‘Breaking Bad’: Directed by Bryan Cranston
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Sirens are never good. They mean trouble, doom, definitely something bad. The sound of them unsettles the air, no matter how pleasant the scene, and that’s how ‘Breaking Bad’ began Season 2 on Sunday night: first with the tranquillity of a quiet backyard –- a drippy water hose, a snail on the fence, an empty pool –- and then, the sirens. As they faded in from a distance and the scene unfolded in an eerie black-and-white, the camera caught an eyeball floating lazily in the pool. Then there was a floating pink teddy bear, one eye missing and half of its body charred black. Nothing else. The credits arrived.
And so we were back, sucked into this show again just like the eyeball had been sucked into the pool’s circulation duct a moment before. It’s been a very long wait –- a full year, to be exact, since we last left Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and company –- but this was worth it. The opening was creepy. Ominous. Brilliant. And from there, the premiere episode got better.
Directed for the first time by Cranston himself, penned by show runner Vince Gilligan and acted wonderfully by everyone involved, Sunday’s premiere was just about perfect, rife with intensity and that overwhelming sense of doom. Whether it was a shadow or light rolling across Walt’s living-room curtain or the black SUV that stalked his home from down the block, the entire episode evoked the feeling of walls closing in -- on Walt, his family, us.
And if the start was chilling, the end was terror: Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walter in the front seat of Jesse’s car, Tuco (Raymond Cruz) in the backseat with a gun pointed at them both. The car rolled slowly away from us into a dark, silent night, putting a cliffhanger ending onto an hour of cable television that looked and felt more like a Quentin Tarantino film.
And that creepy teddy bear opening? It wasn’t even resolved. We still don’t know who’d been drinking the half-empty beverage that sat by the pool or to whom the teddy bear belonged. The answer could come next week or never, but leaves us to wonder all the same.
That was perhaps my favorite element of Sunday’s premiere: In some ways there was much less flash than episodes past, but the overall effect seemed richer. Case in point: Last season began with Walter at the shaky wheel of a speeding RV. He was in his undies, wearing a gas mask, and a pair of lifeless bodies swerved on the floor at the back of the vehicle. Eventually he crashed alongside a desert road, ditched the vehicle, walked to the middle of the road and raised a gun to the horizon, toward the sound of ... wait for it ... approaching sirens.
And so when the sirens faded into the beginning of Sunday’s episode, I found myself waiting to get back to that pool, just as the last season’s pilot wrapped itself back around to that desert road and Walter standing there with the gun. But this time, the show didn’t indulge us with a bookend, with an answer. Instead, it fell in line with the rest of the episode in that it set up far more plot lines and possibilities than it resolved, which is just the formula for a season premiere. We saw that Skylar’s sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), may be even kookier than we thought (Splenda, anyone?), that Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), has the ability to look past the letter of the law when it pertains to family (turns out he’s well aware of Marie’s shoplifting escapades), and that the ever-perfect wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), is capable of snapping at her husband no matter his affliction, and even maybe, possibly, lusting for another (she leered a little too long at that photo of her and that other guy, don’t you think?).
Whatever Cranston did to get the performances he got from his fellow actors, it worked. Gunn and Norris shone particularly bright, the former finally getting to show some true grit via Skyler. In one truly amazing scene, she berated Walter after he got a bit too dog-in-heat pushy with her in the kitchen. In another, she unleashed a fury of pent-up angst and frustration onto Hank, after he told her that Marie needed some support. “I need support. Me! The almost 40-year-old pregnant woman with a surprise baby on the way, and the husband with the lung cancer....” Norris as Dean countered by wandering through both this scene and others like a confused pup, unsure what to do. His awkward little half-hug of Skyler as she let out her tears was comedic gold.
And so we begin, a full 13-episode season to look forward to this time instead of last year’s strike-shortened seven-episode run. Season 1 was originally slated to go nine episodes, but the intended storyline for those final two hours was more or less scratched by the writers, Gilligan told me last August, in favor of a new direction. “Last season we were going to take the story in a slightly different direction and build up to a very big cliffhanger moment,” Gilligan said. “But the good thing that came out of [the strike] is that we didn’t get a chance to do those episodes because they would have put us in a real corner, plot wise. We would have been stuck with some big plot twists that would be hard to back away from.... In very broad terms, this is now a season about chickens coming home to roost -– that’s the way I like to put it. In other words, Walter White has made some really bad decisions, and those bad decisions will lead to problems down the line and big complications.”
As for Cranston directing Sunday’s episode, “I never knew when we hired him that he directed and enjoyed it,” Gilligan said. “One of my first meetings with him about this project, you know, I’d have said anything –- ‘Yeah! You can direct, too!’ -- just to get him to sign on the dotted line, but he never wanted to do one last season. He just wanted to concentrate on the character. But I think this season he felt a little more comfortable with the character and he knew his best bet was to direct the first one, when you have the added prep time.”
Cranston showed up for his first day of directing dressed as the Austrian director and actor of the silent-film age, Erich Von Stroheim, wearing a monocle and ascot tie as part of his ensemble. “It was just something to do to shake things up a little bit,” Cranston told me when I visited the ‘Bad’ set last summer. On the second day of shooting, Cranston received word that he’d been nominated for an Emmy (which he eventually won). The crew ordered in champagne and a mariachi band to celebrate.
Could a directing Emmy follow this season? It’s a presumptuous thought, of course, but both Sunday’s arresting premiere as well as the show’s two subsequent episodes, which were sent out to critics by AMC, have generated a host of positive reviews. In a great piece published Saturday, the Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara called ‘Breaking Bad’ “smart but never slick, funny but never glib, dark but never noir.” And even master storyteller Stephen King piped up recently, writing in Entertainment Weekly that “this modest basic-cable network is now broadcasting the best scripted show on TV.”
“Thank God for basic cable,” King went on, “if it can produce programming as strange and compelling as this. ‘Breaking Bad’ invites us into another world, just as ‘The Shield’ and ‘The Sopranos’ did, but Walt White could be a guy just down the block, the one who tried to teach the periodic table to your kids before he got sick. The swimming pool with the eye in it could be right down the block too. That’s exactly what makes it all so funny, so frightening, and so compelling.”
Great news for a young show still trying to find its audience. And for the audience, the even better news is that judging by Sunday’s premiere, a sophomore slump seems entirely out of the question.
-- Josh Gajewski