Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Defining Moments Of Breaking Bad

We the fans of Breaking Bad have been waiting for about a year for a new season. Normally debuting around March, it's taken a bit of a longer break (perhaps to let some other shows get an Emmy, since the later start date puts it out of the running for the next round of awards). On Sunday, AMC will debut the fourth season of its hit show. Though we'll have to wait until it finishes its run, rumor has it that they might be wrapping it up at the end of this one in the reasonable strategy of closing out a show before it gets stale. Whether or not that's the case, this has been an incredibly well-done series and deserves a look back at some of its best scenes.

Walt Roughs Up Some Douchebag Kid

We learn quite a bit about Walt just in the first episode. He contributed to research that resulted in the awarding of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but is now working in a clearly unsatisfying job as a high school teacher. There's additional stress in that he's about to be father to a second child at the age of 50, while his teenage son is suffering from cerebral palsy. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that the kids he teaches are a bunch of uninspired snarky little bastards, who openly mock him both in class and at Walt's second job at a car wash with impunity.

After Walt is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he resolves to keep it a secret from his family but aside from the promoted premise of starting a meth operation we're not sure how he'll react. In this scene, Walt and his wife Skyler are shopping for new clothes for their son, Walter Jr., while a couple of asshole jocks make fun of Walt Jr.'s disability. When Walt prevents Skyler from confronting the kids and simply walks away, it seems to fit his milquetoast personality to a T. Except for the way it ends:

This is the first time we see Walt really breaking out of his shell, and he couldn't have laid down the hammer on a more deserving group.

Jesse Botches a Body Dump

The stakes go through the roof almost immediately as Walt and Jesse are confronted early in their meth operation by a couple of toughs, one of whom Jesse ratted out to the DEA and another who later turns out to be a confidential informant. In his first instance of using science as a weapon, Walt manages to surprise them with a burst of poisonous phosphine gas and trap them in the drug lab RV. This kills one of the men and leaves the other severely injured, and Walt and Jesse resolve that they need to get rid of the body and kill the survivor. They flip a coin to choose who gets what unpleasant task, and Walt instructs Jesse to put the body in a plastic container and dissolve it with hydrofluoric acid. Jesse gets frustrated after he's unable to find a sufficiently large container and simply does the deed in his bathtub. After awhile, it becomes clear why he should have paid more attention in chemistry class.

The scene is both horrifying and hilarious, and just one of many screw-ups Jesse and Walt have to overcome as they start to get things moving. It's one of the most memorable shots of the entire series, and one of the best ways the writers have been able to weave science into the story.

Walter's Kills

One of the ever-developing threads of the show is Walt's alarming ability to go from an upstanding if unremarkable citizen to an out-and-out murderer with a frighteningly high body count. This takes a number of different routes. Early on, Walt kills one drug dealer with phosphine gas in self-defense. He strangles a drug dealer who tried to strong-arm Walt and Jesse but it's his first face-to-face kill; he's reluctant, since he gets to know the man, and it's only when he feels that the dealer will kill him with a plate shard he's managed to pilfer that he does the deed. He has a similar rationale for his plot to kill Tuco, something that ultimately doesn't happen by his own hand.

After that it starts to slip into darker territory. He pushes down his basic human reaction to help when Jane is choking on her own vomit, a decision that is devastating to him but one he makes because he thinks it is in the best interests of himself and Jesse. The unintended result is that it indirectly leads to the deaths of 167 people in a mid-air collision between two airplanes.

By the end of the third season, Walt is still a bit conflicted about his life and this is reflected, oddly enough, with a couple of homicides. He kills two thugs not so much because of their status as competitors in the meth field but because he knows they're likely to kill Jesse, who has essentially become another son by this point. The murders (one done in cold blood with an execution-style gunshot) are also an explicit violation of a truce set up by the overseer of his meth network, the affable legitimate businessman Gus. Finally, Walt orders Jesse to kill a meth lab associate to save his own skin. It's possibly the most charged decision yet: Walt has known and befriended the man, he doesn't personally commit the crime, yet in a weird way it all boils down to self-defense. This last one is going to weigh much more heavily on Jesse than Walt, but it's pretty much the defining murder in Walt's whole career as well.

" Not Meth"

Jessie is selling Walt's meth at a pretty good rate, but it's not netting the profits that Walt hopes to have in place to support his family after he dies. He decides that the best way to remedy this is to start dealing with a supplier, since they can offload a large quantity of product for a significant payoff. The only problem: the local warlord, Tuco, is more than a little psychotic. When Jesse makes an overture to him, he has the sample of meth stolen and is beaten up for his troubles. Walt decides to address the issue himself.

This awesome scene is beautifully framed. The episode itself includes a scene at the beginning where a now bald Walt walks away from a building in a run-down neighborhood as smoke wafts about and car alarms go off. A little later than that, Walt gives a somewhat inconsequential lesson about mercury fulminate; he doesn't even demonstrate it, just notes that it's a volatile compound. Yet when he makes the above statement while holding a whitish crystal in Tuco's lair, we know something amazing is about to happen.

This is the first time Walt enters the lion's den, and he proves that he can hold his own against Albuquerque's criminal bosses. The fact that this is the first time he uses the nickname "Heisenberg," a disguise that got a chuckle out of anyone who knows about the uncertainty of the position of electrons, is just the icing on the cake.

Walt, Jesse, and Hank Kill Tuco

This scene culminates a tense episode in which Jessie and Walt resolve to kill Tuco due to his psychotic nature and instability. Their plan - poisoning his food - goes awry when they find that Tuco cares for his aging, mute uncle. Although his tio can only talk by a bell on his wheelchair, he eventually manages to signal Tuco to their intent. Their first reaction is pure terror that they may be killed, but Walt steps up to give a cold, piercing explanation of just why they're trying to off him...which provides a nice distraction for Jessie to get an attack in. Jesse and Walt have been cooperating, but this is an early example of the two of them collaborating to save their own skins.

No video that I could find. Sorry.

This is capped off by the first real badass scene featuring Hank as well. Until this point, he's been a quite likable guy but also a bit of a swaggering ass at times. In one scene, they set up a long story arc dealing with the dangers he faces on the job, his half-step-behind tailing of Walt's drug operation, and his post-traumatic stress in taking a life.

"Fuck. You."

As the season moves on, Walt has started to settle into his life as a drug lord and all that entails. Early on, however, he is clearly entering this life with reservations; it's the best way he can think of to make a lot of money and go out in a blaze of high earnings glory. So in the early seasons, he has a fair deal of resentment against his former scientific partners, whom he accuses of pilfering his research and cutting him out when they form a multi-million dollar company.

Behind all this is Walt's abhorrence to anything resembling charity. If he's going to get the money for his treatments and to support his family, he's going to do it his own way, even if that means putting himself and others at risk. When some of his former comrades genially offer to support him in his time of need, Walt simply cannot get over his resentment. When one of these people expresses pity over Walt's bitterness, it only enrages him more:

Again, Bryan Cranston was best known before this part as the doofus dad on Malcolm in the Middle. Apparently this line was censored when it was first aired by AMC, but in full it's downright chilling.

"You Have a Good Rest of Your Life, Kid"

After Tuco's death, Walt decides that the best way to remain profitable is to go into business for himself and become a drug kingpin. There's something of an underlying theme of the effect of drugs on children in the second season, from a child shooting Jesse's friend and fellow dealer Combo as part of a territory skirmish to Walt missing the birth of his daughter to drop off a shipment of meth to the death of children aboard Wayfarer Flight 515. In the episode "Peekaboo," Walt orders Jessie to be an enforcer against a drugged out couple who ripped off one of their dealers. He arrives at their house a little early and finds a young boy, unattended amid the squalor. The whole thing ultimately ends up angering Jesse more than the drug theft, and Aaron Paul does a terrific job as the episode goes from his awkward interaction with the kid to his concern with getting him to safety after one parent murders another, and the whole thing is a rather stark portrayal of the degradation caused by meth.

Badger Gets Arrested

Well, this just proves once again that Breaking Bad can be pretty damn hilarious when it wants to be:

Badger is a minor character who often comes off as something of a dumbass. This just shows that for all of that, Badger knows how to keep clear of the heat; he just doesn't listen to himself all the time. It's a well-written, richly layered scene and it helps add to the show by introducing us to Saul Goodman, corrupt lawyer extraordinaire.

"Hola, DEA"

After killing Tuco, Hank gets assigned to some more hardball duty, much to the annoyance of the agents in that unit who think he's just being rewarded for a bit of cowboy behavior. Hank, meanwhile, isn't too thrilled to be in what may be a more dangerous situation since he's already suffering from some PTSD as a result of the gunfight. It's just his bad luck that on his first stakeout, he picks up his binoculars and spots an informant's head slowly trundling along the ground. And then this happens:

Perhaps the thing that threw the fans the most was the fact that Danny Trejo seemed like a name guaranteed for a lasting role. If they'd wanted someone who could speak a few episodes and then model for a special effects head, they could have picked any number of actors looking for a minor role. That only adds to the double shock that occurs when the informant is not only killed, but has his noggin rigged like an IED.

"Stay Out of My Territory"

By this point in the series, Walt has essentially become a meth boss first and a teacher second. That's not to say that he's entirely divorced from his old life, though. In a couple of scenes, we see that even though Walt hasn't had as much success in life as a few of his colleagues, he still expects his students to dedicate themselves and make an effort to succeed in his class. So, in this clip, we get a bit of Walt's first quality. He sees that a shopping cart is ineptly filled with everything on every supply store's Meth Watchlist, and then sees a guy who by facial expression alone is more knuckleheaded than Jesse ever was at his worst. Walt chews him out not just for the obvious red flag, but for not doing things as efficiently as possible.

About a minute later, we get the other side of Walt:

It's an aging teacher suffering from lung cancer versus a fairly bulked up guy and his companion. As has happened more than a few times, the guy who sizes him up could easily take him on. But the sheer force of the statement alone is enough to make one second guess such a scenario. Bit by bit, Walt is becoming Heisenberg. And scene by scene, Bryan Cranston locks up the Emmy for Best Actor.

Wayfarer Flight 515

The second season opened with a mysterious shot of a scorched teddy bear, missing an eye and submerged in Walt's pool. A few episodes later, the pool was removed by a guy in a HazMat suit and placed in a bag labeled "Evidence" alongside several other items, including what appear to be Walt's glasses. A few episodes later, some HazMat guys are photographing Walt's car, which has a splintered windshield, while a couple of sheet-covered bodies lie on the ground nearby.

This led to a lot of speculation as to what exactly was going to happen before the season closed. Was a meth lab finally going to explode? Did the teddy bear signify that something awful was going to happen to Walt's daughter? Maybe the new water heater Walt insisted on installing was going to go Mythbusters on them? Who was going to be killed? And then in the final episode of the season, the evidence was loaded into an NTSB van, and a pan-out revealed two plumes of smoke in the distance. At which point, I thought (along with most of the audience I'm sure), "Oh, a plane crash!"

The ending didn't satisfy everyone, given that it was a rather convoluted outcome of Jessie and Walt's actions, but it was the culmination of a hugely successful misdirection. While the audience was contemplating what may have happened to affect the White household, no one realized that the episode titles for the first three episodes involving these strange opening shots sequentially spelled "Seven-Forty-Seven Down Over," with the finale episode entitled "ABQ," the three-letter abbreviation for the Albuquerque airport.

The story leading up to this incident is basically that in allowing the death of Jesse's girlfriend, a rebound heroin addict and a bit of extortionist, he indirectly puts a huge amount of pain and distress on the girl's father: an air traffic controller. In going back to work too early, he dwells on his loss and allows two planes to fly into each other. The horrifying disaster has largely been shoved into the background, with Walt apparently happy to comfort himself with the knowledge that aging equipment may have contributed to the mishap and the fact that there have been worse plane crashes in history. Still, coupled with the decision of his wife to leave the house over Walt's dishonesty in the same episode, the crash of Wayfarer Flight 515 was a clear example of just how badly Walt had lost control of his original plan to provide for his family.

Party Pizza Toss

After a writer's strike-shortened first season and a second season packed so full of awesome scenes, the third season was a bit of a slowdown. It was more of a character study as it introduced a few new people and delved more into the minor players, expanding on the various meth networks and the dangers therein. Underlying a good portion of the season was the relationship between Walt and Skyler as it was first dashed on the rocks and then slowly stitched back together once Skyler decided that getting involved in money laundering might not be such a bad thing.

In one of the early episodes, Walt is living in a motel and tries to make a bit of a peace offering by bringing home a bag of cheesy bread and an enormous pizza. When this is rebuffed, Walt does this:

It's one of those scenes that's so completely unexpected that it never fails to get a laugh, and it's made all that much greater by the fact that Bryan Cranston managed to accomplish what must have been a fairly complicated maneuver in a single take. The pizza also made a few more cameo appearances, most notably when Skyler calls to complain about it and threaten a restraining order, leading Walt to grab at his crotch and shout at the answering machine, "Restrain these!" in another dark yet hilarious scene that is itself a subtle throwback to Walter telling off his car wash boss in the pilot episode.

Jesse Rips Into Walt

The lowest point in Jesse's life probably comes midway through the second season. His parents kick him out of his aunt's home, where he's been living, after discovering that he runs a meth lab there. Jesse winds up breaking into an impound lot to steal the RV he and Walt have been using for their cooking expeditions, falling into a port-a-potty along the way, and Walt is none too pleased when Jesse, at the end of his rope, comes pleading for help. Jesse gets back on his feet before too long, finding a place to live and striking up a romantic relationship with his landlord, a recovering heroin addict. But more misfortune arrives with the death of his girlfriend due to a drug overdose. Later, after setting up a phone call to Hank falsely telling him his wife's been seriously injured in a car accident to create a distraction and allow the RV to be disposed of, an enraged Hank delivers a pretty severe beatdown.

The episode that starts with this latter incident involves one of the strongest performances by Aaron Paul. He spends most of it recuperating in the hospital, getting a couple of rather effective monologues along the way. In the first, he vows to utterly destroy Hank's life.

The second, which I consider superior but which is unfortunately not available, comes after Walt asks him to rejoin the meth trade in a more professional setting. Jesse launches into a moving tirade about how his life has been completely ruined by Walt, and he wants nothing to do with him. And he doesn't even know about Walt's role in Jane's death at this point.

Jesse's options are kind of limited, however; one need only think back to the pilot and his inglorious escape from a DEA raid, or his even more inglorious entrance to the impound lot, to realize that he doesn't have much to fall back on. Despite the powerful rebuke, he nonetheless accepts the offer later in the day. The characters have been sketched out quite well by this point, and Aaron Paul's Emmy for the third season was well-earned.

Hank vs. The Cousins

Hank is one of the most likable characters on the show. He's brash and can be a little stubborn at times, but it's clear that he's very dedicated to his job and deeply loves his wife and the extended family on her side. Of course, this is television and people get killed off. The third season introduced Tuco's imposing and ruthless cousins, who have it in for Walt for his role in their uncle's death. Gus, the mild-mannered chicken restaurant chain owner and Albuquerque area drug kingpin, puts a halt on this intention but coldly offers a consolation prize until he no longer needs Walt: the name of the fellow who actually gunned Tuco down.

In the very next episode, Hank is on temporary suspension for assaulting Jesse and as a result he has no service weapon. For a good part of the episode, there's an underlying tension as we know Hank is unarmed and could be ambushed by the Cousins at any point. This is ramped up to overdrive in the final scene, which culminates in one of the most intense sequences the show has offered yet:

Hank's been in a few scrapes before, but none have compared to this one. The fact that he once again gets out alive (barely) using some quick thinking just adds that much more to how awesome his character is.

Jesse Kills Gale...Maybe

The third season finale brings together a few story threads, with the fate of Walt being the most important one among them. Walt, who at first had been content to retire from the drug trade after a banner sale to Gus, is instead enticed back into the more high-end, underground operation Gus runs. It's another sign, perhaps the one signaling the final change, of his inability to disassociate himself from what he thought would be a temporary gig cut off by his own death of natural causes. Walt is still highly intelligent, however, and has figured out that Gus plans to get rid of him once he's done training a protege, a rather kindly scientist-turned-crook who enjoys music and using his chemistry skills to brew the best cup of coffee. He's like another kind of Walt, really, but once Walt realizes what's up he has no choice but to treat Gale as a threat.

So this scene serves as yet another turning point for both Walt and Jesse. Walt has shown that he's willing to protect Jesse by committing the worst of crimes, and now he fully expects him to protect his own life when there is a need to do so. And Jesse realizes that he has to answer the call. It's an impossible situation presented to Jesse: kill a terrified near-stranger to protect a shady associate who has saved his own life. Underneath it all is the question of what sort of fallout this is going to bring. Walt knows Gus needs him to produce his drugs, but Gus won't be too pleased that his partner murdered his other meth cook.

Of course, there's that final check of the pistol before the gunshot, so the major speculation now is whether Jesse even killed Gale. In some interview, it was confirmed that Jesse did indeed kill Gale. But then again, these are the guys who made us think a plane crash might have been a ruptured water heater. We'll just have to wait until the premiere to see how it all went down.

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