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TELEVISION

Getting the moral goods on 'Breaking Bad'

The AMC series returns to find the stakes ever higher as Walter White fights for his soul.

March 07, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

A few months ago, I found myself in the middle of a rather surprising debate over the merits of "Breaking Bad," which opens its second season on AMC Sunday night.

The folks involved were critics, scholars, writers, producers and other representatives of the generally mouthy and highly opinionated. So the surprise was not that we disagreed but what we disagreed about.

No one took issue with the general brilliance of Vince Gilligan's show, the terrific writing, acting, direction or cinematography. Bryan Cranston won an Emmy for his portrayal of Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who, upon learning he has terminal cancer, becomes a master chef of methamphetamine in order to bequeath his family a measure of financial security. Although the writers strike limited its season to seven episodes, the show received all manner of accolades and awards.

No, what bothered some was the show's message: that a desperate Everyman could find his true calling, his manhood, by manufacturing Grade A meth.

Yes, the idea of a science geek going street was blackly hilarious and Cranston's Walter was so beset and struggling that your heart went out to him. But were we really supposed to root for a guy who, a few episodes in, turned down a perfectly good job offer because it stung his pride only to seek personal salvation through a really good version of such a terrible drug?

Weren't we tired of the idea that crime is empowering (and an aphrodisiac), especially for those who once considered themselves nice guys? Wasn't it time we stopped celebrating the Bad Boy, stopped making it seem like life on the edge is the only one worth living?

Yes, that's right, a bunch of snarky, godless media types sitting around talking about morality. What can I say? It happens.

Especially these days when some of the best stories on television involve a rogues' gallery of transgressive "heroes" -- crooked cops, mobsters, adulterers, serial killers, prostitutes, drug addicts -- many of whom treat their pathologies with a wink and a smile or a persuasive voice-over. Going to extremes is the order of the day -- marriage is dissected via polygamy on "Big Love," multiple-personality motherhood is portrayed as kind of cool on "United States of Tara." House is still mean, drug-addicted and reckless, and Satan remains the best character on "Reaper." White isn't the only second-career drug dealer in town -- over at Showtime, "Weeds' " Nancy Botwin is getting spanked by a Mexican drug lord. So why set your hair on fire over crystal meth?

Because "Breaking Bad" is set-your-hair-on-fire television, that's why.

And because what makes it such a powerful show also makes it a disturbing show, as the second season seems bent on proving.

Smart but never slick, funny but never glib, dark but never (praise all saints and angels) noir, "Breaking Bad" is actually not another addition to the Brotherhood of the Made Guy formula, it turns out to be the formula's antidote. And if people like me weren't wondering, "Wow, how far is too far, and is seeing the mushy grit of a chemically dissolved human being scooped up and thrown in a trash bag maybe it?" then "Breaking Bad" wouldn't be the show it is.

It was difficult not to watch the first season in a state of perpetual flinch. The relentless New Mexico desert light -- how disinterested could God and nature get? -- just seemed to add insult to Walter's injury: A man who never smoked, condemned to die of lung cancer. He was so lost and clueless as he invited evil into his life, thinking he could control it with math and attention to detail, just as if he had never met a drug addict before or even seen "Fargo." His former student turned sidekick, Jesse (Aaron Paul), was such a twitching, fried-brainstem mess you could practically smell him -- the flop sweat, the ashtray funk of his clothes, the chemical film on his skin.

In comparison, Walter's wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn), and son (RJ Mitte) were so clean, so lovely and irritatingly real that the viewer felt complicit in their betrayal as we watched Walter dance with the devil.

In the second season, things are trending away from the humor in the situation. Having seen firsthand what his super-meth can do -- after snorting some, drug dealer Tuco beats one of his men into a bloody pulp -- Walter's swagger of newly awakened machismo is gone, replaced with something much grimmer that appears to be consuming him as quickly and effectively as the cancer.

This man is not finding his inner gangster, he's selling his soul, right before our eyes, and it is no longer going unnoticed either by him or his family.

The DEA brother-in-law is still a blowhard, but he's a brave blowhard who actually understands what's at stake. Still, we don't want Walter to get caught. Even though he deserves to get caught -- and needs to get caught, although maybe it's too late. Because when you willingly enter a world where murder is the cost of doing business, there really is no going back to a life of Diaper Genies and helping Walter Jr. make good choices.

As the new season seems intent on proving, it is impossible for a non-sociopath to lead two distinct and morally opposing lives, despite what some of our favorite movies and TV shows would have us believe. Whatever is at the strong, still center of Walter White must either take a final stand or give way all together. Which will be something worth watching and perhaps even rooting for.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Breaking Bad'

Where: AMC

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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