I remember feeling more than a little confused when I first saw previews for season one of Breaking Bad. The goofy imagery of the dad from Malcolm in the Middle packing heat in the desert wearing nothing but his tighty-whiteys in an open-legged pose didn’t exactly have me running for my Tivo, but after watching the pilot episode I was not only pleasantly surprised, but unexpectedly blown away. Pilot episodes are generally considered the most difficult to write because they have the tall order of establishing the characters, premise, setting, pace and tone of the entire series while still being entertaining, but series creator Vince Gilligan pulled it off with impeccable style and ingenuity. In fact, Breaking Bad has one of the best pilot episodes of any series I’ve ever seen and with each subsequent episode topping the previous, Breaking Bad is easily one of the best series I’ve ever watched and perhaps the best drama on television right now.
Walter White is the definition of American milquetoast. A 50 year old high school chemistry teacher whose scientific brilliance wanes under the unrewarding monotony of teaching, Walter more or less floats through life, watching with only a glossy-eyed stare as it slowly passes him by. Though he is content with his loving wife Sklar and handicapped son Walter Jr. in their small New Mexico home, he lives a relatively unfulfilling and mundane existence. Walt’s life takes a dramatic turn however, when he, a reasonably healthy non-smoker, is diagnosed with inoperable stage three lung cancer. Suddenly realizing the fragility and impermanence of his life, his perspective and his priorities drastically shift. Who will pay for his consultations and chemotherapy treatments? Who will take care of his family should he die? Out of anticipatory desperation, Walt becomes a man of action and makes the most impulsive decision of his life: He decides to cook crystal meth using his extensive chemistry background and sell it in order to make sure his family is taken care of. Partnered with Jesse Pinkman, an old student of his, Walt, the unassuming middle-aged chemistry teacher and family-man, enters head first into the dark and dangerous world of drug dealing.
Breaking Bad is a superbly written, perfectly acted, and beautifully shot show. The story of a dying family man who becomes immersed in the world of hard drugs is incredibly morbid in its own right, but the writers approach the material in a way that is smart, emotionally grounded, and often darkly humorous. Vince Gilligan and his staff of writers perfectly understand the tone of the world they’ve created and never fail to push the characters to the brink with stories that shift from the highly emotional (Walt’s intervention, the captured drug dealer in the basement, Jesse’s return home) to ones that are more plot driven and action packed (The drug dealers in the desert, Walt’s confrontation with Tucco, Walt exploding ‘Ken Wins’ car). No matter what dark places the show pulls the characters towards, the emotional core is always maintained at all times making the plight of Walter and Jesse at all times believable and relatable.
I can’t go on without mentioning the excellent performances delivered by both Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul who plays Jesse Pinkman. Cranston truly breathes life into Walter keeping him likable despite the fact he is a depressed and regretful man broken down by years of unfulfilled potential. He has a way of perfectly embodying Walt’s naivety and desperation in the drug game while simultaneously building him a hardened and rough exterior as his character becomes more and more consumed in the world of drugs. Aaron Paul similarly gives the performance of his career as a tough-talking, but kind hearted kid who became lost in the world of drugs rather than purposefully choosing that path. The two characters are so completely different, but they complement each other and play of one another so well in the show that their relationship is absolutely authentic and fun to watch. Dean Norris, Anna Gunn, and RJ Mitte also give fantastic performances as Walter’s brother-in-law, wife, and son respectively.
Also entertaining is the way that science is incorporated into the show. Being a chemistry whiz, Walt often uses his vast knowledge of chemicals to get himself and Jesse out of tight situations. The show does a good job of balancing the drama with the comedy and the action keeping the show suspenseful, exciting, and above all emotionally poignant.
The 1080p 1.78:1 transfer looks pretty phenomenal. The directors do a magnificent job capturing the badland beauty of the barren New Mexico landscape. The cinematography is just remarkably beautiful throughout the series, most notably in the gorgeous timelapse sequences and the unique angle and framing of the shots. Though much of the show has a purposefully de-saturated and sometimes grainy look to convey they monotony of Walter’s life, the colors are incredibly vibrant when they need to be and pop off the screen, especially in the westerny outdoor scenes. The contrast levels are excellent as well and though a few low-light sequences that employ handheld camera work tend to get a little fuzzy, the overall image quality of the series is quite sharp and very detailed.
The 5.1 DTS HD MA audio track delivers on a level that is on par with the show itself. The dialogue is crisp and balanced well with the soundtrack which is especially important considering that Walt speaks in a raspy whisper at times. The music plays such a huge role in setting the mood of the series and their choice of music and the orchestral track perfectly compliments the dark and gritty atmosphere. Gunshots and explosions also come through nicely though much of season one is dialogue driven.
There are a ton of features included with the two-disc blu-ray with enough potency to give even the most severe Breaking Bad addicts a long-lasting full-body high. Commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes; you name it, they got it. Extras include:
- Audio Commentary
Commentary for the pilot episode “Breaking Bad” and the sixth episode “Crazy Handful of Nothin” with creator Vince Gilligan and actors Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and others. They discuss several aspects of the series including how the time lapse shots and other effects were achieved as well as the actor’s motivations in various scenes. Vince Gilligan is a pretty soft-spoken guy, but the conversation is always kept lively by Cranston and Gunn.
- Making of Breaking Bad
A short behind the scenes featurette in which Vince Gilligan discusses the show from conception to production. The actors all provide their takes on their characters in one-on-one interviews.
- Screen Tests
A look at Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Betsy Brandt, and Dean Norris auditioning for their roles. It’s actually pretty interesting to see their early raw interpretations of what their characters should sound like.
- Deleted Scenes
Extra scenes that were cut from the episodes. Some of these are really interesting though my only complaint is that they can only be accessed by navigating to the individual episodes and selecting the ‘deleted scenes’ option. It would’ve been more convenient to lump them all together in the special features section so that they can all be watched in a row.
- Vince Gilligan’s Photo Gallery
Assorted behind the scenes photos taken by creator Vince Gilligan.
- AMC Shootout
A featurette that appeared on AMC in which Variety Editor-in-Chief Peter Bart and entertainment mogul Peter Guber discuss the blossoming television industry and its effect on the film industry. The first half is a snooze-fest, unless you enjoy two old men debating the technical aspects of the entertainment industry, but once Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston come out for the interview it starts to pick up a little.
- Inside Breaking Bad
The director and actors discuss specific scenes in the series and offer their input on why they were especially important, fun to shoot, or just great scenes.
Whether or not you’ve seen the show, Breaking Bad is an absolute must-own blu-ray. With its stellar cast of utterly compelling characters, expertly crafted storytelling, and visually stunning look, this Emmy darling is sure to become one of your favorite shows. Don’t let the dad from Malcom in the Middle fool you, this is one of the most dark, twisted, and daring shows on television.