The transformation into Heisenberg is complete! But before that–a whole lot of whining.
Season 1, Episode 4 “Cancer Man”
Summary: Honestly, not that much happens this episode. Skyler breaks down at a cookout with Hank, Marie, and Walter Jr, so everyone knows about the cancer now. Walter gets upset that Hank offers him money for cancer treatment, because white privilege is emasculating, yo. Walter gets upset about someone taking his parking space (no, seriously). Skyler is lovely and supportive about the cancer, but Walter still doesn’t want to get treatment, because he’s a selfish asshat. As Walter Jr. says, amazingly, “Then why don’t you just fucking die, already?”
Then, of course, Jesse goes home to his uber-civilized estranged family and breaks my fucking heart. Whatever.
Everything with Walter is boring and problematic, but everything with Jesse works. We start out with a nice, civilized scene in the suburbs, not knowing how this family is connected to the world of Breaking Bad until Jesse stumbles onto their doorstep. It’s a stylistic gambit that pays off in spades.
The success of this plotline shows how much more rounded Jesse is than any other character on the show, including Walter. They introduce these characters and we immediately feel terrible for them, especially his adorable little brother, who scoffs when Jesse gets insecure that he’s the favorite. “Are you kidding? You’re practically all they ever talk about.” Siblings!
Jesse finding one of his old tests with Walt’s disappointed comments, which connects the pathos of his family to his desire to gain approval from Walter. Ugh, run the other way, Jesse, you deserve a better surrogate father than Walt!
The detail that Skyler and Walt’s crib is from Krazy-8’s father’s furniture store. It’s not lingered on or sentimentalized, it’s just there, which makes it all the more effective.
This little moment when Jesse’s parents resolve to kick him out, but then see him setting the table. Oh, my heart.
Um, the boringness? This episode is generally not as tight or urgent as previous installments, mostly because it shifts away from the drug storyline and hits the cancer super hard. And when your “prestige” show can’t bear the weight of an entire episode focused only on your characters, you’re doing something wrong.
Hank says he asked out Marie “about 50 times” before she said yes, and she jokes that that was “before they tightened the stalking laws.” Except it’s not a joke, it’s true, and one of the many reasons I hate Hank and Marie. They are arguably the most important characters other than Walt, Jesse, and Skyler, and they’re both super flat.
Hank wants Shania Twain to give him a “tuggie.” I love Shania Twain references, but–gross!
Jesse’s family has a nameless, lineless Hispanic housekeeper, because of course they do.
The finance bro who challenges Walt’s masculinity. Some parts of this character are funny, like that he uses words like “commensurate” and phrases like “shitting bricks.” Even his on-the-nose license plate, “Ken Wins,” is pretty funny. But once he starts calling women “cows” in public and making fun of people with limps for some reason, he’s just too cartoonishly terrible. People are like this, but not all at once. It’s just unsubtle writing, like a neon flashing sign that says: “THIS MAN IS EVERYTHING WALTER’S NOT.”
Season One, Episode 5 “Grey Matter”
Summary: We finally meet Jessica Hecht’s character in the present-day (I was starting to think that she was a Caprica Six-like sexed-up figment of Walter’s imagination). Turns out she’s Gretchen, his ex from grad school, who is now married to his old grad school buddy, who has gotten filthy rich from starting his own tech company. And–plot twist–that tech company was borne out of an idea that he and Walter came up with together. The buddy offers him a cushy job at the company, and Walter is all flattered, until it becomes clear that the buddy knows about his cancer and is trying to help him out. He then yells at Skyler for spilling the beans, and whines that the rich buddy offered to straight-up pay for his treatment. The family has an intervention and Walter whines some more about never having any choices in his life. In the end, he gives in to treatment, but not to taking his rich buddy’s money. Instead, he’ll just manufacture some meth, because that won’t put his family in existential danger or anything.
Jesse explaining to his interviewer that he put “curriculum vitae” on top of his resume because it’s “more professional.” Adorable.
The pretentious white guy who pronounces Walter’s last name “H-white” is the whitest thing that’s ever happened.
Jesse developing a work ethic (but only about cooking meth). It’s the perfect character development after disappointing his family last episode. He’s the only one with a clear and sympathetic (but still appropriately dysfunctional) arc.
The disastrous intervention for Walt, complete with I-statements and a “talking pillow.”
The hilarious book title “Gourmet Healing,” because of course Skyler would have a book like that.
Hank and Marie, being cartoonishly terrible, again. Toxic masculinity is a real thing, but I doubt that anyone would tell their sister-in-law that their husband should refuse cancer treatment so he can “die like a man.” Not buying it.
Poor Jessica Hecht. Her character is supposedly this brilliant scientist, and all she gets to do is be the bone in the dumb tug-of-war between Walt and his rich friend. When Walter looked at her as he said his rich friend, “has everything,” I wanted to vom.
Oh god, everything about the stupid rich friend and Walt’s stupid reaction to it. Yes, it’s a little humiliating for the friend to offer him a job under false pretenses, but overall it’s like… sorry you have a rich friend who’s willing to solve all your problems? I can see why the writers thought this was a good idea, because, as I’ve said in previous posts, they see Walt as a tragic character who is undone by his (very Greek and cliched) fatal flaw: pride. But in execution, as opposed to intention, it doesn’t really work. It not only feels extremely convenient, but it makes Walter cross the line from interestingly flawed to straight-up unsympathetic. At least other extremely flawed white male antiheroes have some circumstances that are beyond their control–House has chronic pain, Dexter has childhood trauma, Don Draper grew up in a whorehouse (okay, that one is kind of stupid too). Walter is a victim of nothing but his own stubbornness.
And worst of all, the writers clearly still expect the viewer to sympathize with him. They inject some perspective here and there, especially through Walter Jr, who openly rolls his eyes at Walt’s selfishness. But when Walt gives his big speech about feeling like he “never made any of [his] own choices,” we’re clearly supposed to be with him, and I am decidedly not. Does Skyler have a choice in this? Does his son? If they really couldn’t afford his treatment, I would understand. But there’s no actual conflict here.
Interestingly, the contemporaneous reviews/comments I’ve read about this episode thought it was teasing a larger backstory, while future commenters are looking back and saying, “Remember when we thought that would be explored later in the series?”. I can’t fully comment on that, because I haven’t seen the whole thing, but I had no expectation that this would lead to anything more interesting. It just seems like a regular old plot contrivance to get Walter back in the meth game.
Season 1, Episode 6 “Crazy Handful of Nothin'”
Summary: Walt starts chemo, and it’s hell, but he also starts his meth-cooking business with Jesse in earnest, which is fun. Jesse tries to get in touch with a distributor so they can sell their drugs in bulk, and gets beaten up, as per usual. Walt avenges him by introducing himself as “Heisenberg” and threatening the distributor with exploding crystals (and then actually blowing some shit up). Meanwhile Hank finds one of Walt’s masks in Krazy-8’s car, and finds out that all the meth-cooking equipment is missing from Walt’s lab.
And Walt finally shaves his head! Like everything else on this show, it’s a metaphor for him “breaking bad,” or something.
Jesse figuring out on his own that Walt has cancer, and especially his indignation that Walt didn’t tell him. “I’m your partner!” he exclaims. Oh, Jesse. So pure.
Walt asks if Jesse knows a distributor, and Jesse says, “I did, until you KILLED HIM.” Lol.
The cancer symptoms are done very well in this episode–very disturbing and humanizing. The bloody pee, in particular, will haunt me a little.
The mercury explosion scene is pretty exciting, even if Walt’s transformation into bad-ass drug lord is happening a little too fast.
Walt literally throws a temper tantrum and screams “Grow some fucking balls!” at Jesse, when he’s the one who’s being hopelessly naive about how hard selling meth actually is. You know what would be a great solution, Walt? Taking money from your rich friends! (That’s right, I’m never letting that go.)
This poor Hispanic custodian whose only purpose is to give Walt gum and take the fall for Walt’s crimes. The second Hank came to the school, I knew he would arrest poor Hugo. Extremely questionable racial politics aside, it’s stupidly predictable.
Hank says Walt’s hot coworker’s ass being “like an onion.” Grossness aside, WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN??
What’s up with all the pulpy double entendres in this episode?? When Hank discovers some meth-making inventory at the school missing, he says to Walt, “We don’t want somebody to start wondering about you, right?” in ominous close-up, before laughing and saying he’s kidding. It’s very campy, almost like a different show. Then, when they’re playing poker, he looks at Walt and asks significantly “You hiding something?”, when he’s actually talking about Walt’s cards. SO CHEESY.
The quick flash forward to Heisenberg walking away from the destroyed building. It’s pretty bad-ass, but nothing super special. In media res is the oldest trick in the book.
It’s interesting to see the racism in drug policing in action: Hank laughed off the idea of Walt Jr. smoking weed, but calls Hugo a “criminal” for having some weed in his trunk. Or, rather, this would be interesting, if Hugo were a real character and not a plot contrivance, or if the show had demonstrated any desire to meaningfully engage with the issue of race.