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High Schools These Days

The broke chemistry teacher in Breaking Bad turns out to be pretty handy in a meth lab.

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Illustration by Henry Janson  

Vince Gilligan, the X-Files veteran who created Breaking Bad, has made it clear that he dreamed up his series idea “several years before Weeds”—and therefore any resemblance between the two shows is purely coincidental. While both ask us to identify with aggrieved suburbanites reduced to dealing drugs to make ends meet, I see no reason not to believe him. Bryan Cranston, whose Walter White in Breaking Bad is a high-school chemistry teacher cooking up crystal meth in a used RV in the New Mexican desert, shouldn’t remind anybody of Mary-Louise Parker, whose Nancy Botwin in Weeds is a soccer mom selling pot in pastries and popcorn to the whiter part of a Southern California town, unless you’re dumb, numb, and weird. Weeds, moreover, required half a dozen episodes before turning semigothic, whereas Breaking Bad can’t even get through its pilot hour without gunplay, sirens, and poison gas.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even before he gets bad medical news from the hospital, Walter is already moonlighting as a cashier in a car wash to help pay for his Albuquerque house with the desolate patio and leaf-filled swimming pool, his stay-at-home wife (Anna Gunn) who writes short stories and is pregnant again, and a teenage son (RJ Mitte) with cerebral palsy. Now this lifelong nonsmoker with “a brain the size of Wisconsin” is informed that he has inoperable lung cancer, with a year or two left to live if he’s lucky. Well, what is he always telling his apathetic students about chemistry as a metaphor for transformation? Staring into a breakfast plate of “veggie bacon” that smells like Band-Aids, Walter is in desperate need of some risk-taking changes in his anal-retentive life. If Takashi Shimura’s Everyman in Ikiru doesn’t come immediately to mind, maybe William H. Macy’s car salesman in Fargo will substitute.

But never mind Kurosawa and the Coen brothers. Follow Walter from a drug-bust ride-along with his brother-in-law, the DEA agent (Dean Norris), to the garage of an ex-student (Aaron Paul) whose previous partner in the methamphetamine biz has just been arrested to the cubbyhole kitchen of a Winnebago, where Walter proves to be an “artist” at the batching of magic crystals. This mild-mannered high-school teacher is now spending an inordinate amount of time on the road, in a gas mask and his underwear, dodging bullets and (literally) laundering money. In fact, from a chemical reaction peculiar to the cinematography of the Southwest desert, the very colors of Breaking Bad seem to have been laundered: As Walter moves from Mister Peepers to Sunbelt drug lord, the picture shifts from earth-tone beige to livid blue, asparagus green, and piss yellow.

Further to confound anybody still hoping for Weeds-type sight gags (the stolen goat, the sauna sex, the teddy-bear nanny cam), there will be prescribed courses not just in chemistry but also in chemotherapy. From chemotherapy, one shouldn’t expect a lot of laughs. We are being slipped instead something metaphorical about wayward leukocytes and cells gone wrong. It must be said that Cranston, a sitcom stalwart perhaps best known as hairy Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, embodies all these transformations as if he were himself a lost city of the plains—a toppled tower, a ruined wall, a bundle of whispering bones. Not enough of Breaking Bad was available for preview to decide whether the supporting cast will eventually satisfy as much as Weeds regulars like Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Nealon, Tonye Patano, and Justin Kirk, but Cranston’s Walter is already a winner. He reminds me of Robin Williams’s Tommy Wilhelm in the film version of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, back in 1986, when Robin Williams was still wonderful to watch. Which in turn makes me wonder at the number of Walters there are in our literature, from Melville and Twain to Saul Bellow, William Kennedy, and E.L. Doctorow, deracinated walkers on the wild side, urban outlaws as pop icons, on the lam from farm chores, doctors, cops, and schoolmarms.

Breaking Bad
AMC. Sundays at 10 p.m.
Premieres January 20.


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