BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION TWO
Binge Watch Period: August 2-3, 2014
Episodes Watched: Season 1, Episodes 5–7 ("Gray Matter, "Crazy Handful of Nothin', and "A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal.")
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Impatient. It's good, but when does it get great?
First of all, yes, I know, "binge-watches" are supposed to happen faster than this. (As it turns out, however, watching-time is easier to come by than writing-time. I'm working on it.)
Second of all, who the hell has a seven-episode first season? What's that all about?
(Having asked the question, I just Googled the answer: apparently, Breaking Bad's first season was originally supposed to be nine episodes long, but it was cut short by the 2007-2008 writer's strike. Does that mean I should properly have binged ahead to the first two episodes of Season Two, in order to reach something that feels like a season finale? These are the perils of an uninformed binge-watch…)
As it is, I have to say I found the back-half of Season One well-crafted, but somewhat unsatisfying. I said in my first review that I thought the frenetic pilot episode moved Walt (Bryan Cranston) too quickly along his trajectory from milquetoast science teacher to bad-ass meth kingpin, and I thought the arc might have played out better over several episodes. This, as it turns out, was a memo from the Department of Being Careful What You Wish For, since it takes another four full episodes to even get Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) back together again cooking meth.
That development comes at the end of "Gray Matter," and I have to say, by the time it came, I was ready for it: nothing else happening in Walter White's life is as interesting as his criminal endeavors.
But that's the real point, isn't it? These first five episodes have taken Walt full circle back to the decision he made in the pilot, but the nature of that decision has changed now. Originally, it was a hastily-made, ill-considered move of a desperate man: faced with his own mortality, needing money for treatment—or to leave to his loved ones when the treatment failed—Walt floundered into a crazy decision in the pilot, and then spent the next two episodes scrambling awkwardly away from the consequences. "Cancer Man" and "Gray Matter" then found him back in the status quo of his existence—but seeing it with the new perspective that both his cancer and his dalliance with crime have given him.
"Gray Matter" opens with Walt getting a glimpse of the life he might have had, as he attends the swank birthday party of his ex-partner Elliott (Adam Godley), "the man who has everything." ("Everything," in this context, includes money, power, respect, the company he and Walt once started, and Walt's ex-girlfriend Gretchen [Jessica Hecht], first glimpsed in "And the Bag's in the River.")
This scene is fantastic, both for the ways in which it's awkward and the ways in which it isn't. I love the way Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn) overdress for this event. They look very nice, but they nevertheless did it wrong, since everyone is else is much more casual: their overdressing has a subtle, unremarked air of desperation, a trying-too-hard that the wealthy and powerful don't have to do. But I also like the way the party doesn't turn into the overt humiliation that we might have expected: Walt's cheap-but-sentimental gift to Elliott goes over perfectly, and no one treats them with anything but kindness and respect. The real humiliations are more subtle, and more internal: Walt's embarrassment at having to admit to people who once looked up to him that he is now just a high-school teacher; his shame at his old friend's offering to give him a job with health insurance—or to just pay for his treatment outright.
That last offer is important, because it makes everything that happens in the series from this point on Walt's choice. He is not a desperate man forced into a life of crime: he has options, he has support, he has people who will help him. He could have swallowed his pride, and accepted Elliott's offer, and there would be no Breaking Bad. He even tells his wife that that's what he did do—and then he goes and finds Jesse to make some meth. He makes a choice.
And choice is the key. The centerpiece of "Gray Matter" is the intervention Walt's family conducts to convince him to accept treatment. "What I want, what I need, is a choice," he tells them.
"Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own choices. I mean, my entire life, it just seems I never…you know…had a real say about any of it. Now, this last one, cancer: all I have left is how I choose to approach this."
And, as I started to discuss in my last post, all of this is inextricably tied into questions of masculinity. His son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) calls him a "pussy" for not wanting to fight his cancer. His macho brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), coming around to Walt's way of thinking, speculates that "maybe Walt wants to die like a man." And we've already noted how Walt's brushes with death and meth have acted as a spiritual form of Viagra for the formerly impotent (in every sense) Walt, a theme that is picked up again in these episodes. ("Frisky, actually" is how Skyler describes Walt's change of mood, to his doctor, in "A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal.")
So Walt makes his choices, according to his own terms: he stands up to his family in refusing the chemotherapy—but that decision just lasts a night. What turns out to be important is his having articulated his own right to make a choice, and his having stood his ground: once he's done that, he's free to change his mind and agree to treatment. And in doing so, he's also making another choice: he'll tell his wife he's accepting Elliott's charity, but in reality he's going to pay for his treatment by cooking meth with Jesse.
There's a big mystery at the center of Breaking Bad so far: who is this man? How did he get here? What turned him into this? I confess, I'm simultaneously frustrated and intrigued with the way Vince Gilligan is holding back the back-story, eking out only the tiniest bits of information about how Elliott's and Walt's lives diverged so dramatically, how a chemical genius—"a master of crystallography"—ended up such a broken, ineffectual man.
And there is no explanation for the way Walt is moving away from the person he has become, into something else. Yes, he's sick—but the leap from a meek high-school teacher to a terrifying meth kingpin is a bigger leap than can be explained through simple illness. It strikes me that, having watched the entire first season now, there has never been a single moment of ethical conflict about making meth. He has been conflicted about killing, about both the murders he's had to commit and the possibility of further violence. ("No matter what happens, no more bloodshed," he tells Jesse in "A Crazy Handful of Nothing.") But there's no similar conundrum about dealing meth: it's just a risky means to an end, and somehow—in his mind—a preferable alternative to accepting help from friends. (Other things that should be moral quandaries simply aren't: when Hank investigates the missing equipment from Walt's school, Walt lets a kindly janitor at the school go down for the crime without a word of protest.)
Again I ask, who is this man, and does he have any true moral center at all?
And where do the reserves of strength come from? In "A Crazy Handful of Nothing," Jesse's search for a distributer leads to his getting the shit kicked out of him by the terrifying Tuco (Raymond Cruz). But Walt waltzes into Tuco's office fearlessly, with a bag full of fulminated mercury disguised as meth, and blows the place up. It's a rebirth, of sorts: Walt—with a whole new look (newly shorn of hair) and a whole new outlook—becomes his alter-ego Heisenberg, embracing the uncertainty principle and diving headfirst into chaos.
Earlier in the episode he tells Jesse that he intends to be the "silent partner," and wants to stay clear of the seedy underworld of meth dealing. ("I'm just the chemistry," he says.) But he doesn't hesitate to confront Tuco—from the fearlessness of the dying?—and, sitting in his car outside Tuco's destroyed office with his fists stuffed with cash, he has a moment of cathartic, almost orgasmic triumph. Whatever is happening to him, he's loving it.
"Sometimes forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest," Walt tells his wife in "A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal," after a quickie in the parking lot after a PTA meeting. And again, I emphasize that he can no longer be considered a man boxed in by circumstances: he's choosing this route, choosing to savor the forbidden flavors, choosing to embrace the uncertainty and the danger and the newfound power he's discovering. This just opens up further as the season finale proceeds, with Walt embracing his role as a hands-on criminal, choosing to steal the chemicals they need for mass meth production, and repeatedly upping the stakes with Tuco.
There's an element of comedy to all of this, of course, a sort of fantasy role-playing Walt is doing. (The junkyard scenes are very funny, as is Walt's choice of costume. "This is like a non-criminal's idea of a drug meet," Jesse tells him.) But what's surprising is how good Walt turns out to be at all of it: things keep spiralling further out of control—their new partner Tuco is very unstable—but Walt keeps rising to each new challenge.
Was he always this man, inside? Is this a transformation, or just a reveal of what was always simmering beneath the resentful surface of Walt's sublimated existence? We simply don't know yet: we don't have enough dots to draw the picture yet. As I said, I find this occasionally frustrating, but it's also fascinating: a lesser show would give us quick, easy answers, a handy pop-psychology explanation. Instead, Gilligan is showing us the effect before we really understand the causes, and letting us speculate, and forcing us to extrapolate a complicated past and psychological makeup from Walt's actions and Cranston's careful, emotionally restrained performance.
But this seems in tune with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, as I understand it (which is probably not very well). Simply put, it states that the more precisely you measure one value, the less precisely you're able to measure another: one cannot exactly determine position and momentum of a particle at the same time. Walt's momentum—his trajectory, his velocity—is changing rapidly, and getting a precise read on his position—his identity, his essence—is going to be hard; or, vice versa, trying to read the man at any fixed position is not going to give us a clear understanding of where he may go, or how quickly, or what he may be capable of doing. As certain things come clearly into focus—mortality, for example—everything else becomes unstable. Identity and action are always in flux, the one influencing our understanding of the other.
Obviously, so far in my Binge Watch, I'm finding this question of Who is Walt? to be the most interesting aspect of Breaking Bad. But stepping outside of that, there's another question: why do I care who Walt is? I am not sure, yet, that I even like Walt at all, and I think part of what's amazing about Gilligan and Cranston's work is that our feelings about Walt and his choices are kept in constant tension.
On the one hand, it is incredibly seductive, Walt's empowering spiral into uncertainty: it's a dark modern take on Walter Mitty, the tempting fantasy of the milquetoast who becomes the all-capable adventurer. Modern life affords most of us few opportunities for the thrill of real surprises, the adrenaline rush of genuine risk, the life-affirming power of being tested and finding out what you're capable of. There is a rush, a surge, even a self-education and -actualization to be found in "breaking bad," and there's no point in pretending there isn't.
But what's the cost of that? Even if we forget (which we should not for a moment) the moral and ethical quandaries of dealing meth—the all-but-inevitable risk of lives ruined and taken, of accidental and intentional violence, of lies and crimes and sins—what are the other costs? Already, Walt's "real" life is falling by the wayside, becoming merely the Clark-Kent identity he must assume when he takes a break from adventure. He pretends he is doing all of this for his family, but his family is already becoming an afterthought, a distraction, even a hurdle that stands between Walt and what he really wants to be doing.
I'm reminded of the frustration many of us experienced with Weeds, a show with which Breaking Bad shares certain obvious, surface qualities. In the beginning, Mary-Louise Parker's character seemed cool—she's a housewife dealing weed, what's wrong with that?—but as the series progressed it became harder and harder to justify her choices, and by the second or third season most of us were screaming at her: Just get a fucking job and take care of your kids, already!
That same tension is present in Breaking Bad, and it's only going to get worse. Danger is exciting, and bad behavior is seductive, and forbidden fruit is indeed very sweet. Americans, in particular, romanticize our violent past and our still-violent culture: there's a reason cowboy and cops are our most enduring characters. But the same impulses that drive us towards those entertainments —our longing for conflict and risk, our love affair with violence, our affection for breaking rules and taking what we want—are at the root of most of what is fucked up about American society. Is Breaking Bad another example of our romanticizing of these things, or is it an examination and critique of those problematic needs?
It's too early to say, but I'm increasingly eager to find out. On to the next…
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Or am I thinking about all of this too much, and should just enjoy the ride? Certainly, I find certain aspects of Breaking Bad easiest to enjoy if I treat the show as a dark comedy. And it is funny: I'm particularly enjoying the minor characters, all of whom have a quirky authenticity that keeps them from being stock types. Jesse, in particular, is surrounded by colorful, amusing characters, from crossbow-wielding stoner Badger (Matt Jones) to Tuco's former cellmate Skinny Pete (Charles Baker). ("Yo, man, I'm Skinny Pete!" he explains in exasperation to the taciturn guard outside Tuco's office, as if that name should open all doors.)
- I'm less enamored, so far, of the suburban characters and sub-plots. Skyler's sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) vacillates between really amusing and really annoying, but I'm finding I don't much care about her adventures in shoplifting. I understand that this—and Skyler's improvised performance to get out of the situation with the store manager, and Walt Jr.'s adventures in underage drinking—are supposed to be milder examples of the universal impulse to "break bad," but they're not really working for me so far: they seem like wasted air time.
- It may be preposterous, but I'm seriously enjoying the fun with chemistry: blowing up an office with a bag of fulminated mercury is cool, but what I find really useful is knowing you can burn through any lock with that powdery silver crap inside an Etch-a-Sketch.
- I realize that, in my fascination with Walt, I have seriously neglected Jesse so far in these posts, and I'll try to rectify that in the future. I am enjoying Aaron Paul's performance, and I suspect Jesse's evolution is going to be fun to watch. (I like how Walt has elevated Jesse's standards to the point where he's no longer satisfied by batches of meth that a clown like Badger would find perfectly acceptable: it's hard to have standards.)
- It's hard to dislike any show with movie-quoting episode titles this good. "Crazy Handful of Nothin'" is from Cool Hand Luke, and "A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal," of course, is from Fargo, a film that knows a little something about spiraling consequences. I have high hopes for Season Two.