'Breaking Bad': Workingman's Dread

Breaking Bad' is TV's darkest — and greatest — view of the struggles of the American family man

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 1101 from April 1, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

So you thought that Breaking Bad couldn’t get any bleaker? It got bleaker. This is the grimmest depiction of American life in the history of television. It’s the Curb Your Enthusiasm of meth-chef family dramas, wiping the floor with the other economic-crash shows ? it’s not quirky like Weeds, and it’s not a corny Deuce Bigalow joke like Hung. Breaking Bad started from the premise that there’s no place left in the country for a breadwinner to do an honest day’s work and only grows darker as it explores the desert of the soul.

In the first season, Walter White, brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston, was an ordinary 50-year-old high school science teacher — until he finds out he has terminal lung cancer. He knows that when he dies, his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), will lose the house and have to raise their infant daughter alone. His teenage son has cerebral palsy (as does RJ Mitte, the actor who plays him). So Walter turns his genius for chemistry into a sideline as a meth chef.

One year later, Walter is still the finest crystal-meth cook in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But the guilt is making him snap. He’s sitting by his pool when he suddenly throws his drug money on the backyard grill and pours lighter fluid over all those hundreds. As soon as he torches the loot, he panics and tries to put it out. He ends up setting his robe on fire, throwing a half-million bucks into the pool and jumping in after it. On Breaking Bad that’s as close as you get to a light moment.

Understandably, Skyler leaves him when she finds out he’s a drug dealer. (“Manufacturer,” he corrects her.) So he has nothing to gain except the hope of leaving a nest egg for his wife (who doesn’t love him) and his son (who does) when he kicks off. As Bruce Springsteen would say, he’s got debts no honest man can pay.

Like AMC’s other genius series, Mad Men, Breaking Bad is about American husbands and their dark secrets. But the difference between Bad and Mad is like the difference between speed and Stoli. Breaking Bad is not a social experience. It demands to be viewed alone, with the shades drawn. At its best, it’s almost unwatchably great, as Walter lugs his guilty conscience around like his duffel bag full of cash. It’s like witnessing some terrible karmic chemistry experiment gone haywire: For every awful action Walter makes there’s an even more horrible reaction.

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