Lost in the Movies: Breaking Bad - "Crazy Handful of Nothin'" (season 1, episode 6)

Breaking Bad - "Crazy Handful of Nothin'" (season 1, episode 6)

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 March 2, 2008/written by George Mastras; directed by Bronwen Hughes): Walter and Jesse begin making meth again, but Walter sets some clear boundaries. Jesse is to stay out of the kitchen, and Walter is to stay out of the boardroom so to speak (or, more realistically, "off the streets"). Each member of the team is to know his limitations and area of expertise. Jesse has little discipline or skill when it comes to chemistry, but he know the drug business - where and how to move the product. Walter, on the other hand, is a brilliant chemist but (as his macho DEA brother-in-law constantly likes to remind him) it's a given that he couldn't handle the subtle social intricacies and navigation of force and power of the criminal underworld. One man is book smart, the other street smart: so it goes. Except, of course, it doesn't go that way at all. Walter's chemo and radiation treatments are taking their toll (he shaves his head once his hair starts falling out), rendering him incapable of finishing a batch he starts cooking. It's up to Jesse to learn from the master as Walter admits he has cancer and tells the young man he'll be sitting outside the trailer catching his breath if he needs any tips. More notably, Jesse's cautious pushing yields a small return for the risk Walter is taking, and so the timid middle-aged schoolteacher decides to follow his own advice to Jesse: "Grow some balls!" Enter Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), a local distributor whom Jesse attempts to impress - winding up in the hospital for his efforts. Exit Walter White, nebbishy nobody who can cook killer meth but stays the hell away from the cutthroat side of the business. And enter, finally, "Heisenberg," the alias a gaunt, bald Walter adopts when he blows up Tuco's lair with some creative chemistry and forces his own terms on the finally impressed local kingpin.

My Response:
Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the 1978 Superman (or perhaps for his recap of that film when reviewing the sequel) that the audience came to the movie to see Clark Kent don the cape and tights, and so the first hour or so - of sci-fi disaster, small-town melodrama, and Romantic wanderlust - was fraught with anticipation and impatience. For anyone watching Breaking Bad after its 2008-2013 run, or perhaps even just after the first few seasons, there's a similar sensation to the first five episodes. We're probably somewhat aware of the bald, scowling Walter, of the "Heisenberg" t-shirts that were all the rage a few years ago, of the reputation Breaking Bad has as a high-tension, riveting crime drama. As such, we're both intrigued and perplexed by the vision of Walter as a quiet, desperate suburbanite, laughably out of his element in the premiere and still struggling to assert himself a few episodes later. The moment where he walks away from Tuco's building, sun glinting off his shaved head, is slightly uncanny from this perspective: we are witnessing the establishment of an iconography we're vaguely aware of through osmosis, yet haven't quite experienced directly - it's like something remembered from a dream. This is the Walter White that captured America's imagination around the turn of the decade. (Adding to the sensation of inevitability is the episode's flash-forward structure; as Walter tells Jesse he won't get involved in street business, we catch glimpses from the closing minutes, a tease that echoes the intercut-flashback style of episode 3 in a more unconventional, self-aggrandizing fashion.) This is one hell of an superantihero origin story, with subtle as well as bold turns illuminating the rise of the Incredible Heisenberg. My favorite detail, easy to overlook, is Walter's inadvertent betrayal of Hugo Archuleta (Pierre Barrera), the friendly janitor who comforts Walter as he vomits in the school bathroom and is later accused by Hank of filching several items from the equipment closet (Hank, of course, can't begin to imagine that Walter himself stole these meth-cooking accoutrements). Walter's dismay at Hugo's downfall - humiliatingly arrested in front of the whole school and busted for weed, he now faces several months in the county jail and the loss of his job - is genuine and probably accelerates his determination to administer street justice after Jesse is beaten up. But the consequences Hugo faces for the actions of the white, professional, respectable Walter also offer cold confirmation of the stakes Walter is playing with - as well as the advantages he has in this game. Going forward, if he wants to succeed he is going to have to commit. We already knew that the dying man had little to lose, but now we know he's playing to win.

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