Last post, I explained that my wife and I had just started watching Breaking Bad, and we’d recently finished Season One. I gave a quick recap of the season, and now I’d like to talk more in-depth about the major characters.
I recognize that this blog would have been a lot more relevant, oh, FIVE YEARS AGO.
Clearly, everyone gets all excited with the concept of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher’s transformation into a ruthless criminal. I’m looking forward to seeing that play out. I’m interested in knowing how people who watched the show from the beginning felt about Walter in Season One. Since it’s been openly talked about White’s moral decline into the character of Heisenberg, my watching the show is a bit influenced by that and I might be seeing stuff in Season One that I would have missed before.
Walter is on the surface a mild guy. His wife Skyler isn’t afraid to boss him around, and his brother-in-law is always demeaning him in that “just-kidding-you-bro” kind of way. Walter takes all that.
But after the cancer diagnosis, he’s less inclined to take things. He doesn’t stand up to Hank but he’s more direct with Skyler. He uncharacteristically confronts some rude young men while shopping with his family and he sets an obnoxious businessman’s car on fire. There’s a rage under Walter’s mild exterior, and he’s vengeful.
The shopping trip confrontation was interesting. Skyler, Walter, and Walt Jr. are out shopping. In the store are some knuckleheads brazenly making fun of Walt Jr’s speech impediment. Skyler wants to confront them directly but Walter retreats, leaving the store from the rear. Skyler pauses a moment then she decides to give the goons a piece of her mind. But Walter re-enters the store from the front, behind the bullies so he can bring down the largest one with surprise. His assault on the boor’s leg is symbolic of his son’s own difficulty in walking.
Walter is confrontational and direct as the guy makes his way up, but Walter has already won. Even if he took a beating at that moment, he already won. It was an excellent, tactically planned move to leave the store from the rear and circle around unexpectedly. And it was also symbolic of wimpy Walter exiting and aggressive tactician Walter entering the scene. It’s like he left as one person and returned as another. (Heisenberg!)
I can’t do the burning of Ken Wins! car justice. I really hope Ken returns for more abuse in later seasons. I’ll just say that it’s a similar deal where a knucklehead is annoying Walter and Walter hits him where it hurts. You could see the satisfaction, the deep satisfaction on Walter when the car goes up in flames.
I’ve skipped past a pivotal moment for Walter and it needs to be mentioned. The death of Domingo.
After the gassing in the RV, Emilio is dead but his cousin Crazy 8 survived. Jesse secured Crazy 8 to a basement support and Walter was selected to finish him off. This proves difficult at first.
Walter is unwilling to carry out the plan and to buy time to make a decision, he provides Crazy 8 with basic needs. Water, food, a bucket for wastes. Walter makes a list of pros and cons about letting Crazy 8 go, but the downside is pretty serious: the high likelihood of the death of Walter and his family.
Walter has a period of negotiation with Crazy 8, learning that his name is Domingo. Domingo knows some things already about Walter from an earlier interrogation of Jesse; Walter learns some things about Domingo.
Years ago, when I worked for the Department of Defense (I did indeed) if I ever had to travel out of the country I’d take a required defensive travel briefing. Part of the briefing dealt with being held hostage. What to do, what not to do. One thing to do was to try and strike up conversations with the abductors. Let them know that you were a person with hopes, fears, dreams. A family. Psychologically, it’s harder for an abductor to be as cold-blooded to someone when there is some empathy. This empathy might save your life.
When Walter talks to Domingo, he isn’t really acting in the role of the captor, he is acting in the role of the captive, trying to build up empathy. It’s true that Domingo is chained up in Walter’s power, but as Domingo points out to Walter “this line of work does not suit you.” In many ways, Walter is in Domingo’s power. He either has to kill Domingo or secure a safe-conduct, and Walter is unwilling to kill Domingo.
They appear to come to an agreement. Walter feels convinced that things can work out. But in the kitchen fetching the key to Domingo’s restraint, Walter deduces that Domingo has concealed a jagged piece of crockery and is therefore armed. I don’t necessarily blame Domingo for doing this. But Walter can’t risk letting Domingo go. And the fact that Domingo has continued to conceal the shiv after getting Walter to agree to let him go is damning.
Walter returns to the kitchen a different man. He has Domingo stand and turn around. Walter then deliberately tips his hand by telling Domingo that he knows about the jagged plate shard. Using the leverage of Domingo’s standing weight and the leverage of his leg against the support, Walter pulls on the restraint until Domingo dies.
Walter is apologizing when he kills Domingo, it’s clearly upsetting to him. But he had planned it out pretty well. In some ways it’s a mystery of why he alerted Domingo about him knowing about the shiv, but it plays into another feature of Walter. His pride. His pride makes him do questionable things. It was important (in my opinion) for Walter to let Domingo know “I am on to you. I am smarter than you think. I am going to kill you.”
Afterwards, Walter comes home, and tells Skyler about his cancer. And then his pride really kicks in.
On Skyler’s insistence, they go see an expert (and expensive) oncologist. He is not willing to say that Walter can be cured, but he is more optimistic than the doctor at Walter’s HMO. Walter makes no decisions. At a birthday party for his old research partner, Elliot Schwartz, Walter is first offered a job by Elliot, and then the suggestion that Elliot finance his cancer treatments is made. Walter refuses, and is angry. It appears his pride is hurt.
Skyler, distraught, organizes an intervention with the family to influence Walter into going ahead with the expensive chemo. Walter makes his case that he wants to be the one to make the choice, and he wants his choice respected. He will not pursue treatment.
The next morning he changes his mind but lies to Skyler about his willingness to accept charity from Elliot. Instead, he uses his partnership with Jesse to finance the chemo through producing meth for Tuco.
This pride of Walter’s that is getting in the way of his getting treatment, and more or less driving him along this underworld pathway for money is really compelling. Pride is one of the best tragic levers, and I look forward to seeing this play out.
Walter is very smart. My chemistry teacher back in high school was pretty cool, but I am quite convinced he was not the science-genius Walter is. Check out the big brain on Walter!
I don’t know much about the Internet controversy about Skyler White. Other than Anna Gunn once wrote a moving article on being hated for playing a character on television. Not cool, Internet trolls. Not. Cool.
It’s clear that Skyler can be bitchy. I’m not calling her a bitch, ease up. There’s a difference. She’s pretty demanding on Walter. But, she’s also pregnant. She starts the season in a pretty vulnerable, uncomfortable situation. She has an unambitious husband, a disabled son, tight finances, a baby on the way, a blustering macho brother-in-law, and an unpleasant sister. Skyler is kind of an emotional mine-field.
And then her husband starts acting wonky, admits to smoking pot (a lie Walter used to deflect his association with Jesse Pinkman), vanishes, reveals that he has terminal lung cancer, and then is reluctant to consider treatment. I don’t think there is any unjustified or unearned behavior from Skyler in Season One.
I can only imagine the difficulties and obstacles she’s had to dealt with already with caring for Walt Jr. Being Walter’s partner in his battle with cancer would have to be super-stressful as well. Again, on top of being pregnant.
The stack of baby-raising, baby-naming, and cancer books on her night-stand, the stack that silently changed Walter’s mind about seeking treatment was quite a powerful image and spoke volumes (see what I did there…) about Skyler’s participation and focus.
Anyway, I’m feeling a bit protective of Skyler, I can get where she is coming from.
Nearly everyone I know who has seen the show loves Pinkman, yo. His manner of speech creeps into tweets and comments when I mention that I’ll be watching Breaking Bad, and it’s very endearing to me. I’ve been called bitch a lot by my friends during those exchanges.
Jesse has an interesting series of ups and downs in the season. His meth-cooking operation with Emilio gets raided but he escapes. He survives the wrath of Emilio and Crazy 8. He avoids having to kill Domingo but seriously botches the dissolution of Emilio in his bathtub.
He wants to cook meth, but after seeing Walter’s excellent product, can’t stand the idea of creating something lesser. To his friend Badger’s dismay, he’d rather dump the cloudy meth rather than sell it or use it.
He briefly gets some respite at home with his family, but is kicked out when he takes the blame for his little brother’s joint. The little brother’s situation and Jesse’s honorable protection of his brother (and in a way, the protection of his mother and father’s perception) was kind of eye-opening. I wasn’t expecting that.
During Jesse’s time at home, we learn some more things about Jesse. He can draw. Looking over an old failed chemistry test where he had drawn a disparaging cartoon about Walter, he seems struck with the note that Walter had left him regarding the poor performance on the test: “Ridiculous. Apply Yourself!” Jesse seems to have much more potential than he’s been using.
Walter pressures Jesse into a volatile meeting with the seriously violent and disturbed Tuco, which nets Jesse a serious beating.
Between Walter and Jesse, it’s the failed chemistry student that has the more realistic outlook on things. Walter is extremely smart, and he seems to be developing the ambition and drive that he lacked as a chemistry teacher, but he needs Jesse for the operation.
I can see an inkling of why he’s so well-loved by Breaking Bad watchers. (Unless I am totally misreading the situation.)
HANK AND MARIE
Much of my character discussion seem to be “this person surprised me, or this trait of that person surprised me.” I guess I am easily surprised.
These two were very surprising to me. (You’re not surprised, eh?) Before we started watching, I knew that Dean Norris played Hank, the brother-in-law, and his wife was named Marie. (Not “Jesus Marie”)
I went in expecting not to like Hank, and I knew next-to-nothing about Marie. Of the two, Hank is the guy I’d like to hang out with.
Now, hear me out… I don’t know how Hank progresses in the future other than he’s clearly Walter’s nemesis. Well, maybe not the primary one, but he’ll be someone who will always be that someone who Walter can’t eliminate directly and is an ongoing problem.
Hank in many ways is unpleasant. He’s aggressive, macho, blustering, bullying, crass, and uncaring. But sometimes he is caring. And charming in his way. There’s something I like about him, and I can’t really explain. For a big guy, he’s also got this bizarre childlike quality. Like an enormous, muscled toddler. Like Bolo Yeung in Enter the Dragon. Maybe it’s his youthful face. I don’t know. Don’t judge me.
But although Walter really doesn’t like Hank, and I get why he wouldn’t, I also believe (at least from the limitation of seeing Season One) that Hank does care for Walter.
Marie, on the other hand, creeps me out. She started the season at Walter’s birthday party with that “what’s that smell?” expression, and then went on to jump to conclusions when talking to Skyler about pot, getting Hank to try to scare poor Walt Jr. straight, and then engaged in theft.
The first time we see her steal some shoes, it seemed more like she was doing it in reaction to poor customer service from the salesperson. I’m not condoning theft in those cases, I’m just pointing out how I could see that be a lever to someone who’s a bit less-honest-than-me. But when she gives Skyler the zircon-tiara for “Esmerelda” at the baby shower, and it turned out to be stolen… whoa. That was amazing.
And her denial was bordering on psychotic. I’ve got my eye on Marie.
I hadn’t heard nearly anything about Walter and Skyler’s son, so it was unexpected to see his challenges. I thought it was an amazing element for the show, since it also builds in a backstory of the kind of family stresses and obstacles that the White family has gone through. I’m fascinated by that.
I’m also finding it interesting that Walt Jr’s medical condition is not laid out, explained, or named (so far.) Clearly he has physical issues and a speech problem, Jesse told Domingo that Walter White’s son was retarded but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
It was an amazing scene when Hank, erroneously tipped off by Marie that Walt Jr. might be smoking pot, takes Walt Jr. to a drug haven hotel to harass meth-heads in order to scare him straight. Walt Jr., not having any idea what was going on, could only imagine his uncle taking him there to demonstrate his exercise of authority. Not the reaction Hank was looking for.
When word of his father’s cancer is laid out, you can see the frustration, anger, and fear in Walt Jr., magnified by his limited ability to express himself. This sets up my worries for Walt Jr. for the future. His father’s cancer is just one more load of unfairness.
Okay, I did a minor recap of the season, and touched on some of the major characters. Next post, I’ll hit some other random topics. Hope to see you there. Figuratively speaking.
Images are obviously from AMC’s Breaking Bad.
I make no claim to any of the artwork obviously, but I do make some claim to the text of this posting. So there.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2013 Some Rights Reserved