Driven to a double life

July 8, 2010

Helen Redmond reviews a gripping series that shows the toll of the health care crisis.

BREAKING BAD is that rare piece of television combining superior, sensitive script-writing that's full of surprises, a cast you can believe in, and jumpy, slow-motion camera work that captures terrifying and astonishing moments of raw human emotion.

The phrase "breaking bad" is slang and has several meanings: to raise hell, to challenge established norms or to defy the law. The show does all three.

And here's the big bonus: The AMC series takes on two of the most politically charged and intractable issues in U.S. politics: the war on drugs and the health care crisis.

But without Brian Cranston, the actor who plays the lead character Walter White, Breaking Bad would be just another "interesting" drama. Cranston's facial expressions, tics, grimaces, smiles, cough--his body language conveys an encyclopedia of feelings and moods.

As the series starts, Walter White is an ordinary man who teaches chemistry at the local high school in Albuquerque, N.M. His wife Skylar, played by Anna Gunn, is pregnant with their second child, and their teenage son, Walter Jr., portrayed by R.J. Mitte, has cerebral palsy.

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad
Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

The White family lives a middle class, seemingly stress-free life--big house, bacon and egg breakfasts, birthday parties, backyard barbeques and baby showers. But we soon learn that their economic situation must be tenuous because Walter has a second job as a cashier at a car wash.

Walter's constant coughing is diagnosed as lung cancer, stage three, and it's spread to his lymph nodes. Prognosis: maybe two years with aggressive and highly toxic treatment. This is the day that his world is forever changed, and he discovers how the American health care system bankrupts and destroys cancer patients and their families.

His wife and sister-in-law want the "oncology dream team," but they're not in his HMO network. Walter pays $5,000 to see an out-of-network doctor. He's told the cancer treatment will cost $90,000 out of pocket.

A family fight ensues with Walter asking, "I'm supposed to leave you with all that debt?" Skylar breaks down and begs him to begin the treatment saying they can borrow from family and "There's always a way." But Walter isn't so sure. The American way of health care is to force patients to deplete all of their savings, tap into their pension or 401K, sell their house if it's not foreclosed on already, and finally declare bankruptcy.

Review: Television

Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, starring Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul and Dean Norris. AMC, check local listings.

Walter decides to undergo treatment not because he believes it will extend his life, but to placate a devastated Sklar and his son. Desperate and afraid, he looks for a way to make fast money to fund it.

THROUGH A series of grimly funny coincidences and being in the right place at the right time, he becomes a "meth cook." It's all about the chemistry, and who's more qualified to manufacture methamphetamine than a highly skilled chemistry teacher with a terminal illness?

Not only does Walter have the drive and discipline to cook, but he has access to the chemicals and equipment to set up a super-meth lab. He's the head cook, and his partner and former student Jesse Pinkman, played maniacally by Aaron Paul, deals the drug.

In a Winnebago-turned-meth lab far outside of the city, Jesse marvels, "We've got crystals in here two inches, three inches long. This is art. The purest I've ever seen." Walter cranks out the highest grade meth in New Mexico, and the local drug dealers and addicts love it, demand more and are willing to pay the price.

Methamphetamines are stimulants--they're manufactured both legally and illegally in the United States. The pharmaceutical industry makes the drug for cold preparations like Sudafed and Contac. Medications like Ritalin and Adderall are amphetamines prescribed for adults and children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Illegal meth labs are typically located in rural areas in states in the Southwest and Midwest to avoid detection by local authorities and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The manufacturing of meth can be dangerous because of the combination of chemicals used. Thousands of meth labs have caught on fire or exploded.

But that hasn't stopped hundreds of mom-and-pop labs from making meth because it's a job and a paycheck, particularly in rural parts of the country hit hard by the economic downturn. On the other end are people in cities and towns, abandoned by industry and the government, with little hope for a decent life--methamphetamines make them happy, for a while.

Jesse has a monster meth addiction, and in several episodes, we see how the drug makes him paranoid, unable to focus or eat. He decides to quit, and his parents allow him to move back in as they have many times before. But finding a job is impossible because Jesse has no skills and employers aren't hiring. His parents find marijuana in the house (it belongs to his younger brother) and kick him out--and he goes right back to dealing meth with Walter.

Meanwhile, Walter is living a dangerous double life--lung cancer patient by day, meth cook by night. Powerful images of Walter cooking chemicals in the Winnebago are juxtaposed with him reclined in a Lazy Boy chair, watching poisonous chemicals drip into him intravenously.

At the end of each treatment, he writes out a check for $1,900. After one visit, swallowing his pride, he quietly asks the clerk not to cash it until Monday.

Unfortunately for Walter, the head of the DEA in Albuquerque is his brother in law, Hank Schrader, portrayed with machismo by actor Dean Norris. Schrader is a loud-mouthed, pig-headed drug warrior, full of contempt for humanity. It bothers Hank not one bit that he imprisons and destroys the lives of thousands of people in a war he knows can never be won.

He arrests the Latino janitor at Walter's high school on suspicion of cooking meth, but all the DEA agents find in his home is marijuana. The man is fired, and Walter realizes how his involvement in the drug trade has the potential to punish and endanger everyone around him.

Extreme violence is the norm in the war on drugs, and Walter commits acts of unspeakable violence in order stay alive and to protect his profits.

With each episode of Breaking Bad, the tension and suspense become more exciting and unbearable. Walter takes outrageous risks and ends up as the most powerful drug lord in the city. In the clandestine, subterranean world of illicit drugs, Walter is feared and revered. He goes by the alias of Heisenberg, in honor of Werner Heisenberg, a physicist and originator of the "Uncertainty Principle."

Meanwhile, Hank is hell-bent on bringing down the new drug kingpin in town, and is closing in on Walter's lucrative business--and Walter's cancer treatment, now paid in full with mega drug profits, leaves him urinating blood, bald, vomiting, weak and estranged from his family.

Breaking Bad is as addictive as the drugs it portrays, but the high lasts longer, and it's legal. It's "must-use" television.

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