No Country for Old Meth Dealers

Imagine the Coen brothers directing an episode of Weeds, and you have Breaking Bad.

Breaking Bad

Having mastered the part of a prototypical suburban-dad-as-jolly-doofus on Malcolm in the Middle, actor Bryan Cranston gives it an energetic go as a suburban-dad-as-cringing-milksop on Breaking Bad (AMC, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET). His wrinkles seem baked into a face that’s somehow both geekily ruddy and nerdily pale. His posture tells of his preparedness for a hundred defeats to come. His wears his scrub brush of a mustache as if he’s resigned to it, with an upper lip that’s unspeakably schlubby.

The character, Walt White, lives in Albuquerque, N.M., the burg from whence the Hoovers of Little Miss Sunshine set out on their sweet-sour road trip and where Bugs Bunny habitually made a wrong turn. * Walt teaches high-school chemistry—a far cry from the promise signaled by the plaque lauding his early work for a Nobel Prize-winning research team, particularly considering that he makes ends meet with a job at a car wash. Walter Jr., his teenage son, has cerebral palsy, and you get the sense that Walt feels disappointed in that fact and guilty about all his disappointment. Even though Mrs. White is more interested in eBay than in the pleasures of the marital bed, she has a baby on the way. Here we have all the markers of a generic midlife-crisis project, but the show’s premise holds that, at age 50, Walt is way past the midpoint. The pilot episode saw him digest a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer and fling himself into a get-rich-quick scheme; the coming installments sludge through the fallout of his first misadventure in the manufacture and sale of crystal meth.

His colleague in the affair is one Jesse Pinkman, a former student Walt spied fleeing the scene of a drug bust. They’re an attractively odd couple. Jesse, antic and quick and liquid, careers around in his baggy pants and gets high on his own supply. Walt remains a methodical dweeb even when struggling with the question of whether to kill a drug dealer—he hunts down a pad and writes up a pros-and-cons list. Reasons against offing the punk include “Judeo/Christian principles” and “post-traumatic stress” and “murder is wrong!” In the other column: “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.”

This is a comedy so dark that you see only half the laughs through the murk. The boldest pops of humor come from the direction of Walt’s brother-in-law, a bulky and blustering DEA agent, a guy you can imagine braying that coined phrase “can of whoop-ass.” The subtlest owe to Anna Gunn (of Deadwood), who, as Walt’s wife, makes for a tickling mama bear. The rest is blood-and-guts slapstick and existential farce played out below desert mesas and along water-sprinkled lawns. It’s no mere coincidence that a scene in this Sunday’s episode—a vision of a dazed and bloodied outlaw marching through a pristine suburb—recalls a moment in No Country for Old Men. Breaking Bad often tries to make like a Coen brothers’ edition of Weeds. Its achievement rarely matches its ambitions, but the effect is still pretty dope.

Correction, Jan. 28, 2008: The sentence originally misspelled Albuquerque. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)