10 things I learned during my ‘Breaking Bad’ rewatch

Breaking Bad

BY DAN BUFFA, SPECIAL FOR THE JEWISH LIGHT

Let’s begin by noting that when the digital director of the Jewish Light, Jordan Palmer asked me to take another look at the iconic, now streaming show, “Breaking Bad” I was intriqued by the Jewish angle. 

“He’s just barely Jewish,” said Palmer, referrring to star Brian Cranston. And he was right. According to the outstanding website, Jew or Not a Jew, Cranston is indeed, “barely Jewish.” His bio says his maternal grandparents were German, and his father was of Irish, German, and Austrian-Jewish ancestry.

Breaking Bad

13 years ago, Vince Gilligan introduced the world to a new kind of anti-hero in Walter White. Played by Bryan Cranston, White was an ordinary joe who became a drug kingpin, but he didn’t look particularly menacing. At least not until you heard his voice.

Following Don Draper’s charismatic yet fallible ad man, Cranston’s White redefined how the bad guy looked. Gilligan’s show redefined what people expected out of a show that wasn’t on HBO or Showtime-revealing the power one can generate in an AMC series. “Mad Men” was a great launch, but “Breaking Bad” was the confirmation. I recently binged the series on Netflix. It was my second time through, which means you pick up twice the material as you did during round one.

Here are ten things I learned during my re-watch. (SPOILERS warning, decade-plus later)

You root for the other guy this time

Since Gilligan wrote him so well, you were rooting for White’s chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin to succeed somehow. But the second time through, I found Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman to be the sad protagonist. A troubled kid who never wanted to dabble in the upper echelons of the drug trade, and someone who takes enough beatings in the first three seasons to generate some form of sympathy. Great shows can make you change alliances every time. Maybe next time, I will root for Dean Norris’ doomed Hank Schrader.

Hello, Bill Burr

When he appeared in the third season of the show, I didn’t even know much about Burr’s standup comedy routine. My first impression of his work came from Kuby, one of Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) fixers, along with the lovable Huell (Lavell Crawford). Right when Skylar White (Anna Gunn) got serious with White’s meth business, they had to get that car wash. Burr’s Kuby was the health and sanitation inspector who beautifully recited Mrs. White’s words of doom to Walter’s overbearing former boss. He’s an underrated actor to go with being a very funny guy. 

Skylar is still annoying

I know she’s in the right. I know she was helplessly pushed into the business by Walter. Overall, this embattled wife wasn’t clean herself, cheating on Walter and becoming complacent in the money laundering scheme. But in a world full of deplorable souls, you just wanted to scream at her, “LET. HIM. COOK.” She was one of the few who made it out alive, finally getting Heisenberg to confess that he loved doing things the illegal way. But I still couldn’t stand her. 

Schrader justice almost defeated the Schrader pride 

I remember thinking to myself during that flawless episode, “Ozymandias,” that if Hank had just called his wife on the way home in the car, that maybe they make it out of the desert and take Walter to jail. But he had to share that moment right there, unaware that a group of cold-blooded white supremacists were on their way to ruin the bust. If Gilligan’s tale taught us anything, it’s that the bad guys win a lot in real life. 

 The episode four transformative Walter moment still amazes

Jesse had been beaten. His product was basically stolen. Tuco (the great Raymond Cruz) was halfway through the duo, and there Walter walked into certain death or injury. But, as we found out many times during the series, Mr. White was a very unkillable dude. Like for real, yo! (Channeling my Jesse there.) That was the moment it all changed, though. He shaved his head, put on the hat, and never looked back. Walking out of that burning building with the product and money in his hand, who wasn’t cheering?!

Cranston will never be better

And that’s saying something, because he’s out some very solid work since. But there were so many layers to Walter, and multiple surprises of the horrifying variety. He was good, bad, and ugly all at once. We couldn’t stop condemning or watching his behavior. You never saw him coming, and Cranston made you believe in Walter’s more favorable side right up until the very end. When he tells his wife that he didn’t do it for her, Walter Jr. or Holly. He did it for him, leaning into the villainous status. 

Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut is still the best

Watching the upcoming finale of Gilligan’s brilliant follow-up series, “Better Call Saul,” will be bittersweet now due to the fact that he will exit that series alive, but the viewer will know he doesn’t make it out alive in the end. For Banks, this was a late career piece of gold that he found in the Nevada desert. What Gilligan created wasn’t just a master fixer of problems; he was the other fatherly presence for Jesse. Walter was the devil on one shoulder, and Mike was the flawed knight on the other. Like Cranston, Banks could do a lot with just his voice and a stare-but when he told stories, you just listened. Easily one of television’s finest creations, right next to Mr. Fring. 

Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus is still a wicked soul

Another actor finding a career-best role. Sound familiar? Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” is a true “Sopranos” relative, because it took unknown character actors and gave them lead-type roles that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Esposito’s Gus Fring was a special kind of chilling antagonist: the kind that smiles immensely and kills gruesomely. The second time through, I wanted him to succeed over Walter. Truth. 

Betsy Brandt’s Marie should have been a hostage negotiator 

I think if she called the bank robber during a standoff, the criminal would eventually get worn down by the accusations, opinions, and overall rapid-fire delivery of Hank’s wife, the unstoppable Marie. She’s stealing bracelets at stores, putting purple everywhere in the house, and taking babies from mothers who happen to be her sister. Brandt was a female joker on the show, right up to the point when Walter tells Skylar that they will never see Hank again. At that point, Marie broke and never got put back together. You loved to hate Marie Schrader, but like Gunn, that just means the actress did a terrific job.

The series finale is still the best of all time

“Felina” wrapped up the series so perfectly, at least for five years. “El Camino” is a great addition to the Jesse story-but Gilligan’s stamp on the show had all the closure and power one expected. After all of that suspense and cat/mouse battles between Walter and his numerous adversaries, he still managed to get the last word. And in superior, grand fashion. Looking like a walking corpse with cancer’s second surge through his body, Walter walked into that clubhouse in the end like Clint Eastwood walked into that saloon in “Unforgiven.” He finished things. Just like this show did. 

“Breaking Bad” taught television how to be just as strong as movies, even in the drug empire genre. It taught AMC Network how to take TWO great chances. I could watch it a third time honestly. If you haven’t already or need a revisit, don’t wait. It’s on Netflix. Go now.