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.
Throughout the first half of the first season of Breaking Bad, there have been many points at which Walter White has been characterized as “not himself,” which is to say not acting in the predictable patterns of a high-school teacher and family man leading a conventional life. He’s been staying out for long hours when no one knows where he is. He’s been temperamental to the extreme at home and in the bedroom. He’s apparently been smoking pot. And, of course, he hid a cancer diagnosis from his family for a month and continues to want it hidden from as many people as possible despite the urgency of the situation. For Skyler and Junior, it’s been baffling and heartbreaking to see Walt behave so mysteriously at the most consequential time of his life. But what they don’t understand yet is that the Walt they’ve always known is the one who isn’t himself — at least not entirely. The real Walt is much more troubling.
He shows them a part of his true self during the intervention that serves as the emotional centerpiece of this pivotal episode — but only the part they can bear to see. From the moment he finally confessed his diagnosis, Skyler has been eager to get him into treatment, which is both what any caring life partner would do and an irritation to Walt, who doesn’t want her managing his affairs as if he were a child. It’s emasculating for Walt to learn, for example, that Skyler had driven over to Jesse’s house to tell him to stop selling marijuana to her husband. And he’s furious over her making him a charity case for Elliott Schwartz (Adam Godley), his erstwhile scientific partner and romantic rival, who jumps at the opportunity to offer him a job and cover his expensive treatment protocols. Skyler wants him around as long as possible. He doesn’t want to be managed anymore.
The intervention scene is a master class from Bryan Cranston, who shows Walt at his most exposed and conflicted. When his son calls him “a pussy” and accuses him of giving up (“What if you gave up on me, huh?”), he’s genuinely stung by it because of course he loves Junior and should want to stay alive for him and his daughter-to-be. He also understands why Skyler is so alarmed by his passivity in pursuing treatment and his stubborn insistence to let pride get in the way of allowing other people to help him. There’s a large part of him that resents the path his life has taken, and Skyler receives the brunt of that resentment, but in this scene, when he’s surrounded by loved ones, he’s not unmoved by their pleas. And when he wakes up the next morning to an empty bed, sees a book about cancer caregiving on Skyler’s nightstand, and smells the scent on her pillow, he is motivated to please her, albeit under secret, sinister terms.
But in the middle of this awkward affair, Walt gives the truest and most straightforward explanation for his actions that he can: “Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own choices. My entire life, it just seems I never, you know, had a real say about any of it. Now this last one, cancer — all I have left is how I choose to approach this.”
Hank and Marie, to Skyler’s horror, are persuaded by this line of thinking, which breaks the united front she was hoping would pressure Walt into making the right choice — her choice. The origins of Walt and Skyler’s marriage are still cloudy, but “Gray Matter” probes into the road not taken for Walt and the bitterness that has lingered because of it. In an earlier episode, we got a glimpse of Walt and Gretchen’s relationship as they broke down all the chemicals that compose the human body (and the tiny percentage that’s unaccounted for). But that’s long in the past. Walt had helped build the company Elliott and Gretchen turned into a world-beating billion-dollar enterprise, but he’d left it in its infancy, like Ron Wayne cashing out on Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak before Apple struck gold.
Now he and Skyler are cash-strapped suburbanites turning up at a posh birthday party wearing a cheap suit and a prom dress, respectively. They are conspicuously poor at an affair thrown by a man who asked for no gifts but still gets an autographed Eric Clapton guitar. (“Sorry about the buckle rash,” the insignia reads.) Elliott looks legitimately touched by Walt giving him the cheap ramen noodles they subsisted on while building the company, and the two have a fine time reminiscing about the past, which sets up Elliott’s flattering offer for Walt to come back to work with him. When it dawns on Walt what’s really happening — that Skyler told Elliott about the cancer — it’s another humiliating moment for him. He can’t stand the idea of being a pitiable charity case, especially to the man who married his ex-girlfriend, made billions on the company, and now appears on the cover of Scientific American.
And so he strikes a diabolical compromise. He values Skyler enough to reverse course and go in for treatment, but he’d rather die than take a penny of Elliott’s money. That brings him back to his original deception: He’ll reteam with Jesse to continue manufacturing the Moët of meth and make it seem as if he’s just dealing with Elliott directly. And as fortune would have it, Jesse has been itching to get back in the game, too. It’s not just that he doesn’t have a partner anymore — Emilios are not exactly one of a kind — but that he now feels strangely invested in the quality of the product. He spends most of the episode trying to turn his buddy Badger’s Sudafed into crystal, but he’s not satisfied with how it looks. He can’t go back to being the F student who sprinkled chili powder on subpar meth. He’s been to the mountaintop.
Walt still gets to make a choice about how to manage the end of his life. It’s just that only his burnout former student knows about it.
Acids and Bases
• The opening scene, when Jesse offers his “curriculum vitae” for a professional sales job but winds up getting embarrassed and turned away, owes much to the great Steven Soderbergh movie Out of Sight, particularly the shot in which George Clooney’s ex-con leaves a bank and angrily removes his tie. The straight life is not for him.
• “I gravitated toward education?” “Ah, what university?” Ouch.
• Walt referring to Elliott’s generous offer as “face-saving bullshit” reminds me of a piece of narration in The Wolf of Wall Street in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s rogue stock trader talks about how money can make you a good person. (“You can give generously to the church or political party of your choice. You can save the fucking spotted owl with money.”) Elliott clearly feels burdened by what he owes to Walt, but Walt will not let him be the good person money can buy.
• Jesse turns out to be such a quick study of chemistry that he needs to revert to street lingo when Badger is wowed by his knowledge of beakers and flasks: “It’s just basic chemistry, yo.”
• Hank getting the call when Junior is caught trying to get a grown-up to buy beer for him and his buddies is yet another example of Walt’s brother-in-law already filling in the surrogate dad role before he’s dead.
• “What good is it to survive if I’m too sick to work? To enjoy a meal? To make love? For what time I have left, I wanna live in my own house. I wanna sleep in my own bed.” Walt’s reaction to his cancer diagnosis may be extreme in other ways, but in this way, it’s completely identifiable. How we choose to die is a personal and often fraught decision with many parties involved.