(In which I re-watch and discuss, with SPOILERS aplenty, the first four and a half seasons of Breaking Bad, one or two or three episodes at a time, leading up to the final half of season five beginning August 11, then continue with write-ups of the last eight episodes as they air. If you’ve never seen the show, you are 1) crazy!, 2) advised to start watching it immediately, and 3) not to read these discussions until you’ve completed step 2)
It’s not over yet. Which makes me eight episodes early in declaring Breaking Bad the best television drama of all time. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s what it is. It does what I’ve wanted a TV show to do for years. It takes a character and drastically changes him over the course of the show, in this case, as creator Vince Gilligan put it, taking him from Mr. Chips to Scarface. TV shows never do this because you’d be crazy to change the lead character. It’s hard enough to get a show on the air, and if it actually takes off? The last thing you want to do is screw with it. The audience watches it because of what it is. If it’s suddenly something else, then what? Madness, I tell you, anarchy! Dogs and cats, living together!
The Sopranos also has a claim to the crown. Maybe it’s a tie. It’s a completely different kind of show. Whereas Breaking Bad is plotted so tightly it hums, The Sopranos is very loose, totally focused on the emotional inner worlds of its characters, and how that informs their outer actions. The other brilliant thing about The Sopranos is how the lack of change in its main character, Tony Soprano, is the very theme of the show. He knows there’s something wrong with him. He wants to change; he has to if he wants to survive. He sees a therapist—the original hook for the show, a mobster sees a shrink—but in the end, we realize that no matter his efforts, if indeed he’s ever even made any, he will never learn a thing. He’s the same at the start as in the end. So the weakness of episodic TV drama is turned into a strength in The Sopranos.
In Breaking Bad, the weakness is tossed out on its ass. Breaking Bad is the culmination of the modern, 12ish episodes per year season pioneered by The Sopranos. Each season is carefully thought out as one story in a larger story, but a larger story with an end-point always in sight. Breaking Bad is going somewhere, very thoughtfully, very purposefully. Judging by how smart it’s been up to this point, I have no doubt that the ending, whichever way it goes, will appear inevitable.
SEASON ONE, EPISODES 1-3
The southwest American desert. A blue sky. A pair of pants, fluttering to earth. So begins Breaking Bad’s pilot episode, and what an episode. Just shy of an hour, and it lays out a roadmap for everything that follows. Of course that’s looking at the episode from my current viewpoint. I know what happens next. This doesn’t mean the writers did. They knew enough, in however sketchy a form, to put the pieces in play, and after that, to use them wisely. They have continuously, throughout the life of the show, looked backwards to tie the past into the future, creating what feels like an unbroken, pre-planned thread. From the vantage point of the present, it’s as though every element of the first three episodes was put there on purpose to affect events as far out as season 5.
Which I hope sounds obvious and smart. Why would you do things any other way? Because it’s hard, that’s why. It takes time and work to weave so tight a fabric. Most shows don’t allow the time, and frankly, they don’t have the talent anyway. Breaking Bad is blessed with talented writers, and a self-imposed lengthy writing schedule allowing them to create a show where no element is ever forgotten, where nothing is unimportant, where everything at hand is used and used again.
Like the swimming pool. On which more in a moment.
The pilot of Breaking Bad presents us with a man on his 50th birthday. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is tired, unenthused, being carried through life on inertia alone. He teaches high school chemistry in Albuquerque, and works afternoons at a car wash. His teenage son has cerebral palsy. His wife is pregnant. His sister-in-law steals shoes in her spare time. His brother-in-law works for the DEA and thinks Walter is a giant pussy. Also, Walt’s got a bit of a persistent cough. Which turns out to be lung cancer.
Walter tells no one about the cancer. He sinks deep within himself. He’s about to have the worst mid-life—or potentially end-of-life—crisis imaginable. He sits in the fading light next to his swimming pool, unused, full of leaves and debris, flicking lit matches into it. The pool is as central a figure in Breaking Bad as any character. It appears over and over again, and every time is imbued with still more resonance. No one’s drowned in it yet. I won’t be surprised if someone does before the show is over.
The pool scene showcases another strength of the show: knowing when to allow moments of silence. Breaking Bad, full of incident, relentlessly stressful and agonizing, knows when to take a moment to reflect. Walt sitting by his pool. Or in episode 3, sitting in his car on the overpass, thinking.
He sits on the overpass because he’s just killed a man.
The first three episodes of Breaking Bad play out almost like a movie. They are, in a sense, a complete story, the story of a man who learns he has cancer, and flips out. Through his DEA brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), Walt’s seen the money meth brings in. He’s a chemist and knows he can cook it. And on a ride-along with Hank he spots Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a one-time student of his, sneaking out the back of the meth-lab-house. That’s all it takes. He tells Jesse he can cook with him, or be turned in to the police. Jesse acquires an RV (the story of which acquisition will turn up a couple seasons down the road, in another example of letting no element go to waste, and of turning an inanimate object into a character), they head to the desert, and cook.
Walt’s an artist, it turns out. But no sooner do they cook up a batch of pure crystal than Jesse brings out his old partner, Emilio, and Krazy-8, the guy one step up on the drug dealing ladder. They’re going to kill Walt and Jesse, so Walt tosses red phosphorous into boiling water, and ducks out of the RV when it blows up in the drug dealers’ faces. Pure self-defense.
The episode ends as it began, with Walt in his underwear, a gun in his hand, the RV in a ditch, dead bodies inside, about to be nabbed by the cops. But it’s only a firetruck, siren wailing, racing past him. Cut to Walt crawling into bed with his wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn). Earlier in the episode he couldn’t get it up. Not this time.
And episode 2 begins mid-sex-scene. Only then do we cut back 12 hours to see how Walt and Jesse dealt with those bodies. Turns out they didn’t. Back at Jesse’s house they’ve got one dead guy, Emilio, in the RV, and Krazy-8, still alive, locked to a post in the basement with a kryptonite bike lock.
Episodes 2 and 3, titled “Cat’s In The Bag…” and “…And The Bag’s In The River,” (which is a quote from the ‘50s noir masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success, by the way), consist of Walt trying to clean up and erase the results of his brief and insane oh-fuck-I’ve-got-cancer freak-out. This is another thing Breaking Bad does so well. The writers really think through the repercussions of any actions taken. No one is let off the hook. Nothing falls by the wayside.
Walt and Jesse flip a coin to see who has to deal with which problem. Jesse gets to dissolve the dead guy. Walt has to kill Krazy-8.
The dynamic between Walt and Jesse is all laid out in these sequences. Jesse’s a not-too-bright punk who doesn’t really know shit but thinks he does. Walt’s a genius who doesn’t really know shit but thinks he does. What we will soon discover is that Walt learns fast, and Jesse, though he learns, doesn’t learn nearly fast enough.
So Jesse buys the acid, but not the plastic bin, and instead dissolves Emilio’s corpse in his upstairs bathroom. Too bad the acid eats through wood, metal, and ceramic. The whole mess crashes through the floor. Ick. Jesse’s problem is he acts without thinking.
Walk thinks too much. He writes a two-column list, reasons for and against killing Krazy-8. There are many reasons not to kill him, including what for Walt may be the most important: “Murder is wrong,” he writes.
What reasons support killing Krazy-8? He writes only one: “Because he will kill you and your entire family.”
Walt starts talking to Krazy-8, who’s a pretty smart guy, a pretty nice guy. Walt makes him sandwiches and cuts off the crusts for him. He brings him a couple of beers, sits down to talk. He tells Krazy-8 straight out that he’s looking for a reason not to kill him. “Sell me,” he says. And Krazy-8 complies. Tells Walt about his childhood, his father’s furniture store. Walt thinks he bought a crib there once. Finally Walk breaks down in tears, says, “I don’t know what do to.”
“Sure you do,” says Krazy-8. Murder is wrong. Walt goes upstairs to get the key to set him free.
Only prior to all of this, when Walt comes downstairs to deliver a sandwich, he passes out from coughing and drops the plate, shattering it. He comes to fifteen minutes later, cleans everything up, makes another sandwich. He even tells Krazy-8 what’s going on: he has lung cancer. Krazy-8 is the first person Walt reveals this to. He can’t tell his family. But he can tell a random drug dealer.
Walt gets the key, when a thought occurs. A horrible thought. He goes to the trash. He takes out the pieces of the plate. He doesn’t want to see what he’s going to see. There’s a piece missing. A long, knife-shaped piece.
He goes downstairs, and instead of unlocking the bike lock, grabs it and pulls, choking Krazy-8, who whips out the shard of plate and hacks away at Walt’s leg. Walt doesn’t let go. He kills Krazy-8.
And that’s that. Walt deals with the body somehow. We don’t see it. Jesse returns to his house to find the RV cleaned up, the basement empty. Everything back to how it was. This strange episode in his life seems to be over.
Walt heads home. Skylar sits on the bed, crying. She knows something’s going on with Walt, knows he lied about a phone call, found out he was talking to a former student, Jesse. When she asks him about Jesse he says he’s been buying marijuana from him. It’s the one lie he tells that she believes. She even goes to Jesse’s house and demands he stop selling pot to Walt. Still, he stays out all night, lies to her about being at the carwash job he quit earlier in a rage. She’s at a loss.
So Walt enters the bedroom, she looks at him, and he says, “Skylar, there’s something I have to tell you.” Cut to black.
Is he going to tell her about what he did? As we all know, he does not. He’s going to tell her about his cancer.
Which again, points up how self-contained these three episodes feel. They tell of Walt’s brief descent into madness, the mess he makes, and how he cleans it up. Now it’s time to deal with reality. You could almost imagine the meth angle vanishing. It won’t, of course. He’s going to need money. Lots of it.
These three episodes chart the course of the show. Walt’s journey up the drug chain, and down the path of amorality, has begun. He attacks Emilio and Krazy-8 in self-defense. Anyone would have done the same. But he murders Krazy-8, a man just one step above a street dealer. Knowing the future as we do, we know this is Walt’s first step up the chain. Each successive step will be harder to reach. Next he will encounter Tuco. And after that a man worthy of Walt’s intellect: Gus. Poor goddamned Gus. I hate even thinking about what goes down with him.
Who comes after Gus? In a sense, it seems to me, Walt comes next. During the final eight episodes of season 5, he’s going to have to come to terms with himself, one way or another.
Walter is a very different man at the start of Breaking Bad compared to what he becomes. He is wholly sympathetic in these episodes. We get the sense that his life might have been very different. A plaque on his bedroom wall briefly glimpsed, an award for work that contributed to others winning a Nobel Prize. And a flashback to younger days, Walt flirting with a sexy student. Soon we’ll learn she’s now the wife of the man who did win the Nobel. It’s crazy and dangerous, what Walt did. Murderous, even. Though did he really have a choice at that point? We’re with Walt. We feel for him. What will he do next?
Upcoming in this series:
- Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5
- Season 1, Episodes 6 & 7
- Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2
- Season 2, Episodes 3-5
- Season 2, Episodes 6 & 7
- Season 2, Episodes 8-10
- Season 2, Episodes 11-13
- Season 3, Episodes 1-4
- Season 3, Episodes 5-7
- Season 3, Episodes 8-10
- Season 3, Episodes 11-13
- Season 4, Episodes 1-4
- Season 4, Episodes 5-7
- Season 4, Episodes 8-10
- Season 4, Episodes 11-13
- Season 5, Episodes 1-3
- Season 5, Episodes 4-6
- Season 5, Episodes 7 & 8
- Season 5, Episode 9
- Season 5, Episode 10
- Season 5, Episode 11
- Season 5, Episode 12
- Season 5, Episode 13
- Season 5, Episode 14
- Season 5, Episode 15
- Season 5, Episode 16