MATTHEW MORIARTY: Catch 'Breaking Bad' -- Best Show on TV
I hope you're watching the best show on television. It comes on AMC.
No, I'm not talking about "Mad Men." I'm talking about "Breaking Bad," the bleak, hopeless, disgusting and often hilariously funny show about Walter White, the genius chemist who wound up teaching high school, got terminal cancer and went into the crystal meth business. You know, that old story.
The beauty of the show is that Walter may be one of the roundest characters in television history. The show title says it all. We get to watch as he breaks bad from a somewhat unhappy but generally good person into a lying, hurtful, greedy and evil man.
We're used to rooting for the bad guy. Tony Soprano, Tony Montana, Vic Mackey, even Don Draper. We love them because even though they're flawed, selfish and perhaps evil men, they are redeemed by their love for their families. (Well, not Tony Montana, who's just a greedy, power-hungry psychopath.)
But they're all relatively flat characters. "Breaking Bad" gives us a character more akin to Michael Corleone in the first two installments of "The Godfather." We're watching a good man brought low.
The series begins with Walt teaching chemistry to high school kids. He's a little angry with himself because he never made anything of his considerable intelligence, but he's got a beautiful wife and a teenage son, who happens to have cerebral palsy.
Then comes the news that no one wants to hear. Walter has cancer, and it's terminal. He's got two years, they tell him, maybe. He keeps the news to himself, and during a casual conversation with his brother-in-law -- a DEA agent, oh, by the way -- learns how much money crystal meth is worth.
Hoping to make some cash to provide for his family after he's gone, Walter reconnects with an old student, a screw-up named Jesse Pinkman, who's a small-time meth cook/addict. Aaron Paul, who does a good job as a somewhat witless partner to the brilliant Walter, plays Jesse.
Using a chemistry set stolen from the high school, the two drive a beat-up Winnebago out into the New Mexico desert and cook up the most pure meth Albuquerque has ever seen. Dramady ensues. It wasn't until last week's 10th episode of the second season that I really began to grasp the genius of the show. (I suppose I should issue the obligatory: SPOILER ALERT.)
The episode begins after Walter has gotten some unexpected good news about his health. It's good enough news that he can consider getting out of the drug business. Walter spends most of the episode fixing things. He's got brown water coming out of the tap, so he goes to the hardware store to pick up a new water heater. He goes for the top-of-the-line tankless and pays in cash (slyly stuffing a bloody $20 bill back into his pocket.)
Soon he's under the house repairing rot. The audience suspects that Walter's going to have a tough time keeping his hands busy in straight life.
The final scene of the episode comes when Walter, back at the hardware store, bumps into a cart filled with meth cooking supplies. When the stoned would-be dealer walks up, Walter can't resist berating him for getting the wrong kind of matches and buying everything at the same store.
In the parking lot, Walter sees the meth-head again with his partner. He calmly walks up to them and delivers the line, "Stay the hell out of my territory."
I felt the same way I did when William Munny took a drink at the end of "Unforgiven." It's that "Yes! He's back!" moment that makes you happy and sad at the same time. It took the whole episode to set up, but it was worth it. And it's moments like that that make "Breaking Bad" the best show on TV.
Matthew Moriarty is a former staff writer who lives in Durham. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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