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Bryan Cranston as Walter White on AMCs Breaking Bad

Here we are again, with part three in a series highlighting some of 2011’s most daring, innovative television. This week, I’ll be singing the praises of AMC’s consistently shocking and always riveting Breaking Bad.

Indeed, there is no show on TV more unrelenting in its exploration of human misery than Breaking Bad. Created by former X-Files writer Vince Gilligan, the show stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with cancer, begins cooking and distributing meth with the help of a burnout ex-student (Aaron Paul). If that premise sounds a bit too high-concept and wacky cable-TV for your tastes, let me assure you, wackiness is far down on this show’s list of priorities.

Gilligan has spoken at length about his ambitions for the show, to take a sympathetic, relatable protagonist and track his gradual destruction, a destruction both of himself and of the people around him. Or, as Gilligan likes to put it, “the goal was to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.” In one scene from the series’ first episode, Cranston’s Walter White touches upon this mission statement, through the guise of a chemistry lecture.  He says:

Chemistry is… well technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this. Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules, molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well that’s all of life, right? …It’s solution then dissolution, over and over and over. It’s growth, then decay, then transformation.

What makes the show such riveting, at times difficult television is that it’s not so concerned with the end result of Walter White’s transformation as it is with the transformation itself. Imagine a Greek tragedy that unfolds not over a single two-hour play, but in a series of vignettes released over several years. Each week, Gilligan asks the viewer, “Why are you still rooting for this man? Why are you still watching?” And each week the viewer has less and less of a legitimate answer. But it’s impossible to look away. It’s serialized rubbernecking, and the writers know it.

The medium of television is ideal for this sort of cruel game, and Breaking Bad makes perfect use of its format as a serialized drama. Over four years, Gilligan and his writing staff have built an increasingly complex world, starting with a small cast in a contained environment, and then pushing outwards to introduce new assets. These assets include hilariously shifty lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), cantankerous hit man Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), and perhaps most notably, fast-food franchise owner / sociopath drug kingpin Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, who more than deserves an Emmy for his work this year).

But it’s not just the cast bringing this tragedy to life. Breaking Bad, one of the few shows still shooting on film, is perhaps the most gorgeous and cinematic hour on TV. A rotating group of talented directors (including Hard Candy director David Slade and Brick director Rian Johnson) squeeze every drop of tension and atmosphere from the proceedings. Not to mention DP Michael Slovis, who surely deserves a trophy for his artful manipulation of the show’s bleak New Mexican sprawl. For proof of Slovis’ prowess, check out this gorgeous scene from late in season four (and consider whether that shift in light halfway through was purposeful or a happy accident).

Notice how slow and calculated the action in this scene is; how the pauses are just as important as the words spoken. Unlike 90% of the other dramas on TV, Breaking Bad cherishes silence. The show consistently favors atmosphere over action (and when the opposite is true, there’s a damn good reason for it). This is why Cranston, Paul, and the rest of the cast are so great; because Gilligan and his team don’t rush them towards a scene’s conclusion.

Check out this cold open (which actually doesn’t feature any of the show’s regular cast). It’s a perfect example of how the show takes its time building character motivation, power dynamics, and tension. It’s also just a beautifully constructed scene, one that could easily stand on its own as a short film.

Breaking Bad has made an art out of the cold open, those isolated first few minutes before the opening credits roll. It’s a trick that Gilligan picked up from his days on The X Files, but here he’s pushed it to new levels. When viewers tune in each week, they never know what to expect to see before the credits. It could be a tension-filled short like the above, a flashback to decades earlier, or, as in one season two episode, a music video for a Mexican folk song.

No matter how any given episode opens, it all ties back into Breaking Bad’s larger story: the gradual self-destruction of Walter White. This is the show’s greatest achievement: that it’s managed to grow one coherent, complete story over the past four years and counting. Even a great serialized drama like The Sopranos wasn’t able to accomplish such a feat. Recall how each season would introduce a new antagonist in Tony’s path (often a rival mob boss), and then have Tony predictably waste this villain by season’s end. Mad Men, a show that not only shares Breaking Bad’s network, but also its passion for atmosphere and tone, falls into similar trappings with its rotating cast of love interests for Don Draper. After a certain number of seasons, even the best of shows tend to establish something of a formula, begin to repeat themselves, tread water, and lose a bit of their luster in the process.

But Breaking Bad has yet to reach this point. And with the show ending after its fifth and final season next summer, it seems unlikely to do so. Every season, every episode, has built upon what’s come before in unpredictable and deftly plotted ways. The fourth season finale, for instance, spent nearly half its running time paying off the arc of a minor character introduced three years earlier and appearing only sporadically since. To maintain an ever-expanding universe like this, a universe rotating entirely around one man’s tragic and unending descent, is quite the feat. Breaking Bad continues to plumb wrenching new depths each week, and the show has displayed no signs of nearing bottom.

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