Breaking Bad: The Finest Hour on Television

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PHOTOS: 'Breaking Bad', Scenes from Season 4 Brent Humphreys for Newsweek

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. Which may help explain why the ratings for the season-two premiere exceeded the previous season’s average by more than 40 percent, and the season-three opener added another 40 percent to that number, putting it roughly on par with AMC’s flagship, Mad Men. Meanwhile, Cranston has won three consecutive outstanding lead-actor Emmys, and Aaron Paul, who plays Walt’s maladroit sidekick, Jesse Pinkman, added his own supporting-actor statuette in 2010. No less a narrative ace than Stephen King has called Breaking Bad “the best scripted show on television.” I’d go a step further and say that, right now, it’s the best program on TV, period.

When Breaking Bad returns, it should have the sort of momentum that helped convert cult favorite The Wire into a canonical drama at the same stage in its run; years of “you have to watch this” buzz, both in the press and around the water cooler, seem poised to pay off. But the show’s structure poses a huge risk as well. Every time Gilligan and his team nudge Walt closer to the dark side, they make it harder for viewers to care about his fate. Which means each season is trickier to create than the last. “Breaking Bad hopefully gains new viewers with every episode,” Gilligan says. “But if I’m being honest, I have to think that we’re losing viewers as well. There are some people who shake loose and say, ‘This guy is too damn dark. I can’t root for him anymore.’ The secret is to make sure Walt’s always fascinating, even if people find it tougher and tougher to sympathize with him.”

From what I saw on set, I can say this much for sure: by the end of season four, there won’t be many viewers left who sympathize with Walt. The riveting thing was being there as Gilligan’s team struggled to do what few (if any) television shows have ever done before: keep us watching, regardless.

Breaking Bad has been a challenge from the start. In the summer of 2004, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht—then in charge of cable and broadcast programming, respectively, at Sony Pictures Television—-invited Gilligan to a meeting. The NYU alumnus was a hot prospect because of his work on The X-Files—he wrote, directed, and/or produced more than 40 episodes—and was now focused on building a movie career. But Van Amburg and Erlicht wanted to lure him back to TV. “We actually begged him to meet with us,” Van Amburg says. “We were convinced, on this day, that he was going to come up with the next version of The X-Files. We thought, we got it. This is the golden ticket.”

But Gilligan had something else in mind. After insisting that TV wasn’t for him, he casually mentioned “this one thing” he’d been mulling for months. “The first eight minutes were literally how not to pitch a television show,” Van Amburg says. “I mean, here was this middle-aged guy, Walter White, who lives a mundane existence, with students who don’t listen, a slightly loveless, complex marriage, and a special-needs son. Vince even punchlined the setup with, 'And then he gets cancer.' ”

The Sony executives were baffled. But then Gilligan asked them a simple question: what would you do if you were in Walt’s shoes? Van Amburg describes it, in his caffeinated Hollywood style, as an “electrifying” moment. “By minute nine,” he gushes, “we were sitting on the couch across from Vince going, ‘Wow. You’re right. What would my options be if I had a teacher’s pension that was all but nonexistent, a family I was leaving behind, and very little time on the clock?’ It was about issues of manhood and legacy and money.” The studio was convinced.

Unfortunately, selling Sony on the idea turned out to be the easy part. Later that summer, Gilligan’s team started shopping Breaking Bad to the cable networks: TNT, Showtime, FX. Everyone was excited that Gilligan was returning to television. No one was excited about what Erlicht calls “the subject matter”: a dying sad sack who cooks crystal meth. One executive asked if Walt could be a bank robber instead. Another said he should deal marijuana. Eventually, FX signed on. But shortly after Gilligan finished writing the pilot, the network decided that it needed a series “with broader appeal” to accompany its sexy hit Nip/Tuck, according to Van Amburg. Breaking Bad was orphaned again.

Which is where AMC came in. At FX, an assistant named Jeremy Elice had loved Gilligan’s pilot script; now he was working for the classic-movie network, which was desperate to follow Mad Men with something just as bold—if not bolder. At first Gilligan was skeptical, but when AMC brass told him that they would let him direct the pilot, he was hooked. The show premiered two years later, on Jan. 20, 2008, to rave reviews.

“I’m still to this day astounded and amazed that it came to exist,” says Gilligan, a lumbering native of Farmville, Va., who has something of the Southern raconteur about him, with a boyish face and bourbon drawl that mask a wicked sense of story and character. “It’s kind of like the old saw that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly, aerodynamically speaking. Clearly they do, but on paper it doesn’t look like they should. It’s the same with Breaking Bad.

Unlike most other television dramas, which tend to peak early, Breaking Bad has gained steam with each season. The initial batch of episodes focused on the logistics of Walt’s decision: Where do I cook the meth? How do I sell it? What kind of acid is best for dissolving a corpse? Season two was all about side effects: the psychopathic drug boss who demands his cut; the lonely wife who starts to get suspicious; the loved ones who inevitably get hurt. And season three forced Walt to accept the person he’s becoming: alone, abhorred, and deadly—but finally, thrillingly, alive.

Throughout, the two male leads have been masterly, maintaining the credibility and comic spirit of their scientist-meets-street-punk relationship through some of the most wrenching plot twists ever attempted on television. Paul in particular has blossomed in recent years, transforming his character from a rather one-dimensional brat (who was originally scheduled to die early on) into what Gilligan calls the “moral center” of the show. Consider the final frames of season three: Jesse’s pink, welling eyes hover above the blurred barrel of a gun aimed directly at the camera—and at the face of the kind, innocent man he’s been dispatched to kill. Suddenly, the focus shifts to the trembling pistol, a shot sounds…and the screen goes black. Gilligan’s intention with the scene was to have Jesse hit his target. But viewers found it so hard to believe that Paul’s sensitive, soulful character could commit cold-blooded murder—debates raged in fan forums—that Gilligan reconsidered, opening the season-four writers’ room “with a long and spirited discussion of whether we should actually have Aaron go through with it.” Paul’s performance was that powerful.

The new season has been Gilligan & Co.’s greatest challenge to date: a relentless struggle to ensure that Walt—the monster they are slowly but surely creating—still feels as human as possible, and that each moral modulation feels real.

On set in Albuquerque, that battle is unfolding in real time. The scene they’re shooting, a seven-page, 11-minute behemoth, is perhaps the most pivotal, and emotional, of the season: a confrontation in the Whites’ darkened home between Walt and Jesse, who believes Walt has committed an unpardonable crime.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking coming here,” Walt snaps, pacing like a caged beast. “Christ, what does it matter? Everything…it’s all coming to an end.” Fuming, Jesse keeps a watchful eye on Walt, but he doesn’t speak, or move.

“Do you even know what’s happening?” Walt shouts. “The full scope of what’s happening?”

Eventually, there will be accusations and denials and screaming and shoving and a gun, followed by a decision that’s consistent with Gilligan’s description of season four as a whole: “It’s all about whether Walt’s moral rot will infect the people around him.” But first, the director and his stars have to figure out how to play this moment, and right now they’re not agreeing on much.

“I’m going to stand up and be face to face with Jesse,” Cranston says. “We’re going to have this conversation as men.”

“I’m not sure,” says Gilligan. “I was thinking we’d try it with you on your back?”

“But that seems counterintuitive to me,” Cranston replies. “It doesn’t seem supported. It skews the text.”

For the next hour, Cranston lies flat on the kitchen floor; in that pose, he chooses to absorb Jesse’s rage with whimpering passivity. For an hour or so after that, he sits erect, his chin tilted upward toward his accuser—defiant, even cunning, in his denials. The speed of the dialogue shifts. “It doesn’t have to be loud, but it has to be fast, fast, fast,” says Gilligan, snapping his fingers. Finally, after seven hours of near-constant recalibration—and scores of full-throttle, throat-shredding takes—Gilligan, Cranston, and Paul arrive at a configuration, and a rhythm, that feels right. Later, Gilligan will tell me that this “was the hardest day [he’s] ever had as a director.” After 14 hours on set, I’m inclined to believe him. “I thought I understood what the scene was about,” he says. “Then we got halfway through, and we started to get lost.”

But as I observe what will become the final take, lost is the last thing they seem. In his earlier passes, Cranston sounded either too much like the pushover Walt was at the start of the series, or too much like the fiend he’s eventually supposed to turn into. But now Cranston is able to flicker—organically, believably—between fear, resignation, and resolve, like the hybrid creature Walt has become. At this point, I’ve watched the scene at least 50 times. But what I’m watching doesn’t feel like a scene anymore. It feels like it’s actually happening. “It’s fun when Walt surprises us,” Gilligan will later tell me. “It was fun to see how dark he would go in the early days, and now it’s fun to find these moments of humanity when he’s not quite so dark after all—to see the moments of change as they happen.”

Soon Walt won’t be able to change anymore: either his villainy or his cancer will kill him. “Five or six seasons would be a good end,” Paul says. “I don’t think we can do anything more than that.” So enjoy the metamorphosis while it lasts—not that it’s Breaking Bad’s only virtue. The show’s whiplash plot twists never disappoint; there’s one in the premiere that will have fans swooning for weeks. Gilligan’s surreal visuals—the tattered pink teddy bear in the pool; the lone eyeball under the bed—evoke the great David Lynch. And viewers can’t help but care about such a rich cast of supporting characters: Walt’s paralyzed brother-in-law, Hank; his thieving sister-in-law, Marie; his disabled son, Walt Jr.; his conflicted wife, Skyler.

But at heart, it’s Walter White’s ongoing transformation that hooks us. That’s the addiction: getting to know a person so well, through television, that when he goes bad, we can begin to comprehend something that real life simply doesn’t allow us to comprehend—how people become dangerous.

Shortly before I leave Albuquerque, Gilligan and I discuss this theory over lunch. “I have no intention of excusing misdeeds or murders,” he says. “But monstrous people don’t bewilder and terrify me quite as much as they used to, because I feel like I’ve had some version of them in my head for the past four years. I recognize them as human. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But on some weird level, as someone who lives in the modern world, it gives me some small measure of comfort.”

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