There was a time when TV, while it didn’t exactly kill crime movies, certainly offered them a Kevorkian-style euthanasia.
Routine programmers, which sometimes ran only sixty minutes themselves, were pushed off the big screen and into living rooms in the form of hour-long TV dramas like Perry Mason, where the inevitable good-guys-win stories were more easily condensed.
Since the 1950s, on television, the procedural is king. There have been brief flirts with more nuanced and darker storylines, but most of those came in anthology series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gangbusters.
It has taken until now for the darkest, most inky-black Noir to make it on the air.
When Breaking Bad premiered on the fledgling AMC network, it had little hype preceding it. Star Bryan Cranston was more know as a comedian from his days on Malcolm in the Middle, and show creator Vince Gilligan was known more as a Sci-Fi guy from his work on The X-Files. But for any of us who watched that first season, we got a fast ride down a razor blade-covered slip-n-slide into the dark psyche of Walter White, a husband and father of two with terminal lung cancer and nothing to lose. We all know those can be the most dangerous men of all.
A hallmark of the best Noir is the everyman who gets in over his head. Walter Neff in Double Indemnity is an insurance salesman. He couldn’t get more middle of the road if he had a double-yellow stripe down his back. And this modern Walter is just as average, and sinks to depths far lower. Part of the thrill of Breaking Bad (which just began its fourth season—watch the season premiere online at AMC), beyond the new levels of on-screen violence not seen outside of HBO, is watching characters who feel achingly real as they navigate the paths carved by difficult choices.
Walter, who enterprisingly teams up with Jesse (Aaron Paul), a former high-school student of his, is not one to blame others for his misdeeds, nor is he one to make excuses if something unsavory needs doing. He happens to be lucky that his chemistry degree, once used for teaching, allows him to not only perfect the recipe for grade-A crystal meth, but also gives him the know-how to dissolve a body in acid if need be.
Despite his brother-in-law being a DEA agent, the police—and thereby any procedure—are almost entirely absent from the show. The threat to Walter comes not from the long arm of the law, but from his fellow criminals. And now that the show has matured nicely, Walter is beginning to own his criminality with the same ferocity with which he denied it in earlier seasons. The serialized content means nothing is wrapped up with a Law & Order style *bum-bum* at the end of each hour. Like chapters in a great book, each episode lures us down the next dark hallway of Walter’s twisted fate.
Nothing is ripped from the headlines, nothing is CSI high-tech unless you count the state-of-the-art meth lab Walter now operates thanks to his new boss, Gus (the brilliantly menacing Giancarlo Esposito).
Breaking Bad is small and withered like the scrub brush of the New Mexico desert the show calls home. And in presenting life-sized, not outsized, people at its core, the show is that much more devastating when someone dies, that much more painful when Walter is threatened, and that much more relatable as we all follow Walter into the fire.
Making us care for this ersatz drug kingpin is the show’s greatest achievement. It gets back to that core of noir. That “What would I do?” moment. Would we go through all that Walter has for the benefit of our family? And would we notice, as he has apparently failed to, when we crossed the line from family protector to simple criminal?
There is no question darker than that.
Creator Vince Gilligan has hinted that he has an end game already planned for Breaking Bad and the show wouldn’t extend beyond five seasons. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the final moments to see if Walter’s story takes the ultimate Noir turn and ends badly. All signs point to that as a distinct possibility. Will a TV show have the guts to do it? We shall see. So far no signposts on this journey have pointed us toward the light.
And what a glorious darkness it has been. Bring on season 4 and bring on the night.
Eric Beetner is an ex-musician, one time film director, and a working television editor and producer, as well as author (with JB Kohl) of the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and one really great dog. His upcoming novella Dig Two Graves will be out later this summer, along with short stories in the anthologies Pulp Ink, D*cked, and Grimm Tales.