Breaking Bad’s first season predated the current era of Vulture recaps, but with the final episode of prequel/sequel series Better Call Saul now in the books, Vulture is taking the opportunity to return to the very beginning of the Heisenberg saga and give this 2008 season the in-depth episodic analysis it deserves.
After the frantic action in the pilot of Breaking Bad, the second hour does something quietly extraordinary — it slams on the brakes. Consider all the things that happened in the pilot, in addition to establishing the major characters: Walt discovers he has terminal cancer. Walt resolves to get into the meth business. Walt partners with Jesse after a ride-along with Hank on a bust. The new partners buy an RV and cook a glass-grade batch in the desert. Jesse tries to secure buyers in Krazy-8 and Emilio, but the deal goes south. Walt improvises a chemical explosion that kills Emilio and seriously imperils Krazy-8. Then Walt and Jesse drive furiously in the RV, only to crash into a bank off the road. That’s a lot of incidents, though not particularly unusual for the first hour of a new action-suspense show.
Now consider what happens in “The Cat’s in the Bag…”: Walt and Jesse still have to solve the problem of their two adversaries in the back on the RV. In the end, the dead one, Emilio, is liquefied by hydrofluoric acid, and Krazy-8 gets healthier. That could generously be called a draw in terms of progress, but it’s really worse than where they started, because cleaning up the Emilio mess is now a Cat in the Hat–level problem, and it’s now certain that Walt or Jesse will have to kill Krazy-8 in cold blood, rather than waiting for his respiratory system to shut down. This week’s dilemma — what to do with these bodies? — is now going to be next week’s, too.
That’s an incredible dramatic risk, especially for an audience weaned on episodic hours of television where crises that get introduced in the first act are always resolved in the third. Breaking Bad is not merely asking viewers for patience, but asking them to change their fundamental metabolism. They will still get all the high-stakes suspense they’re looking for — the tension in this one never flags for a moment — but it’s connected less to incident than the process of thinking through an impossibly difficult situation and taking the agonizing steps necessary to get through it.
The problem is both practical and moral. Walt and Jesse are not killers. Walt turned into one last week, but at least he could say it was in self-defense. The moral calculus of killing a wounded man like Krazy-8 is more daunting than either one of them can handle. As part of their “50/50” deal, one of them has to handle Emilio’s “chemical discorporation,” while the other has to kill a wheezing Krazy-8, but neither wants the latter job. As gross as dissolving a human being sounds (and is!), murder is much more taxing on the conscience, even though they know that any other outcome wouldn’t work. (Walt asking Jesse if Krazy-8 might act out of “mutual self-interest” and listen to reason is one of the episode’s many darkly funny moments.)
Beyond the festering crisis parked in Jesse’s driveway, “The Cat’s in the Bag…” also emphasizes Walt’s serious deficiencies in leading a double life. Perhaps he’ll improve as a liar in the future, but for now, his wife, Skylar, is utterly perplexed by his behavior. Picking up right where the last episode left off, with Walt surprising Skylar with a non-missionary sexual position, this second hour finishes the act with Walt having a coughing fit, stumbling into the bathroom, and passing out on the tile floor. It gets no better in the morning, when he tries to smooth things over with a weird “funny story” about high-school senior girls commissioning busty photos for the yearbook and a call from Jesse posing unconvincingly as an AT&T representative to get Walt on the phone. That fake conversation doesn’t get past Skylar either.
The dualities of Walt’s existence are announced in a lecture to his class about “chiral” compounds, where two organic molecules are mirror images of each other but behave very differently. (Always pay attention to lectures in movies and TV shows. They usually give the theme away.) When Skylar is getting an ultrasound, for example, there’s Walt the sweet family man, hearing that they’re having the daughter he wanted but tearing up at the certainty that he won’t be alive to interrogate her prospective high-school boyfriends. There’s also the new Walt, who lies to Skylar about his relationship to Jesse, but then tells her, with uncharacteristic sharpness, to “climb down out of my ass.”
But does Walt have enough gangster in him to kill a man? The universe is not going to let him dodge the question. It’s not going to allow Krazy-8 to wheeze out of breath like a punctured tire. And it’s not going to decide a coin flip in his favor either, though clearly he’s more qualified to dissolve Emilio than Jesse turns out to be. One of the great values of “The Cat’s in the Bag…” is that the weight of this question is so heavy that it isn’t answered in a single episode. Walt surely imagined the meth business as a business that he could legitimize with his talent and maturity, but it’s already putting him in more danger than expected and forcing him into decisions he never imagined having to make.
Breaking bad is just the first step. There’s no telling how far down the slippery slope he can go from here.
Acids and Bases
• No one in history has been less excited to hear about “the new type of brassiere” for flat-chested teenage girls than Skylar White. (At least Junior appears to be hanging on every word.)
• “Yo, yo, yo, 1, 4, 8, 3 to the 3 to the 6 to the 9, representing the ABQ. What up, beyotch? Leave it at the tone.” How sure are we that Jesse knows the language of the streets?
• The “General Interests” section of Jesse’s MySpace-like page in full: “Fine herbage! Keepin’ it real, Jai Roy Ki Kung-Fu (Blue belt with shrunken certification). Banging the skins with my smokin band ‘TwaughtHammer’. European Motocross (plan to attend Wheelie School in Vegas this summer). MILF’s! MILF’s! MILF’s! MILF’s!”
• Jesse’s courage and improvisational skills are stronger than they seem. Using the bike lock to secure Krazy-8 to the pole in his basement is clever, and he does show toughness in dragging Emilio from the RV to his tub upstairs. It’s just unfortunate that he flunked chemistry.
• The scene where Skylar drives up to Jesse’s house and orders him not to sell marijuana to her husband dates the episode, which aired in January 2008. Recreational cannabis has been legal to sell in New Mexico since April 1 of this year. God bless America.