Ellen Gray: HE'S A BAD, 'BAD' MAN

Bryan Cranston (left), with Aaron Paul, plays a schoolteacher-turned-drug dealer in "Breaking Bad."
Bryan Cranston (left), with Aaron Paul, plays a schoolteacher-turned-drug dealer in "Breaking Bad." (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

'Breaking' goes away until next summer

Posted: August 31, 2012

* BREAKING BAD. 10 p.m. Sunday, AMC.

WATCHING SOME of the Hurricane Isaac coverage earlier this week, I found myself thinking of AMC's "Breaking Bad."

On the Weather Channel, particularly, the anchors seemed to be having trouble controlling their excitement as they discussed just what it would take for the then-tropical storm to pull itself up by its bootstraps and make its Gulf Coast debut as a full-fledged hurricane.

Sure, hurricanes are bad, dangerous things and no one who witnessed the devastation of a Hurricane Katrina could hope to see that kind of history repeat itself. No matter how great the ratings would be.

Yet storms seem to excite the people who cover them and, if we're honest, those of us who watch from a safe distance can get caught up in it, too.

Which isn't very different from my feelings about "Breaking Bad," which wraps up the first half of its two-summer, fifth and final season on Sunday (whew) with a central character you'd think only a sociopath could appreciate.

I don't believe I'm a sociopath. But then Walter White (Bryan Cranston) probably thinks he falls somewhere in the range of normal, at least in the rarefied world of high school chemistry teachers who've become meth magnates after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

The original stated vision of the show's creator, Vince Gilligan - to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface - has been accomplished with breathtaking speed, if you go by the show's timeline, where the first four seasons encompassed only a single year.

That it's taken longer in television terms has allowed us to experience Walt's narrative as his having changed, something I'm not sure I still believe.

"You think you see character change in television shows, but in fact, you can't, because you would corrupt and destroy the franchise," Gilligan told reporters in January 2010, calling "Breaking Bad" an experiment in taking "a character from Point A and taking him all the way through Point Z so that . . . If you tune in at any specific place along the continuum there from the first episode to the last, you're seeing a different character from any other point. He's changing in baby steps week in and week out."

But is he really?

I used to think so, but then I also thought the Walt we met at the beginning of Season 1 was a mild-mannered chemistry teacher with big problems.

Instead of, say, a frustrated capitalist with anger issues, an alpha dog who'd long chafed at the leash of middle-class expectations. In other words, the guy we saw a couple of episodes ago, explaining to his partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) why selling his share of their meth business wasn't going to happen because he'd already made the mistake once, long ago, of selling his share in a company now worth billions.

"I sold my kids' birthright for a few months' rent," he said, declaring himself not to be in the meth business or the money business, but in "the empire business."

Maybe Walt didn't talk like that in the first episode of Season 1. But I'd argue that if he weren't yet a hurricane, he was already a tropical depression, someone who, given the right (or wrong) conditions, could spin into something monstrous.

Or hugely successful.

Maybe some people actually are watching "Breaking Bad" because they're hoping Walt's wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) or his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) or Jesse - or cancer - will bring Walt down and make him pay for his crimes.

Maybe those same people watch the Weather Channel for hours, hoping for sun.

I'm not buying it.

We may not be crazy about killers or drug dealers, but we tend to cheer entrepreneurs, even more when their success can be tied to the pursuit of excellence.

"Do you really want to live in a world without Coca-Cola?" Walt asked a rival last week, explaining why quality counts, even if you're just cooking methamphetamine. "A better high means customers pay more. A higher purity means a greater yield."

Purity comes with a price in any business and if the price is higher when the business isn't legal, when the people who get in your way can't simply be bought out, does that make a man who does whatever it takes to achieve success a monster?

Well, actually, it does. But it doesn't make the monster any less interesting.

If there's been a false note for me in this very strong season, it was Walt's seeming distress, after shooting Mike (Jonathan Banks) in this week's episode, when he realized he hadn't actually needed to get rid of him (a moment redeemed by Mike's not-altogether-printable response).

As if he'd actually fired because he needed some names and not because Mike had asserted dominance one last time over a man who's made it clear, time and again, that he does not like to be bossed around.

I don't believe there's much left in Walt that feels sorry - for Mike, for Skyler, for Jesse or for the boy on the dirt bike who rode into the wrong place at the wrong time. And I'm not sure there ever was.

I also don't have the slightest idea what's coming Sunday or in the final eight episodes next summer. It doesn't take a psychic to suggest this thing isn't going to end pretty, but I figure I can board up a few windows and stock up on canned goods while I'm waiting.

Because this is one storm I'm more than willing to ride out.

'Coma' a snore

I'm not sure why A&E's bothering with "Coma" (9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday), the miniseries based on the 1977 Robin Cook medical thriller that it's premiering on Labor Day.

Not because it's already been a 1978 movie. Or even because there's nothing in Cook's original story quite as scary as the medical system we currently have.

It's just kind of a yawn.

Lauren Ambrose ("Six Feet Under") stars as a young medical student from an illustrious family who hopes to become a neurosurgeon. (Her tendency to drop stuff seems to make her a poor candidate, even before she begins asking career-threatening questions about the high rate of surgeries that end with comatose patients.)

Steven Pasquale ("Rescue Me") plays her supervising surgeon, a trial run, perhaps, for his appearance as a doctor in NBC's midseason drama "Do No Harm," which is currently being filmed in Philadelphia.

The pair are backed by some impressive actors, some of them playing less-than-impressive doctors: Geena Davis, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Burstyn, James Woods and Joe Morton, but only Burstyn, stalking around with a leg brace and a killer accent, seems to have seized the opportunity amid all the silliness to enjoy a taste of the scenery.


Contact Ellen Gray at graye@phillynews.com or 215-854-5950. Follow her on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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