I’m quite looking forward to dying. I like to sit alone and ponder it. I’ve come to the conclusion that it will solve a great many of my problems. See, I’m one of those people who thrives on a deadline.
Not talking about death itself, you understand – I won’t be present for that. I’m talking about a protracted decline over a period of months, or hopefully, years. I’m talking about the certain and devastating knowledge that everything we ever do is for naught prancing naked from behind the curtain and dunking its scrotum in your mouth. I’m talking about dying.
You’re against the clock anyway, we all realise that on some level. For most of your life you can amble along completely unconcerned with the fact. But when your oncologist says ‘it’s inoperable’, suddenly your remaining time’s got a shape to it. You know what you’re doing with the rest of your life; living it.
Breaking Bad is a show about dying. It’s also a show about living. It is intense, it is gripping and it is bloody daft.
Walter White, portrayed deftly by Bryan Cranston, the weird dad off Malcolm in the Middle, is a mild high school chemistry teacher struggling against bills he can’t meet. His lung cancer diagnosis provides him the catalyst (hurr) to transform his life out of all recognition. So he pretty much just becomes a drug lord. Same old story.
He hooks up with Jesse Pinkman, a small-time crank dealer, and finances a meth lab, using his chemical expertise to produce a grade of crank hitherto unknown. Naturally, high-jinks ensue. The first moment of the show gives us White, in his pants and a gas mask, bombing through the desert in a battered old motorhome, loaded up with two insensible bodies. By the time you find out how he got there, you’re already, somehow, firmly in Walt’s corner, hoping to see his nascent criminal enterprise take wing. Can he spin the lies out long enough to keep his adoring family from tumbling to his caper? Go on Walt! Lie to your disabled son some more!
This is the genius of the modern televisual idiom. Writers have figured out that we just love arseholes. Time was, your real dirtbag characters would inhabit the villain slot. In these morally muddled times, we love shows that are explicitly about cunts, and consequently, they pull no punches. Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Vic Mackey – even Jimmy McNulty was a bit of a knob, if you’re being honest about it. We love these guys. Can’t get enough of them. What are they gonna do next? I hope Al brutalises his bottom bitch again, boy oh boy oh boy!
I’m not sure if White is ready to step into this pantheon of utter bastards, but he’s making a strong case for himself. The tension of his double life gets wound so high, you might want a ready supply of downers on hand just to even you out when the credits roll. By the end of season two, he’s so deep in the mucky pit he’s selected for his legacy that he has virtually no prospect of redemption.
In fact, you could argue that he’s been sent too deep by his writers and handlers. The tumble of Walt from an upstanding, gentle and long-suffering chem practitioner to a downright ghoulish and short-fused chemo patient is a bit quick, and a bit far-fetched. The first season sidesteps the issue with a heavy dose of black humour that keeps you chuckling guiltily instead of looking for the flaws. By the second season, though, the humour seems more muted, swamped by a murky pathos so thick you could choke on it. And its conclusion hinges on a coincidence that is just idiotic. Leavened by a bit of comedy, it might not have seemed so bad.
It remains, nevertheless, riveting stuff. Put it on your list of things to watch before you die. Or at least before season three begins next month.