The first season of Breaking Bad was something to behold. It was dark, moody, moving, and brimming with delicious black humor. Over the course of just seven episodes it established itself as one of the premiere programs on cable. Still, it was imperfect with a tone that too often swung from pithy to way-too-broad and back, and some questionable acting choices from bit players.
Season Two finds us back in the same world, but with a full 13 episodes canvas, show runner Vince Gilligan creates a – if you’ll pardon the pun — truly addicting viewing experience. Hit the jump for my review:
After discovering he has terminal lung cancer on his 50th birthday, Walter White (Bryan Cranston in a two time Emmy winning performance), a mild mannered chemistry teacher decides to cook meth with the aid of a drug addled former student.
This premise might sound a little one note, but Breaking Bad is anything but. This show weaves a dense, heavily serialized yarn with fully realized characters and exquisite camera work. The average episode is better than most movies in acting, directing, and especially writing. Rarely have a seen a show where the characters felt more fully human, even as they do truly monstrous things.
Season Two even stronger than the superb first run. It takes all the elements that worked and cranks them up while rejiggering some of the more problematic subplots and adding an almost Vonnegut-esque sense of bleak whimsy to the increasingly surreal proceedings.
The first major improvement of season two is the new character dynamic between Anna Gunn’s Skyler and Betsy Brandt’s Marie. Season one featured an overlong and tiresome subplot about Marie’s kleptomania. Season two brushes this off and refocuses the attention where it should be; Skyler. Not only is Gunn the better actress, she also has a much better part. After all, which makes for more compelling television, a spoiled, self-absorbed klepto, or a pregnant housewife with a teenage son with CP and a husband who is quickly dying of lung cancer, even though he never smoked a day in his life?
Also enjoying an expanded role is Hank (Dean Norris), Walter’s DEA officer Brother-in-Law who is at once eminently brutish, and the closest thing the show has to a moral center. Norris takes on the unenviable task of turning the asshole brother-in-law into a strange sort of hero. His masculinity is complex, and his emotions are deep.
But the real stand of season two is Jesse (Aaron Paul) Walter’s meth addicted co-conspirator. After narrowly avoiding his originally scripted death at the end of season one, Jesse finds himself in dire straits as his drug problems, not to mention girl problems continue to mount. Meanwhile, a strange and almost sweet relationship between Walter and Jesse builds as their characters grow from loathing one another toward forming an almost paternal bond.
Paul’s work here is excellent. His portrayal of Jesse is comical and horrifying in equal turns. Jesse is a tortured character, still a child in many ways he finds himself lost in the grown up world, too burned out on amphetamines and Attention Deficit Disorder to understand a wake up call from his parents, or recognize the dangers of the beautiful heroin addict living next door. He bounds head first into folly with a shit-eating grin and always expects someone else to pick up the pieces. He’s just smart enough to remember the big words he hears Walter use, not quite together enough to actually recall the meaning. And somewhere deep inside, there is a monster waiting to get out.
And of course there is Crantston’s Walter. What a character. There is something in the way Cranston furrows his brow and twitches his jaw as he flicks his eyes back and forth while Walter is thinking. You can see him putting the pieces together. If season one was about Walter’s introduction to the underworld, season two is about his baptism by fire. After nearly dying at the hands of a psychotic meth lord Walter begins to change. The nebbishness of season one melts away and turns into something fierce. Several times during this season Walter slides dangerously close to the edge of becoming an out and out villain before stepping back, sometimes a minute too late. Compare the cool, detached demeanor Walter uses to discuss the practicalities of gang wars with Jesse to the frantic, whining confusion of the series premiere and one can scarcely believe they are the same character. And yet, if one watches every episode, the transition makes perfect sense. The acting and the writing are monumental.
And at almost every turn the plot is just as rock solid as the character work. Throughout season two the audience is treated to flash-forward elements, depicting a horrible accident at the home of one of the main protagonists. As the season progresses we begin to see more and more of the aftermath until we finally reach the season finale where every little piece ties together.
During the first third of the season there is a subplot centered on the use of a bell that is positively Hitchockian. Later, there is a suite of episodes dedicated to the complications of the meth trade and Walter’s slow but steady realization that he shouldn’t fear Tuco, he needs to become Tuco.
As things progress, we move further and further from the “real” world and more into a sort of heightened reality. This is not a program written week to week, there are very large-scale character arcs and complex parallels drawn. When Walter decides to call himself Heisenberg it’s not just a link back to his mild mannered past; it’s a clue to the attentive viewer.
During the last third of the season there a massive, and bizarre twist of fate during the last third of the season that is foreshadowed both within the narrative of the episodes and in the extra-narrative space of the episode titles. You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but Breaking Bad is a mythology show too.
And it’s not just one big payoff either. This is a program full of striking imagery and subtly shocking moments. I will not reveal it here, but episode 12 titled, “Phoenix” has one of the most jarring endings I have ever seen broadcast on television.
Unfortunately, this season also includes its fair share of missed opportunities. While things really crackle during the episodes dealing with Walter and Jesse’s new distribution platform things grind to a halt on the domestic front as episode after episode repeats the same character beats for Walter and Skyler’s relationship. He’s lying to her, she knows it, neither one will budge. Quickly, her love for her dying husband shrivels and turns to resentment as evidence of something seriously wrong builds. At first, it is gut wrenching to hear Gunn list off Skyler’s dilemmas, after a full season of playing the suffering housewife it’s finally time to draw blood, but rather quickly this no bullshit attitude becomes tiresome. Eventually, the whole thing begins to resemble Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, played in extreme slow motion.
Too, the writers seem over reliant on long character monologues where people explain, point by point, why they are so darn angry. It makes sense when Skyler does it, but when Hank, and Walter, and even Walter Jr. all join in, the character voices become slightly unclear.
Most problematic is the inclusion of Bob Odenkirk’s sleazy lawyer, Saul Goodman. Saul is a good character. He adds some much needed levity to the proceedings and also a tie into the real underworld. But at the same time, Saul is also too often used as a get out of jail free card, one time even literally. Several times during this season the characters find themselves in an impossible situation that they should not escape from, only to have it wrapped up neatly by a Deus ex Machina courtesy of Saul.
But clearly, the good outweighs the bad. A definite must watch.
In addition to all 13 episodes of season two, this set includes several interesting extras.
First, show runner Gilligan does commentary on four episodes. Also included are various key cast and crew members. As with season one, Gilligan proves razor sharp and wry on these commentaries.
Next there is a collection of 13 deleted scenes which comes it at about 13 minutes. Most of these are just details you can figure out on your own, but one scene does include more of Walter playing Mr. Wizard, which is always cool to me.
Third there is a nice little feature called Inside Breaking Bad. this is like a mini-commentary track mixed with a EPK making-of. You get one for every episode and they’re short enough to not get boring. They’re not deep, but it’s nice to have the option.
The disc also features a bizarre and occasionally hilarious spoof documentary called Cop Talk with Dean Norris in which Norris, the actor who plays Hank, goes around and interviews “real” cops. The bits are funny, but the concept remains a bit confused because he seems to float in and out of portraying Hank and just being himself. Still, good for a laugh.
Additionally, there is a collection of behind the scenes features focusing on special effects, props, sets, one character’s adventures while trapped in a car’s trunk, a tour of the methabago set, a look at the crew, and a discussion of what season three holds for the characters. Again, this is light stuff. Instead of making one 15-minute making-of, the DVD folks chose to stretch it out over this behind these behind the scenes features, the Inside Breaking Bad shorts, and Gilligan’s set photo collection.
Also rounding out the set is a collection of six “webisodes”. These have no real baring on the macro-plot, but they do have the occasional nice character moment. None of these skits would ever fit in an episode, but it is nice to see some out and out humor to balance the darkness of much of the series itself.
Next there is a short advertisement for another webisode series, this time starring Walter. Also on the viral kick is a short advertisement for Saul Goodman’s legal practice.
Finally, there is a gag reel and a short sneak peak at season 3.
Breaking Bad is incredibly serialized. Almost every episode ends on a note that demands immediate resolution. This show is so addictive that it lowered my GPA because I was busy watching it instead of studying for finals. Because of the addicting nature and deep plot DVD is the ideal place to see it.
And, beyond the show, the DVD set itself is also well above par. There are oodles of special features and though some of them are a bit shallow, the insightful commentary tracks and goofy shorts more than make up for it.
Breaking Bad is my favorite hour-long TV show and season two is required watching in my mind.
The Show: 9/10
The DVD: 8.5/10