the seasons

Matt Zoller Seitz on Revisiting Breaking Bad Season 2: When Did Walter Become Heisenberg?

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad - Season 2, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC Photo: Richard Foreman / AMC

This is the second installment in an occasional new series titled The Seasons, in which Vulture’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz rewatches classic shows and writes about them season by season. These columns presume knowledge of the entire run of the show and are filled with spoilers, so consider yourself forewarned. Today, Breaking Bad season two. (Read Matt Zoller Seitz on Breaking Bad season one here.)

When did Walter White become Heisenberg?

It’s a trick question with no right answer, except maybe to say that the Breaking Bad hero and his meth-dealing, murdering alter ego have been locked in combat since season one of Vince Gilligan’s crime drama, and that each identity dominates or recedes, depending on the situation.

But somewhere during the show’s run, Heisenberg gained the upper hand. Throughout season one and the first part of season two (maybe!), the aggrieved, milquetoast chemistry teacher Walter White controlled Heisenberg like a marionette, but somewhere along the line the marionette figured out that he could pull Walter’s strings. I think it’s fair to say that halfway through season five Heisenberg is running things and using Walter as a beard, one that’s only convincing to people that haven’t spent much time in Walt’s company recently.

This is all rather complicated, even by dark-cable-drama standards. If you buy the idea that Walter, like everyone, has several “self-states” that exist simultaneously without canceling each other out — or that, to quote Breaking Bad’s favorite poet Walt Whitman, the character is large and contains multitudes — then you’re led to conclude that Walter is still in there somewhere, buried deep inside the scary façade of Heisenberg like a decent man locked in a dark fortress, and that maybe, if he’s lucky, he’ll get out before it’s all over and try to set things right, or at least tell everyone he’s sorry before he gets buried up to his neck in a hill full of scorpions, torn apart by tractors, or sent to wander in the winds.

That said: I think Heisenberg began dominating Walter somewhere in season two. But when?

The moment near the start of season two after he and Jesse have escaped Tuco and Hector Salamanca marked the beginning of the takeover, I think. After the duo walks through the desert — a journey that’s mythological as well as geographical — Walter ends up in a supermarket, shedding his clothes like a snake shedding old skin. This isn’t the moment, though. Nor would I choose the moment a few episodes later where Walter orders Jesse to “handle” their newfound turf problems (that feels like Walter summoning Heisenberg to make Jesse handle an unpleasant task that Walter himself wouldn’t touch). Nor would I pick either of the two significant and profoundly disturbing moments late in the season: the confrontation between Walter and the would-be rival meth cookers in the Home Depot parking lot (“Stay out of my territory!) or the moment when he deliberately lets Jesse’s overdosing girlfriend, Jane, choke to death on her own vomit, in order to cauterize her blackmail scheme and make Jesse helplessly dependent on him again. The latter two moments couldn’t have happened, I suspect, if Heisenberg hadn’t set down roots inside Walter and gotten comfortable there.

No, I think it happened in the episode titled “Over,” written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Sopranos veteran Phil Abraham. That’s the one where Skyler throws a party for Walter’s family and friends to celebrate good medical news, and Walter gets drunk poolside with Hank, repeatedly refills his son Walt, Jr.’s cup with tequila, gets into a physical confrontation with Hank when the DEA agent takes the bottle away (“My son! My bottle! My house!”), and then — the awful, crowning touch — smirks when Walt, Jr. vomits into the pool.

“I’m not exactly sure who that was yesterday,” Walter tells his son the next morning, half-assedly apologizing, “but it wasn’t me.”

The Walter/Heisenberg identity duel is the heart of this series, and various supporting characters echo bits and pieces of it. The show is filled with bad people struggling to get out of good ones, or good people struggling to get out of bad ones — Jesse being the primary example; for all his sins, you still sense decency in him, and a stricken conscience. (He has to summon his own, charmingly inept version of Heisenberg, a volatile faux gangsta; my favorite example is in “Peekaboo,” written by J. Roberts and Vince Gilligan and directed by Peter Medak, when Jesse repeats variations of “Where’s my money, bitch!” before storming the addict couple’s home, then acts abashed when a mail carrier wanders by.)

In no case is the transformation so total that you can say that a given character has no good qualities, or no bad ones. Even the meanest criminals have their human aspects: Mike doting on his granddaughter and treating Jesse much more fairly than Walter ever did; Gus Fring remembering the vicious murder of his Los Pollos Hermanos “brother” and suddenly seeming less like a coldhearted operator than a man rendered numb decades earlier. While rewatching season two, I was unexpectedly touched by how tenderly the wild-eyed thug Tuco doted on his uncle Hector — his devotion repaid in full in the scene where Hector uses his wheelchair bell to try to expose Walt and Jesse’s murderous deceptions.

I was also struck by the awkward righteousness of Skyler, who knows she’s being lied to by her supposed mate for life but can’t figure out how, and only catches on in the season’s final episode, when Walter goes under general anesthesia for cancer surgery. Skyler inquires about his cell phone, and Walter unthinkingly mutters, “Which one?” — the sentence that sparks both her separation from Walter and his bullying, manipulative attempts to force her to return.

I’ve said it before on Vulture, and I’ll keep saying it: I cannot understand why any fair-minded person could dismiss Skyler as nothing but an obstructionist, a castrating harpy, a bitch, or a badly written or performed character — not when you consider that her cool temperament matches Walt’s (it’s one of the reasons he married her, probably), not to mention that she has solid emotional (though not always rational) reasons for everything she does. She sleeps with Ted, for instance, when she and Walter are separated, and only after weeks of being treated like a possession by Walter, constantly lied to and psychologically manipulated and abused; she’s just lashing out in one of the only ways she can, a way that will hurt a man who otherwise seems immune to her objections, her anger, her pain.

Back to Walter and Heisenberg: There’s something else going on here, too. Since I get into it at length in an upcoming New York Magazine piece and an accompanying video essay, I’ll just summarize my main points here. One is science fiction. The show has overtones of sci-fi and sci-fi-flavored comics. The show is set in New Mexico, birthplace of the atomic bomb. Walter’s evil is triggered by a cancer diagnosis and treated with radiation. Over time he becomes a malevolent intellectual named Heisenberg, strutting around in a porkpie hat and goatee, destroying enemies with bombs, ruining evidence with giant magnets, poisoning a child with plant extract, and robbing drug-making chemicals from a train with help from a band of henchmen. It’s as if the gamma radiation in the Hulk had affected only Bruce Banner’s brain.

The other fascinating aspect is cancer, which is treated as both disease and metaphor, and tied in with the borderline sci-fi or comic-book aspects. One could probably make a graph showing an inverse relationship between Walter’s cancer remission and his ability to project his moral rot out onto the rest of society, growing colder, crueler, and more ambitious by the day. Walter’s like a moral version of the Blob or Godzilla: a terror that seems to grow larger with each new acquisition, and stronger after every new attack against it. He is a cancer. His viciousness spreads like cancer, metastasizes like cancer, and ultimately infects a whole body politic, or community.

Season two is the most meticulously structured season of Breaking Bad. Each episode represents a particular stage in Walter/Heisenberg’s duel, or ebb-and-flow. The situations and imagery also show how the struggle affects people besides Walter: not just relatives and colleagues, but strangers. Episode for episode and scene for scene, season two is a great example of how to intensify personal stories with images that have metaphoric dimensions but don’t push too hard, instead letting their meanings emerge through spectacle (the midair collision that traumatizes the entire city, brought on by Jane’s grieving father), or subjective filmmaking techniques (Hank’s panic attacks and posttraumatic stress disorder, which would never have happened without the pressure of solving the “blue meth” mystery), or marvelous extra-dramatic embellishments (such as the madrigal about Heisenberg that opens the episode titled “Negro Y Azul”). In every instance, the show subtly yet bracingly sells the idea that Walter’s inner drama is gradually becoming a social drama — that he’s somehow projecting his internal struggle, and the malevolence of Heisenberg, onto the world.

Matt Zoller Seitz will moderate two Breaking Bad panels at Lincoln Center on Thursday, one with R.J. Mitte, Anna Gunn and Bob Odenkirk, and one with Bryan Cranston. Although the events have been sold out for a while now, you can watch the panels live online as they happen.

Seitz on Revisiting Breaking Bad Season 2