Better living through chemistry

Chemistry is the study of change. Electrons change their energy levels, Molecules change their bonds, elements combine and change into compounds. It is all of life: the constant, the cycle. Solution, dissolution, over and over and over. Growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating. Really.

So says Breaking Bad‘s Walter H White to a class full of  teenage fucknuts on the morning of his fiftieth birthday. No one is listening. No one ever listens to Walter.

If it wasn’t such an achievement, he would be the archetypal Beta Male. He supplements his crappy high school Chemistry teacher’s salary with a second job at a car wash, his brother-in-law is an Alpha male bonehead cop who openly vivisects him on a daily basis and then there’s his wife.

She’s a nice enough MILF. It’s just that her idea of putting a bit of spice into a marriage is giving her husband a birthday wank while she bids on eBay.

Life is not good for Walter H White. And now his biggest birthday gift is an inoperable lung cancer diagnosis.

Ironically, this is the moment where his life takes a worm-turn for the better.  Walter decides to take the place of the  drug dealer his brother-in-law just took down and recruits Jesse Pinkman, an ex-fucknut pupil he failed for Chemistry who is now making the best methamphetamine in town.

Only he isn’t. Jesse’s shit is… well, shit, and it takes a man with a passion for the study of change to create some really boo-ya crystal. Walter’s ‘basic chemistry’ suddenly has a street  value of ‘goddamn art’. He is the Cranach of Crank, the Holbein of Hank, the Rembrandt of Rank.

With the shadow of death on his lungs, Walter is, ironically, never more alive. He beats the shit out of some gargantuan prick who’s taking the piss out of his disabled son, he tells his car wash boss to go fuck himself, and he finds he suddenly has the cojones to fuck his wife like she really wants.

Growth, decay, transformation.

It would be good enough if Breaking Bad were simply one of the few TV drama series that has something to say about what it means to be a white, middle-aged male in these post-feminist times. But it is not merely worthy. It is witty, outrageous, funny, tragic, disgusting (just wait for the accident with the bathtub at the end of the second episode). And above all it is fantastic writing.

Each episode sets up a key dramatic conflict, the solution to which is somewhere on the periodic table of elements. Which would make it a very cerebral drama if it weren’t for the awkward, frenetic, sweaty, extremely physical performance of Bryan Cranstone, who revs up his manic comic turns as Seinfeld’s dentist and Malcolm in the Middle’s dad and jack-knifes them into a tragicomic  tailspin worthy of Buster Keaton. He deserves his Emmy.

The seven-episode first season  hits the UK tomorrow on the FX channel. It’s one of the stand out shows of 2008. Make it your appointment telly.

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