The breakouts

"BREAKING BAD'S" Walt White has been compared to the pot-selling soccer mom of "Weeds." But Walt is no mere peddler of soft drugs in a sendup of suburban America -- he's a crystal meth-making Everyman in the middle of a midlife crisis on steroids. As played by the devastating Bryan Cranston, Walt is a chemistry teacher dying of cancer and cooking up drugs while trying to keep his wife happy, his young partner-in-crime in line and his special-needs son healthy.

In fact, as realized on AMC -- a network "that never once asked me to file the edges," says creator-executive producer Vince Gilligan -- the pointed drama is at once darkly comic and tragic. In the pilot, Walt whips up his first batch of drugs in an RV wearing nothing but his skivvies and an apron, and later tries to kill himself but is thwarted by the gun's safety mechanism.

"Walt's not crazy. He's desperate to help his family," Gilligan says. "At the same time, there is an element of wish fulfillment in terms of walking on the wild side. He's a good guy making bad decisions."

Cranston says he began dreaming of Walt's life after reading the script. "Regret makes you one of two ways. You become either really angry or cynical, or you implode. Walt implodes. And I think it's very relatable," Cranston says. "You find yourself hoping he succeeds. It's an emotional tug of war."

And his journey is just getting started.

"It took all season for Walt to decide to cook meth, as it should have," Gilligan says. "Now his world is really about to change. He's still dying. He's still struggling. He's just a little more committed now."

Adds Cranston: "I've always said it's circumstantial that he's cooking meth. If Walt was a mathematician, he'd be counting cards. It's sort of besides the point."

-- D.M.

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