Breaking Bad

07 Apr

Breaking Bad – various directors and writers. TV crime business serial. 6 Years Color 2008 – 2013.


The Story: A high school chemistry teacher stricken with cancer manufactures methamphetamine and many unforeseen consequences.


One great gift of the series lies in the acting of the supporting players. To list only some of them:

Mark Margolis as the stroke victim godfather of a Mexican drug cartel, hell bent on revenging the deaths of his three nephews. His face is eloquent with power not just stymied by his stroke but by a strategy for murder which shall not be pacified. The little bell he rings is the toll of death. I hate him, I understand him, I wouldn’t want to come across him. The actor brings to bear in his ruined eyes a sense of implacability rich to behold.

Krysten Ritter as the beautiful girlfriend with the black hair and outfits whose wit and learning tell us so much about her boyfriend, the leading actor played by Aaron Paul’s character Jess Pinkman. Here is a performance of subtlety and distinction, and I miss the promise her very being held out for Jesse Pinkman.

David Constable as the substitute meth chemist for Aaron Paul. He plays the character as open as a baby. The character’s naiveté is so out of place in the great world of anything, and his presence is so endearingly funny that we miss him terribly once he is gone.

Robert Forster as the creator of new identities for criminals. Always welcome, always perfect, Forster, an actor of great reserve, introduces the same blind integrity he brought to Reflections In A Golden Eye years ago as the object of Marlon Brando’s lust.

R.J. Mitte is lovely as the adolescent son, Flynn. Sixteen when the series started and twenty-one when it ended, in its five seasons, whose time range is perhaps a year and half of story, he does not seem to grow taller or change physically. When the series starts he is already at his full height, which is a form of casting mischief. Besides, his being taller than his parents and the baby soon to be born present a useful constant paradox for the entire series. (By his eyes, it looks like the young actor got laid toward the end of that time, and it makes one glad for him.) He plays Flynn such that one can take the character seriously and to one’s heart. That the character and the young actor have cerebral palsy does not factor into the story at any point, which is a writing error but which adds to the paradox. That is, he plays a character sold short by the writers. At the wrap-up we do not see the consequence of the story upon him. It is an error of omission and a wicked one.

Another such error is committed against the character of Marie, the nosy, spill-the-beans sister-in-law who is the wife of the DEA agent. She is an infuriating person played perfectly by Betsy Brandt. She is one of the two sisters engaged in unlawful activities, but the writers make nothing of her shoplifting once her sister also becomes lawless. The character’s qualities drift away as the writing of the series goes on. Her character is eventually written as “the loyal wife of a difficult man,” but she plays it as in complete command of herself even while acceding to him – no easy task for an actor. We are not given enough at the end to imagine what her life now will be, and I wish we were, for she’s excellent. We are, however, given a wonderful close-up of her as one perpetually life-stricken by what her brother-in-law has done to her.

Bob Odenkirk’s character of the shyster lawyer Saul Goodman brings riffs of vaudeville into the swirling bowl of the story. As an actor he is a tonic, unpredictably predictable. He’s a good example of an actor’s ability to physicalize a character into life. He puts the character on the move to mobilize its mental moves. He is a perfect antidote to the heavies with which the series is well populated. His is probably the best-written part in the series.

Jonathan Banks heads the list of heavies, whose number is by no means exhausted by those praised here. In stillness his face, tells all; tiny movements of his mouth reveal worlds. His character as fixer presents us with a professional hit man most experienced and wise. He has a face for which he and we all must thank God, and a bearing that cannot be synthesized. He is best in quiet scenes and becomes one of the murderers we root for and do not want anything bad to happen to in the end. This is part the doing of the writers, but mostly something in Banks’ skill.

Giancarlo Esposito plays the tsar of all drug tsars, and he accomplishes his task of terrifying us all by never blinking his eyes during the entire time he is on camera, an old actors’ trick, but a good one. Elegant in his motions and manners is how Esposito sees Gus Fring, always calm, always intent, always watchful. It may be an easy part to play, but we only wonder – and are only given room to wonder – if he will ever die or if he is really as immortal as Esposito appears to make him.



I believe this series owes its main success to the casting skills that gave us these performers. Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas cast them and, besides them, the three supporting principals. I watch these three actors with amazement, respect, delight. I am reminded how great are American actors, and these in particular. I hang on their every scene. I hang on the outcome for their characters. These actors have had serious work behind them, although I have never heard of one of them. So their work comes fresh to fresh eyes. Again, praise and attention to the casting directors who were aware of them and brought them together Into Breaking Bad.



Anna Gunn is an actor of inherent reserve intelligence. She plays the wife of Walter White, the leading role, and in casting her the directors may have seen the balance that would be drawn between the leading character, White, whose intelligence is nil, but whose intellect is large, whose range of information larger, whose ego larger still. White is essentially stupid, as Macbeth is essentially stupid. Macbeth knows it won’t work but tries it anyhow; Lady Macbeth is stupider; she thinks it will work. The character Anna Gunn plays, Skyler White, is not Lady Macbeth; she is not stupid. Gunn plays it that the thing she is loyal to is an inner collation of her husband, her work, her children, her home, her relations, all of which give her a lifestyle that satisfies and pleases her soul. That is her stake.

Years ago, she married her chemistry teacher. Probably impressed by his mind. She must have found long before this story opens how banal and defeated he was, how isolated by his mind, but decided to be endeared by it rather than repelled. I watch Gunn’s responses to her slowly or strikingly changing situations to be a miracle of digested reality. Since it is TV, what we mainly have is her face. It is moved by the outer wind of chance. But what is moved? What is moved is the violation to her always envisaged inner lifestyle, which she took to be her being. What was permanent as a lake now becomes threatened by the crack of a dam she never imagined was there. Her vitality in the part is always complete, always subtle. This is an actor I look upon with admiration and wonder.

Dean Norris plays the Federal drug agent who is the antagonist of the leading character. the story is essentially about the covert battle of his character Harry’s relentlessness to find the kingpin and the cleverness of the kingpin to not be found. At the start he is written as cruder than he ends up being. That is to say, an error in the writing is corrected. Crudity is not his essential ingredient, although Norris does it as to the manner born. For we don’t need this character to be tougher than Norris already appears.

Dean Norris has a beautiful face, a beautiful mouth, ready eyes. As an actor he makes many moves and never a false one. I am astonished by the ability of an actor of this presence and power to allow something actually happen to him. To see in his face a realization contradict everything expected. To see in his eyes arise a determination fixed by outrage. To see something in the motion of his mouth that I had never expected to see in a man of this type, a defeat into weakness. I bow before such delivery. I am amazed by the actor. I hope he never hears that I have said this, for it might suggest to him that he has achieved all. In acting, there is no such thing as achievement. Actors’ praise should arise parallel to what they have done as a gate to the next thing they do. One great thing about this performance is that at a certain point he actor finally allows the character to be driven by swelled head, by ego, and dogged, personal totalitarianism, such that he mounts a two-man posse to take down his rival, and is ambushed by a gang set to bring down that same rival. He operates without back-up. Shot to the ground, the actor nonetheless dies standing up with the wonderful line, “These guys decided fifteen minutes ago what they were going to do,” and is shot dead.

In seeing these actors, I wince, lest here they find the roles of a lifetime, and never again, so I look upon Aaron Paul’s performance with pity and wonder. It is one of the finest acting performances I have ever seen. And one of the most unusual. Ah, but let me temper that praise. Let me simmer it to a roux.

Aaron Paul’s character Jesse Pinkman is more intelligent than the drug maker he works for but he is not nearly so smart. Pinkman’s street-smarts are small potatoes to what one must have to prevail in the world of big-time drug manufacture and sales. His boss and former high school chemistry teacher is devoid of intelligence and of love, but is smarter than anyone alive. There is no one Pinkman’s boss cannot outwit or foresee. His boss is capable of violent improvisation at a moment’s notice and then will service the public with the fob of an unanswerable riff, “I promise you: everything will be all right; you are perfectly safe.” All Pinkman can do is register vehement outrage at the display of his boss’s cunning, but he also can do nothing but abide by his harsh teaching.

What lies inside the actor Aaron Paul registers as beauty. He plays a punk such that we know the actor knows inside exactly what the resentment that drives a punk is and knows the dumbness the brick wall instills on the punk’s skull that he is always hitting with that resentment. He is an actor whose love-nature opens like a flower in his eyes towards certain people, his first and second girl friend, the second girlfriend’s son, so that you know that he alone of these characters has a natural morality in him; not a remembered one, but one open to every season.

As an actor he sibilants his Esses, which is fun to hear, and gratifying to me who likes actors to chew their consonants. He gives himself fully, bodily, vocally, emotionally, intellectually. He drapes the character within him. Unlike the main actor, his boss, when Aaron Paul enters a scene he enters with something already going on inside him. He is never making something up in a vacuum. He is always charged in some direction or other, so that the circumstances of the scene skid him or veer him. He is an actor adding to what is already there, not an actor only playing a scene for all it is worth and for its story value alone. For there is more to a story than a story; Goldilocks enters the three bears’ house already disobedient and strengthened by disobedience. Aaron Paul’s character of Jesse Pinkman is the one I mainly care about and want to see escape final harm.

Pinkman has a moral intelligence whose power he himself cannot resist, neither with drugs nor in waiting it out, and Aaron Paul finds this in himself and brings it to us. It is everything for this story. The moral force in Jess Pinkman drives him to sabotage his own take. And it drives the entire enterprise to its own destruction before our eyes. It is what is in Pinkman that does this, and what is in Aaron Paul’s talent to release to the role what makes Jesse the only triumphant and free character remaining. Inwardly, I gasp.



I cannot say the same for the actor Bryan Cranston or for the writing of the character he plays, Walter White. The disappointment of Breaking Bad as a series is due, in my experience, in part to this actor’s performance. Or rather is partly due to the lie of this performance; a lie in the writing of it; a lie in the writing as a whole.

The script of Breaking Bad is sometimes over-written. An actor enters a room, the second actor says, “Shall we have bacon for breakfast?” The first actor then says, “Sure. I guess. If you like.” It’s over-written. You only need one of those three things. One’s enough. Not two. Not three. (See?) The actor could supply anything else needed. Breaking Bad is television writing at its worst.

It’s also television writing at its best. Mostly at its very best. For there are wonderful turns to the story. The fun it has with solutions dependent upon chemistry is delicious. The reaches it goes to to explore the growth and cunning of White’s ruthlessness are startling and delightful because so imaginative and just. It does a good deal of marking time and drawing out of episodes, but its treatment of characters is terrific.

Directorially it is superb. But directorially, the actor is often allowed to milk responses, and this is true of Cranston’s work throughout. He never stops hemming and hawing. He never stops going through four fits before asking for the ketchup. It’s Olivier’s old trick and it’s older than Olivier of course, but I find Cranston wearisome to watch going through these hesitancies and gyrations. These facial gesticulations. These massive, monumental moues. Television acting at its worst.

However, what wearies me most about the performance is his playing every scene as isolated from every other scene. He enters with nothing, and makes something up to fit the scene, and, of course, Cranston can act like a jackrabbit. But essentially I find him to be a workhorse.

This is especially true for me in that both the character and the actor appear to be lying from beginning to end. In Cranston’s readings of, “I do it only for my family” and “only for you” I hear an empty actor. Right from the start, I never feel White loves his family. I never believe his physical touching of either child. It’s always done when it shouldn’t be done, wouldn’t be done, or done to indicate an affection whose display we are supposed to take as earnest. This maudlin attitude to children and family and relations is not only his, but present in other actors. Always overdone, always false, it is a directorial and acting error, misled by the script.

I feel that Cranston never believes the words he is saying, because there is never a real character created in him. I believe that Cranston has figured things out about Walter White, but I never believe in the truth of his playing of these strategies as internal lines of a real character. The costumes and makeup support his strategies efficiently, but they do not make them breathe. He plays the part as one plays a Hammond organ expertly, a machine. Perhaps this is the sort of actor one needs for a part of this weight and length. Perhaps you don’t need truth; perhaps you need stamina. But I feel cheated.

As to the lie “I do it for my family” – I wait to see if the writers will cop to this. Will they wake up to this bunk? Will they allow White to admit the truth about why he really does what he does?

In the final episode, he confesses to his wife. The reason he went into drugs was not for his family but because he liked it and was good at it.

But this is flimsy, not selfish enough, not big enough, not human enough, inadequate to tragedy, and not true.

Better to let this man dying of cancer say, “I wanted the money, I wanted to leave it after me. Because I didn’t want to die.” It was the same as what fuelled Frick and Carnegie and Mellon to do the same. With an endowment names last forever. “Remember My Name” the last season is called. But the writers have not seen that that was Walter White’s only understandable and adequate motive.

So in watching Cranston do this part, I am impatient with the lie of Cranston’s performance itself, with the lack of a pre-existing character in the actor, which is one lie, and impatient with a character who does nothing but lie from the first season to the last. And then, with an even larger lie.

The big lie of Breaking Bad is that we never see the devastation by crystal meth done to anyone not already well along the primrose path. We see people at the end of their addiction, none at the start. We see established addicts all. But we never see any young person, any person fresh to it, start out with blue meth. We never see a teen-age girl or male college sophomore being inducted. We never track the road they run, then stagger on, then die on. That is, we watch Breaking Bad as we watch The Perils Of Pauline as a series of cliff-hangers for this situation or character or that. And we hang on those cliffs with Walter White and the story, when in fact we are rooting for merchants of moral and physical murder. We want the blue meth to be pure, because blue’s the team we have been persuaded to fan. How nice! What fun! How entertaining!

What we never see is what meth does. Where does it go? Into whose body? And how? And how is it passed on, when it is well known that meth becomes an addition almost immediately incurable, fatal?

I know someone who died of it young. I saw that good soul go before my eyes. But Breaking Bad does not really break bad. It does not give us the lowdown. The script sprays this pink deodorant of omission over the matter. Except for comic relief, the addicts are kept out of sight.

The obvious character for this dissolution would be Walter White’s son, the upstanding, handsome, and tender Flynn, aka Walter Junior.

Flynn needs to become a meth addict for Breaking Bad to bring to us the most entertaining thing of all: the truth. Mr. White’s son’s addiction, not White’s death, would be White’s come-uppance. And we, if we were given that truth, would watch with fascination the same show, with this difference, that we are not duped into feeling that the drug business is ever, in and of itself and no matter how vivacious, merely entertainment.








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