Politics on TV

“Breaking Bad” and the drug war

Even by the standards of the drug war, U.S. efforts to control methamphetamine have been a story of one step forward, twelve steps back. Everything authorities try seems to make things worse in the long run. Efforts to stop the motorcycle gangs cooking the stuff in the 1970s paved the way for even more ruthless cartels. Forcing cold medicine makers to put their pills into blister packs didn’t stop meth junkies from popping out 5,000 of them by hand at a sitting to get at the needed ephedrine inside—adding carpal tunnel to their long list of health problems. Further restrictions led to so-called “super labs” in Mexico pumping out the purest product ever seen…you get the idea.  

But whatever “Breaking Bad” has to say about the drug war has more to do with the human side of the equation—as in how complex and contradictory people are, and how this makes them hard to predict or control. The AMC series, with season three now showing on cable and season two recently out on DVD, has one of the bleakest setups you’ll find. Season one starts out with high school chemistry teacher Walter White (the brilliant Bryan Cranston), being diagnosed with terminal cancer. In debt, with a disabled son and pregnant wife, he tracks down former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and convinces the small-time dealer to go into the meth business with him. Walt’s brother in-law, by the way, is a DEA agent.

At first it seems to be a story about how naïve or well-meaning people get corrupted by the ruthlessness of the criminal world. A warning to the squeamish, season one alone features the pair dissolving the bodies of rival dealers in a bathtub with acid, “La Femme Nikita” style, among other hard-to-watch bits.

But as things move from a truncated season one into season two, you soon realize that there is something very dark going on inside Walt—something which predates his involvement in the drug trade by decades. There’s a cold, angry core inside this mild-mannered, middle-aged guy that finds him alienated from the family he’s supposedly trying to provide for. His secret life increasingly becomes his main life. While the plots center around how hapless the pair are as kingpins, in Walt’s case, all he’s lacking is experience.

Best-known as the dad on “Malcolm in the Middle,” Cranston has won two straight best lead actor Emmys for the role. This has been called an actors’ series, and while the scripts are good, it’s Cranston and company that really keep you riveted. Walt unfolds like a series of Russian dolls. Is he a bad liar—or a good liar pretending to be a bad one? What’s the secret that caused him to forsake a life as a tech entrepreneur for one making a Capitol Weekly-type salary teaching bored teenagers? You care about the guy, but sort of hate him at the same time.

As Walt gets darker, his young partner increasingly shows his empathetic, human side. Paul is also excellent in this role. In season one, it annoyed me that he always seemed to be yelling out his lines—but then I realized that this was completely appropriate, since he has his own meth habit. As opposed to the hammy portrayals of drug use that often show up on even supposedly hip shows (I’m looking at you, “Weeds”), Paul is great at portraying the ups and downs of someone who drifts in an out of various types of drug use, especially as he turns to drugs to cope with the brutality that comes with his growing income. It’s interesting to learn that the guy who wasn’t cruel enough for the drug trade was the guy who was already in it.

What I love about this show, it’s nearly impossible for me to predict what’s going to happen more than two minutes ahead, if at all. Even the minor characters all have their own frail, human secrets. It’s shot in a style more like a film that how we traditionally think of TV shows. Each opening scene depicts something than hasn’t happened yet, but when the foreshadowed moment finally arrives, what it means and how you got there are usually something quite different from what you expect. The excellent camera work also makes good use of Albuquerque, N.M., a gritty old city in the midst of some of the most beautiful desert our country has to offer. It’s an existential setting, the indifference of nature seeming almost benign compared to the cruelty of man.

What does it all mean? Is Walt a metaphor for America’s hypocrisy when it comes to our appetite for drugs—full of middle class self-righteousness as he inadvertently leaves a trail of bodies in his wake? Is his new life a rebellion against the finality of death, selfishness disguised as selflessness? I’m just not sure, and I think that’s the point.  

French Film special event at the Crest

The annual Sacramento French Film Festival doesn’t roll around again until June 18. But organizers are holding a special fundraiser at the Crest Theatre (1013 K St.) on April 29th at 7:30pm. The film will be Le Couperet (The Ax), a dark comedy/thriller that was a major hit in France in 2005. See for more information, and this column next week for a full review.

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