I suppose there are some that would argue that the act of watching a television show shouldn't be a stressful one--that it should be an escape to entertainment, the release of a pressure valve rather than the compacting of one. Breaking Bad, on the other hand, functions in such a constant state of dread, permeated by a sense of bad things right on the verge of occurring. It operates at a fever pitch; it keeps ramping up, higher and higher, increasing the intensity to such a degree that you're not sure how they can possibly sustain it. But they do, and then they top it. It's a masterful program.
The second season begins with the menace and tension so carefully worked up to in season one firmly entrenched--indeed, it begins with the previous season's last scene, and then a terrifying extension of it. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a high school chemistry teacher who finds out at the beginning of the first season that he has inoperable lung cancer, and scant months to live. It's terrible news on several levels, particularly financially: his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) is pregnant, and his son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy, so they've barely gotten by on his public school paychecks. In order to provide for his family in his absence, he enters the lucrative field of meth production; his partnership with Jesse (Aaron Paul), a meth-dealing former student, is an odd one, but Walter's chemical brilliance results in a pure product that is highly in demand. So the two men find themselves in business with Tuco (Raymond Cruz), a tweeked-out kingpin on a hair triggered--as the duo finds out when he puts their drug-and-money exchange on hold for a moment to beat one of his underlings to death for a perceived (and minor) slight. Suffice it to say, Tuco's not the kind of guy who you want to witness committing a murder.
With that jolt of narrative adrenaline, we (and our "heroes") are plunged right into the lion's den, and the show hurdles us headlong into its dark, strange world. The series is wildly unpredictable, but not in an irresponsible or gimmicky way--in fact, it is notable among crime dramas for being a show that thinks things through, that follows storytelling threads and considers their consequences. Creator Vince Gilligan and his skilled writers keep throwing turns at you, but they're logical and inevitable, built upon the domino effect of bad decisions and rotten luck piling up like something out of a Scott Smith novel.
Those turns work because of the bedrock of realism that the show is built upon--even when the situations are far flung from what most of us consider "normal life," we buy into it without hesitation. Much of that is the skill of the writing and the direction; the season is full of killer set pieces and brilliant sequences. In the second episode, "Grilled," there's some business with Walt and Jesse trying to sneak Tuco a snort of spiked drugs that is unbearably tense; the unexpected accumulation of events at the end of that episode is shocking, but also tight, clean, and precise. The sixth episode, "Peekaboo," finds Jesse at a pair of meth-heads' house, trying to collect a debt--it's a jittery, chilling hour. Episode eleven, "Mandala," ends with a ticking clock that is downright nerve-rattling, while the penultimate episode, "Phoenix," has a closing scene that is a fucking jaw-dropper. The closing scenes of the season's final episode, "ABQ," may hinge on a coincidence that perhaps a bit too nice and neat, but nevertheless, they're like watching the wheels fall off the wagon--in slow motion.
The pace of the season is driving, relentless--one thing right after another, with barely time to catch your breath in between. Some of that is thanks to Dave Porter's score, which sounds like a refugee from a spaghetti western; some is due to the show's continued use of out-of-left-field gore (the head on the turtle, and the moment that follows, is stomach-churning). But much of the show's power is rooted in the brilliant performances. The desperation of extended secrecy is one of the series' more compelling themes, and Gunn, as the wife who doesn't know what Walter is up to (but becomes certain, over the course of the season, that he's up to something), continues to work her role for every nuance it's got. Speaking of desperation, Paul's Jesse goes through his share of bumps in the road during season two (episode four, "Down," is centered mainly on his epic string of bad luck) and he continues to find new angles on the character, particularly his muted pathos at the end of the line. Dean Norris, as Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law, gets several memorable scenes as well, and the writers smartly color outside his first-season lines of blowhard macho shithead; come to find out, he's actually good at his job, which raises the stakes considerably. In smaller roles, Krysten Ritter (formerly of Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls) shines as Jesse's romantic interest, a literal girl next door hiding darker tendencies within, while Bob Odenkirk (of Mr. Show) adds some welcome levity as skeezy attorney "Better Call" Saul Goodman (looking over a pre-dug grave, he muses, "I'm gonna keep a happy thought and assume this is just a negotiating tactic"). Good ol' Danny Trejo even pops in for an episode, showing that the series' guest-star cachet is on the rise (though one key episode is stifled by the casting of Giancarlo Esposito, who is very good but clearly not the background player the script wants us to think he is).
Make no mistake, Breaking Bad isn't just a meth-fueled magic carpet ride. The season takes a turn at the 2/3 mark that is like a kick in the kidneys--emotional, and then one beat past that. From that point, it delves into sticky themes of guilt and entitlement; we think we've come to a place where we can feel a certain way about Walt, and then they yank the rug out. That's the way it goes--nothing is easy on a show like this. God forbid.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season is making its Blu-ray debut on the same day as not only its standard-def counterpart, but the show's first season Blu-ray set--all within a week of the third season premiere. The set is spread over three 50GB discs, with the first five episodes on the first disc and four episodes each on discs two and three. Special features are found on all three discs, but most are on disc three.
The MPEG-4 AVC transfer is considerably stronger than that of the show's first season--cleaner, sharper, and more consistent. The rich blue skies of the New Mexico desert pulse brightly, while the earth tones are lifelike and strong. There are flashes of hot neon color (most noticeably in the fifth episode selling montage), and they remain stable and nicely saturated, adding flavor to the 1.78:1 image without overwhelming it. Detail work is also precise (you can see every crease of Trejo's weathered face). Grain is still present and a few night time shots are a touch too noisy, but overall, it's a good transfer (and a vast improvement).
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also quite strong, involving us in both the quiet dialogue scenes and big action sequences. Surround work is impressive in the gun battle that closes episode two, while Walt and Jesse's fistfight in the RV crashes through the soundstage nicely. Rear surrounds are quietly active throughout, particularly in providing environmental sound for the numerous exterior scenes.
English, English SDH, and French subtitles are also available.
Plentiful extras await Breaking Bad fans here. Four episodes come with Audio Commentary: "Seven-Thirty-Seven" (with creator Vince Gilligan and actors Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, RJ Mitte, Anna Gunn, and Betsy Brandt), "Better Call Saul" (with Gillian, Cranston, Paul, writer Peter Gould, and cinematographer Michael Slovis), "4 Days Out" (with Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, Slovis, and episode director Michelle MacLaren), and "ABQ" (with Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, Mitte, Gunn, Brandt, and actor John de Lancie). As with season one, the commentaries are enjoyable and enlightening--the cast and crew have a nice chemistry, and their observations are both amusing and informative.
Deleted Scenes are also included for "Seven-Thirty-Seven," "Bit by a Dead Bee," "Down," "Peekaboo," "Better Call Saul," "Four Days Out," "Over," "Mandala," and "ABQ." Most only have one deleted scene (though "Four Days Out" and "ABQ" have two and "Mandala" have three), and most only run about a minute and aren't really missed. Each episode also includes a corresponding "Inside Breaking Bad" featurette, which helps take the viewer step by step through the season; there are also eleven "Behind the Scenes" featurettes (also slated as "Inside Breaking Bad") with some repeated material.
Disc one includes a "Season One Recap" (1:31), which is a bit of a disappointment; it's less of a recap than an extended commercial, and doesn't really bring us up to speed in the manner you'd hope. Disc two also comes with the "'Negro Y Azul' Music Video" (3:25), which is kind of a nonsensical inclusion, seeing as how the whole thing plays out at the top of the corresponding episode.
On disc three, we get the full (and funny) version of the "'Better Call Saul' Commercial" (0:50), an enjoyable Gag Reel (3:52), and a "Season 3 Sneak Peek" (2:20) of a short scene, apparently from the first episode of the upcoming third season. "Cop Talk with Dean Norris" (10:25 total) is four segments of the actor goofing off and interviewing the show's cop consultants; it's a clever idea, but not as funny as they seem to think. "Walt's Warning" (2:46) is a look at the making of the second season's viral videos (inexplicably missing). Also included are six "Webisodes" (22:50 total), which have more of a comic bent than the series itself; they're quite a bit of fun. As with the season one set, we get "Vince Gilligan's Photo Gallery," a nifty collection of behind-the-scenes snaps, available as either an adjustable slideshow or individually clickable photos controlled by the viewer.
There is one Blu-ray exclusive: "The Writers' Lab: An Interactive Guide to the Elements of 'ABQ'", which lays out the progression of writing a sample episode (in this case, the season closer) from their brainstorming cards to notes to script pages, with the option to view the finished version of each highlighted scene. It's a clever feature, and definitely of interest to those with an interest in the mechanics of TV writing.
An assortment of other Sony Previews round out the package; the disc is BD-Live enabled, but there were no additional extras specific to this release available at the time of this review.
Breaking Bad is deeper, thicker, and stronger in its second season, handily topping the seven-episode warm-up and ascending to a perch as one of television's finest hours. It is tough and it is grim and it is, without question, tense and difficult to watch in places. But it is also a thrilling, voyeuristic peek at the dark side of human nature, and those who exploit it.
For the extra adventurous fan, you can visit many of the filming locations showcased in the series by following this helpful Breaking Bad Tour.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.