Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald
Season 1, Episode 4: Cancer Man
“Then why don’t you just fucking die already? Just give up and die.”- Walter White Jr.
The cold open in this episode is one of the shorter and more straightly played in the show’s entire history. It begins with Hank discussing the amazingly pure Meth found in Krazy-8′s car, and how it seems to indicate the emergence of what Hank calls Albuquerque’s new kingpin (cut to Walter in his underwear, goofily brushing his teeth). It’s a joke scene, but I remember it being one that really stunned me, and for one simple reason: I did not anticipate the authorities catching on to Walt this quickly. I really felt as if that would be a plot point to end the season on, not one to start off the fourth episode. It’s this sort of disregard to the standard operating procedure or television dramas that really let me know what I was in for with this show. Walter and Jesse themselves seem to understand this, in some primal way, as they both spend a not inconsiderable amount of time in this hour looking over their shoulders, wondering when the other shoe is going to drop and someone, anyone, is going to seek retribution for what happened to Krazy-8 and Emilio.
Most shows, even great ones, push off any sense of finality for as long as they can. As soon as they establish a successful formula, they prolong it for as long as possible, pushing off climactic character conflicts until finales. Either that, or they stick so many revelations, betrayals, and climaxes into the plot that the very drama that holds the show together is devalued. What does it matter if Character A is working with Character B when in three weeks, they’ll have both moved on and nothing will have come of it? Breaking Bad does the one thing you’re least likely to see: it lets you know, right from the beginning, that the end is coming. Sooner, rather than later, all of this will come crashing down on Walt. Even if he manages to succeed in his new-found profession long enough to make enough money for his family, the cancer is going to kill him. There is no other option. Even the conflicts found in something like Mad Men can seem somewhat trivial in comparison. Breaking Bad really, truly feels like a series of set events that lead to one path and one path only. A downward spiral. Or, as Walt later comes to call it, “a series of very bad decisions.”
Anyway, this is a slower episode than usual, probably the weakest of the first four (though we do get our first taste of the wonder that is Skinny Pete), but that opening scene always brings to mind the inevitability of all of this, and that nothing, not even a great TV show, can last forever. KEN WINS
Season 1, Episode 5: Gray Matter
“My entire life it just seems I never…you know, had a real say about any of it.”- Walter White
This episode is the first to focus on our protagonist’s other major character trait: his pride. The first third of this episode is set at a birthday party for Walter’s former partner, Elliot Schwartz, a man with whom Walter founded Gray Matter Technologies, a major scientific conglomerate now run by Schwartz and his wife Gretchen (the same Gretchen seen in the cold open of episode 3). During the party, Elliot offers his old friend a position at the company he helped found. After he lets slip that Gray Matter has “great health insurance,” Walter realizes that Skyler told Elliot about the cancer, something that infuriates him (or, rather, the idea that Elliot would hire him just to pay for his treatment). This feeds the fire of Walt’s pride, further validating his choice to “go it alone,” as it were.
Later in the episode, Walter’s pride again comes into play, in a different form, as he states going out on his own terms, leaving the memory of a strong, capable, bread winning sort of man behind. What’s interesting is how the version of himself he wants to leave behind seems to have only recently shown up. When he first began to cook, he was doing more out of a shocked sort of desperation rather than as a way to sate his own ravenous pride. When Jesse compliments his skill in the pilot, Walt shakes it off with a simple pledge to the chemistry. But when Elliot’s colleagues at the party talk about Walt being a “master of crytallography,” he seems to take it more to heart. As he does when asked which university he teaches at after he states that his career path “gravitated towards education.” These men, Elliot’s colleagues, should have been HIS colleagues, as far as Walt is concerned. He is better than them, and to be shamed first like this, and then by Elliot offering him what Walt sees not as a sympathetic gesture, but a belittling one, is far too painful a reminder of the injustices he suffered at the hands of the Schwartz couple (injustices that we, sadly, have yet to see any more of, even through allusion).
It’s interesting to note that while Gretchen makes a couple more appearances, Elliot has yet to show up again on the show. Perhaps it’s because Walt wants nothing to do with him, or perhaps it’s because he served his narrative purpose. In a show so infatuated with the mixing of volatile compounds, Elliot was the catalyst, just as much as the cancer was. Elliot, and his friends, are what give Walt purpose, so that even if he has nothing to show for himself professionally, inside Walter will know that he is every bit as clever and capable as he knows himself to be. It’s the fuel for his pride. It’s the fuel for Heisenberg.
Season 1, Episode 6: Crazy Handful of Nothin
“Sometimes you got to rob to keep your riches, just as long as we got an understanding.”- Tuco Salamanca
This episode is the first real glimpse of what Breaking Bad would come to look like in the future, full of surreal, apocalyptic openings, explosive villains and, perhaps most symbolically, a bald Walter White and the very first utterance of the name “Heisenberg.” It is fitting, then, that the first scene after the cold open takes place in a chemotherapy treatment center. I don’t know if you’ve been in such a place, but they are among the somberest places in existence. It is here we find Walt, almost physically chained to a machine designed to pump some of the most toxic substances known to man into his body.
Funnily enough, for occurring immediately after his little transformation, this episode starts out with a series of legitimately decent conversations between Walt and his family in therapy, and Walt and Jesse while cooking. Then again, as Walt himself says in another thematically on-the-nose classroom scene, there are two types of chemical reactions, both gradual and rapid. In the former, “you don’t even notice the reaction is happening,” while the other “generates enormous bursts of energy.” The shift from White to Heisenberg is, as one might expect, an … uncertain one*, full of both gradual reactions, such as Elliot’s party, and rapid ones, like the showdown with Tuco.
Speaking of that showdown with everyone’s favorite degenerate, the real plot of this episode is Walt and Jesse’s (specifically Walt’s) attempts to get in contact with a distributor in order to more effectively make what Jesse likes to call “fat stacks.” And, since Walt poisoned and suffocated their original distributor, it’s up to Jesse to use his contacts (really just Skinny Pete), to branch out and find someone new. An underlying plot point to all this is the relative luck they have in this endeavor, though neither of them would admit it as such. Firstly, Krazy-8′s was, as Hank tells us early in Episode 4, a DEA informant, one who certainly would have been able to describe Walt in excruciating detail. Secondly, they are lucky because the man they eventually come to do business with is such a ridiculous caricature of a man that Walt is able to effectively read him and put on enough of a show (by nearly blowing up a building), that he is able to wriggle a measure of respect out of the first man who knows him as Heisenberg. Because of this, Walter starts to think that maybe, just maybe, he might be getting the hang out of this “criminal” thing.
Throw this gamble in with the poker scene earlier at the White household, in which Walt successfully bluffs Hank out of a massive pot with what Marie somewhat affectionately calls a “handful of nothin” (hey, she said the name of the show!), and you have a rapid start to what eventually becomes the most gradual reaction of them all: the emergence of Heisenberg, and his eventual destruction of pretty much everything positive about the life Walter has left. He is free from the chained, doomed existence he found himself in, but at what cost? Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss will gaze also into thee.
*Did you see what I did there? This guy certainly did.
Season 1, Episode 7: A No-Rough Stuff Type Deal
“So you do have a plan? Yeah Mr. White! Yeah science!”
The first season of Breaking Bad is one truncated by the Writer’s Strike of 2007. In retrospect, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Intitially, Jesse was to die at the hands of Tuco in this episode’s climax (much in the same way as No-Doze is). Show creator Vince Gilligan has since said that it was Aaron Paul’s performance that stayed his hand, but it stands to reason that the abruptness of the strike forced their hand. It’s more than conceivable that the writing staff simply wasn’t done with Jesse yet.
Regardless, this episode sees our meth-cooking superfriends’ first real attempt at expanding their business. After “securing” a deal with Tuco, Walt brings Jesse his share of the money (plus a little extra), only to find that not only is Jesse upset at doing business with the “dead eyed killer” who beat him half to death, but that there’s no way he can secure enough pseudoephedrine to account for their new 2-pound-a-week policy. After an awkward meeting with Tuco, in which Walt promises 4 pounds for the next week, he and Jesse spring his scienc-y plan into action. Using “homemade” thermite, Walt and Jesse break into a chemical supply plant near Albuquerque, takign with them more than enough methlymine for the foreseeable future. After the RV refuses to start, they make a temporary lab in Jesse’s basement, leading to a very telling line from Walt. While discussing how much they stand to make from the week’s haul, Jesse asks Walt exactly how much money he needs. “More,” Walt replies. While he has an end date in mind, we’re starting to see just how much his new production method has expanded his expectations. Escalation is a recurring theme, and each time their means increase, so does Walt’s greed.
All of this leads to a scene that, while perhaps not a good climax for the season, certainly fully establishes Tuco as a wildly unpredictable and dangerous man, as he beats No-Doze to death for the smallest of affronts. Walter, in naming his alter ego “Heisenberg,” thought to become a wholly unpredictable entity in the criminal underworld. It’s here where he sees just exactly what that means. He brings the pork pie hat, Tuco brings the unmitigated crazy. Escalation.