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Growth, Then Decay, Then Transformation
"I am awake." — Walter White Walter White enters the story of Breaking Bad at full speed, tearing down a New Mexico desert highway in his new mobile meth lab, a ventilator mask on his face, no pants on his hairy legs, a trio of unconscious (or worse) men rolling around in the RV. Though we know nothing about him at this point, nor how he came to be in this predicament, when Walt (Bryan Cranston) removes the mask to record a video message to his family, it's clear from his words, his tone, and the pained look on his face that he never imagined his life would one day lead him to this moment.
But, given his new vocation, maybe he should have guessed.
After that gorgeous, surreal, in media res prologue — which opens with the image of Walt's missing pants floating through the sky, so filled with air they look like they have an invisible man inside of them, and closes with Walt standing in the middle of the highway in his shirt and jockey shorts, a gun pointed in the direction of the sirens that are fast approaching — the pilot jumps back to show us the depressing existence that led Walt here. Though his house on 308 Negra Arroyo Lane contains mementos of past scientific triumphs (including work on a Nobel Prize–winning proton study) he has somehow wound up teaching high school chemistry — a task he seems even more bored with than his students, and one that pays him so little that he has to work a second job at a local car wash. His pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) chooses to celebrate his birthday with a plate of veggie bacon, a surprise party he doesn't want, and a distracted hand job that she performs while monitoring an eBay bid. His wardrobe, his ugly green Pontiac Aztek, and everything else about his life are as drab and unremarkable as they can be.
In a lecture about why he loves chemistry, Walt suggests that he views the field as "the study of change," using a Bunsen burner and different chemical sprays to change the flame's color, and promises that his classroom will witness "growth, then decay, then transformation!" It's a loud, flashy demonstration that fails to break through to a single student, but the speech serves as Vince Gilligan's mission statement for Breaking Bad. We are going to watch Walter White be changed — first by the discovery that he has inoperable lung cancer, and then by his terrible decision to cook crystal meth with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as a way to provide for Skyler, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), and the baby after he's gone — in ways far more colorful and varied than the burner's flame.
One of the many smart choices Gilligan makes as both writer and director is to constantly remind us that Walt is a man of science whose whole life has been devoted to chemistry. There are chemicals everywhere he goes, from the samples in his classroom to the cleaning products at the car wash to the ingredients he and an incredulous Jesse will use to cook glass-grade meth. We don't know if overexposure led to the cancer, or if it was just the luck of the genetic draw, but when Walt coughs himself into a collapse while wheeling a chemical barrel around, it unfortunately seems like more than a coincidence. When Walt's at the hospital getting scanned, Gilligan shoots it from an angle suggesting science fiction as much as science — aliens may as well be performing some kind of cruel experiment on Walt to see what will happen to him under extreme stress. And what activity does Walt undertake to calm his nerves and distract himself from the awful turn his life has taken? He sits by his swimming pool, lighting one match after another, admiring the chemical reaction that turns an anonymous wooden stick into a bright red flame, little realizing that he is now the match, ready to ignite.
And ignite he does, following a ridealong with Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), the DEA agent husband of Skyler's sister Marie (Betsy Brandt), and Hank's partner Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) that reunites him with Jesse, who has used Mr. White's science lessons to help establish an identity as a low-level meth manufacturer named Cap'n Cook, and who provides Walt an entrée into the local drug economy. But it's a disaster almost instantly. This isn't the cute, sitcommy story of a suburbanite bumbling his way through a life of crime; this is an hour of television that climaxes with Jesse's ex-partner Emilio (John Koyama) and Emilio's cousin Krazy-8 (Maximino Arciniega) trying to murder Walt and Jesse, and Walt using his gift for improvisational chemistry to turn the tables, possibly fatally, on them. It's not at all what Walter White expected when he got into this, and it may not be what much of the audience expected when they heard about the show and saw that Bryan Cranston — best known as the hapless sitcom dad from Malcolm in the Middle — was starring in it.
Through all of this, Cranston has to convey a lifetime of disappointment and pent-up fury so the audience will empathize with his plight, but also understand why he might be arrogant enough to think he can just slide into a life of crime without hurting anyone or getting hurt in turn. There is an angry, dangerous man lurking beneath all those earth tones, and though the anger emerges here in quasi-admirable ways — standing up to the bullies who are mocking Walter Jr.'s disability, or even cooking the meth to ostensibly look after his family — that level of rage doesn't appear from nowhere. It lives inside you, stoked by inescapable thoughts of every mistake, every slight, every piece of rotten luck that has brought you so low that you would consider this a viable, necessary path to take with what remains of your life. In his video confession in the opening scene, Walt promises his wife and son, "I just want you to know that no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart." But did he? Would even the most devoted family man, possessed with our protagonist's unique scientific genius, really go down this road if there wasn't something darker already there?
In the premiere's closing moments — after Walt has saved his own life and Jesse's, apparently by killing Emilio and Krazy-8 (and after he has literally laundered the bloody money he took from his victims, because he's just that new at this) — he stuns Skyler with an aggressive sexual maneuver of the sort the eBay hand job scene made clear didn't happen anymore.
"Walt?" Skyler asks. "Is that you?"
This will be the central question of Breaking Bad. The man in bed with Skyler is someone unfamiliar to her, and the man in the RV would be a total goddamn stranger. But is this some brand-new monster created by the cancer diagnosis, or is this who Walt really was all along?
"Hey, man: we flipped a coin! WE FLIPPED A COIN!" — Jesse Pinkman
As dazzling as the pilot was as an introduction to the world of Breaking Bad, "Cat's in the Bag ..." is in many ways far more representative of the series. The pilot burned through plot ideas — Walt has cancer! Walt and Jesse will cook meth! Krazy-8 and Emilio are going to kill them! — faster than Walt drove the RV in the opening scene, and suggested that the show would continue at that breathless pace.
But what will come to define the series is what Vince Gilligan refers to as "those in-between moments" that your typical crime story won't tell: the slow and awkward progress of Walt's assimilation into the criminal world, and what happens after bodies have been dropped. In most previous versions of the story, disposing of Emilio and Krazy-8 (the latter of whom turns out to be less dead than he first appeared) would be the subject of a montage, or a quick scene, or even just an offhand comment about what a pain in the ass it was to get rid of their bodies.
"Cat's in the Bag ...," though, slows the show's pace to a crawl. It makes clear that Walt and Jesse are not master criminals, and that even if Walt knows (a lot) about chemistry and Jesse knows (a little) about the local drug trade, neither of them is in any way prepared to address the many complications that have already arisen from their new venture. They are going to make mistakes, and maybe take three steps back for every one forward, and we are going to watch this slow and agonizing process in what will damn near feel like real time.
This time out, we are witness to two big mistakes, each somewhat understandable on its own, but disastrous for the current ugly state of things. The first is that Krazy-8 is very much not dead, and will have to be dealt with. The second is that, when attempting to follow Walt's instructions for dissolving Emilio's body in acid to prevent it being traced back to them, Jesse skips a few steps, which results in the acid eating through the bathtub in his house ... and the floor below it, creating a much bigger and more disgusting mess to clean up than the one they originally had.
Breaking Bad doesn't always traffic in symbolism, but this is a pretty clear and unapologetic instance of it. Skip steps — whether in corpse disposal or cable drama storytelling — and things get worse than if you move slowly and carefully through each one.
It's also dark and nasty stuff, and if the pilot — with its Malcolm in the Middle alum for a leading man and its seemingly ludicrous premise (a second cousin to the more overtly comedic Weeds) — had left any doubt over whether this was meant to be a comedy or not, "Cat's in the Bag ..." should have chased those away forever. It's certainly not humorless, as Aaron Paul gets to mine nervous laughter out of Jesse's understandably disgusted response to the task Mr. White has assigned him, and as he has to endure a judgmental lecture from Skyler White (who has come to believe he's her husband's pot dealer). But on the whole, this is so heavy — and so very much not the kind of devil-may-care adventure either Walt or the audience might have thought they were signing on for — that it deftly establishes a tonal and emotional baseline for what to expect going forward.
Late in the episode, Walt slips away from the bloody business at Jesse's place to accompany Skyler to an ultrasound for their unborn baby, which is identified as a girl. Skyler jokes about how Walt will react to having a sixteen-year-old daughter, and a shadow falls across Walt's face as he realizes he won't be around nearly long enough to witness that. He likely won't even be there to watch her walk for the first time, let alone go to school, start dating, or any of the other steps on the path from baby to woman. It's agonizing for him to consider.
That the episode can present that spare and powerful moment in the same scene where Walt and Skyler will soon be arguing about Walt's alleged marijuana use (a lie he tells her to explain why he's interacting with Jesse Pinkman again), and in the same episode that features a running gag about Jesse's obnoxious outgoing message ("WHAT UP, BEEYOTCH!"), as well as the gruesome image of Emilio's liquefied remains crashing through the ceiling of Jesse's living room — without any of it feeling like stylistic whiplash — is pretty remarkable. And it's made possible by the decision to slow things down so we can appreciate every tiny beat of the story to its fullest.
"This line of work doesn't suit you."
The title of this episode and the prior one form a complete phrase (about ways to permanently dispose of an unwanted animal, no less), just as the two hours tell a complete story about Walt and Jesse dealing with the ugly physical and moral consequences of their encounter in the desert with Emilio and Krazy-8.
Where "Cat's in the Bag ..." (S1E2) focused primarily on the logistics of disposing of Emilio's corpse, here the emphasis is on a much more difficult task. Walt must kill Krazy-8 not in self-defense in the heat of the moment, but while the man sits helplessly in Jesse's basement, chained to a column with a bicycle lock. We're reminded of the matter of Emilio's liquefied, disgusting remains early on; intercut with a flashback of a young Walter White and a lovestruck colleague trying to identify all the elements that make up a human being, Emilio's dissolved body parts act as a subtle punch line to a sick joke that young Walt doesn't even realize he's telling. In the end, young Walt's colleague suggests the missing element is the soul — something the older Walt would have a hard time identifying in himself after he chokes the life out of another human being.
"... And the Bag's in the River" does an impressive job transforming Krazy-8 from the cartoonish heavy Walt was prepared to kill in the pilot into a complicated and intelligent person willing to work every angle to talk himself out of a death sentence. This, of course, is how it has to be in order for his fate to have the power that it does, and for the show to get both comic and dramatic mileage out of Walt's struggle to decide along the way. On the former, Walt's pro/con list about murder (starting with "Murder is Wrong" on the con side) is as priceless — and as telling about how new he is to this world of violence — as him washing the money in the pilot. And on the latter, there's the long scene where Krazy-8 (né Domingo) tells Walt about his family's furniture company, making Walt realize he bought Walter Jr.'s crib there once upon a time. This is a human being, not a snarling gangster caricature. While Krazy-8 ultimately makes Walt's choice for him by hoarding the broken plate shard to use as a weapon, it's nearly as painful for us to watch Walt choke the life out of him — while sobbing, "I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" — as it must be for Walt to do it.
It's not just Krazy-8 who opens up to Walt, but Walt who tells him something no other person in his life knows — specifically, that he has cancer. Walt spends much of the hour coughing up a lung, giving physical manifestation to the ugliness brewing inside him. Once the awful deed is done, he finally — inspired in part by the conversation with Krazy-8, in part because Skyler has begun to get wise to his absences — decides to tell his wife something big. It could be the cancer. It could be the meth and murder. It could be all of the above. But everything trapped inside of Walter White is fighting to get out — and lives are being damaged, or destroyed, in the process.
"Then why don't you just fucking die already? Just give up and die."
— Walter Jr.
Having spent the two previous episodes cleaning up the mess they created upon going into business together, Walt and Jesse spend most of "Cancer Man" dealing with other messes: in this case, the wreckage of their family lives.
Though the two partners appear together only briefly near the end of this episode, their stories parallel one another's throughout, marking the start of Breaking Bad's pivot from being solely Walt's story (where Jesse was originally designed to be someone who dies after introducing Walt into the drug world) to being a two-hander about the teacher and his former student bringing out the best — and worst — in each other.
The hour finds both men returning to the bosom of family, with very mixed results. As Walt attempts to manage the reactions of Skyler and company to the news of his cancer (which is the thing he confessed to her at the end of "... And the Bag's in the River" (S1E3), rather than the meth cooking and/or the murders), a spooked Jesse tries fleeing the drug world 2 to go back to the safety of his childhood home, where his parents understandably have little reason to trust him. Along the way, we get backstory on both sets of relationships — how Walt used crossword puzzles to get Skyler's attention, the many ups and downs between Jesse, his parents, and his much younger brother Jake — while also seeing how mismatched both men are with their loved ones. Walt's family wants him to fight the cancer, no matter what, but he insists on looking at it like the pragmatic scientist he is and points out the huge financial cost of a treatment that's unlikely to work. Jesse wants his parents and Jake to take him back in like it's old times, but he seems to forget that the old times often involved him screwing up and bringing great humiliation to his family.
Excerpted from "Breaking Bad 101"
Copyright © 2017 Alan Sepinwall.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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