Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season

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Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season

DVD Release Date: Feb. 24
Creator: Vince Gilligan

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, Betsy Brandt, Dean Norris
Network: AMC
Riveting AMC series goes unexpected places
Given the different levels on which the show operates—the clandestine drug operation, the exploration of illness and recovery, the usual domestic end—the ensemble cast is remarkably well-balanced and organic, a snapshot of elite character-actors in top form. With their help, and despite the show’s well-worn framework, Breaking Bad resolutely develops into one of the few television dramas that feels of its moment. The acute sense of mortality and the struggle to regain self-determination resonate deeply in a show filled with distinctly American iconography. With a new season slated for later this year, Breaking Bad is poised to become one of the few TV shows that speaks to contemporary anxieties not only in content but also in spirit.

Over the course of the season, we spend time with Walter’s family, including his wife (Anna Gunn, from Deadwood) and his blunt teenage son (the startling RJ Mitte in his first major role). There’s also a place for his sister-in-law (Betsy Brandt) and her DEA-agent husband (Dean Norris), a contrivance forgiven only because of how deftly Norris’ role is developed. Walter’s partnership with his former student falters and rekindles, and the two cultivate an improbable bond.

And just like that, creator Vince Gilligan (an X-Files alum) takes his new series from a bleakly funny cousin of Weeds to an unadorned drama of depressed Americana and unlikely ambition. In all, the encounter between Walter and the drug dealer spans three episodes—nearly half the series’ modest seven-episode first season, which originally aired last winter on AMC. Soon the show’s mannered sense of humor develops into a sophisticated breed of redemptive black comedy, and even as the episodes begin to carve out a familiar routine, unlikely textures form at each new turn.

But just when we think we have the series pinned, one of the bodies in the RV turns out to be alive. The man is a drug dealer that Walter and his new partner thought they’d killed in self-defense. On the unlucky end of a coin toss, Walter is tasked with finishing him off, but he soon begins making him meals instead—he even cuts the crust off of the ailing dealer’s sandwiches. This man becomes the first person Walter tells about his cancer.

The pilot closes in the same place it started, as we learn the middle-aged man is Walter White (Bryan Cranston, best known as the dad from Malcolm in the Middle), a high-school chemistry teacher who has been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer just after his 50th birthday. He bought the RV with a former student (Aaron Paul) who now cooks crystal meth, and with whom he has surreptitiously entered into business in an effort to stack cash before he succumbs to his disease, assuring that his pregnant wife and disabled teenage son are secure after he’s gone.

The absurdity is theatrical, and barely five minutes passes before a predictable bit of text appears onscreen: “Three Weeks Earlier.” It soon becomes clear that the true beginning of this enthralling series is its everyman hero simply waking up and going through a regular day; the opening gimmick is an empty gesture tacked on to bait viewers with a flashy promise of the big guns to come.

Breaking Bad’s pilot feels unmistakably like it was dreamt up to sell the show to a network, rather than to sculpt a viable new series. An RV lumbers onscreen in the middle of a nameless desert, obviously about to go off the road. A middle-aged man wearing nothing but a gas mask and stark white underwear is behind the wheel, and he looks around frantically, as broken glass and two apparently dead bodies crash around in the back. He flies off the road in a catastrophe of dust and debris, stumbles out the door and begins to curse the landscape.