Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Breaking Bad - "Cancer Man" (season 1, episode 4)

Monday, March 19, 2018

Breaking Bad - "Cancer Man" (season 1, episode 4)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Breaking Bad. Each day (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on February 17, 2008/written by Vince Gilligan; directed by Jim McKay): Walter finally told his wife about his illness three episodes into the series (and offscreen at that). As "Cancer Man" begins, however, he still hasn't told his son, let alone other family members like his brother-in-law or mother. Skyler takes care of that, breaking into tears as Walter recounts how they first met at a small family gathering, and forcing Walter to tell them all about his diagnosis. The rest of the episode will be dominated by two personal stories: Walter's reluctant agreement to a course of expensive chemo and radiation treatment and Jesse's return to his family home after a paranoid freakout. We meet Jesse's upper middle class parents and his buttoned-up little brother Jake (Ben Petry), a musical and scholarly prodigy who couldn't provide a sharper contrast to his burnout sibling. When the Pinkmans discover a joint in the house, they have no doubt who it belongs to and quickly send their grown son packing again. Of course, Jesse is taking it on the chin for the child of the household, whose precocious innocence belies a fondness for weed. When the little boy thanks Jesse for covering for him and asks for the marijuana back, Jesse crushes it and shrugs, with a smile both knowing and mildly mocking: "It was skunk weed anyway." Walter has his own dramatic moment at the end of the episode, when he runs into an obnoxious blue-toothed yuppie for the second time and explodes the loathsome man's convertible with a well-placed squeegee beneath his hood.

My Response:
Here we have an episode where the stories of Walter and Jesse branch apart. Though the former is more central to the show's narrative, in some ways the latter is more memorable, fleshing out a character who seemed to be just a cartoonish sketch in the premiere. And the nobility of Jesse's humanizing climax, in which he neither snitches on his brother nor encourages his habit, marks an interesting contrast with Walter's more overtly cathartic (but completely irrelevant) last scene. We chuckle and cheer as Walter takes out the loudmouth's prize possession but it's really a neat bit of deflection, not only for his inability to tell his family what he really seems to want (to die), but also for our growing suspicion that, even aside from his questionable criminal activities and recent, albeit hesitant, murder, Walter isn't really a good guy. The only scene in the episode featuring both characters compellingly undercuts the dynamic set up in the premiere. There, Walter was unquestionably our protagonist while Jesse was just a frustrating goof for him to play off. But now, as Walter sneers and shouts at Jesse, dressing him down as a loser he self-righteously wants no part of (until Jesse tosses his $4,000 share for the drug sale into the swimming pool), it's hard not to sympathize with the confused but genuine Jesse. Walter has a sense of how his life is supposed to be lived, even though it makes him miserable, and his hesitance - be it to do murder or to come clean with the family that loves him - seems to have more to do with propriety than genuine conscience. Even his hatred of the BMW driver has less to do with that man's assholish personality than his chutzpah in daring to flaunt it so publicly and get away with it. Perhaps the squeegee represents jealousy rather than justice. As with last week, but with more of an inclination that perhaps the series will humor my ambivalence, I'm curious to see how Walter develops over time as an impressive, at times even relatable, but fundamentally rotten human being. And I'm equally curious to learn how the messy but sincere Jesse will be revealed to us as well.

Tomorrow: "Gray Matter" • Yesterday: "...And the Bag's in the River"


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