In the pilot episode of the American Movie Channel’s Breaking Bad, milquetoast high school chemistry teacher Walter White passes out at the car wash where he moonlights, and is rushed to the emergency room. Regaining consciousness in the ambulance, he tries to dissuade the medics from taking him to the hospital, mumbling, “I don’t have the best insurance plan.” If he had had any power to convince them to let him out, to halt the train of events hurtling toward him with all the force of inevitability, then there would be no show. But, as it must happen, the medics rebuff Walter’s pleas and deposit him in the emergency room, where he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
His condition changes him irrevocably and, in a response as psychologically defensive is as it is physically aggressive, he sets about changing everything else, quitting his car wash job in favor of cooking meth to pay for his treatments. In one scene he undergoes a bout of chemotherapy; in the next, he tyrannizes his juvenile partner or wins a perilous game of chicken with a deranged kingpin. The show tracks his evolution from timorous teacher to terrible drug trafficker but, unlike many popular works that take a villain as their protagonist, it is not in the business of excusing his actions. Walter’s rationalizing mantra that he does everything for his family is juxtaposed with its chronic dissolution at the hands of his secrecy and rampant risk-taking.
Holding the characters ruthlessly accountable for their actions, the writers bring a quality of realism to a fantastic story; and the superb actors acutely register the repercussions they face in their tones, manners and, most of all, in their expressions in long, awkward shots that follow with silence many of the show’s loud and explosive interactions. While the plot is a nail-biter, the real power of the show derives from these still moments, these moments of accounting, in which external forces clash with the characters’ internal fortitudes. With its incredible premise, Breaking Bad poignantly depicts the universal story of a man struggling against his fate.