I feel like such an idiot for sleeping on Breaking Bad. My first reaction to the show was that I felt a little stunned that the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle was winning dramatic acting awards left and right for his role in a show that's barely been on the air. Once I actually started the show, I was not only eating my own words, I was asking for seconds and wondering what wine would be paired best with them.
The premise of the show is an interesting one; Walt (Bryan Cranston, the award-winning actor referred to above) is a high school chemistry teacher in New Mexico. He's married to the caring Skyler (Anna Gunn, Deadwood) and has a teenaged son in Walter (RJ Mitte). However, Walter is stricken with cancer, and is wondering about ways to provide for his family after he's gone. Using his proficient chemistry background and the help of an old classmate in Jesse (Aaron Paul, The Last House on the Left), he decides to start making crystal meth for sale. While it proves to be slightly tricky, considering his brother in law Hank (Dean Norris, Evan Almighty) is a DEA agent, he manages to pull it off.
To provide a few details from Season One and incorporate them into Season Two, one of the last moments of Season One was reflected in Walt's eyes, as Tuco (Raymond Cruz, The Closer) was beating one of his henchmen during a meth-fueled rampage. Walt seemed to be realizing that he was leaving the safe umbrella of anonymity in order to accomplish the financial goals he wanted to set for his family. If he had to make 40 pounds of meth to get to that point, so be it. After seeing the comical trials and tribulations on getting things right in Season One, there are fewer errors in Season Two, as the margin for error is reduced with the chance of reprisal increasing.
It's in that vein that Walt adjusts to the change of being a high-quantity drug manufacturer rather well. In Season One, he was relying more on Jesse's street senses to help push the demand for the product. As Walt goes a little more wholesale, he employs the use of a lawyer (played by the always hilarious Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show fame), even a buyer of the product. Jesse is used at first and then pushed aside as Walt realizes in Season Two that he doesn't need him as much for his skillset anymore. Jesse tries to settle down to a degree in Season Two after being cast aside by his parents, even taking up a girlfriend along the way, but he goes through a lot of cringeworthy pain in Season Two, with "Down" being emblematic of his struggles. While you're reminded of it in moments through both seasons, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesse was out of his element even before Walt realized it. Yet you can't help but feel for the kid, and it'll be interesting to see where his character arc takes him in Season Three.
The other arcs for characters in Season Two prove to be just as interesting. Walt Jr. goes from not even wanting to share his father's name, choosing to be called 'Flynn' at home and school, to starting a website designed to raise money for an operation for his father which will hopefully remove his cancer. Hank is involved in a shooting that continues to result in post-traumatic stress for him, even after he receives a promotion, and Skyler continues to wonder about whether Walt ever had a second cell phone or not. The resulting blowback between her and Walt makes for a conflict that is powerful in how soft-spoken it is, and is one of the better-acted dramatic scenes between two actors in recent memory.
Meanwhile the character transformation Walt continues to undertake remains compelling. He becomes a man certain of his path, and then lost while on it, wondering what to do with himself as he learns more about his, well, call it a hobby. Cranston continues to amaze as Walt, and portrays him as feeble at times and strong in others, all the while with a mixed layer of rage and braggadocio bubbling just underneath the surface. While the end of the season can be compared to Magnolia in terms of how it ends, it seems almost logical, considering both the hints at the beginning of the episodes in the year and the events leading up to it. It's a reset of sorts, and an effective one at that.
Show creator Vince Gilligan whetted our appetites with seven episodes of Breaking Bad in Season One, and slowly turns up the intensity and emotion which impacts its characters in Season Two. While Breaking Bad may not be the cheeriest show on television, it certainly is the most engrossing, made all the more so by double the episode run (Thanks AMC!). On a landscape where there's little good dramatic episodic television, to borrow a phrase from Jesse, Breaking Bad is the bomb, yo.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Breaking Bad does everything it can to take full advantage of the New Mexico vistas in the background, with ample exterior shots showing the landscape. Even when the show sticks to the city, the evening lighting and activity moves with very little pixelation or distortion issues. Fleshtones are accurate and the print is as clean as they come. If I had a choice, I'd go with the high-def release of the show personally, but if you're without a Blu-ray player, you'll be happy with this.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track also brings the goods. When you watch the show, you'll notice far more usage of the low-end than you'd expect, and it's active without dominating the soundtrack. But the show is full of more subtle moments too, like cars driving by on the street, picking up (and panning) in the rear channels. Dialogue sounds strong for the most part, though it does tend to waver from time to time, requiring user compensation. Maybe it's me, but I found this to be one of the better sounding television shows on DVD in quite awhile.
To Sony's credit, while they virtually released Season One with little to no fanfare, they've brought the goods for Season Two's release, comparatively speaking. Breaking them down by each disc, you've got the following:
Commentary on "Seven Thirty Seven" with Cranston, Gilligan, Gunn, Paul, Mitte and Betsy Brandt (who plays Hank's wife/Skyler's sister Marie). The track is pretty jovial throughout, with Cranston and Gilligan driving much of the conversation on the episode as they talk about the scenes and shots in the episode. Almost all of the cast has a production story or two that is entertaining to some degree. There are three deleted scenes (1:51) which are skippable, while "Inside Breaking Bad" (13:34) are quick two to three-minute looks at each episode with the major cast and crew for each installment. They discuss some of the themes that are incorporated into the show, location recollections, character motivations and other memories. Selected crew members talk about the challenges for a filmed sequence and how they pulled it off. This is a recurring feature through the set. "Behind the Scenes" are a series of quick featurettes on the show, with "The Cast on Season Two" (2:51) being self-explanatory, while "Season Two: What's in a Name?" (3:01) serving as a season recap of sorts. Note the latter has a some spoiler material, so if you find yourself new to Season Two, skip over this piece.
More "Behind the Scenes" featurettes, including a making of look at the music video (2:00) at the beginning of "Negro Y Azul." There's are a look at the tortoise scene here (2:48) as well. The music video is in its entirety (3:52), along with a deleted scene (0:52). More "Inside Breaking Bad" (9:34) is the big extra here.
A commentary on "Better Call Saul" with Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, writer Peter Gould and Director of Photography Michael Slovis. It's a fun commentary, with Gilligan and Cranston cracking the bulk of the jokes and driving the commentary forward, with timely questions to the other participants about a particular scene. They also share their thoughts on the cast members who aren't available for the track. It's a fun listen. There's another commentary on "4 Days Out" with almost the same group (remove Gould for Director Michelle MacLaren). The friendly and easygoing dynamic remains on this track, with the same amount of scene deconstruction and amusing anecdotes on the production, but it's a little more formal than the last track was. "Inside Breaking Bad" (9:58) returns for more explanations, interviews and analysis from the cast and crew, while four deleted scenes (4:18) don't do that much, save for an interesting look at Walt's thoughts on his diagnosis from the doctor. The awesomely awesome commercial for "Better Call Saul" (:50) completes the set.
Commentary for "ABQ" with Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, Mitte, Gunn, Brandt and John de Lancie, who's notable for playing Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation and plays Donald, Christina's father (Christina is Jesse's romantic interest during the season). Things continue to remain easygoing on these commentaries, with on-set recollections and some playful joking and teasing. But they also have some scene-specific recollections as well. It's another solid commentary from the cast. Five deleted scenes are next (5:38), and aside from a scene where we see Walt in a "Mr. Wizard" moment, most of the other scenes are quick and painless. "Inside Breaking Bad" returns (11:21) for looks at each episodes with thoughts from the cast and crew, and breakdowns of the occasional sequence by the relevant crew members. "Cop Talk with Dean Norris" (10:25) features Norris talking with the various (presumed) technical advisors and stand-ins. It's a hilarious series of interviews where Norris (in pseudo-character) shows us the lighter side behind of Albuquerque's finest.
And there's STILL more! A series of seven behind the scenes segments (18:53) cover the production side of things, including special effects, set examinations and other aspects of the show. Six webisodes (22:47) including additional programming content not in the television shows, but it's forgettable. "Walt's Warning" (2:46) features Cranston discussing the ideas and executions for a viral video for the show, while a gag reel (3:52) provides more laughs than you'd expect. A look at Season Three (2:20) includes an actual scene from the Season Three premiere, and a stills gallery of photos from Gilligan rounds the disc out.
Breaking Bad not only shatters the myth of the proverbial sophomore jinx, it grinds it up and uses it as product for Walt to sell by the pound. With less than two dozen episodes currently available (as of this writing), it is on a very short list of appointment dramatic television, and Season Two finds it hitting a stride like few other shows have realized. With excellent technical qualities and a mix of informative and entertaining supplements, it's easily worth your time in watching.