Breaking Bad bursts to life mid-scene with a middle-aged man wearing nothing but his underwear and a gas mask, driving a Winnebago through the New Mexico desert. When it crashes, he stands in the middle of the road and aims a revolver towards wailing police sirens. It’s like a scene straight out of Thelma and Louise.
We’ve come to expect boots and all storytelling from American cable dramas, and this one, from the AMC Channel, certainly sits toward the top of the heap.
Following its fast and furious opener, we’re transported back three weeks, into the routine life of one Walter White, high school chemistry teacher.
Played by Malcolm in the Middle’s Brian Cranston, White is about as beige as they come. His life is devoid of excitement. On turning 50, his wife masturbates him in bed while bidding for eBay items on her laptop. His teenage son has cerebral palsy, and his students view him with contempt. But his life is derailed when a doctor tells him he has lung cancer, and only two years to live.
While harbouring his news, a numbed Walter ekes out a little adventure by accompanying his brother on a DEA drug raid, the target of which turns out to be one of his students. This propels him into a life of crime, when he realises that he can use his chemistry skills to manufacture drugs, securing a financial future for his family.
Suddenly he is a man with a mission; a mouse that roars.
The premise of Breaking Bad is in some ways a variation of Weeds, in which Nancy (Mary Louise-Parker) turns to a life of crime in order to sustain her family’s lifestyle. The difference here is in the complete U-turn of its central character. He’s like Michael Douglas in Falling Down; Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon; or Peter Finch in Network: he’s as mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it any more.
It’s a dream role for a character actor, and Cranston is brilliant as the insipid, sweater-wearing everyman. He’s already in Emmy contention against such heavyweights as James Spader, Hugh Laurie, Michael C. Hall, Gabriel Byrne and Jon Hamm.
Rounding out this dark, unhitched drama is a taut script amplified on a filmic canvas from former The X-Files writer Vince Gilligan, who also directs.