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Breaking Bad: The Second Time Around

Possibly the third. One of the most binged TV series in the world has been lauded across the board, acting, story, direction, cinematography, it’s characters and use of foreshadowing, and while it’s not to everyone’s tastes it had me gripped season after season.

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For those of you unfamiliar, Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston (formerly of Malcolm in the Middle) as a chemistry teacher whose lung cancer diagnosis drives him into New Mexico’s thriving meth amphetamine industry, and uses his knowledge of science to corner the market, committing to the life of crime as he conquers drug lords at every level, reaching greater heights of cunning, ruthlessness, and aggression. It’s a story of family torn apart by lies, and finding the limits of family bonds before a man’s growing inhumanity can tear them apart.

I took it upon myself to start rewatching the whole thing again from episode one after finding out that Anthony Hopkins had marathoned the series and sent an email to Cranston, saying his performance as Walter White was some of the best acting he’d ever seen. I wanted to remind myself of the powerful performances that could drive one of cinema’s greatest names to hail a TV show as a masterclass in the artform, and as I approach the end of season two I find I’m uncovering more and more after three years of studying film and television from the perspective of a critic than I could have ever noticed before.

Some warnings: The first is that there will be spoilers, but seriously it’s been years so I think we’re over it now. Plus if you’re one of our regular readers you know we try and keep things family friendly around here, this is not a family friendly show.

There are a lot of stories to take into account here. The battle with cancer plays a much bigger role than most people seem to appreciate, fear and desperation are incredible driving factors that push the family dynamics to extremes. It shows most obviously in such instances as Walter feigning a mental breakdown to cover his criminal activities, or the intervention scene where Skyler and Walter Jr confront him about his choice to not seek treatment, but there are indescribable little moments, micro-expressions and carefully measured speech express a great deal, it’s that level of acting that’s a big driving force in the show.

Between Walter and his partner in literal crime Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) there’s a strange father and son bond, as shared experiences and little teaching moments take them from a strained mutual-distrust to a relationship stronger than they share with their own son and father respectively. We see it all, as Walter’s son distances himself further and further as the family unit collapses, and Jesse’s own over-burdened parents finally give in to the strain of his dangerous lifestyle.

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Newest revelation, the parallels we see drawn between the war on drugs, and the effects of a real war. Walter’s brother-in-law Hank Schrader sees nightmarish acts and truly horrendous things as a member of the DEA, begins to suffer the effects of PTSD, and we watch as his life unravels beneath the tough-guy-cop persona he has built for himself.

I’m a fan of villains. This story shows us that a villain is not born, it is made, and it tells us this story repeatedly. In those series featuring Gustavo Fring we also come to realise that the only thing preventing criminality from conquering everything is itself, cutthroat competition, backstabbing and the inability to trust one another.

And here in lies the beauty of Breaking Bad, I’m still not entirely sure which watch-through I’m on, it’s definitely not more than three at this point, and still I’m uncovering more and more. It delivers something new to everyone who watches it, and as someone who has changed so too does my experience change. Quality is quality of course, and it shines through, and I find myself suddenly very keen to watch Better Call Saul, the prequel spinoff featuring the crooked lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk, currently pending a third season next year. I feel like I should wait until season three starts so that I can binge two seasons and ween myself off on the third.

Netflix’s model of bringing out an entire series of episodes simultaneously really makes the format a challenger to cinema and the feature-length film, their continued support of the binge-watch model that has become our new viewing habit has made it worth the effort of creating such vast epics as these, especially when titans of cinema like Anthony Hopkins start to sit up and take notice.

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