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.
What’s the lowest moment for Walter White on the series so far? Finding out he has cancer? Not really, since the diagnosis is an awakening as much as it is a terrible piece of news, though he does break down after remembering how little time he’s likely to spend with his newborn daughter. How about killing Krazy-8? That’s a better candidate, since it sends him careening toward being the type of person he never expected himself to be. And yet I’m here to offer you this candidate from “Cancer Man”: when Walt is alone with his brother-in-law Hank and Hank tells him, “Walt, whatever happens, I want you to know that I’ll always take care of your family.”
The expression on Bryan Cranston’s face after that line — eyes closed, utterly pained by having to answer with obligatory gratitude — is that of a man being forced to swallow glass. Hank is a swaggering, “git-’er-done” type who spends his days chasing bad guys and peacocking about it on television or among the fellas hanging on his every word. His presence makes Walt acutely aware of his weakness and inadequacies, which have only been heightened since his cancer diagnosis. For Hank to usurp his role as father and provider — and perhaps to do it better, or at least more confidently — is a thought that fills him with dread. If he withers away from chemotherapy and radiation treatments, it will feel like a fittingly ineffectual end.
And so he’s chosen this moment in his life to make a stand, which is mysterious and infuriating to the people who care about him the most. He took more than a month to tell Skylar about the diagnosis at all, and he would have taken longer if he didn’t need to shift the conversation away from where he’d been spending his time in the two weeks since he quit the car-wash gig. And even then, he has sworn Skylar to secrecy, which she can manage for only two days before sobbing uncontrollably during a cookout with Hank and Marie. Walt has been operating like a teenager skipping school, knowing that he’ll eventually get caught, but grasping for every moment of freedom in the meantime. Cancer has given him a likely death sentence already. The concerns of others feel like another weight to bear.
Nevertheless, Walt’s behavior is understandably shocking to Skylar and Junior, who want him to stay alive, as a loving wife and child would. For Skylar, that means formulating a plan of action to get a second opinion and find the best treatment possible, no matter the price. “Cancer Man” was first aired in February 2008, an election year, and the circumstances surrounding Walt’s treatment — the top-flight oncologist being out of network, the total cost of care being likely to cripple this middle-class family — felt part of a national discussion on health care. Of course, even the passage of Obamacare wouldn’t have solved the Whites’ problems, but the idea that life-saving health care would be unaffordable to the average American was a potent one then, as it is now.
However, Skylar taking the reins on Walt’s care is precisely the outcome that he’d been wanting to avoid. The show hasn’t gotten into why such a brilliant, cutting-edge scientist has settled into a conventional life as a high-school chemistry teacher with a wife, a kid, and a modest ranch-style home in Albuquerque, but it has been strongly suggested that it wasn’t what he imagined for himself. Now that the remainder of his life seemingly will be counted in months, rather than years, he doesn’t want to give his time over to Skylar’s plans for him. To Junior, it simply looks like he couldn’t care less: “Why don’t you just fucking die already? Just give up and die.” The reality is more complicated — and nothing that his family expects from reliable ’ol Walt, much less understands.
“Cancer Man” deftly juxtaposes the family tension within the White family with Jesse’s sudden return to his own upper-middle-class roots. The episode introduces the Pinkmans before we know who they are and then brings in Jesse as a failed home invader. (“You got new patio furniture. Right on!”) In a scene that’s a little too broadly drawn, Jesse’s parents, Diane (Tess Harper, a two-time Oscar nominee for Tender Mercies and Crimes of the Heart) and Adam (Michael Bofshever), are first shown in a dinner conversation with Jake (Ben Petry), his younger brother, a perfect-little-angel type in a sweater vest and button-down shirt. Jesse’s lonely life as a paranoid junkie and failed crack dealer has led him to their doorstep once more, and the time has come for them to finally draw the line.
Though the scene between Jesse and Jake has a wonderful stretch where Jesse tries to play the wise big-brother type (“You know, not all learning comes out of books”) before immediately getting distracted by Jake’s piccolo (“Dude, play some Jethro Tull!), his family time plays out as expected, right down to the twist where Jesse covers for his brother’s hidden joint. But taken together, the Pinkman and White family scenes draw an important parallel between Jesse and Walt, two guys who have loving families but have chosen to reject the conventional path they’ve been offered. Walt should be eager to do what Skylar wants and get the best possible treatment to extend his life; Jesse should be eager to go to rehab and return to the bourgeois comforts of home, where he, too, can wear sweater vests and have conversations about piccolos and oboes. But they are restless and stubborn, clinging to impulses that they know to be self-destructive but that represent some perverse kind of freedom.
For Walt, though, cancer has given him permission not to walk the line anymore. He doesn’t have to pretend not to hear the bullies making fun of his disabled son. And he doesn’t have to tolerate the “winners” of society like “Ken” in this episode, who’s introduced breaking the social contract by peeling into his parking space with his BMW convertible and acts like a boorish lout in the bank, where he peppers a Bluetooth conversation with misogynistic insults. At this moment, Walt is Michael Douglas in Falling Down, now giving himself permission to seek justice for these petty little breaches in the social code. And when he torches Ken’s convertible in the episode’s final moments, you have to admit to yourself that it feels awfully good.
Acids and Bases
• Surely there’s a connection in Walt’s mind between Hank’s blowhard antics during the cookout (“Does the pope shit in his hat?”) and Ken’s behavior at the bank. But he can answer for only one of them. (Though it could be argued that dealing meth under Hank’s nose is answering him, too.)
• There’s something undeniably poignant about Jesse quietly setting the table for dinner as his parents are whispering about what to do with him. He’s playing the part of being a good son.
• “Ridiculous! Apply yourself!” It seems like Walt remembers Jesse because he was such an extravagantly poor student.
• We’re going back to money as a chief motivator for Walt, now that his treatments seem likely to balloon close to $100,000. But even then, it’s as much about pride as paying the bills. If Walt cannot pay for it himself — and, worse, dies while leaving them with a huge debt — then he will feel like less of a man.