You’re (not) a good man, Walter White

When we left everyone’s favourite chemistry teacher/meth manufacturer at the end of Breaking Bad‘s second season, he was a figure of monstrous, murderous self-pity and passivity. This continues well into season 3 (sometimes to hilarious effect). Colour me surprised (in a nice meth blue, mayhaps) when, as the third season’s penultimate episode comes to a car crash of an end, I couldn’t help sitting there and thinking, “Damn… That. Was. Badass.” Breaking Bad does a lot to make Walt first a more hateful, irredeemable figure, and it then pulls him back to the brink of redemption, even heroism.

And then he turns around and pushes the person he became a murderer to save, his Jiminy Cricket – he pushes him over the edge. Blam.

It’s amazing how far Breaking Bad came in its second and third series. Its first season was well acted and cleverly written, but it didn’t indicate that the series would be one for the ages. Good, yes. Memorable, definitely. Up there with, say, The Sopranos? Nope. To be honest, looking back I still consider the series’ first year not just its weakest but also something of a liability. Its main antagonist, Tuco, is one of Breaking Bad‘s weakest characters, he’s over the top to the point of becoming a cartoon, although I can’t quite make up my mind whether that’s due to the actor, the writing, the direction or all three. There are plot strands that feel like they’ve walked in from a weaker series, and that are dropped (unless we’ll get back to them when we least expect it – a trick that Breaking Bad has a fondness for), such as Marie’s shoplifting. And there’s the biggest problem, as far as I’m concerned, that Walt kills a man in cold blood, much too early in his descent to a personal hell. In hindsight, much of season 1 feels like a rougher, more sketchy series with a handful of missteps without which the setup for later seasons would be stronger.

However, if season 2 made me forgive these missteps, season 3 practically made me forget that they were made by the same series. It ratchets up everything: the tension, the comedy (and for such a dark series it’s amazing how funny Breaking Bad can be – not least compared to actual comedies…), the personal stakes, even the action. While I think that the Sopranos comparison has become increasingly valid as the series goes on, Breaking Bad covers a wider range of styles and even genres, and it does this well. Without ever sacrificing the integrity of its characters, the series manages to take characters that should be as cartoony as Tuco and turns them into frightening antagonists. It presents us with what may be one of the most heartstoppingly tense action sequences ever put in a TV show. And, more than that, it uses the sequence to add depth to a character – definitely no mean feat in any genre or medium!

To my mind, Breaking Bad also manages to drop the occasional facile cynicism it affected in its early days in favour of a more rounded, more human range of tones. I’ve mentioned the comedy – and Saul Goodman is an amazing creation – but the way the series’ writers, directors and actors juggle this with Breaking Bad‘s increasing darkness and its genuine tragedy is quite breathtaking at times.

Okay, enough with the hyperbolic enthusiasm. Let’s just say that Walter White isn’t a good man, not by a long shot, and it’s likely he’ll never again be a good man… but boy, it is good – and getting better by the season – to follow his rise and fall.