Watching the return of Breaking Bad last night without having seen most of Breaking Bad was a stressful experience. Not because of the intensity of the show—though some parts were pretty intense—but because you know you aren’t appreciating it the way it’s meant to be appreciated. As Philip wrote in our Gchat conversation: “I feel like I'm at a concert for a band I don't know and I'm the only one not singing along.” That feeling perhaps became most obvious when Philip and I tried to interpret what might be symbolic. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” playing in Saul’s waiting room? The homeless man Jesse gives money to in front of the (awesome) neon sign featuring a dog? The toy car on the street outside Hank’s garage? Here’s an example of some of our attempts to interpret:
Esther: From that nice "dog house" sign to a scary looking dog.
Philip: I assume the dogs are also symbolic?
Esther: Everything's probably symbolic. The toy car following along Walter's car is also probably a symbol. Or maybe we're reading too much into everything.
Philip: Yeah, who knows.
Esther: We're schmucks.
But, that said, there were elements of this episode that made it a good entry point. Hank sorting through files that would indicate that Walt is in fact Heisenberg felt like a kind of greatest hits reel of the show’s horrors, some of which I had heard about. (For the most part my limited knowledge of the show’s characters and having watched the pilot helped out some.) Of course, there were places when I was completely befuddled. Why did Jesse have all that money and just who was he trying to give it to through Saul? Yeah. No idea.
I think what most surprised me was the show’s humor. Part of the reason I had resisted watching was because most of what I had gleaned about the show was how well it did darkness and atrocities. But there was Carol in the flash-forward at the beginning with a hilariously shocked look on her face, dropping her groceries when a bearded Walt said hi. And the Star Trek monologue from Jesse’s friend (Badger, I learned later) was hilarious, even as we knew that somehow Jesse was suffering. (That Star Trek story has already been animated.)
What was unsurprising was how great Cranston’s performance was even for a viewer who wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. When he was trying to convince Jesse to keep his money he gave off a fatherly vibe that seemed sweet even as you realized he was oozing malice. His Walt was so understated as he confronted Hank in what was a moment that felt like that perfect opportunity for overacting.
I’m still not sure quite what I’m expecting out of this assignment, but I do know that—while being totally perplexed some of the time—the show has lived up to some expectations and defied others.
What's interesting about having watched Breaking Bad for the first time last night is that the very first scene I saw is likely one of the last scenes in the series. Of course, I didn't realize it at the time, that the empty swimming pool and gutted house were Walter White's. In fact, I didn't make that connection until after the show was over. This was a preview of Walter's future, something that resonated with people who watch all the time — and I had no idea.
Which is one of the problems of coming to a longstanding series with fresh eyes: You don't know what you're looking at. But it also meant that I could watch the scene (and the episode) without predispositions. And to me it seemed a little heavy-handed. Walter wandering his empty house, catching his reflection in a broken piece of glass? His brother-in-law's ailment while driving home? Both of those moments depended on the viewer having a certain level of commitment — a willing suspension of disengagement. Not possible for a new viewer.
But the episode wasn't written for new viewers, of course. The scene in which Walter's brother-in-law, the DEA agent, is sorting through photos from Walter / Heisenberg's past struck me as being similar to the last episode of Seinfeld, a walk down memory lane with favored characters and incidents making an appearance. For regulars, it helped set up the tension between the brother-in-law and Walter, which culminated at the end of the episode in that exact spot.
Let's talk about Aaron Paul, the guy who plays Jesse. Let's have an honest conversation about Aaron Paul, guys. If you've watched the show a long time, you probably like Paul, love Jesse. You probably think his acting is perfect for the role, in the way that a loved one's imperfections are simply reasons in your eyes to love them more. But in the scene during which Walter confronts Jesse about the latter's attempt to give away his money, it was impossible not to see the difference between the two actors. It was literally impossible. Bryan Cranston's portrayal was so effective that he made Paul seem like a grad student who got a lucky break.
(I would also like to talk about the remarkable perfection of Walter White's eyeglass frames, but understand if that's not a topic of general interest. But, man. So much conveyed in that choice.)
Last night's episode was clearly the starting gun for the race to the end. How do you maintain seven more episodes during which Walter has finally been identified as the drug kingpin? The family tension inherent in his illness. For the episode's not-huge flaws — the questionable acting, the beat-you-on-the-head symbolism — that little storytelling trick is excellent, a clear engine for the rest of the last season and an elegant circle back to the beginning.
Or so I gather.