Walter is forced to take action as Breaking Bad explodes
I’ll admit it—I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of my “Gray Matter” article. It felt more like a recap than a review, you know? I didn’t do a good job explaining just what I liked about the episode, I rushed the wrap-up, and honestly, I may have rated the episode too high. Perhaps it’s how little I had to say about it—even “Cancer Man”, my least favorite episode of the season, was something I felt good about when I finished my thoughts on it.
Or perhaps it can be attributed to it being a precursor to “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”, which is an episode I was both excited to revisit and talk about. It’s a tough choice between this and “…And the Bag’s in the River” for my favorite of season one—the highlight of “River” for me is the twenty minute scene by captor and captive that culminates in tragedy, while the excellent scenes in “Handful” are chopped up and spread fairly evenly throughout the episode. This is an episode that wastes no scenes, that takes every moment where something should happen and makes it happen. Breaking Bad will have a lot of these episodes, but when viewing this in the context of a first-timer, not knowing a thing about crawl spaces or full measures or Percy Bysshe Shelley poems, this is the start of something good. This is the start of something beautiful.
Unlike the previous four episodes of the season, this episode is one long storyline. Every character is in close contact with Walter—there’s a scene or two without him, but this both Jesse and the Whites get a large portion of attention this time around, and it makes for a smooth, efficient hour.
It opens as a few of the all-time greats of this series do—flashback and/or flash-forward. Back in the RV, (presumably after the ending of “Gray Matter”) Walter informs Jesse “As far as our customers go, I don’t want to know anything about them. I don’t wanna see them, I don’t wanna hear them.” Cut to a pair of shoes, a bag swinging at the top of the frame, as car alarms sound and people point behind the walker. “No matter what happens, no more bloodshed.” Cut to a forward shot—it’s a bald Walter, wiping a stream of blood from his nose, behind him a building with shattered windows and smoke pouring from it. Cue the title sequence?
Back in the present, Walter receives his treatments in a dark, depressing room filled with other ailing patients, but at least Skyler is there. He claims that he and Elliott have worked everything out financially, to her clear relief. The next morning, Walter is back in school and teaching, only to stop midway and hurry to the restroom and forcefully vomit. We later see Walter eject red urine—the treatment is doing exactly what he feared it would. There’s something to be said thematically for the parallels between the chemo and the job Walter is working to pay for it—he hides the truth from his partners in both scenarios, and they wear on him in different ways—his body in one, and his emotional state in the other.
But he doesn’t hide secrets from one of his partners for long, as during a cook out in the desert, he stumbles outside, wheezing. Jesse recognizes the radiation targeting dot on his chest as a sign of Walter’s cancer, having had an aunt who went through similar treatments. Jesse is mostly pissed that Walter didn’t tell him, stating that they need to be honest with each other as partners. There are two really great Walter and Jesse moments in this scene—Jesse seems genuinely concerned enough for his partner that he lets him sit out the rest of the cook, and Walter trusts Jesse enough to properly finish the batch.
Hank, meanwhile, gets a major lead—the mask comes back from Quantico. No DNA, but a label that had been poorly scrubbed off leads to Walter’s high school. There’s a rather tense scene in the school’s storage room where Walter barely manages to keep his cool as Hank rattles off items from the inventory Walter took for cooking, but this investigation leads to the arrest of poor Hugo, a friendly school janitor with previous marijuana charges that helped Walter earlier in the episode, during his vomiting session. While he definitely could not have been making meth, Hank still plans to charge him based on illicit materials found in his truck. Walter has no choice—he lets Hugo take the fall for him. As the family plays poker together, Junior, Marie and Skyler all fold, leaving it at Walt vs. Hank—Walter bets all his chips, and Hank, never expecting Walter to make this bold a move unless he has a superior hand, folds—and Walter reveals that he had a terrible hand, contrast to Hank having an ace and a king in his hand. Hank can’t beat Walter—he underestimates him.
These montages are really something, huh? Set to Charles Steinmann’s “It is Such a Good Night”, Jesse hits the streets and manages to sell an ounce of meth, (smoking a bit of it in the process) coming back to a dumbfounded Walter with a measly $2,600. Walter asks if Jesse knows anyone who can distribute their product in larger quantities for a greater profit—“Yeah, I mean, I used to, until you killed him.”
But the duo may be in luck—a one “Tuco” has just been released from prison, and he’s “badass, from what I hear” according to Jesse. Using his friend Skinny Pete from “Cancer Man”, (is a requirement for Jesse’s friendship having an amusingly stupid nickname?) Jesse sets up a meeting with Tuco. Played spectacularly and volatilely by Raymond Cruz, Tuco is a delight from the moment we see him—he sits in a dank, dusty office, picking his solid metal dental grill with a rather large knife. At first, he seems all business, but he soon turns agreeable after he tries the meth, then psychotic.
He goes from screaming excitedly about how the meth “kicks like a mule with his balls wrapped in duct tape!” and seeming more than alright with Jesse’s request for 35 g’s, but then states he run a consignment operation—Jesse just needs to bring some more, and they’ll start their business. But Jesse is one loudmouthed little asswipe, and flat-out demands the money up front. When Tuco refuses a deal, he tries to book it with the remaining product, but is stopped by Tuco’s guards—and at first, Tuco begins filling a bag with money, and everything is alright, but then he whacks Jesse across the face with it, and then it’s not. “Nobody moves crystal in the South Valley except me, bitch!” Walter and Jesse have a new competitor.
Walter learns that Jesse has been hospitalized and hurries to his side, informally getting introduced to Skinny Pete in the process. Realizing he needs to do something about this new problem, Walter demands information about Tuco. The next morning, Walter finds his hair is falling out, so he shaves his head bald (Skyler is mortified, Junior is impressed) and leaves for Tuco’s office.
This is where the most iconic scene of the episode—possibly of season one, either this or the bathtub—comes into play. Walter arrives at Tuco’s building and gets out of his car. He gets upstairs through pure intimidation—and when he comes face to face with Tuco, he does not flinch. He identifies himself as “Heisenberg”—a nomenclature likely derived from German physicist Werner Heisenberg, at one point a teacher, and at another, dead from cancer—and demands the same $35,000 Jesse asked for, as well as 15 extra “for my partner’s pain and suffering.”
Tuco laughs—who is this crazy man to come into his domain and demand such a hefty fee? “Let me get this straight.” Tuco starts. “I steal your dope, beat the piss out of your mule boy, and then you walk in here, and you bring me more meth? That’s a brilliant plan, ese.”
The theme of an episode from this season can often be easily discerned if there is a scene in it where Walter is teaching. After the scene where Walter receives chemo, we cut to him teaching about rapid and gradual chemical reactions. “But if a reaction happens quickly, otherwise harmless substances can interact in a way that generates enormous amounts of energy.”
Walter looks Tuco in the eyes. “You got one part of that wrong. This…” he holds up a crystal of the product he brought with him. “…is not meth.” He turns on his heel and hurls it at the floor, and the building promptly…explodes. The windows shatter, the AC units smash to the ground, and Walter is left with a bag full of what we now realize are bombs—fulminated mercury, an example of a rapid reaction mentioned in class. As Tuco and his men draw their weapons on Walter, he threatens to throw the rest of the bag—and Tuco, both intimidated and impressed, concedes. Walter gets to walk away with his money, limps to his car, has a brief rush of adrenaline in which he shouts victoriously and pounds on his steering wheel, and drives off.
Breaking Bad, as I mentioned in my review of “Pilot”, is about a man who is one thing, until he isn’t. Walter White is Walter White, until he is Heisenberg. “Pilot” also had a scene in which Walter identified chemistry as a study of change, fitting being that Walter is a man whose greatest talent is defined by chemistry. Throughout this season, the chemistry he knows so well is what changes him—the chemistry of Emilio’s body dissolving into sludge, the chemistry being used to fight his disease, and, of course, the chemistry needed to make crystal meth. This change may not be permanent—yet—but in the penultimate of the season, we finally get to see what Walter would look like as someone fully changed. Someone different.
“Who can give me an example of a rapid chemical reaction?” Walter asks his class. “Like, an explosion?” responds a student. “Yes, good. Explosions.”