The Most Dangerous Show on Television

By Romano, Andrew | Newsweek, July 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Most Dangerous Show on Television

Romano, Andrew, Newsweek

Byline: Andrew Romano

'Breaking Bad' is as addictive as the meth cooked by its cancer-stricken lead character, and just as insidious. It's also TV's finest hour.

Bryan Cranston is Freaking me out. The skinheaded actor and I are sitting on the cold, dark, 76,660-square-foot set of AMC's Breaking Bad in Albuquerque and talking, between takes, about the larger themes of the show, which traces the moral decline of Cranston's character, Walter White, a timid high-school chemistry teacher who discovers he has terminal lung cancer and decides to pay his family's bills by cooking the finest crystal meth in New Mexico.

"Have you ever 'seen red'?" he asks. I'm not sure where this is coming from. "I mean, have you ever gone insanely mad, to where you are incredibly dangerous?"

"Me?" I mumble. "No."

Cranston nods and continues. "I did once, with a girlfriend who was nuts, a drug addict," he says. "She was banging on my front door, and I was afraid to open it because she was a powerhouse kind of woman. I had to keep her out of my life. And I had this vision. In my mind, I opened the door--I was living in New York at the time--and I grabbed her by her hair, and I pulled her into my apartment. And on one wall of my apartment is real brick. A brick wall, 12 feet high. And I took her head, and I smashed it against the brick. Over and over and over again. Until I could see--I saw the blood splattering! I saw the brain matter! I saw--I envisioned that I killed her."

Fidgeting, I wait for Cranston to elaborate. He stares at me for a few uncomfortable seconds. "Because I had that experience, I know it's possible in everyone," he finally says. "I was dangerous at that moment. And the meekest person among us, given the right circumstances, could become dangerous, too."

Breaking Bad, which returns for its fourth season on July 17, is about a lot of things. The meth epidemic. The American Southwest. The trials of middle-class manhood. The failings of our health-care system. The various ways to shatter the windshield of a Pontiac Aztek. But at its core, it's really about something more human, and more universal, than all that: the mysterious, all-too-common transformation that Cranston experienced, however briefly, that night in his apartment. It's a show--an unpredictable, cinematic, potboiling, page-turner of a show--about how people become dangerous.

The key word is "become." Since The Sopranos debuted a dozen years ago, the best characters on TV, from Deadwood's Al Swearengen to Dexter's eponymous serial killer, have been antagonistic protagonists--men and women who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but morally mixed up, like real people, and captivating for their complexity. At first glance, Walter White would seem to fit the voguish antihero mold. But unlike his cable counterparts, Walt started out a deeply sympathetic figure and then gradually morphed, over three seasons of escalating immorality, into an almost unrecognizable creep. In the beginning, he was cooking meth only so his family wouldn't be destitute when he died. Now you're not so sure.

This is intentional. "Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades," says Breaking Bad's creator, Vince Gilligan. "When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?" So Gilligan designed Breaking Bad to transform its hero into a villain--or, as he put it in his early pitch meetings, "Mr. Chips into Scarface."

So far, the "experiment"--Gilligan's term--has paid off: the darker Walt has gotten, the brighter the show's prospects have become. "Our show is like our drug," Cranston says as we walk through Walt's dormant meth lab. "It's addictive." He's right: Breaking Bad's black wit and lavish cinematography--director of photography Michael Slovis loves to linger on New Mexico's ochre deserts and streaking cirrus clouds--make it seem less like a cable drama than some lost Coen Brothers thriller. …

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