“Breaking Bad” just concluded its fourth and penultimate season and is one of the many reasons why AMC has emerged as a major force in television.
The series was originally conceived with the clever idea that an overqualified high school chemistry teacher – Walter White – is diagnosed with terminal cancer and is preparing to die. Walt’s family cannot accept this fatal fact and continuously plead with him to undergo chemotherapy. In order to pay for the expensive medical bills, Walt gets the idea – inadvertently from his Drug Enforcement Administration agent brother-in-law – to cook and sell crystal meth. Walt forms a strange partnership with Jesse Pinkman, a former student of his, and current drug dealer. The two experience countless misadventures in their attempts to sell their product while protecting their own lives.
During its first season, the writers of “Breaking Bad” took a few episodes to successfully find the voice of the series. The quality of the story and strength in characters were both there, but the series wisely took its time in setting up the long-term plot slowly and effectively. The show’s slow setup gave the writers an opportunity to introduce characters and scenarios that would play major roles in later seasons. By the end of this first season, “Breaking Bad” had established a narrative that became must-watch television.
“Breaking Bad” offers immense entertainment in its short 45 minutes of air time. The danger that Walt and Jesse find themselves in is so suspenseful that the viewer has an uncomfortable feeling in their stomach during the entire episode. This may not sound like entertainment, but it means the writers and actors are doing their job. The viewer genuinely feels the danger and fear for the safety of the characters, eager to watch more and unlikely to turn away. When a film or television series can do this to a viewer, it makes for a far more exciting television-viewing experience. The series also offers comic relief to help downplay the heavy subject matter.
As superb as the writing is on “Breaking Bad,” it is in the performances of the actors that the series is most celebrated for. Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, but most viewers may recognize him for his comedic work as the quirky father in “Malcolm in the Middle.” Cranston is unrecognizable as Walter, who shaves his head and sports a goatee to appear more intimidating. As the series progresses, so does the evil within Walt. He is no longer the mild-mannered high school teacher his family once knew. Walt transforms into a cold-blooded killer and drug dealer, willing to harm the innocent in order to benefit himself. Cranston successfully sells these changes with his confident and empowering performance as a man whose soul is decaying right before the viewer’s eyes. Even despite Walt’s turn for the worst, the audience still roots for him at the end of each episode.
Equally as impressive as Bryan Cranston is Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman. Jesse’s character is sympathetic like Walt, as he is a young adult lost in the world of drugs. Jesse, unlike Walt, seems to be reclaiming his soul as he gets deeper and deeper into his illegal activities. Jesse is not the man he portrays himself to be, and attempts to have some semblance of a family. Paul seamlessly moves from anger to sorrow within a single scene, a talent which can easily be overdone in the acting world. Paul acts with his eyes as much as he does with words, as his stares tell the viewer more than the dialogue he was given to recite. Both Cranston and Paul won Emmy Awards for their work after season three of “Breaking Bad,” and all indications point to both of them reclaiming these awards after the outstanding fourth season.
The season four finale, titled “Face Off,” – which was appropriately titled – was a perfectly executed hour of television that neatly tied up the events of the season. The finale was full of action, humor and suspense and resolved both the major story line of the season while wrapping up subplots that dated back to the first season. The episode ended with a cliffhanger, but not one that the series typically offers. Instead of leaving audience members with a scene that would beg for a new season, the writers chose to end on an emotional note that is vital to the future relationship of Walt and Jesse. The audience surely craves more of the series, but can wait with satisfaction instead of overwhelming anticipation.
Creator Vince Gilligan is following a relatively recent trend in television by choosing to end his series after one more season. As compelling as the story is, the concept of “Breaking Bad” can only go on for so long before it becomes repetitive and unbelievable. Next fall promises the end of “Breaking Bad,” but its relentless plot and powerful performances will have left behind a lasting mark on the television industry.
Kevin Romani can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Kevin Romani on Twitter @KevinRomani.