesse was the more dangerous of the two men, and now it is all on Walt. He even scares Jesse, who has opted out of the business.

This portrait of Cranston and Paul, done by Ben Kirchner for the August 27, 2012 New Yorker, captures the intensity of the actors in character.
Copyright © 2012 The New Yorker

Ah, but when crime organizations get to that level is anyone ever truly “out”? Ehrmantraut wanted out, and he ended up dead, his car turned into a metal cube at a salvage yard, and his body cut into pieces and put into barrels of acid. The nine men who Walt needed dead were killed by a racist prison gang Walt paid to do the job. The scene where the planning was done is telling. Leaders of the gang (who are not currently in prison, but can direct gang members inside) met with Walt in a motel room. As they discussed how to kill nine men in different prisons simultaneously Walt stared absently at a painting on the wall. When approached by the gang leader Walt gave an opinion that the motel chain must have a big warehouse full of those paintings. The gang leader pulls him back into the subject at hand. Walt has become detached from his actions, from murder.

Subsequent scenes of prisoners being shanked reminded me of the coordinated assassination scenes of other Mafia dons in The Godfather. So in the last two episodes season Walt is responsible for ten deaths. There were more, including a tragic shooting of a 14-year-old who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and whose death caused Jesse Pinkman a serious crisis of conscience. It didn't bother Walt much, if at all, I might add.

Add characters like Walt’s wife, Skyler, who launders Walt’s drug money in a car wash business, and stockpiles what she can’t launder into a pallet of cash in a storage unit. There is Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, who works for the DEA, who was after Gus Fring. Despite the agency’s admonition to quit wasting time on Fring’s operation now that he’s dead, Hank still doggedly pursues the drug gang, not realizing it’s his own brother-in-law who is now the mastermind. Then we have the crooked lawyer, Saul Goodman, and until the climax of episode seven, one of the best characters on TV, Mike Ehrmantraut, ex-New York cop who was Goodman’s bagman. The characters in this series are doozies, every one of them a separate spoke in the wheel of the intrigue and calamities surrounding them. Sometimes those events are even unrecognized except by Walt, who is the hub of the wheel.

I have nothing but praise for the actors in this show. The genius who cast Bryan Cranston as Walt should be singled out as deserving special accolades. Here was an actor best known to American TV audiences as the doofus dad, Hal, in Malcolm In the Middle, a sitcom from a few seasons back. This is a star turn for Cranston, who is now turning up in movie roles. Nothing as juicy as Walt White, but his talents as a dramatic actor have been noticed.

Aaron Paul as Jesse is a terrific young actor. His eyes burn; they practically shoot flames when the scene calls for anger.

Skyler, who is actress Anna Gunn, also has a very expressive face. She’s caught up in a situation far beyond her control. Her worry is that she and her family will be killed by the dangerous people Walt is working with. He is constantly trying to reassure her, which makes no difference in her paranoia and fear. It shows in her face.

Dean Norris as Hank Schrader is kind of a good ol' boy, a guy who drinks beer, tells dumb jokes, but who is also dogged in his job. In the final scene of the season’s last episode he has picked up a clue from a book (while sitting on the toilet, no less!) that startles him. He is putting Walt into the total picture.

The character I will miss the most is Mike Ehrmantraut. Jonathan Banks, who played him, is a familiar character actor. We’ve all seen him in movies and television for years. When he first appeared in Breaking Bad I didn’t buy him as the coldblooded killer we grew to know. But that changed when I came to appreciate his unflappably calm, yet dangerous demeanor.

Banks, Gunn and Norris. A great cast makes a great show.

Ehrmantraut, Jesse, Skyler, Walt, are portrayed by actors who act with their eyes. Bryan Cranston singled out Giancarlo Esposito, who played Gus Fring, as being an actor who could “make his eyes go dead.” But all of them have that ability. Walt is more and more looking like Gus Fring, with a stony look that reflects not just eyes that have gone dead, but a soul that has died.

Now that we know Walter White will kill those who could identify him, how long before he goes after those who know him best, Jesse and Skyler? Will he try to kill Hank before Hank gets the goods on him? Stay tuned for next summer's final episodes of this incredible series.

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