Lost in the Movies: Breaking Bad - "...And the Bag's in the River" (season 1, episode 3)

Breaking Bad - "...And the Bag's in the River" (season 1, episode 3)

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 10, 2008/written by Vince Gilligan; directed by Adam Bernstein): What was delayed for an entire episode can no longer be put off. Walter must kill Krazy 8...or free him. That he's even willing to consider the latter option speaks to how haphazard and hesitating his commitment to the criminal life remains; that he ultimately does murder Krazy 8 (yanking the bike lock against his throat as the desperate dealer swings a broken, jagged plate fragment behind him at his assassin) proves that Walter can find the ruthlessness his new occupation demands. Then again, he has an out, and it's not just abstract self-defense (which is real enough, demonstrated when the studious would-be killer writes a pro/con "kill Krazy 8" list, with numerous lofty principles in the "don't" category and one stark rationale in the "do" category: "He'll kill your entire family if you let him go"). No, it's also literal self-defense, given the plate fragment. Walter retrieves the plate from the trashcan, broken when he passed out after a coughing fit in the basement and reassembles it to see that a piece is missing (obviously Krazy 8 armed himself with it while Walter was out cold). The killer and the victim have been building a rapport, even discovering that the young man probably rang Walter up as a boy in his father's furniture store sixteen years ago. But now Walter knows it's all been cold-blooded calculation, so he finishes the job (a few pathetic incantations of "I'm sorry!" the only remaining evidence of his weak-willed desire for mercy). The Walter/Krazy 8 relationship/moral dilemma dominates the story, although there are a few other subplot strands: Skyler's sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) misunderstands a clumsy conversation about pot and concludes that her nephew (not her brother-in-law) is the subject; consequently Hank tries a "scared straight" tactic on Walter, Jr. by nastily ridiculing a methhead in his presence; and Skyler discovers Walter quit his job and tells him to stay wherever he is calling from that fateful night (little does she know the consequences). Finally, at episode's end, the immediate consequences of his entry into the drug business resolved, Walter turns to another important matter. He's about to tell his wife he's dying.

My Response:
There's one other - very brief - strand which is perhaps my favorite bit. At the beginning, and near the end, of "...And the Bag's in the River," we see a much younger Walter discussing the chemical composition of human beings with a young woman. This is doubly ironic. First, the flashback is coupled with Walter picking up the pieces of Emilio's mostly dissolved remains - coupling an enthusiastic, entirely abstract discussion of human composition with a gruesome immersion in its actual components. Later, we return to the flashback after Walter has killed Krazy 8 and a new significance sinks in: all of the various elements add up near-perfectly but for a tiny .111958% - a missing piece that ultimately foreshadows and then echoes the missing fragment of the plate which almost ends, but instead saves, Walter's life. We're reminded that Walter's scientific brilliance compensates for his meek vulnerability...almost ready to sentimentally sign his own death warrant, his penchant for rationalistic analysis rescues him. There's also another interesting aspect at play here. Walter's student suggests this missing piece might be "the soul," but in Krazy 8's case, the hole in the plate seems to suggest the opposite: all of that humanizing backstory is exposed as a lie by the material evidence of his sinister plotting. Is this fair? The implication is that Walter is foolish to humanize the sharks he swims with, but Krazy 8 isn't really any less human for planning to protect himself. This opens up a question which I presume will be dealt with extensively as the viewing diary progresses. Does Breaking Bad play fair? Although you're seeing these posts on a weekly basis, it's been nearly a year since I wrote the previous episode review and since then I've encountered some interesting critiques, including this thread (fair warning, it contains big spoilers - I personally learned a few things I wish I hadn't, so don't click if you're watching this series for the first time). Does Walter White end up like Tony Soprano, a character we may be infatuated with but with whom the series pulls no punches, giving us every reason to judge him with clear eyes? Or will Vince Gilligan "cheat" - making White a complex antihero who gets various outs which make it easier to sympathize with him? Something else I like about those flashback sequences is the different sense they provide, not just for Walter (Cranston and the costumers/make-up artists do a marvelous job making him seem relatively suave and sprightly, a figure far from the weary schlub we've spent time with so far), but for the world of the show. The conversation unfolds against big picture windows looking out over a majestic desert and mountain range (the heights of the vista contrasting with the depths of the basement in which Walter kills Krazy 8): the world seems an exciting, romantic place, full of possibility. Perhaps, in a desperate, mostly unconscious fashion, this sense of rich adventure and magic is what Walter is lurching toward in his sordid new life, wading through a swamp to reach a palace.

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