BREAKING BAD (TV SERIES): THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON – Blu-ray review

Most television networks strive for at least one gritty program or two. It seems everyone has a cop or detective series these days, but these so-called “dramas” usually wind up being about fast talking good guys who have everything go right and nail bad guys by each episode’s end. Perhaps this is why “Breaking Bad” has become so popular, so well received and so much more. It doesn’t want, or need, to do what others do.

“Breaking Bad: The Complete Third Season” lands on a three Blu-ray disc set with all thirteen episodes from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The series as a whole has been honored since its beginning, but season three scored seven Emmy Award nominations and two wins. Bryan Cranston took home Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series once again (that makes three straight), and Aaron Paul received Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (he was nominated last year but did not win). Additionally, Cranston scored nominations for acting from the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes.

Accolades aside, “Breaking Bad” is able to generate real tension and creepy moments in less than half the time most feature length films need to do their thing. It helps to know the characters and back-story, of course, but even a new viewer can understand the general scheme after an episode or two. This stuff is intense enough to make you bite your nails, but only after you’ve washed out the dirt it’s also placed underneath them.

In a nutshell, Walter White (Cranston) is back cooking methamphetamine again during season three, but the circumstances have changed. Earlier in the series, Walter was teaching high school chemistry until he discovered he was dying of lung cancer. To pay for treatment and financially secure his family, he teamed up with a former student turned drug dealer, Jesse Pinkman (Paul), so they could manufacture and sell meth. Things didn’t sit this well for long, however, and “Breaking Bad: The Complete Third Season” examines the latest problems the duo encounters.

For starters, season three begins with the aftermath of a plane crash that ended season two. A girl Jesse was seeing overdosed and died, leaving her father, an air traffic controller, in disarray. His rapid return to work led to a mid-air collision in the skies above Albuquerque, and Jesse can’t help but feel guilty. Walter, however, has left home per his wife Skyler’s (Anna Gunn) request, and realizes he needs to get out of the business in order to save his family. His son Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte) and his newborn daughter hang in the balance when Skyler confronts him and shares that she knows he’s a drug dealer.

From the beginning, things begin to spiral out of control as each episode places another layer onto the storyline. A fellow named Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), who owns some Mexican restaurants in town, is essentially Walter’s boss who sets quotas for meth production. When he learns that Walter intends to quit, he tempts him with piles of cash and fancy lab space. Gus has ties to some awfully nasty Mexican cartels who jockey with him for power and control, leaving Jesse, who has just made it out of rehab, dangling and desperate to get cooking again, with or without Walt by his side. Of course, when Walt discovers that Jesse tries to go to Gus saing he can work for less, all hell breaks loose.

Walt’s brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) is a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who gets shot following a lead or two on the very meth Jesse and Walt are producing. Skyler starts sleeping with her boss in an effort to force Walt to grant her a divorce. Marie (Betsy Brandt), Hank’s wife and Skyler’s sister, reveals she can’t afford Hank’s medical bills, so Skyler blackmails Walt into paying for them with his drug money. Needless to say there’s more, but why read about it when you can see it for yourself, especially when it’s this good?

“Breaking Bad” feels far more authentic than most programs on television today. Maybe it’s because Cranston and Paul really are as good as those Emmy Awards indicate, or perhaps because the series deals with an issue most can read not so good news about everyday in their local newspaper, viewers perceive an up close but not too close perspective. The moral dilemmas every character faces are all tangible, too. It’s doubtful the average viewer who checks out “Breaking Bad” might morally think the line of work Walt and Jesse engage in would appeal to them, but as everyone knows, money really motivates.

While I don’t know enough about the War on Drugs to say whether or not “Breaking Bad” is realistic, the tension, unease and sheer creepy vibes it generates sure are genuine. There’s enough violence to understand this is serious stuff, but not so much we become numb to it. Anger, despair and indignation abound, but so does the occasional funny joke or bizarre moment. Season three reestablishes the lines around those who we think might be “good” and “bad,” breathing further life into characters who aren’t boring because they live with the day to day problems we all can relate to. Drug manufacturing and smuggling aside, “Breaking Bad” is about people who make choices and are forced to cope with the results, no matter how unfair, deadly or dangerous they may be.

To further strengthen its resume, “Breaking Bad” doesn’t cut corners during production. Writer/producer/director Vince Gilligan is in the zone with sharp dialogue, firm attention to detail and unwavering commitment to putting actors and characters forward who only enhance the series. His unique touch helps create a delicate balance that strengthens the already firm foundation the series sits atop.

Edgy, tense, complicated and thrilling, “Breaking Bad: The Complete Third Season” is firing on all cylinders. It’s not light entertainment, mind you, but rarely are things that turn out to be so darn good.

Video:
Season three looks extremely crisp and clear visually, no doubt due to the well-executed 1080p High Definition 1.78:1 transfer to Blu-ray. The image is grain free throughout and works real magic with the vivid colors in the New Mexico desert. Brights are dominant, but as so much of the content throughout “Breaking Bad” is rather dark, the visuals share the wealth. Camera work is especially well done and powerful. Angles used are creative but not excessive, and we get a somewhat “Blair Witch Project” like experience at times, usually an intense conversation where people don’t agree. You can think of the “Breaking Bad” visuals as that one house in your neighborhood where the owners painted or modified it just to be unique…and it worked.

Audio:
For as much whispering and speaking from cell phone to cell phone that takes place, season three’s audio is good and strong. The English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack uses its background music carefully and blends genres together to establish emotion and mood. Vocals are equally emotional, helping communicate anger more than anything, but also fear and angst simultaneously. Subtitle options are English, French and Spanish.

Extras:
Over ten hours of additional special features begin with three “uncensored” episodes, nine audio commentaries, deleted scenes, unused footage, a gag reel, seven behind the scenes featurettes, mini video podcasts, fake commercials, twenty behind the scenes/making of mini episodes and, exclusive to Blu-ray, a cast and crew photo collection. Like the series itself, the special features are deepened bit by bit.

A Final Word:
“Breaking Bad” doesn’t need to be as greasy or slick as other shows, and if it gets to that point, its effectiveness will plummet right away. I appreciate its rough around the edges take on all the life and business elements it chooses to harp on, and hope its longevity is nowhere near capacity. Each episode keeps audiences guessing, and more often than not, we guess incorrectly. Who knew that being wrong was so addicting?

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