Breaking Bad starts in the way that any truly great show should start: with a pair of pants falling from the sky …
Breaking Bad, at its core molecular level, is a show comprised of doubles.
The alliterative Bs in the title (and the Ws in Walter White’s name), the father-son coupling of Walter and Walter Jr., the twin Salamancas who hunt Heisenberg, the mysterious second cell phone, the neat division of the White family into two females and two males — all of these base pairs join together to build the show’s narrative DNA. In doing so, they thread together the inverted lifestyles of Walter White and his former high school Chemistry student, Jesse Pinkman. It is this dyadic relationship — the one between teacher and student — which forms the double helix that structures Breaking Bad, distinguishing it from the variety of drug narratives and American westerns that precede it.
The show begins bathed in the cruel blue light that is all too familiar to American high school teachers. Walt, lying awake, emerges from bed at the ungodly time of 5:02 am, the first and last numerals on the clock themselves inverted images of each other. As he rises to complete some early morning exercise in his soon-to-be-born baby’s nursery, he stares blankly at the wall, glumly glaring at his crystallography research award from 1985. “Contributor to Research/Awarded the Nobel Prize,” the bottom two lines of the plaque read. This moment brings the show’s central irony into stark relief: Walt, an award winning chemist, must spend his days associating with people who, to quote one of his students, think that chemistry is the study of chemicals.
This irony becomes even more pronounced when Walter teams up with Jesse to cook their first batch of methamphetamine — the plot event that sets the entire show in motion. Bickering in Jesse’s driveway, the two debate the use of the glassware for their work. Walter, entirely befuddled by Jesse’s inability to understand that boiling flasks are for boiling, asks him, “Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?” Jesse’s response: “No, you flunked me. Remember?” He then issues Mr. White a kind compliment: “Prick!” Once the two begin cooking, Jesse demonstrates all of the typical lackadaisical behaviors of the contemporary student: he spins in circles in his swivel chair, he hovers in front of boiling toxic chemicals without a gas mask, and, of course, he cannot complete any of his tasks without listening to loud music on his headphones.
Still, when the duo complete their first batch of meth, Jesse cannot help but be amazed at the high quality of Walter’s product. “This is art, Mr. White!” Jesse exclaims. In response, Walter, entirely deadpan, reduces his work to its most essential characteristics: “Well, actually, it’s just basic chemistry.” In this one simple statement, Walter reveals the rank absurdity in the criticism that teachers fail their students because they do not make their subjects relevant to the “real world.” For Jesse, the ABQ’s infamous Captain Cook, chemistry has never not been relevant to his real world. Yet, even now that the importance of chemistry has been literally crystallized for him, he can only express his admiration for his teacher in vague generalities. “You’re the goddamn Iron Chef,” Jesse tells Walter. Though these compliments are sincere, Walter is unmoved by Jesse’s kindness. Apparently, Mr. White only makes sense to his student in the context of bad reality television. Here we are now. Entertain us.
The tension between lazy student and beleaguered teacher is Breaking Bad‘s signature — its hint of chili powder, if you will. Though the show quite obviously places Walt and Jesse in the roles of hero and sidekick, the volatility of their relationship saves the show from completely rehashing those character types. While the two have their moments of intimate friendship, their relationship remains a tense one defined mostly by the endless frustration that they cause each other. Walter is repeatedly infuriated that Jesse does not follow his instructions; Jesse is repeatedly infuriated that Walter gives him instructions:
This particular conflict, on the face of it, is a minor one in the pilot episode. Since Walter’s cancer diagnosis is what propels him into the meth business, that plot event, which reverberates outward, creating domestic, personal, and professional problems for Walter and those close to him, quite naturally assumes an importance that overshadows the majority of Breaking Bad,‘s storylines. Nevertheless, as the series unfolds, it becomes undeniably clear that the show is as much about education as it is about drug dealing (or about cancer). All of Jesse’s most memorable moments — his assumption that Walter is going to build a robot, his confusion about whether or not opossums are Irish, his apprehension about going to Mexico to teach the cartel how to cook Walter’s recipe (the instructions on the equipment might be “in Mexican,” he fears) — gain their strength from his intellectual weaknesses, his stupidity, his scholastic failures. However, when Jesse does eventually meet with the drug cartel, the audience cannot help but marvel at, and feel proud about, how much he has actually learned, and how much authority Walter has helped his student assume. Those gleeful moments entirely depend on the contrast between the (sort of) mature Jesse and the Jesse introduced in this episode, a young man who thinks that cows live in cow houses.
As Breaking Bad‘s Fifth Season comes to a close, Hank discovers the volume of Leaves of Grass that Gale Boetticher gave to Walter while the two briefly cooked together. As Hank stares at the book, he realizes that the “W.W.” Gale references throughout his confiscated lab materials is simultaneously Walt Whitman and Walter White. Another pair has been discovered and, as it turns out, has fused together — become one — changing their respective molecular compositions in the process. “[Chemistry] is the study of change,” Mr. White teaches his students in the pilot episode. “Elements, they combine and change into compounds,” he informs his indifferent class, one student working excessively hard to balance what appears to be a pencil on his upper lip, another flirting loudly with his girlfriend. Walt White, like Walt Whitman’s learn’d astronomer, is alone at the front of his room, singing his solitary song of chemical transformation — of growth and decay. His students hardly know who he is or what he means. His lessons, though relevant, glide over all of them — except for Jesse. Eventually, as the show bears out, every atom that belongs to Walter belongs to Jesse, and each of them permanently change as a result. Perhaps, then, Jesse was wrong. Perhaps Mr. White was Welcome Back, Kotter after all. Joseph Fisher
Cat’s in the Bag…
S1E2 Cat’s in the Bag…
It was quite literally a lifetime ago.
Back when Walt identified more as a father and a chemistry teacher who merely moonlighted as a meth cook, back before Walt made the conscious decision to forego the hair on his head and before Jesse gained a healthy respect for Walt’s explicit directions vis-à-vis chemicals, the halcyon days of those first cooks resembled something closer to that of a French farce than a well-oiled meth manufacturing machine.
The first Big Decision that Walt and Jesse face is how to resolve the matter of Krazy-8 (he of the pilot episode with the scary pit-bull). Mere days into their extralegal start-up venture, the unlikely pair are faced with a particularly unconventional division of labor. They aren’t deciding who gathers materials or who will be tasked with balancing the books; they’re deciding who will murder Krazy-8. Hardened killers they are not, so they place their fate at the mercy of that tried and true method of justly determining an unwanted destiny — the coin flip. They’re discovering the weight that goes along with making and selling drugs is a little heavier than anticipated, the lifting a little more taxing.
We, the audience, are still in the learning phase as well and we’re becoming acquainted with Skyler’s deceptively attuned bullshit detector. After receiving an oddly-timed phone call that provokes a peculiar reaction in Walt, we see that Skyler isn’t going to be the stay-at-home dupe who will fill out her screen time unknowingly catering to her irascible husband’s criminality. She uses that once indispensable tool of the pre-caller ID days, *69 (which I guess took place as recently as January 2008, when this episode premiered), to quickly unravel the puzzle of who might be calling Walt at such an odd hour. All of the lies, the moral bargaining, the violence, they all start to play larger parts in Walt’s life in earnest with this episode.
If Walt was merely dipping his toe to check the temperature of the water in the first episode, by the end of the second he has held his nose and steeled himself to really take the plunge. The decision won’t be made lightly. We know that. The episode plus of hemming and hawing, of looking for any reason to unlock that sadistically effective bike lock nearly choking Krazy-8, unfolds at an excruciating pace. Just like Walt, we have to sit with the prospect of murder and think about it. We have to imagine it before we live it.
This is why Breaking Bad is at once so popular among its fans and so simultaneously controversial to its detractors. Your average episode of Walker, Texas Ranger probably delivers more wholesale violence in the aggregate and a body count that laps anything for which Walt and Jesse of the early days were ever responsible.
It isn’t the volume of violence that is so gripping, it’s the unforgiving method of its presentation. There is never an easy way out on this show. Never a convenient explosion, grace-saving deus ex machina, or a just-in-the-nick-of-time pratfall to keep the horror of the violence at arm’s length. When Jesse asks Walt if he’s held up his end of the coin flip bargain, Walt says he’ll do the deed tomorrow. It won’t be easy.
Of course there can’t be all dark and no light, even if the airiest moments of this episode involve the improper dissolving of a dead body in a bathtub full of hydrofluoric acid after Jesse’s earlier attempt to calm an irate Mrs. White while dragging a dead body across his driveway in broad daylight. While the disposal of the annoyingly still undead Krazy-8 is proving to be quite the moral dilemma for Walt and Jesse, getting rid of the already-dead-in-the-RV Emilio presents a whole different set of problems touched off by the dependably comical incompetence of Jesse.
Perhaps it’s all Walt’s fault. He knew what kind of chemistry student Jesse was and he damn sure knows that Jesse has done little to further his cognitive development in his time away from school (unless you count concocting that vile dreck known as “Chili-P” to be some sort of rudimentary practice of the chemical arts — we know Walt sure doesn’t). But the directions were explicit. Get a plastic bin. Easy, right?
It’s safe to say that as long as Jesse Pinkman lives, he’ll remember that hydrofluoric acid will dissolve a ceramic bathtub, the dead body inside of it and the entire wooden floor underneath, but it will not melt through a simple plastic container-that one item he was tasked to procure. That scene of the ungodly witches brew of broken-down fleshy cascading from the ceiling above is as darkly comic as Breaking Bad has ventured thus far. It’s one in a series of iconic moments that push the bounds of television. And ironically, it’s a frighteningly more conventional mess than the one locked up in the basement. Both will need to be cleaned up by Walt and Jesse, and soon.
As “Cat’s in the Bag…” concludes, Director Aaron Bernstein leaves us with an image of children at play in the desert in the very spot where Walt and Jesse had been cooking meth in the days prior. The gas mask that Walt left behind ends up on a child’s face. It’s an inescapable part of Walt’s journey into hell.
In Albuquerque’s underworld, as in life, there are always children around. It’s no mistake that Walt goes to the hospital to check the progress of the life growing inside of Skyler as often as he does to check the progress of the very real death, the cancer, growing inside of him. For those who are familiar with Walt’s journey and the young and innocent lives that he will brutally impact in the coming months, it’s a chilling image to see children at play on the site of his waste, unknowingly exposed to the danger he has unleashed. To be sure, the danger is coming. Robert Downs Schultz
…And the Bag’s in the River
S1E3 …And the Bag’s in the River
When first viewing this season back when it originally aired, one could be forgiven for not quite realizing how pivotal a pair of episodes 102 and 103 were. After the raw fury of the pilot, which set everything in motion — Walt’s cancer, his desire to manufacture methamphetamine, and the chain of events which led to the poisoning of Emilio and Krazy-8 — the episodes which followed didn’t seem to pack quite the same punch.
Until Walt finally morphed into Heisenberg and the shit hit the fan in the final moments of the strike-shortened season, to some the show seemed a victim of its own inertia. Re-watching the First Season knowing where Gilligan and his writers were going, it becomes possible to look back on these episodes for the masterclass of foreshadowing they truly were.
Following the explosive start of the pilot, Walt and Jesse each had to fight against themselves for any hope of redemption. By the end of this episode both have killed someone, both wish they could simply turn back the clock and erase what has happened, yet neither can do so. Over the next three episodes they’re continually pushed toward and against each other, two damaged people who must wait to be set in motion before their infinite capacity toward damaging others can be fatally exposed.
It’s fitting then that this episode begins with us flashing back and forth between present-day Walt, disgustedly cleaning the chemically melted remains of Emilio, and a two-decade-old version of Walt with his partner-in-science Gretchen. The two sit in a classroom discussing what really makes up a human being, and when both run out of science and still lack the full picture, Walt stares at the chalkboard and muses: “There’s got to be more to a human-being than that.”
Present-day Walter, scrubbing the bloody remains, would have to agree. There has to be more to me than this … what am I becoming?
The episode has more than its share of side-plots, many of which will continue to resonate in the future of the series. We’re introduced to Marie’s kleptomania through an early scene where we see her talking to Skyler and Walt Jr. while wearing the nursing shoes she’ll later trade in for black pumps she steals from a boutique. Though there’s no elaboration within the episode, clearly there’s more to come. Marie’s nonchalance in these scenes foreshadows the ease at which she’ll later steal that baby tiara and give it to her sister, never understanding quite the effect it might have, or why Skyler takes it so seriously.
The same goes for Walter, in that he’s trying to “provide” for his family, while never quite comprehending that there’s no way that money can provide for his family without also jeopardizing both their safety and moral wellbeing. He’s also continuously pulling away from the very family he says he hopes to protect, lying to Skyler and forcing her hand as she tries to figure out just what to make of the sudden personality changes.
When she calls him later in the episode on his bullshit (“You’re with Bogdan? I called Bogdan, and he gave me quite the earful. Wherever you are, why don’t you just stay there tonight?”) she’s clearly not ready to just take the “midlife crisis” and deal with it. Looking back in hindsight, we know nothing gets Walt to confess anything without the facts being dragged from his lips, and he’s not afraid to spin lie after lie he’ll later be forced to contend with.
But Skyler’s no pushover either. Eventually those lies must come home to roost.
Hank, meanwhile, gets drawn into the story via his wife’s misplaced suspicion that Walt Jr. is on drugs. Despite Hank’s protests that Walt should be the one dealing with his son, Marie tells him he’s the one Walt Jr. trust, which leads to the pivitol scene wherein Hank introduces Walt Jr. to Wendy, proving to be completely inept as a communicator. “How much do you charge for a windy, Wendy?” he asks, sneering, not realizing that these very casual words will come back to haunt him in Season Two. “You ever smoke anything, Wendy? Sausages don’t count.”
By the time Hank’s cocked-up version of a morality scene plays out, Walt Jr. has absolutely no idea what the point was. He’s not on drugs, so he just thinks it’s “cool” that his uncle chose to show him this piece of his day as a DEA agent. In the meantime it becomes easy to understand how Hank would seem a more authoratative figure for Walt Jr. than his own father, while also showcasing why Walt works so hard via his newfound life of crime to earn his son’s respect, even though the things he does assure that such respect can never be earned.
The heart of this episode, however, lies in the quandaries faced by both Walt and Jesse. Jesse, scarred by what he’s done to Emilio in the botched disposal attempt, turns as he will in many future episodes, to drugs — maybe if I can blunt this pain, I can deal with it — even as he understands there’s no way he can escape what he’s done. When Walt attempts to flush the drugs down the toilet, the chase scene which results is revealing, in that Walt remains too weak to even put up much of a fight, physically. But Jesse gets to the heart of the matter in their ensuing confrontation.
“Back off, man!” he yells at Walt. “You’ve got work to do. I did my part!“
“That obscenity?” Walt sneers. “That’s your contribution?”
“I didn’t ask for any of this!” Jesse responds. “How can I live here now?”
It all comes down, Walter implies, to Jesse’s inability to follow simple instructions. “You told him my name, you damn junkie!” Walter accused moments earlier as he confronted Jesse in the bathroom. To Walt, the worst thing that can happen is he’s exposed for what has happened over the previous two episodes. For Jesse, Walt can’t seem to comprehend, the moral impact of what they’ve done is already taking hold. It eventually drives Jesse into the arms of Wendy, who, after the whole exchange with Walt Jr. and Hank, will provide him drugs and sex as further means to distance himself from his actions.
Walt, meanwhile, does have work to do. He must confront Krazy-8 and determine once and for all what makes up this human-being named Walter White. That’s the essence of this episode: the battle for Walter’s soul. Once we’ve moved past the death of Krazy-8 at Walter’s hands, he’s finally free to become Heisenberg, that scientist’s very uncertainty principle personified.
It’s darkly humorous that, at first, Walter tries to solve this issue of what to do with Krazy-8 via a list of two columns: let him live vs. kill him. “It’s the moral thing to do,” Walt writes next to other notes including “murder is wrong,” “you are not a murderer” and “he may listen to reason,” though the other column proves telling. “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him live,” Walt writes, and against that calculus it becomes difficult to make any convincing argument to the contrary: Krazy-8 must die.
After making his captive a sandwich and then collapsing down the stairs, shattering the plate as Krazy-8 watches, shocked, Walt recovers enough to have a conversation with the man he’s debating killing. First he gets him to tell him his true name, Domingo, even though his captive tells him that’s not going to make it easier not to kill him. “I’m looking for any reason not to,” Walt says. “Sell me … tell me what it is.” That leads to a particularly strong monologue by Krazy-8, who responds in a surprisingly calm, cool manner.
“I guess I’d start out by promising you that if you let me go I won’t come after you,” he says calmly. “That you’d be safe. I guess I’d say what happened between us never happened. And what’s best for both parties is to forget all about it. But you know that anybody in my situation would make promises like that. Well in my case they happen to be true. But you’ll never know for sure.”
Eventually Krazy-8 admits to Walter that he’s “ABQ born and raised,” and that his father ran a popular furniture store, Tampico Furniture. The two seem to bond over that as Walt remembers buying his son’s crib there, lured in by the store’s catchy-yet-inane jingle. Small world that it is, Krazy-8 even admits “I might have even helped ring you up, you and that extended warranty on the crib.”
“The paths we take,” Walt muses.
The two then discuss the cancer diagnosis. Jesse doesn’t know, and neither does Walt’s family, he admits. “That’s not a conversation I’m even remotely ready to have.” Understanding Walt’s motivations, Krazy-8 offers to cut Walt a check if he lets him go, beating Elliot to the punch a few episodes early. No dice. But the captive reiterates that he doesn’t think this line of work suits Walter. What he fails to understand is just how well Walt is willing to adjust in order to make himself suit this line of work.
Walt, of course, doesn’t yet know that, when the plate shattered as he collapsed down the staircase, Krazy-8 was able to grab a lone shard of glass while Walt was unconscious. When Walt finally decides in his own mind to free his captive, goes upstairs to get the key and then realizes the truth, he begs for it not to be true. “No, no, no, no, no!” he cries out. “Why are you doing this?” He could be speaking to himself as well as Krazy-8. Why are you doing this, Walter? What do you hope to get from it all? Money can’t provide everything.
“You’re doing the right thing, Walter,” Krazy-8 says as Walt returns to the basement. Walt asks if he’s angry. Live and let live is the response, which Walt muses is “very understanding.”
“Whatever, man, I just want to go home,” Krazy-8 replies, and Walt’s response seals it. Me too, he says. And when Krazy-8 asks him to just unlock him, Walt jeers at him. “When I do, are you going to stick me with that broken plate?”
From there the battle for Walt’s soul comes to an abrupt end as he strangles Krazy-8 against the pole with the lock, leaving us to watch as the light leaves his victim’s eyes for good even as he mechanically attempts to stab Walt in self-defense until the last bit of life soaks from his body.
“I’m sorry,” Walt repeats, in tears, as he completes the deed. But it’s too late.
At the end of the episode we flash back to Walter and Gretchen, as he muses that something must be missing. What about the soul? Gretchen asks, and Walter laughs. “The soul … there’s nothing but chemistry here!”
As we watch Walter let Krazy-8 slump back to the floor as the scene fades out, it is immediately clear that’s all Walt has left — the chemistry, and a soulless existence.
The kicker is the final scene where Hank and Gomie discover the cook site from the first episode. When Hank unlocks the trap-car compartment and discovers his snitch’s secret stash of ultra-pure meth, we realize who Walter really has killed. That brings up questions which never will be answered — was Krazy-8 telling the truth, that he would have let Walter go? Was the shard of glass purely for self-defense, or was this also Krazy-8’s way out, a way to either win big or die trying?
It doesn’t matter. Walter clearly couldn’t seize onto any hope of redemption. His die was already cast, he’d made his choice. And the direction of Breaking Bad was set in motion, the moral destruction of Walter White already begun. As Walt looks at Skyler and says he has something to tell her, leading to the cancer reveal of the fourth episode, there’s no hint in his eyes that he’ll ever let her in on the true secret.
He’s set in motion the very destruction of the family unit he swears he only wants to protect. That’s the brilliance of this show, and it was already laid bare just three episodes in. Jonathan Sanders
S1E4 Cancer Man
One of the central questions about the story trajectory of Breaking Bad derives from its title. When exactly does Walter White “break bad,” or make the swift from drug manufacturer by necessity to malicious kingpin? During Bryan Cranston’s AMA session on Reddit, he was asked this question by a fan, to which he responded:
“My feeling is that Walt broke bad in the very first episode. It was very subtle but he did because that’s when he decided to become someone that he’s not in order to gain financially. He made the Faustian deal at that point and everything else was a slippery slope.”
This answer makes the fight to root for Walt substantially more difficult. Antihero though he is, ostensibly there are times during Breaking Bad‘s five-season run where one might find Walt’s actions justified in one way or another. The biggest appeal he has comes in his repeated insistence through the bulk of the series that all of his choices in manufacturing the famed blue crystal were made for the benefit of his family. Even though the cancer sub-plot has loomed behind the scenes for the latter half of the series, which would indicate that financial need isn’t as immediate as Walt might make it out to be, the desire for a nest-egg is embedded in the notion of the American Dream — one of the most important areas of examination in the show. A father should want his family to be secure, to have the ability to go to college, and to maybe get out of Albuquerque once in awhile. The line that can be crossed is a relentlessly utilitarian pursuit of that goal, which is exactly the case for Walt. In his mind, the ends always justify the means.
This is where Walt deviates, in some part, from the Faust myth. Traditionally, Faustus’ pact is made directly with the devil, and though he does get enraptured by the gifts the devil bestows on him, eventually he remembers he has to pay the piper. Walt, in contrast, hardly thinks he’s making a deal at all. Cooking meth, in his mind, is a reasonable short-term (there’s the catch) solution to his cancer treatment needs. So long as he does it well and doesn’t get dependent on selling the product (there’s another catch), he should be fine. It’s in this simplistic frame of mind, however, that Walt displays a character trait essential to the Faustian narrative: pride. With “Cancer Man” and its follow-up episode “Gray Matter”, it’s his wounded pride that sends him on the path to truly “Breaking Bad.” If Walt naively believing that there’s no allure in cooking meth is a black mark on his record, it’s nothing like his inability to let others reach out to him — even those closest to him.
Following the title credits, the viewer is thrust into one of the excruciatingly awkward family scenes that Breaking Bad does so well. Walt zones off as he burns a pile of meat on his grill — a tastefully gross visual link to the bodies that pile up as the seasons go on — as his cancer diagnosis, at this point known only to Skyler, occupies the entirety of his mind. As Hank, Marie, Walter Jr., Skyler, and Walt all sit around the tension-clouded patio table, Hank prods Walt to tell Walter Jr. about how he met Skyler. Walt affectionately recalls the story, which involved just a wee bit of romantic stalking, but Skyler begins crying right as he finishes. This leads to Walt confessing his cancer to the rest of the table. “It’s bad,” he says, subtly trying to undercut the importance of the diagnosis. This seems bizarre behavior for a man labeled “terminal” not but a couple of episodes ago, but as Hank expresses his love for Walt and his family, it becomes clear why — amongst many other reasons — Walt chose to hide his cancer in the first instance, and why he is so set on not making it a big deal now.
“Whatever happens,” Hank tells Walt, “I’ll always take care of your family.” To an ordinary person, this should come off as an expression of familial love and devotion. Of course, familial relations in Breaking Bad are far from normal, and Walt’s brooding silence in response to Hank’s kindness provides a glance into the inner workings of his pride-addled mind. To him, Hank’s offer isn’t a gesture of kindness but a threat to his ability to support his family.
This gets at the key distinction that drives Walt to continue manufacturing meth later on — assuming, of course, that the motive is still the nest-egg and not his being drunk on power. For Walt, it is not that his family needs to be provided for in the event of his death, but that he specifically is the one that provides for them. What Walt is ultimately protecting is not his family, but his belittled ego. Natural though it is to want to provide for one’s own family, Walt takes it to the extreme, at the same time putting his entire family at risk by getting involved in circles that are far from safe.
For evidence of “the danger” that Walt becomes and its effects on home life, one need look no further than the situation Jesse Pinkman faces upon trying to return to his parent’s home. Jesse’s relationship with his parents, which is even more awkward than the scene with Walt and his family, is one of Sisyphean back-and-forth. Jesse is prompted to join his family after a particularly nasty meth high, which led him to see a group of Mormon door-to-door missionaries as a vicious, weapon-wielding biker duo. His parents know something is up from the moment he walks into the door. Unfortunately for Jesse, they won’t have any it; their lives appear as idyllic as suburbia could be.
Jesse’s younger brother Jake is, in their eyes, the epitome of boy the drug-addled loser should have been: his room is lined with trophies, he speaks clearly (no “Yo!”), and dresses sharply. Mr. Pinkman speaks to his younger son, a flute/piccolo prodigy, as were he his talent scout and not his father. Jake is for all intents and purposes the anti-Jesse — or so it seems. Unbeknownst to his parents, Jake has picked up smoking weed as a hobby; but, upon a cleaning lady’s finding of a hidden joint in the house, the blame naturally steers wide of the to-be Julliard scholar. Being a good brother, Jesse takes the fall, but not before trying to get some quality time with his brother.
It’s in this touching and sad moment that the downward spiral caused by drugs reveals itself at the core of Jesse’s family. After tossing out an offhand remark about Jake being “the favorite,” Jesse is surprised by the response he gets. “I’m the favorite?” Jake asks incredulously while poring over a document on his Mac desktop, “Yeah right, you’re practically all they talk about.” On paper, Jake appears to be the anti-Jesse, but in reality he’s merely the opposite side of his meth-dusted coin. Jesse’s drug problem leads to his parent’s obsession with making Jake perfect, which then leads to Jake falling back into the same cycles that ruined Jesse. The hunt for perfection bears an eerie similarity to settling for the lowest common denominator.
When Jesse finds an old chemistry test in his belongings with Walt’s stern remarks in bright, scarlet red (“RIDICULOUS. APPLY YOURSELF!”), the connection between the home life of the Pinkman’s and the decisions Walt has made — and will continue to make — becomes all too evident. Cranston may believe that Walt’s Faustian slip-of-the-hand happened with Breaking Bad‘s pilot, but then he was just jaded enough to believe he could pick up cooking meth as a one-off hobby. With “Cancer Man,” the burgeoning pride of this sad-sack chemistry teacher signals the moment when he truly starts to break bad. Walt may fancy himself a family man, but when he takes a brother-in-law’s act of reaching out as a threat to his ability as a father and a man, it’s plain that his mind is prime for the empire-making behavior that will later go on to define the rise of Heisenberg. Brice Ezell
S1E5 Gray Matter
If there is one thing Breaking Bad wants you to believe it is, that one thing would be misleading. Does it work? Sometimes. While it’s not unfair to note how watching Jesse and Walt’s friendship fundamentally break down almost routinely has become trite and overtly predictable at times throughout the series, it’s also imperative to recognize that unpredictability lies at the crux of what makes the show so addicting. Or, in other words, even though you know they can’t kill Walt at the end of Season One, you still — at least initially — want to find out how he manages to live through what seems like impossible circumstances.
Maybe the series’ most subliminal illustration of such comes in the form of Season One’s “Gray Matter”, easily one of the best Breaking Bad episodes to date. Beginning with Jesse hopelessly trying to enter the real-world life of a job that would supply him with banker’s hours and big-boy benefits, our favorite high-school underachiever learns quickly that the employment opportunity wasn’t what he thought it would be while he slowly glances out the window to see his malcontent friend Bagder haplessly (or happily?) walking around town donning a ridiculous dollar-bill costume. Conversely, we find Walt confronting the same brand of bogusness as he arrives at Elliott Schwartz’s birthday party, wrapped Roman Noodles in hand, to find that despite the instruction to bring no gifts, his old college buddy has a plethora of outlandish offerings in his honor, waiting to be revealed for all to see.
Naturally, both instances ultimately lead the two main protagonists in this narrative to return back to their untoward intentions. “Wanna cook?” Walt asks Jesse about 45 minutes after the fact. Cut to black. Fill in the blank. Metaphors abound.
What makes the episode so affecting isn’t necessarily what happened during the limits of its own existence; rather, the moments gain perspective on both the breadth of the story and the depth of its characters as the entire operation advances through subsequent seasons. It isn’t even until midway through Season Five that we learn exactly what happened between Walt and his college buddies/business partners and why he was left out of the fame and money that Gray Matter enjoyed after he left for what he later calls “a $5,000 buy-out for a few months of rent.” Creator Vince Gilligan loves his loose ends, and this episode in particular allowed him to create troves of them.
Yeah, we know that something went down between Gretchen and Walt, but details are scarce. Yeah, it’s not the most surprising thing to hear Walt note he’s never had a say in his life up to that point, but what exactly that might mean — and whether or not it had anything to do with his wife Skyler — is up for debate. And despite the implications that accompanied the former chemistry teacher’s decision to finally seek treatment for his cancer, it’s never explicitly stated what made him change his mind overnight about his lack of will to live.
Speaking of that swift about-face, lest we be remind that this is That Episode — the one with the single greatest failed attempt at an intervention AMC programming has ever seen, all taking place in the Whites’ living room during an “intervention.” In retrospect, it may very well be the best illustration of how humane Gilligan can be as a writer. The entire sequence is like a roller coaster ride through … well, through a meth lab. Second-handedly hysterical and unexpectedly heavy, that pocket of minutes should be enough for any doubter to stick with the series for at least another season or two.
Yeah, Hank’s sports metaphors are laugh-out-loud funny, but the piss-your-pants moment comes when Marie chimes in with timing that can be described as only perfection by asking her husband, “Hank, what the hell are you saying?” Those chuckles quickly turn tender, however, as Walt. Jr. single-handedly flips the tone of the exercise on its head. “This is bullshit,” he tells his dad. “I’m pissed off ’cause you’re a pussy, like, ready to give up. What if you gave up on me?” The pillow then lands with Walt, and a monologue for the ages ensues.
In hindsight, this might be the moment that we can point to when considering precisely how far Mr. White has veered from his former self. Knowing that the current version of who he is has made him one of the most detestable (and frankly, obnoxious) characters in all of television is a lesson in devolution of the purest, most scary kind. Here, he struggles with the decision to keep himself alive, succumbing to pressures of a family who so clearly loves him. To hear Skyler eventually tell him that her life is dedicated to waiting until that cancer returns so he can cease to be a problem in her life down the road is, with the events of this episode in mind, shocking.
But Breaking Bad does shocking well, and it does so in ways that run so far deeper than the death of a character or an utterance of candor. “This is the white in Gray Matter,” Elliott Schwartz tells people at his birthday party (Schwartz, of course, being German for the color black). Who knew that the difference between the two could be so subtle? Who knew that the absence of one could lead to the discovery of another? Who knew that the span separating both colors wasn’t nearly as far as most people probably think?
Walter didn’t. But now he does. Colin McGuire
Crazy Handful of Nothin’
S1E6 Crazy Handful of Nothin’
Walt’s transition to Heisenberg manifests itself from massive moral and physical transformations, both of which are heavily symbolized throughout the episode.
Initially, Walt is still primarily concerned with his family’s financial stability, fiercely independent, and a just a tad self-centered. Rather than let Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz, who presumably stole his research to form Gray Matter Technologies, pay for his cancer treatment, Walt eagerly desires to use his chemistry skills to make his own profit and resumes business with Jesse. While surveying their now bullet-ridden RV, he makes it clear that he does not want to repeat the gut wrenching events that he and Jesse experienced with Emilio and Krazy-8. Walt immediately names himself a “silent partner” in their covert operation, putting himself in charge of all of the meth making while leaving Jesse to deal directly with distributors and customers. “No more bloodshed. No more violence,” Walt declares, desperately clinging on to any sense of morality even in the most immoral of circumstances. In short, Walt is trying to find a way to have his cake and eat it too.
However, Walt’s aggressive chemotherapy treatment catalyzes major physical and emotional changes in him. In fact, the effects of his chemotherapy are continually portrayed in a strikingly similar manner as those of a drug addiction, visually collapsing Walt’s personal and public struggles into one. First, Walt becomes increasingly deceptive. During one of his first chemotherapy treatments, Walt plays up his unassuming nature to convince Skyler to let him attend his chemotherapy sessions alone and assures her that he is taking care of Elliot’s nonexistent checks, all so that he can continue to cook with Jesse undetected. Skyler is, of course, quite pleased, although her lingering stare reveals that she is slightly skeptical of Walt’s words.
Skyler’s wariness of Walt’s behavior only grows from there; she even voices her concern about his quietness and frequent absences during a support group session later in the episode. Walt responds by simply stating that it “feels better not to talk at all about anything to anyone.” As vague as it sounds, this line so beautifully sutures his two biggest anxieties: he cannot bear to talk about the cancer that has so obviously wreaked havoc on his body, and, at the same time, he is outwardly articulating his feelings about his clandestine illegal activities.
As with other Season One episodes, Breaking Bad‘s writers also flesh out Walt’s biggest dilemmas through a science lesson. Walt’s explanation of the volatility of fulminated mercury during a chemistry lecture perfectly symbolizes the dramatic changes occurring in his own life. He says, “If a reaction happens quickly, otherwise harmless substances can react in a way that generates enormous bursts of energy,” indicating that a dramatic change is yet to come. Soon after, he stumbles into the bathroom to violently vomit — the first of many of Walt’s extreme side effects as a result of chemotherapy. Hugo, the selfless school janitor, patiently and readily cleans up Walt’s mess, emerging as Walt’s sidekick when his bathroom trips grow more frequent.
At this point, Walt can no longer conceal his cancer, even with Jesse. While cooking one afternoon, Walt works himself up to the point of exhaustion in the stifling heat of his dark trailer. He limps outside, slumps in a chair, and unzips his suit to cool down, drawing attention to the large scar on his chest. Jesse quickly realizes that Walt has cancer, since his beloved aunt, who died only seven months after she was diagnosed with cancer, bore a similar scar. “I am your partner, man. You should have told me,” Jesse says, promptly taking over Walt’s cooking duties. This exchange completely alters and strengthens Walt and Jesse’s working and personal relationship, as a kindhearted Jesse demonstrates that he genuinely cares about Walt’s wellbeing. Nevertheless, Walt seems to see this as the worlds he so staunchly wants to keep apart slowly colliding, and he is seriously worried.
What follows is a signature quirky yet powerful Breaking Bad scene: a dizzying, cinematic montage of Jesse both selling and indulging in meth to Paul Rothman’s “Scoobidoo Love”. Scenes like these continually remind us why Breaking Bad is one of the greatest television shows ever made, as it flawlessly conveys gritty realism with a dark sense of humor. The images of drug addicts in dark and seedy locations, coupled with the song’s lighthearted innocence, underscore addicts” quotidian nature of consumption and elaborate upon Jesse’s own battle with drug dependency. Likewise, it parallels the images of Walt’s own reaction to chemotherapy, which at once seems to sustain and destroy him. The most striking of these images occurs later in the episode, when Walt slowly throws his head back and releases a drawn out sigh as the medicine enters his veins, much like a drug addict taking a hit would react.
Even though we are blindsided by the number of customers Jesse visits in one day, he and Walt barely make a profit. “I am breaking the law here. The return is too little for the risk,” Walt barks. Though he is still primarily concerned with his family’s financial security, he is now willing to be more aggressive to attain it. Walt’s eagerness ultimately presses Jesse to get in touch with Tuco, Krazy-8’s successor, so that they can distribute their product in bulk. Luckily, Jesse discovers that his friend Skinny Pete shared a jail cell with Tuco in the past and manages to gain entry into Tuco’s headquarters. Tuco adores the product, but his megalomania and penchant for violence does not gel with Jesse’s diffidence. When Jesse asks for money upfront, Tuco beats him so badly that Jesse winds up in the hospital. As a bloodied Jesse lay on the floor, Tuco yells, “nobody moves crystal in the South Valley but me, bitch!” establishing himself as a force with which to be reckoned.
Meanwhile, the cat-and-mouse chase between Hank and Walt flourishes in this episode. Earlier on, Hank and Gomez meet to discuss the analysis of the respirator that they found at Walt and Jesse’s former mobile meth lab site. The back of the mask reads, “Property of J.P. Wynne High School,” an immediate signal that the culprit is either from or has ties to Walt’s high school. A completely unsuspicious Hank pays a visit to Walt, who nervously plays it cool. When Hank finds that the materials commonly used to make meth are missing from the storage room, he advises Walt to guard his materials more carefully. “We don’t want people to start worrying about you,” Hank laughs. Hank’s constant jabs at Walt never get tiring — though the humor is lost on a paranoid Walt, we as an audience know that the joke is actually completely on Hank. But Walt gets a lucky break, as it is Hugo who is later connected with and publicly arrested for the crime, despite there being no evidence linking him to taking the equipment or cooking meth. Walt looks on indifferently, relieved to have flown under the radar.
It is only during a family poker game that Walt processes the repercussions of his actions. Hank revels in Hugo’s arrest, stating that he “fit the profile” even though the only justification for his arrest was a small amount of marijuana found in his car. Through this, Hank demonstrates how deeply flawed and racially charged the police system in which he operates truly is. Realizing that he has cost Hugo his job and dashed his future prospects of employment, Walt is momentarily guilt-ridden and even tries to defend him, but, of course, he is not nearly guilt-ridden enough to fess up to his actual laundry list of crimes. Given his reticence, it is obvious that Hugo is just one of many people whose lives Walt destroys for the sake of his own safety.
Ultimately, it is Walt and Hank that face-off in the poker game, paving the way to another golden exchange between the two. “Are you gonna man up or are you gonna puss out?” Hank asks. Not only does Walt apply this to his poker game, but, as we will see, he applies it to his newfound career. “I’m all in,” Walt answers defiantly. Hank folds, assuming that Walt has a much better hand. It turns out that Walt simply has what Marie calls a “handful of nothin,'” referring to the memorable line from Cool Hand Luke (1967) whose eponymous character is known for his bluff.
The outcome of the poker game bears several layers of meaning. First, it shows that Walt really has an exceptional poker face — he may have a “handful of nothin,'” but as long as he puts on a brave persona, others will quite literally fold to him. Second, it implies that Hank may not have the best fate, especially when it comes to unknowingly delving into Walt’s affairs. He does, after all, narrowly escape death later in the series because of Walt, and it remains to be seen what will happen to his character in the latter half of the Fifth Season.
The next day, Walt visits Jesse in the hospital. The scene is frightening; Jesse is unconscious and wears a neck brace as Skinny Pete remains by his side. “You the guy?” Skinny Pete asks Walt, to which Walt responds, “Yeah. I’m the guy.” He’s not merely a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher, but a rising star with a budding reputation. Given Jesse’s state, Walt knows that he must up the ante, even when he only has a handful of nothing. Walt inquires Skinny Pete about Tuco and the way that he operates, readying himself for a serious confrontation.
Walt, with a large bag of crystal in tow, visits Tuco’s headquarters noticeably more confrontational and utterly fearless. He informs one of Tuco’s henchmen, “I want to talk to Tuco and I won’t leave until I do.” After an extensive cavity search, Walt introduces himself to Tuco as “Heisenberg,” after Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who died of cancer. Evidently, Walt considers himself an indisposable scientific genius.
By changing his name, Walt shows that he is not only concerned with growing his finances and maintaining anonymity, but also his viability as a brand. Gray Matters may have usurped him of his potential and effectively led him to his current state, but Walt is not going to let the opportunity to brand his intellect slip away from his fingers again. He unflinchingly demands that Tuco pay him $50,000 in order to cover the cost of the pound of meth that he took from Jesse as well as Jesse’s hospital bills. “Let me get this straight, I steal your dope, I beat the livin” piss out of your little mule boy, and then you walk in here and bring me more meth?” Tuco laughs. In response, Walt grabs a piece of crystal from Tuco’s desk and slams it on the floor, which creates a terrifying explosion so large that it even blows out the windows. As Tuco and his men regain their balance, Walt demands that Tuco sells two pounds of his and Jesse’s meth per week and gives him money upfront, lest he cause an even larger destruction.
Tuco agrees, asking Walt what the crystal actually was. “Fulminated mercury, a little tweak of chemistry,” Walt responds, recalling his chemistry lecture from earlier in the episode. Once again, the fulminated mercury symbolizes Walt; he started off in this episode as almost otherwise harmless, but the tweaks of chemistry that have occurred within his body due to chemotherapy have generated an entirely new person altogether. With a sack of money in tow, Walt marches out of the building, wiping a stream of blood running from his nose. Though Walt earlier asserted that there should be no more bloodshed, Jesse’s hospital visit and Walt’s bloody nose indicates that there is much more bloodshed yet to come — especially for the both of them.
As soon as he gets into his car, Walt grasps the crumpled up stacks of bills and takes a moment to digest what has just occurred: for the first time in his life, Walt has made a profitable deal for himself, and an immensely profitable one at that. He grips the steering wheel begins releasing his pent up rage and excitement by growling and screaming, akin to a human transforming into a monster. Heisenberg has officially arrived, and he’s not going away any time soon. Karina Parikh
A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal
S1E7 A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal
“Why was that so good?” a sweaty and contorted Skyler asks Walt, still reeling from an impromptu romp in their rather conspicuously parked Pontiac Aztek. “Because it was illegal,” Walt replies.
When Walter White was still ignorant of the rather elementary fact that scoring boxes of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine was the bottleneck to his burgeoning meth partnership, vestiges of Walt the man, the father, the teacher, the schlub, were still ever-present. Sure, there were hints that Walt had a penchant for criminality and that he had the constitution to stare down thugs and drug dealers who wanted him dead. But it didn’t come naturally for Walt. He would have to work at it if he wanted to overcome 50 years of living the straight life.
No, Walt’s path into the netherworlds of human decency has never been a straight line.
Walt’s choice to deal meth always felt like a Faustian bargain, as any conscious decision to trade morality for an enhanced quality of life usually does. In “A No Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”, Walt’s understanding of what that bargain really entails begins to crystallize as clearly as a perfectly cooked batch of his cherry product. The rough stuff is the meth business and the deal isn’t a simple money-for-product swap, it’s a personal one.
The cold-blooded murder of Krazy-8 wasn’t a one-off and Tuco’s beating of Jesse was about as anomalous as a meth-head selling his mother’s television set. Lying to Skyler, stealing from the high school where he works, risking his safety and by extension that of his family, aren’t mere start-up costs for Walt. These are built-in, on-going organizational costs that impact the soul as well as the bottom line. You have to pay to play and by the end of the First Season, it’s game on.
When Walt and Skyler meet with The Cancer Doctor they are told, “having a better outlook can make a tremendous difference.” This makes Skyler and Walt smile as it ascribes them some level of control over keeping Walt alive where they otherwise have heretofore felt powerless. Of course what that “better” outlook encompasses to Walt might actually be the very life of crime and danger that was at first just a means to an end. The flirtation with cooking meth is most assuredly keeping Walt alive, but not because it affords him the palliative care offered by doctors.
A lifetime of failure and potential unrealized has left his passion for living dormant. That cancer threatened to eat his physical body only mirrored the advanced state of Walt’s inner decay, rendering him little more than a failed chemist sleepwalking through his milquetoast life and into the oncologist’s death sentence.
But that is all changing. Walt is beginning to like his life. It’s good now… and it’s good because it’s illegal.
Legality is a funny thing. It’s even funnier when a budding meth cook broaches the matter while sharing a Cuban cigar with his DEA agent brother-in-law. Perhaps the clearest sign of Walt’s true embrace of his new criminal lifestyle comes as he and Hank steal a few moments to chat outside of Skyler’s baby shower. Most of us accept the law as a set of rules vaguely based on notions of morality and the public good. The rules are the rules and they don’t change much over time, ostensibly because we can delineate clearly between right and wrong, good and evil.
Walter White the erstwhile chemistry teacher might have in the past shared a chuckle with Hank at the realization that his possession and consumption of the Cuban cigar was in fact illegal. It’s more than a little absurd that possessing something as innocuous as a cigar is a crime only because of JFK’s 50-year-old beef with Castro and that whole Bay of Pigs fiasco.
But Walter White the meth cook doesn’t see the humor; he sees nothing but hypocrisy and Hank’s flippant attitude toward the whole matter only makes Walt seethe. If a man of the law, like Hank, can accept that it’s the value judgment of a society that determines illegality and not some inherent trait that deems a substance either good or bad, then surely he should accept that heroin, cocaine and meth too are not inherently bad. They are merely bad at the moment because of societal convention and accident of history.
Of course, Hank can’t and won’t make that leap. He won’t even entertain Walt. To Hank, some laws have moral wiggle room and others do not. Meth is a bad thing and he knows it. He feels its badness viscerally and it’s Hank’s life’s work to root out and destroy that badness. Walt couldn’t disagree more and thankfully for him, the reasoning for Walt’s stance on the triviality of drug laws is lost on the hopelessly clueless Hank. The harmlessness of the character playing dad/teacher/husband/brother-in-law belies the radical metamorphosis hatching within Walt. Someone else is taking over.
This new person, dubbed Heisenberg, has a knack for it. Despite his complete lack of know-how concerning virtually anything regarding convention in the criminal world, Heisenberg speaks a language to Tuco that Jesse never learns. When Tuco, that squat cauldron of psychopathic fury boils over at the light payload and irresponsible promises to deliver four pounds of meth proffered by his amateur partners in crime, Jesse cowers and braces himself for punishment. But not Walt. Not anymore. Heisenberg isn’t afraid. Call it guts, call it gravitas, call it bravery. Perhaps it has been earned by age or by a cancer diagnosis, but whatever it is, Walt has a well of it and Jesse doesn’t. The rest can be learned.
Especially when you know science.
To Breaking Bad fans, it feels like blue meth has been around since the inception of Walt and Jesse’s enterprise. Their impossibly pure, perfectly marketed crystal blue persuasion has itself become a character as consistent and prominent as any- fascinating in its genius, exasperating in its elusiveness. When Walt concocted the recipe for his proprietary brew on Jesse’s kitchen table, he did so not realizing that while his virtuosity with chemicals had uncovered a workaround to their pseudoephedrine problem, he was really only trading one bottleneck for another.
Methylamine. The crucial component to their cook is that now infamous ammonia derivative…and if they want methylamine they have to steal it …and if they have to steal it then they have to wear masks … and if the only masks the store has left are two ridiculous red and green ski masks, replete with pom poms affixed the top, then dammit you go to another store.
Jesse and Walt’s first heist of their white whale, methylamine, is as iconic as any in the show. It’s pure Walt and Jesse, which is to say remarkable ingenuity with a dash of balls and a heavy dose of blundering. By the time the security guard is successfully locked in the port-a-john and the homemade thermite bomb has destroyed the lock to the warehouse storing their prize, the keystone cops element of their heist laughably unfolds as they realize they’ll have to steal their methylamine by the steel drum, not the gallon.
The illusion of the freedom that meth and in turn the money that selling meth brings with it bonded Jesse and Walt from the beginning. Freedom from the crush of providing, from the weight of familial disappointment, from the fear of living life as a loser, these are the things that adhere a 50 year-old nerdy high school teacher to a twentysomething burnout going nowhere. The success that they crave can buy them more than new lives, it can buy them entirely new outlooks on their lives, outlooks they’ve fashioned for themselves against all odds.
As Season One ends and Tuco’s henchman, who has just suffered a senseless and savage beating at Tuco’s hand is loaded into his Escalade, that old familiar fear engulfs Walt’s face. Walt’s journey has been light on consequences thus far, although he now sees what those consequences may entail with increasing regularity.
“OK Heisenberg! Next week.” the sadistic Tuco yells to Walt as he speeds away. Heisenberg will be there. Robert Downs Schultz