When my kids grow up, I want them to go to university and read chemistry. That way they will have the skills to manufacture high-class crystal meth (or similar), make lots and lots of money and keep their father in the style to which of late he has become unaccustomed.
I got the idea for this, some of you will have guessed, from Breaking Bad — probably the most brilliant series to come out of the US (or anywhere else) since The Sopranos. Its hero is Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, New Mexico who realises — as we all do eventually — that his talents have gone unrewarded, he’s never going to make any real money, his friends are doing so much better and all that lies ahead of him is mediocrity, drudgery and decline.
Just when things can’t get any worse, they do. Walt discovers he has terminal lung cancer, so that in a matter of months he’ll be leaving his (extremely hot, blonde) wife, his delightful, cerebral palsy-afflicted teenage son and his as-yet-unborn surprise baby husbandless/fatherless and penniless. Then Walt hits on a cunning plan: he will team up with one of his failed students Jesse and reinvent himself as a drug baron, manufacturing and dealing the world’s most powerfully addictive drug.
If it sounds like the premise of a fun, offbeat and slightly implausible movie, you’ve reckoned without the genius of series creator Vince Gilligan. What would, in less deft hands, have burned out after two hours in a cinema has instead been stretched so far to a mammoth five seasons of HBO drama as rich and complex and intelligent and satisfying as anything I’ve ever seen on TV.
With many US TV series — Lost, say — you end each episode feeling slightly cheated. You’ve been given just enough entertainment and intrigue to stop you quitting in disgust, but not quite enough to
dispell the nagging sense that really that last hour you’ve just spent was a complete waste of life. Never so with Breaking Bad, though, which at its best leaves you feeling almost as enriched and edified as if you’d just sat through the entire cycle of The Hollow Crown.
Before you go out and buy all the boxed sets — which you must — I should warn you that it is quite shockingly violent. With sickening regularity, characters are beaten to death, shot in the chest, crushed, strangled, boiled in acid, obliterated by unexpectedly exploding wildlife, and so on. But this is part of the point. Breaking Bad isn’t another of those cosy dramas like Saving Grace where nice, fluffy, middle-class people deal a bit of pot in a most charming and amusing way. When meek Walter White chooses to ‘break bad’ — i.e., embrace the dark side — he has made a Faustian pact with real
For example, by choosing the path he thinks will save his family financially he ends up ruining them in every other way. One of the problems with reinventing yourself as a major-league drug-dealer is that you can’t really tell your loved ones. So a running theme of Breaking Bad is this awful, growing tension as Walt fails to explain his long mysterious absences to his increasingly suspicious wife Skyler (Anna Gunn). Another is the frightful difficulties a family man has — we’ve all been there — when trying to launder unfeasibly large piles of bloodstained banknotes.
Dealing drugs is the making of Walt: he becomes more virile, more sexually potent, more clear-headed, much richer and, quite literally, more alive. But this comes at a price, as we are reminded at moments like the vomit scene that closes season two, a coup de théâtre so shocking, cruel and sudden it leaves you simultaneously gasping in horror and exultant at its daring. Walt is in severe danger of being found out and — to save his skin — makes a spur-of-the-moment decision of savage ruthlessness. In practical terms it’s the right one; indeed as we watch, we may even find ourselves applauding Walt’s pragmatism. But morally Walt has plumbed almost immeasurable depths: as we shortly see realised in an appalling chain of events leading to disaster on an epic scale.
There are lots of reasons why Breaking Bad has lasted so long — the superlative acting, the fantastically entertaining incidental characters (Saul Goodman the dodgy lawyer; Tuco, the psychotic Mexican drug lord), the sprawling, almost dreamlike interludes where to an appropriately hip and recherché soundtrack our heroes cook up meth or dispose of a body, the comedy (much of it emanating from Walt’s brother-in-law Hank who, most awkwardly, heads the local DEA). But the main one is that it’s only ever pretending to be about a middle-aged drug-dealer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. What it’s really about is life itself.
Be careful what you wish for. Nothing is ever as easy as you think it’s going to be. If it can go wrong it will go wrong. When it comes down to it, family and friends and health are what really matter, nothing else. Christ, it’s hard being a middle-aged Dad trying to make ends meet in a collapsing world economy. Maybe it’s time I chose the dark side.