The health benefits that accrue from being evil are known to every observant person. The torturer’s glossy mustache, the bigot’s esprit, the oppressive vitality of the mean cop: these are not anomalies. Mere passive degeneracy exhausts the system, and spitefulness will ruin your digestion. But evil—real, striding, emphatic, busy-in-the-world evil—is a serious boost to the metabolism.
Might it, in fact, cure cancer? This is the wild surmise at the heart of Breaking Bad, the Emmy-winning, critic-delighting AMC drama launched in 2008 and currently accelerating toward its final eight episodes. To begin at the beginning: Diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 50, Walter White, a disappointed high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a wife and a son and a baby on the way, makes an important decision. After an enlightening conversation with his brother-in-law, Hank—an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration—he secretly decides to become a manufacturer of high-grade crystal meth. Oh, he tells himself that he’s doing it for his family, that he needs some quick cash to cover his medical bills and a larger pile to provide for his dependents in the event of his extinction, etc., etc. But this is all bullshit, really: Walter’s daemon is calling him. His illness—like the neurosis of Tony Soprano—is his crack in the teacup, his cosmic invitation. Walter must change. So with the help of Jesse Pinkman, a felonious former pupil turned street-level meth cook, he buys or lifts the necessary equipment and chemicals, and gets to work.
“The cells go mad,” wrote Norman Mailer (who would have loved this show) in An American Dream. “Cancer is their flag. Cancer is the growth of madness denied.” Walter can deny his madness no longer. Careening across the New Mexico desert with Jesse in their RV/drug lab, synthesizing his meth to unheard-of levels of purity and shrieking toxicity—expressed in an icy blue color for which not even trained chemists can account—he enters a fine artistic frenzy. His personality itself is transmuted: his peevish precision, all that pedagogical fussiness and vexation, is touched now with creative fire. Chemo is wracking him, he’s coughing up blood, but Walter’s blue meth, when it hits the street, wrings hosannas from all the top addicts. (He himself never partakes.) A mediocrity in straightsville, he is Mozart in the land of meth. Business being business, he is also obliged to lie through his teeth, take wild risks, and from time to time kill someone—clumsily at first, but with mounting proficiency. He calls himself “Heisenberg” and buys a black hat. And guess what: his cancer goes into remission. It’s a miracle!
Bryan Cranston is superbly double-natured in the role of Walter. A miniaturist of middle-class manners, of the many little grins and winces and inconsequential words with which the soul is quietly stifled, he can also rise to states of near-possession. Walter-as-Walter wears Hush Puppies; he is high-waisted, and his shoulders are round from decades at the wheel of conformity. Walter-as-Heisenberg is lower-voiced, harder-bodied, with a megalomaniacal edge to his gaze. Walter’s social self is false, especially in the company of his brother-in-law, when the friendly creases of his Walter-face become a mask. (Hank, played by Dean Norris, is a false man, too, his carapace of swagger and bad jokes barely covering an unmanageable anxiety.) Cranston’s physical control is extraordinary. Last year, during the first half of the show’s fifth and final season (the latter half premieres in August), Walter had occasion to shoot a man in a just-departing car. As he rushed stiffly and testily forward, pistol arm thrust out as if he was accusing someone in the back row, we caught a momentary silhouette of the former life: not a natural shooter-of-people-in-cars, even at this late stage in the game.
Jesse, by contrast, played by Aaron Paul, is as loose as a clown—tumbling, random, a half-baked white homeboy communicating in anguished honks and blurts of street-speak. He insists on addressing Walter as “Mr. White.” Together they form what Jean-Paul Sartre would have classified as a “binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity.” Not quite Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, nor yet Ren and Stimpy, Walter and Jesse are chemical brothers, bound at the molecular level, mutually creating and uncreating. Jesse, rejected son, longs for a kind word from Walter; Walter, steadily scornful of his young partner, nonetheless shows flickerings of almost-paternal concern. As Walter’s meth-power grows, his human sympathies contract: he grows heavier and thicker in his evil. Jesse, on the other hand, seems to fragment, dissipate. Addiction hollows him out. Suffering scatters him. But they stay together. There is a necessity to their relationship that looks alarmingly like love.
At one level, Breaking Bad is the story of a business. From their little start-up in the rumbling RV, Walter and Jesse push out into the meth market, widening and narrowing, gaining and losing personnel. They are poor managers, and have HR problems. People get shot. Eventually they submit to a semi-hostile takeover: the southwestern meth magnate Gustavo Fring installs the pair in an underground super-lab, where the artistic rages of Walter the master meth chef—“The chemistry must be respected!”—are indulged, so long as the product keeps coming. Unfortunately, this situation too becomes destabilized: the show’s psychic geography posits a polar drag of insanity from the south, from the lawless zones of Mexico. A cartel is interested in the blue meth. Also, earlier in their career, Walter and Jesse crossed the wrong Mexican. So here come the assassins, stalking northward out of an apocalyptic heat-shimmer.
Primarily, however, Breaking Bad is a straightforward aesthetic rush. Away from the calmly staged breakfasts and long takes of the White family home, all is zany, glaring, abrasive, deranged, from the SpongeBob-yellow hazmat suits that Walter and Jesse wear while cooking, to the deathly blue of the magic meth, to the Martian tones of the desert. Rogue strains of slapstick infect scenes of terrible violence. Above it all rolls the glassy panorama of the New Mexico sky, a moral void, from which no lightning bolt of judgment will fall. Through chemo, and then meth, Walter has been given over to some genie of artificiality. The interior life is destroyed: everything becomes inorganic, exoskeletal. Night falls and dawn rises, in sped-up sequences that make the streams of Albuquerque traffic zip past like acid trails. The camera work is decentered, unexpected: now we’re mounted bouncingly on the end of a shovel; now peering up, with alien disinterest, from the bottom of a plastic barrel into which chemicals are being poured. We seem to share the surveilling gaze of some cold and capricious intelligence. The sound of the show is acute, sharpened to the point of hostility. In the electronic chirruping at the end of the opening credits (after the sigh of meth-smoke), and in the dry, mirthless snickers of Hank as he cracks his awful jokes, we hear it, the presence, the spirit of Breaking Bad: an insect the size of a goat rasping its barbed forelegs.
Season Five began with one of the show’s patented future-flashes: Walter, age 52, glum and sick-looking, his hair grown back, with a New Hampshire driver’s license and a trunk full of heavy weaponry. What has he done? Where is he going? How will it end? In one of two ways, it seems to me: either Jesse will kill Walter, or Walter will kill Jesse. If the former, some elementary moral balance will have been restored. Having created, or at least enabled, the monster that is Walter White, Jesse will put an end to it. But if the latter—if Walter achieves his final severance with humanity and Breaking Bad reveals itself to be a one-way heart-of-darkness ride … In that case, you’ll hear scratchings, titterings, chitinous merriment: a rejoicing of giant locusts.
Breaking Bad's Five Best Secondary Characters
Mike: An ex-cop turned enforcer/troubleshooter for Gus Fring’s meth empire. Brutal yet somehow gentle—he growls, in deadpan, “Walter, what are you doing?”—Mike is even, fleetingly, a father figure to Jesse.
Saul Goodman: A sleazebag lawyer, a prattling parasite, a man so jubilantly fraudulent that he makes his own hair look like a wig, Saul is actually—in the backwards moral context of the show—a relentless truth-teller.
Tio: Once a top man for the cartel, Hector “Tio” Salamanca spent the show languishing speechlessly in a nursing home, wheelchair-bound, the entire ferocity of his being concentrated into a forefinger tapping madly at a little bell.
Jane: Landlord and then girlfriend of Jesse Pinkman. A big fan of heroin and Georgia O’Keeffe, and a creature so lovely, her death causes planes to collide in midair.
Badger: “I feel like somebody took my brain out and boiled it in, like, boiling hot, like, anthrax”: Sherpa-hatted Brandon Mayhew (a k a Badger) may not be good at selling Walter and Jesse’s blue meth, but he’s very good at using it.