Breaking Bad reviewed.

What you're watching.
Jan. 25 2008 5:41 PM

No Country for Old Meth Dealers

Imagine the Coen brothers directing an episode of Weeds, and you have Breaking Bad.

Breaking Bad. Click image to expand.
Breaking Bad

Having mastered the part of a prototypical suburban-dad-as-jolly-doofus on Malcolm in the Middle, actor Bryan Cranston gives it an energetic go as a suburban-dad-as-cringing-milksop on Breaking Bad (AMC, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET). His wrinkles seem baked into a face that's somehow both geekily ruddy and nerdily pale. His posture tells of his preparedness for a hundred defeats to come. His wears his scrub brush of a mustache as if he's resigned to it, with an upper lip that's unspeakably schlubby.

The character, Walt White, lives in Albuquerque, N.M., the burg from whence the Hoovers of Little Miss Sunshine set out on their sweet-sour road trip and where Bugs Bunny habitually made a wrong turn. * Walt teaches high-school chemistry—a far cry from the promise signaled by the plaque lauding his early work for a Nobel Prize-winning research team, particularly considering that he makes ends meet with a job at a car wash. Walter Jr., his teenage son, has cerebral palsy, and you get the sense that Walt feels disappointed in that fact and guilty about all his disappointment. Even though Mrs. White is more interested in eBay than in the pleasures of the marital bed, she has a baby on the way. Here we have all the markers of a generic midlife-crisis project, but the show's premise holds that, at age 50, Walt is way past the midpoint. The pilot episode saw him digest a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer and fling himself into a get-rich-quick scheme; the coming installments sludge through the fallout of his first misadventure in the manufacture and sale of crystal meth.

Advertisement

His colleague in the affair is one Jesse Pinkman, a former student Walt spied fleeing the scene of a drug bust. They're an attractively odd couple. Jesse, antic and quick and liquid, careers around in his baggy pants and gets high on his own supply. Walt remains a methodical dweeb even when struggling with the question of whether to kill a drug dealer—he hunts down a pad and writes up a pros-and-cons list. Reasons against offing the punk include "Judeo/Christian principles" and "post-traumatic stress" and "murder is wrong!" In the other column: "He'll kill your entire family if you let him go."

This is a comedy so dark that you see only half the laughs through the murk. The boldest pops of humor come from the direction of Walt's brother-in-law, a bulky and blustering DEA agent, a guy you can imagine braying that coined phrase "can of whoop-ass." The subtlest owe to Anna Gunn (of Deadwood), who, as Walt's wife, makes for a tickling mama bear. The rest is blood-and-guts slapstick and existential farce played out below desert mesas and along water-sprinkled lawns. It's no mere coincidence that a scene in this Sunday's episode—a vision of a dazed and bloodied outlaw marching through a pristine suburb—recalls a moment in No Country for Old Men. Breaking Bad often tries to make like a Coen brothers' edition of Weeds. Its achievement rarely matches its ambitions, but the effect is still pretty dope.

Correction, Jan. 28, 2008: The sentence originally misspelled Albuquerque. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.