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.
For poker players, running a bluff with 7-2, the worst hand in Hold’em, can be a kind of statement. If you succeed in pushing your opponent off a made hand — the stronger the hand, the better — then it can be psychologically wounding to reveal the bluff. You look smart, courageous, and even a little bit reckless, like the guy who wouldn’t turn the wheel in a game of chicken while the other driver went flying into the ditch. On the other hand, betting 7-2 on every street, including the river, is a death wish. If you get called down for holding a trash hand — if your opponent doesn’t buy the story you’re telling — then it’s utterly humiliating. You’ve just lost all your chips on nothing.
The poker scene in “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” isn’t convincingly staged, in that Junior open-folds before anyone bets on 5th Street, and Marie looks at both Hank’s and Walt’s mucked hands, which is a serious no-no. But the gist of it is clear and clever: Walt is a better liar and much ballsier than Hank gives him credit for being. He also wants to rub it in Hank’s face, which doesn’t show the greatest instinct for self-preservation. Hank has just poked around Walt’s chemistry lab and concluded that it was raided by meth-heads, but he certainly could make a connection between the high-school ventilator mask found at a cook site and the exceptionally skilled person who turned out the purest meth that anyone had ever seen. In asserting his masculinity with the 7-2, Walt reveals himself to be a gambler.
That may be his primary advantage, as this gripping, action-packed episode suggests. Walt has stage-three-A cancer. He’s losing his hair (and his lunch) through brutal chemo treatments, and his pessimism about his prognosis deepens when Jesse tells him about an aunt who lived only seven months past her diagnosis. If he dies attempting to break into the meth business, so what? He figures that he has a limited expiration date anyway, and getting shot by a guy named Tuco (Raymond Cruz) is probably a better way to go out than withering away in agony. So Walt has decided to push in his chips against stronger opponents with all the bravado he can muster. And if he gets them to fold, it will feel exhilarating.
There are unintended consequences, however. Walt’s most dangerous quality, the one that makes him both vulnerable and lethal, is his naïveté. He comes into the meth business thinking that it operates like any other capitalist business: run by rational thinkers who want to buy his excellent product wholesale and distribute it to customers who will prefer it to other brands on the market. While Jesse isn’t the most streetwise and connected guy around, he knows enough to try to disabuse Walt of the idea that a major dealer is going to take a meeting with a total stranger: “Hello, sir, I know you don’t know me, but would you be interested in a felony quantity of methamphetamine?” To Walt, whose arrogance weaponizes his naïveté, Jesse’s words just sound like a slacker’s lack of initiative.
“Crazy Handful of Nothin’” teaches him some hard lessons that he may or may not be interested in hearing long-term. One is that he cannot control a business this inherently volatile. He cannot anticipate, for example, that the school janitor, a friendly and empathetic man who looks after him when he throws up in the bathroom, will get collared for allegedly stealing his lab equipment. (The man is innocent but will lose his job and do some time for pot possession. Another victory in the War on Drugs.) The other is a subset of the first: He cannot expect “no bloodshed” when the biggest distributor in town snorts crank off the edge of a hunting knife.
Desperation lights a bonfire under Walt’s behind here, though. In order to pull off the ruse that he’s taking checks from Elliott for his treatment and depositing them in his credit-union account, Walt has to make good on the payments, which are accumulating faster than he can handle. With his body getting pummeled by the chemo, Walt nonetheless drags himself into a hot RV in the desert to cook batch after batch of primo crystal, so it makes some sense that he’s disappointed when Jesse comes back with a pittance in return. Selling “teenths” of meth to the docile addicts at the local motel is not worth the exposure for Walt, but Jesse knows that dealing around the margins in Albuquerque will prevent guys like Tuco from coming down on him for selling in his territory.
But Walt demands that Jesse roll the dice with Tuco anyway, and he finds a liaison in his friend Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), who claims to have bonded with Tuco in the joint. Jesse approaches Tuco with an offer to sell him a pound for $35,000, but Tuco doesn’t want to pay him for it on the spot — which, in Jesse’s mind, likely means he doesn’t intend to pay for it at all. When he pushes back, Tuco and his goons beat Jesse within an inch of his life, landing him unconscious in the hospital with broken ribs and a neck brace. Seeing Jesse look like this is a call to action for Walt, who decides to march right into the lion’s den.
Is this a show of loyalty for his partner? Does Walt feel guilty about pushing Jesse into meeting with an “OG” who could swat him like a bug? That doesn’t seem likely. Walt’s deeper motivation is very Tuco-like: He’s willing to commit explosive acts of violence in order to assert his supremacy. Walt is going to be the guy who ran 7-2 through A-K with two aces on the board, which is the power that comes from being woefully underestimated. For him to use fulminated mercury to blow out the side of Tuco’s office seems like an act of sorcery, but it’s more like a Vegas illusionist who is skilled enough to fool people into believing he has a special talent.
Before he pulls off this spectacular trick, he introduces himself as Heisenberg, a reference to the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who is most famous for the “uncertainty principle,” which states that we cannot know the position and speed of a particle with perfect accuracy. It’s a rare moment of self-awareness on Walt’s part: He’s building this name, this mythology, around the idea that he has entered into an unpredictable line of work. That means danger for Walt, Jesse, and his family, but it also means danger for guys like Tuco, who will always dismiss Walt as an amateur. They will do so at their peril.
Acids and Bases
• There are not enough shows or movies that detail the specific torments of radiation and chemo treatment, so credit Breaking Bad for spending time on both — and, in doing so, giving some shred of credence to Walt’s argument about wanting to skip out on them.
• “The faster they undergo change, the more violent the explosion.” Classroom scenes truly are the easiest vessels for spelling out themes.
• Walt’s ability to lie can really waver from situation to situation. He can get away with the big lie of cooking meth on the side because it’s just too unbelievable for anyone to comprehend, but the scene in the cancer support group in which he claims to like walking alone in nature is so transparently false that it’s a miracle Skyler and Junior don’t call him out for it.
• Walt gets his first burner phone — a special day for any self-styled modern outlaw.
• Who’s dumber: Badger or Skinny Pete? Going to give Skinny Pete the edge here, though they’re both lovably dim. (Pete after Tuco beats Jesse nearly to death: “I was all like, Damn, Tuco. Chill, ese.”)