Amazon’s TV series Breathe is brilliant at times: sharp and thought-provoking, giving skilled actors known mainly for their film work a chance to shine in a different medium. Yet it’s a series of ups and downs, with more downs than ups as the story progresses.
R. Madhavan leads the series as Danny Mascarenhas, father to an ailing son named Josh (Atharva Vishwakarma). The severity of Josh’s illness is mentioned indirectly at first, when Danny pulls a relative aside during a birthday party and asks him to take back an overly generous gift for Josh, lest the boy realize something is up. “Why do we have to tell him what we know?” Danny kindly tells the uncle. When next we see Josh, he’s in the hospital, being treated for a disease that’s given him months to live unless he receives a lung transplant. The whole sequence is beautifully constructed.
In order to receive a new set of lungs, Josh not only has to wait for a donor with the correct rare blood type to pass away — and in a manner that keeps their organs viable for transplant — he has to wait for the three people ahead of him on the recipient list to get their lungs first. Bereft of options, Danny steals a list of registered donors and hatches a morally questionable (at best) plan to extend the lives of Josh and those ahead of him on the transplant list.
Elsewhere in Mumbai, another father tortures himself over his own failure to protect his child. Police detective Kabir Sawant (Amit Sadh) lost his young daughter three years earlier when the curious girl accidentally shot herself with his service revolver. Kabir’s resultant misery and alcoholism have driven his wife, Ria (Sapna Pabbi), to file for divorce. As Kabir finally tries to pull himself out of his depression, he senses something fishy about a series of accidents among a cohort of people with the same blood type, who all happen to be organ donors.
Sadh and Madhavan are perfectly cast as the two fathers: one searching for redemption and the other trying to save his son while he still can. Both actors command attention despite some flaws in the way their characters are written. Kabir spends the first few episodes mired in a drunken funk, but he’s really engaging when his plotline finally meets with Danny’s. Danny is better from the get-go, although his arc becomes scattershot he pivots from cold-hearted to conflicted from scene to scene.
On the whole, the show is strongest during the setup phase, as Danny pursues a course of action prohibited by his Catholic faith (and laws and general human decency, of course). Interesting graphical illustrations of the factors he must consider when incapacitating his victims cleverly forces the audience to put themselves in the mind of a methodical killer. (Note: though the dialogue is primarily in Hindi, the articles and written materials shown onscreen in this sequence are written in English.)
During this phase of the story, we see Danny’s schemes play out in real-time. It’s intense, since there’s always a chance that something will go wrong. However, in later episodes of Breathe, Danny’s crimes are shown only after we know he’s gotten away with them, removing all the tension. This also makes the later crimes seem ridiculous and impossible to execute, rather than meticulously planned operations.
The weakest point in the entire series is Episode 5: “Bad Fish.” With Kabir convinced that he’s on the trail of a serial killer, he first asks his boss for leave to investigate before heading to Ria’s to warn her. Both scenes — which together make up the first ten minutes of the episode– are nothing but people shouting at Kabir as he tries to explain himself. Kabir’s boss wants him to focus on his overdue paperwork, and Ria and her father just want Kabir to leave.
This is bad writing for multiple reasons. First, it’s annoying to endure ten consecutive minutes of characters screaming the same things over and over. Second, one of the points Breathe emphasizes is that, for all his faults, Kabir is an excellent detective. Everyone around him says so. For him to be dismissed by both his boss and his ex-wife and her family makes no sense given what they know about him. Finally, his father-in-law’s refusal to listen to Kabir’s concerns for Ria makes little sense in a show built around the paternal desire to protect one’s offspring.
Despite being a show about a guy who hunts down organ donors, Breathe does a good job challenging stigmas against organ donation particular to India. Danny discusses concerns over the spiritual implications of organ donation with another family in the hospital waiting room in a scene that explains both objections to the practice as well as scriptural evidence that supports the practice. The series repeatedly shows just how critical the need is for donors willing to make one last compassionate act as they exit this life.