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.
The title of the season finale of Breaking Bad — a finale that might feel a bit clipped because the 2007–8 Writers Guild of America strike cut the season short by two episodes — comes from the Coen-brothers classic Fargo, one of the great films about an amateur entering a life of crime. The amateur in this case is Jerry (William H. Macy), a car salesman from the Twin Cities area who arranges his own wife’s kidnapping in order to extract ransom money from his wealthy stick-in-the-mud father-in-law. It was supposed to be, in his words, “a no-rough-stuff type deal,” but he doesn’t anticipate the many things that could go wrong with his half-baked plan, starting with his enlistment of two lowlife kidnappers who were recommended to him by his ex-con mechanic. The bodies pile up quickly.
Of all the things Walter White misunderstands about the meth business, his most egregiously false presumption is that it operates like any other business. He’s correct in assuming that his product has value — it is, in fact, the only thing that kept him alive after his very first cook — but his vision of playing executive chef to the discerning junkies of Albuquerque hasn’t worked out as expected. He keeps trying to will his cutthroat adversaries like Krazy-8 and Tuco into a rational arrangement in which he supplies them with premium meth and they buy in bulk, but how can you be rational with a guy who snorts crank off the edge of a bowie knife?
He may be an F student and a gnat-level meth dealer, but Jesse at least knows enough not to nurse such dangerous naïveté. When he awakens to the news that Walt not only confronted Tuco directly but intends to go into business with him, Jesse is apoplectic: “Why would you make a deal with that scumbag?” Jesse has more words to describe him, like “insane assclown” and “dead-eyed killer,” but to Walt, Tuco is the one guy in town with the distribution muscle to get him the money he needs. And as an extra shocker to Jesse, Walt has promised to cook two full pounds of meth for Tuco without thinking about the difficulty of acquiring the raw materials. Jesse tells him that two pounds requires 200 to 300 boxes of cold medicine from Smurfs, his name for the minions who slip into pharmacies to buy up a couple boxes at a time. Though Walt eventually comes up with a solution to that problem, his arrogance and recklessness is troubling to Jesse because he’s a lethal combination of a know-it-all and a know-nothing. Walt’s cancer might have liberated him from worrying about when and how he dies, but Jesse is still young and has some instinct for self-preservation.
Give Walt credit for thinking on his feet, however. There are times when Breaking Bad resembles some cross between the improvisatory handiwork of MacGyver and the mad science of MythBusters, and it bails these amateurs out yet again. Faced with a supply shortage that would put them at the edge of Tuco’s blade, Walt simply abandons one recipe in favor of another that requires no Smurfs and no picking through boxes of “pseudo.” “Yeah, science!” shouts Jesse — until he gets a shopping list of ingredients that are hard to find and prohibitively expensive. When Walt gets a free weekend by making up a trip to a Navajo sweat lodge — Skyler accepts his interest in alternative medicine more readily than she should, frankly — he intends to do some cooking, but, as usual, nothing goes as planned.
The big missing ingredient is methylamine, which is kept locked up in a lightly secured chemical-supply company, so Walt and Jesse decide to pull off a heist job. What follows is the show at its best, a tense and high-stakes robbery that’s also revealing of character. The “Yeah, science!” factor plays a key role in the plan, with Walt using the raw materials from Etch A Sketch toys to put together a small plastic bag of thermite, a chemical so powerful that it was used to melt a thousand-ton German “Gustav gun” in World War II. They also cleverly devise a way to pen the security guard into a portable toilet when he comes back to the area sooner than expected. But the sequence exposes them as floundering nonprofessionals, too, from the poofy tassels on their ski masks to their backbreaking haul of a methylamine barrel — a barrel that presumably rolls.
Meanwhile, the finale pays off a subplot that has been tucked so incongruously into the background of the show that I haven’t even mentioned it in these recaps. Skyler’s sister, Marie, is a kleptomaniac, and she makes the mistake of giving a purloined white-gold baby tiara to Skyler at her shower. Horrified by the idea of putting this uncomfortable trinket on her baby’s head, Skyler attempts to return the tiara to the store and gets nabbed for shoplifting. Though she manages to fake her way out of this humiliating ordeal, Skyler is furious at Marie and wants to ask her the obvious question: Why would she do such a thing?
Skyler knows the answer to that question because she asked it in a different context earlier in the episode. At the school to discuss the missing lab equipment, Walt’s criminality again becomes an aphrodisiac, just as it had in the pilot when he negotiated a non-missionary session with his wife. After Walt runs his hand up Skyler’s leg during the meeting, the two wind up having sex in the high-school parking lot like randy teenagers. “Where did that come from, and why was it so damn good?” Skyler asks. “Because it was illegal,” Walt replies. It’s really as simple as that: For Walt and Marie, and even for Skyler in this moment, doing something wrong and getting away with it packs an illicit thrill that can be as addicting as a meth high. Walt and Marie are bored with their conventional lives, and now they’re chasing the rush.
In Walt’s case, though, the rush chases back. Walt and Jesse’s final encounter with Tuco at the junkyard feels like the “To be continued …” moment that it is thanks to the abruptly shortened season. Yet it ends on the right note, with Tuco committing an act of violence so vicious that Walt and Jesse are left paralyzed in shock. It’s like the famous “funny guy” scene in GoodFellas, if Joe Pesci’s hot-tempered gangster weren’t pranking his buddy. All it takes is one seemingly rote threat (“Just remember who you’re working for”) for Tuco to beat his own henchman unconscious. Maybe that bump from Walt’s new-and-improved blue formula put him over the edge. Whatever the case, the first season ends with these partners giving the fullest glimpse yet into the business they’ve entered. What will they have to do to survive?
Acids and Bases
• There’s no overlooking the callousness of Walt getting frisky during a meeting about the janitor fired for his crime — a janitor who had cleaned up his vomit and sent him back along to class no less.
• All the business with the Realtor trying to sell Jesse’s home is a good example of the show’s strong sense of humor and irony. “Just imagine all the things you could do down here,” the Realtor says of the basement. Indeed, the possibilities are endless.
• Also funny is Jesse pointing out the absurdity of doing drug business at a junkyard, which is exactly the sort of thing we expect from a TV show. (“This is, like, a non-criminal’s idea of a drug meet.”)
• Walt’s contempt for Hank comes through powerfully in a scene in which Hank breaks out Cuban cigars, flouting the law on Walt’s back porch while enforcing drug laws that seem arbitrarily applied: “Who knows what will be legal next year?”
• Biggest laugh of the episode is Skyler accusing the manager of holding her in a “dank storeroom.” “This is my office!” he replies.