Proving it’s not just a one-show network, American Movie Classics premiered the second season of the original series “Breaking Bad” on Sunday.
The season picked up right where the abbreviated season one left off, even recapping the season one ending scene so the aftermath is not confusing to new viewers. In the series, chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) are negotiating a gigantic four-pound meth deal with drug dealer Tuco (Raymond Cruz). Why is Walter doing this? He has cancer, and he’s trying to make enough money through drug deals to leave his family financially stable when he dies.
After a misunderstanding between Tuco and one of his henchmen, Tuco attacks him, literally punching him to death. The scene is surreal from the perspective of Walter and Jesse, seeing Tuco react so negatively to a simple miscommunication. The way Tuco hops up and yells energetically at what he has just done, ambivalent of the moral ramifications, shows the wild, uncontrollable demeanor he possesses.
Not only is Tuco on the emotional edge throughout but so is Walter’s wife, Skyler. The events of season one — the continued absence of Walter at all times of the day and night as well as his questionable alibis — have clearly taken a toll on her, not to mention her impending childbirth. This shows when Skyler listens to Walter’s reasoning for why he was out all night. While he was actually handling the Tuco situation, worried for his life and wondering whether he and Jesse should kill Tuco, Walter explains that he simply was out all night because of stomach problems. He did not want to wake her with constant trips out and into bed. The weak alibi is immediately not believed by Skyler, which shows as she looks to the floor and becomes impatient. Walter knows she doesn’t believe him either as can be seen by his pained expression. Without saying anything, the real emotions of all the characters are conveyed, and it’s this subtlety that makes the situations of “Breaking Bad” real, while the context is frequently surreal.
Skyler attains her emotional catharsis when confronting her brother-in-law Hank Schrader. He had come by to ask Skyler to return her sister’s phone calls. Annoyed by the phone calls and baffled by her sister’s constant need for the spotlight, even with her own impossible situation, Skyler goes off on Hank in a beautiful crescendo that verbalizes all the sad despair and silent frustration she exhibited in so many previous scenes. She comes off as so defeated and despondent that the viewer would not have been surprised if she asked for a divorce in the episode. Yet she doesn’t— not yet anyway.
Speaking of subtle characterization, one cannot say enough about the visual and verbal juxtaposition between Walter and Jesse in every scene they are in. Jesse looks loose in his baggy pants and T-shirt, while Walter is uptight in his firm-fitting pants and tucked-in, button-down dress shirt. As Jesse sprinkles in a “yo” at the end of a sentence, trying to act all gangster, Walter is thinking in the scientific method again, asking Jesse for specific details of his half-conceived plan to kill Tuco. Walter asks, will it be two or three shots to Tuco? What about his big accomplice? How many shots will it take to finish him? What if he brings more people? One might deduce that, without Walter, Jesse could be dead by now.
At the same time, Jesse’s street smarts and knowledge of the drug world inform Walter enough to make decisions. When Walter is lost in his analysis, Jesse reminds him of how practical it would be to not take action against a hostile, unpredictable Tuco. It’s either us or him, he says. The two are an odd but effective pairing, and this episode illustrates it perfectly.
The episode might have been difficult to follow for new viewers, considering that the scene began in the context of the season one finale and also considering plotlines like Skyler’s pregnancy and Marie’s kleptomania were continued without any time lapse. However, while the premiere might not have been the perfect jumping on point, it was still coherent enough to follow, and season one is short enough for new viewers to catch up quickly.
Aided by thoughtful writing, strong characterization and Emmy Award-winning actor Cranston, “Breaking Bad” should turn AMC from that network that “Mad Men” airs on to a burgeoning home for a quality original series.