Another Fine Meth You’ve Gotten Us Into, Yo!
BREAKING BAD is about a man who finds his balls.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a middle class suburban chemistry teacher with a wife and crippled son, who discovers he has cancer, and stumbles into a situation that allows him to create inordinate wealth to provide for his family before he dies – by cooking illegal methamphetamine. Seems reasonable. Crime, after all, does pay. To whit: Dick Cheney.
A chance meeting with a former junkie student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), prompts Walt to propose a “business deal,” where Jesse, with his street smarts, would push, and Walt, with his chemistry skills, would cook. In the back of a beaten up Winnebago, they set up shop, with Walt creating a product so pure (“This is art, Mr. White!”) that the market is howling/cringing for it. And though the theory of cooking, selling and getting out clean is sound, the reality of dealing with dealers and junkies is very, very not…
Anna Gunn is Skyler, Walt’s sturdy (soon to be long-suffering) wife. R.J. Mitte is Walt’s debilitated son, Walter Jr., with slurred speech and crutches, yet an unapologetic, cool teen presence (affected by real life neural problems, R.J. plays this role as more affected than he really is).
And Skyler’s harridan sister Marie (a forcefully unlikeable Betsy Brandt) is married to Hank (Dean Norris), a brawny braggy blowhard – and DEA agent (Drug Enforcement Administration). Which means Walt’s brother-in-law is a narcotics officer! Hank, without even realizing it, will continually dog Walt’s heels, and half the fun in this first Season is Walt hiding in plain sight under Hank’s nose.
And the sparkplug that makes the engine fire – Aaron Paul as Jesse. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this how they tell us the devil comes at you? Not like a twisted hag, but like a dreamboat. Aquiline-nosed, three-day-growthed, bright-eyed and blonded, sexy-stupid Jesse perfectly typifies the devil dynamic in a later Season, when he cajoles a young female gas station attendant into accepting meth as payment for fuel, his puppydog eyes gleaming with sensual promise while a shaft of sunlight electrifies his golden shock of moussed locks. She doesn’t stand a chance.
Walt and Jessie work together, yet never agree on anything! That’s how remarkably these characters are written. At each other’s throats one minute and the next, cooperating partners in crime. From Walt’s very first suggestion to partner up, down through the Seasons, as their lives take them through amazing turnarounds, they somehow always end up on opposite sides of the argument. Jessie rebukes Walt’s first attempts to partner up, but by Episode 4 (Cancer Man) Jesse is asking Walt to partner up – and now Walt tells Jesse to get the hell off his property! By Episode 6 (Crazy Handful of Nothin’) Walt wants to partner again and Jesse’s reaction: “Whatever, man.” One tolerates the other for the street cred the partnership needs; one despises the other for their teacher-student history and intruding upon his world. The underlying motivations would shift as the Seasons flow (at times, Jesse would represent Walt’s surrogate son or become Walt’s conscience; at times, Walt would be the man with the plan or Jessie’s greatest bane), but that dynamic of combative comradeship would remain in some form, amazingly to the very last frames of Season Five. Yet it is touching how, no matter what adversity they go through, Jesse always refers to Walt as “Mr. White.” Touching and funny. Only once, in a moment of anger, does Jesse snidely call him, “Walter.”
Comparisons with THE SOPRANOS are inevitable. Both are tales of singular men (heroes yet anti-heroes all in one) who do despicable things, in the name of their families. Both men own their actions, and are unrepentant. Both men feel trapped or tricked by fate into their complicated situations, but ultimately, it was their choice to travel their paths. Oh yeah, and there’s all that murder and stuff.
As with Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela, Walt’s wife Skyler ends up rationalizing her husband’s actions to preserve her own sanity (as with all wealth, you can only live with yourself if you close your mind off to how the wealth was arrived at). As Tony had a fuckup nephew whom he would grant a pass more times than should be allowed, Walt has his Christopher Moltisanti – Jesse. Walt’s teaching sessions are the equivalent of Tony’s psych sessions; the analogies between the science and the story are a canny dynamic that will be lost in the later Seasons (as Tony’s psych sessions lost their prominence). Of course, these characters are merely elements that any exciting story should possess; they’re as obvious as the need for a villain to pursue the hero, but they are woven into this tale in an original, entertaining manner.
Created by Vince Gilligan, the writing is edge-of-the-seat compelling; characters leap fully-formed at our throats, each actor committed completely to their electrifying roles; each urgent episode a juggernaut of forward momentum, like a Stephen King book where you can’t stop turning the pages – BREAKING BAD is THE reason binge-watching was invented. Cranston so in-the-moment that Sir Anthony Hopkins lauds him as “The greatest actor in the world”!
In this first Season, Walt’s chemistry background is a running dynamic; he uses his “powers” (so to speak) more often and ingeniously than in later Seasons. We hear a lot of explanatory “science” dialogue to Jessie, and Walt’s knowledge is always helping them out of fixes. There is that explosive moment when Krazy-8 (Max Arciniega) forces Walt to cook (Episode 1, Pilot) and Walt throws red phosphorus on the stove to cause a smokescreen that poisons Krazy-8. And in Episode 2 (The Cat’s in the Bag) Walt actually tells us how to leave no evidence in a murder by dissolving the human victim with hydrofluoric acid – in a plastic not metal container! And the absolute coolest “superhero” moment: Walt confronts Tuco (Raymond Cruz) (Episode 6, Crazy Handful of Nothin’) and pulls out a crystal of fulminated mercury, “This – is not meth!” and hurls it to the ground, blowing out the whole floor of the building. It was boss. It was tight. It was—
FINAL EPISODE, FINAL SONG:
Though Walt does meet a violent end at the conclusion of Season Five, that’s more to please the Gutless American Censors, than to send the message that Crime Doesn’t Pay. Y’see, those hypocrite censors that police the American moviewaves, decree that criminals in fictional media must not “get away” with their crimes without some form of redemption or destruction. The ruination of many a great fiction. Homogenize or die. So Badfinger’s Baby Blue as the ending song is a bittersweet confection. From the grandest era of rock and roll, it’s guaranteed to be loved by all, however its opening lyrics – in a coincidence as pure as Heisenberg’s crystal – cater unintentionally to the gutless censors: “Guess I got what I deserved…” Vince Gilligan or the music director chose that source music, yet the censors must have stroked themselves to fainting when the song was run by them for approval, loving the snide bra-snap to the American public.
Yeah, criminals in fiction have to die. Yet war criminal W still walks free. Work that out…
Now back to that guy who finds his balls. Mid-life crisis? Or meth-life crisis? At the start of the Pilot, Walt is celebrating his 50th birthday, and Skyler’s idea of a present is giving him a handie while she shops online and tells him to paint the bedroom. By the end of the first episode – after the street has claimed him – he is taking her roughly from behind…
A wham-bam cold open slam, as Walter White in a gas-mask, pantless, skids an RV aground into a ditch and exits, discombobulated, pointing a gun at approaching sirens offscreen…
Chemistry teacher Walter White is diagnosed with cancer. We meet his just-pregnant wife Skyler, crippled son Walter Jr., his ugly-on-the-outside-and-inside sister-in-law Marie, and DEA brother-in-law Hank. On a drive-along with Hank, Walt discovers one of his former students, Jesse, in a meth house. To provide for his family with quick cash before his death, Walt hatches a plan to cook meth until the cancer claims him. A drug hood named Krazy-8 puts a dent in that perfect plan.
1.2. The Cat’s in the Bag.
Walt and Jessie must dispose of the bodies of the drug deal gone wrong. Jessie dissolves Emilio with disastrous results in his bathtub. And Walt keeps putting off his end of the job – killing Krazy-8, imprisoned in Jessie’s basement with a bicycle lock.
1.3. And the Bag’s in the River.
Jessie’s and Walt’s mopping up of Emilio’s dissolved blood, jawbones and flesh is juxtaposed with a scene of young Walt with a dark-haired spinner adding up the chemical elements of the human body: hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, iron, calcium… In the present, as Walt is pouring the remains of the hydrofluorically dissolved dealer into a bucket, we hear his younger voice: “There’s got to be more to a human being than that.” It’s terrifying and humorous, wrapped in futile. That’s all we are. Mush. And that’s all we can ever make of our lives. Mush. (We would realize later that this young lady is not Skyler, but Gretchen (Jessica Hecht), whom we would meet as someone else’s wife in Episode 5, Gray Matter.)
A funny aside with Hank and Walter Jr., as Hank tries to scare Walter off the marijuana he thinks he’s using. Humorous also because of Hank’s sincere insistence that pot is a gateway drug to meth. While Walter Jr. is oblivious to the whole lesson.
A growth episode for Walt as a character – whether the growth is good or bad is entirely up to your perception – as he realizes that no matter how much of a connection he thought he made with Krazy-8, it was illusion. People are just inherently… bad. And the results of that realization are a shocking, brutal piece of television.
1.4. Cancer Man.
Jesse goes home to his parents, in desperation. Where they debate on whether to let him stay or not. We meet Jesse’s younger brother Jake, a studious golden-haired teacher’s pet, who, unlike the ne’er-do-well Jesse, will one day make his parents very proud. And then shoot up a library or something for being so repressed.
1.5. Gray Matter.
His cancer now public with family and friends, Walt “chooses” to die, so as not to be a burden. While everyone “talks about him like he has no say in the matter.” A brave episode to voice these ideas. In moments of disaster, people around you are always importuning you to live live live. Why? What’s in it for them?
Walt: “What I want – what I need – is a choice… My entire life, it seems, I never had a real say about any of it… This last one – cancer – all I have left is how I choose to approach this.”
Marie moves into likeability with her empathy of Walt’s deathwish. And Walt’s powerful summation of the lack of quality of life is refreshing: “These doctors talking about surviving – one year, two years – like it’s the only thing that matters. But what good is it if I’m too sick to work, to enjoy a meal, to make love?” I concur. Especially with that last bit. When I can’t do that anymore, somebody please kill me. Walt doesn’t want to mark time choking down pills, and to be remembered as artificially alive. “I choose – not to do it.”
If we thought Jesse was a fuckup – here comes big dumb galoot junkie friend Badger (Matt Jones, who would also drag Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) into the mix). Jesse cooks up a batch with Badger in the desert. Irresponsible, erratic, untrustworthy and stupid. That’s the first five minutes. It’s downhill from there. Note the excellent editing in the cookup sequence; reminiscent of the shootup sequences in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.
A regret from Walt’s past is revealed: his old friend Elliott Schwartz (Adam Godley), who not only made millions on Walt’s scientific ideas, but also claimed the woman Walt once loved, Gretchen (Jessica Hecht).
1.6. Crazy Handful of Nothin’.
One of the best cold opens in the series, where we see Walter coming back onboard the meth trip, laying down the law to Jesse; juxtaposed with a scene of him walking away from a demolished building, shaved head, clutching a bag which could very well be holding a head, as the splotch of blood seeping through it indicates. Main Title Card.
Trying to sell in bulk, Jesse makes contact with the most unbalanced thug in the series so far – Tuco.
This is the episode where Walter White takes on the countenance of the character that would seep into public consciousness. He shaves his head. Still green, yet grabbing a nut, he infiltrates Tuco’s lair and pulls the explosive gag.
1.7. A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal.
Walt comes into his own on the street. The fish-out-of-water is slowly being replaced by the scientist-on-the-street. As with all of Season One, science and intelligence employed on the street is the unique hook of the series. Book-smarts clashing with street-smarts.
Walt and Jesse sell Walt’s new sky-blue meth to Tuco and realize just how unbalanced he is, as he bashes to death his henchman for daring to open his mouth during the drug deal. The stage is set. The sociopath is on his road to balls and glory. BREAKING BAD breaks good.