I urge you to watch tonight’s episode of Breaking Bad, which finds Bryan Cranston’s Walter White adjusting to the dissolution of his marriage while declining to abandon one big reason it dissolved: He still wants/needs to make meth to pay the bills. He goes to a new location to ply his chemistry-teacher skills and acquires a new assistant, played by David Costabile (the scruffy villain from last season’s Damages, among many other credits).
New Assistant finds it comforting to quote Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer” to justify his illegal, and let’s face it, immoral ways to God and to himself. Cut to our Walt sitting in his new cheap apartment, a copy of Leaves of Grass on his lap, poring over the pages silently.
It’s a terrific moment in a terrific new season of Breaking Bad, which digs deeper, with each succeeding episode into questions of what makes a man or woman “bad,” what needs to be done to protect one’s loved ones, and constantly asks the viewer: “How far would you go? Not here, you say? You’re lying to yourself, then.”
Breaking Bad airs on AMC, home of Mad Men, which returns with a new season in July, it was announced earlier this week. Me, I can easily await MM when there are new hours of Breaking Bad to watch. The two shows could not be more different. If Mad Men is a novel of manners for TV (John O’Hara meets Louis Auchincloss in Updike/Cheeverville), Breaking Bad is working thriller territory mapped out by the likes of Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Jonathan Latimer.
It’s lean and mean (a cop takes an axe to the back of the head in the opening minutes tonight), but thanks to the inspiration of creator Vince Gilligan to insert a middle-class nebbish into the role usually occupied by the cynical sharpie in most thrillers, it never lets ordinary folks like you or I to step back and say, “Oh, I’d never do that.” Breaking Bad is all about what you’d do if you were desperate enough. “And from time to time,” as Whitman writes, the show makes sure that you have “look’d up in perfect silence at the stars,” contemplating the full measure fate.