Breaking Bad – the story so far

When Vince Gilligan, a long-time writer on The X-Files, set out to create a new television series, he wanted the central character to evolve “from Mr Chips into Scarface”. “Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades,” he told Newsweek. “When I realised this, [I thought], how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?”

For those who have been living under a televisual rock for the past four years, Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is the story of a mild-mannered Nobel Laureate brought low by fate and a complete lack of chutzpah, who turns drug kingpin. Once a brilliant scientist, Walter White (played by the dizzyingly talented, creepily dualistic Bryan Cranston) is now a poorly paid high school chemistry teacher who needs a second job at a car wash to support his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son Walter Jr (RJ Mitte).

Just when being forced to detail the tyres of a snotty student’s sports car may seem the absolute nadir to which he could sink, Walter is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given only months to live. Brought to so low a point, he cares little for his own life; left to his own devices Walter would probably curl up and gratefully die, but the thought of leaving his family destitute is more than he can bear. And so, inspired by his DEA-agent brother-in-law Hank’s (Dean Norris) stories of the staggering wealth of successful drug dealers, geeky, hapless Mr White decides to put his knowledge to more lucrative use: making and selling enough crystal meth in the little time he has left to leave them a comfortable legacy.

Having no practical knowledge of the industry itself, he enlists the help of a former student, stoner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to be his partner in crime. Then they are ambushed by rival dealers… And that’s just the first episode

As critics and awards shows have borne testimony, the show is phenomenally good. The plot arcs are intense, dramatic and utterly plausible. The casting is exquisite and the performances immaculate. The violence is horrendous but never gratuitous. Even the title sequence is clever. And despite the highly effective black comedy of the scripts (in one brilliant scene Walter confronts mad-dog drug dealer Tuco (Raymond Cruz) and introduces himself as “Heisenberg”), the show treats its subject matter as seriously as cancer. There’s no justification offered for Walter’s actions, and the show pulls no punches in its portrayal of the horrors of the drug world and those who inhabit it.

Season 2 began with Walter and Jesse’s business relationship with the increasingly agitated Tuco spinning crazily out of control when the gangster took them hostage. An attempt to poison him did not come off thanks to the interference of Tuco’s invalid, wheelchair-bound uncle, left paralysed by a stroke and able to communicate only by means of a hotel desk bell mounted to his armrest. The ensuing escape left Tuco dead and Walter and Jesse free, but unable to account for their two-day absence.

Walter persuaded Skyler and his family that he had undergone a fugue state and had no memory of the pervious 48 hours, while Jesse worked out a shaky alibi with Wendy the hooker. Jesse lost his home and moved into a cottage rented by Jane (Krysten Ritter), a pretty, recovering drug addict with a protective father.

Hank and his DEA cronies caught wind of the new brand of blue super-meth that’s hit the streets. Hank suffered from post-traumatic stress after Juarez was shot and started to obsess over the shady, legendary “Heisenberg” and whether or not he actually exists.

Meanwhile, Walter’s health rapidly improved, but the treatments had drained his finances. He and Jesse took on shyster lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) as a business partner and headed into the desert to cook for a long weekend and replenish their supplies, but got stuck in the wilderness. When they finally returned, Jesse continued his relationship with Jane, and the two embarked on a rapid descent into heroin-induced isolation, culminating in Jane’s death.

Walter was given a tight deadline for delivering his 38lb of meth to their new contact just moments before Skyler went into labour. He raced against time to deliver the drugs and made it to the hospital (with $1.2 million in cash) shortly after baby Holly is born.

Walt’s surgery went ahead as planned, but as the anaesthetic took hold he let slip a detail to Skyler, whose suspicion was once more piqued. By the time Walt was in recovery she had discovered too much to trust him and demanded that he move out of the house… Jane’s distraught father returned to his job as an air traffic controller – a terrible mistake, it turns out, as his grief hindered his concentration, resulting in a horrific accident.

Read our review of Breaking Bad, Season 3 here.

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