Lost in the Movies: Breaking Bad - "Gray Matter" (season 1, episode 5)

Breaking Bad - "Gray Matter" (season 1, episode 5)

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 24, 2008/written by Patty Lin; directed by Tricia Brock): Having fully gone their separate ways, both Walter and Jesse have a lot to figure out. Jesse goes for an interview, thinking he's being considered for a sales position at a bank only to discover the interviewer actually has an "advertising" job in mind: standing on the sidewalk dressed as a giant dollar bill waving a sign at passerby. Jesse discovers the man currently holding this position is an old friend, Badger (Matt Jones), a goofball on parole who encourages him to start cooking again. Their session in the trailer goes terribly, with Badger good for little other than eating chips, cracking jokes, and nearly breaking Jesse's equipment (when a furious Jesse rides off without him, Badger fires a crossbow at the rear bumper - he can't even hit the tires with his absurd weapon). Jesse has now completely changed. Next to Badger, a more extreme version of his old persona, the young man seems as serious and short-tempered as Walter: he wears an apron, carefully identifies each instrument, and throws the results away when they are displeasing (in this inability to get the desired product, at least, he remains very much Jesse). Walter, meanwhile, is pressured by both family and friends to seek treatment. His old college pal Elliot Schwartz (Adam Godley), who profited immensely from their collaborations as young chemists, offers to pay for chemo and radiation, while Skyler stages an intervention which doesn't go as planned (both Hank and Marie wind up encouraging their in-law to do what he wants - as Hank puts it, "die like a man" - and Skyler is infuriated). A weeping Walter quietly says that "survival" for a year or two isn't worth the suffering and abasement, but the next morning he changes his mind. He still doesn't want his friend's help, though, lying to Elliot's wife Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) about the insurance and finally turning up, contrite and committed, at Jesse's doorstep once again to offer his partnership.

My Response:
Last episode, I was losing sympathy with Walter, while beginning to feel for Jesse. Jesse's interesting arc continues to develop his desire for professionalism and frustration with his own limitations. However, I also found myself more in tune with Walt this time. As I cover these mid-season episodes, I'm watching them for the second time (albeit three and half years after my initial viewing) but there were things about this situation I didn't remember. Walter's stubborn pride I recalled, but I had forgotten its complexity. It isn't merely that he is too full of himself to accept charity from the (admittedly nauseating) chic, subtly show-offy - the worst kind of ostentatious! - Schwartzes. There's obviously a deep, troubled history there. Why, despite repeated claims that he's partly responsible for a hugely profitable company, is Walter a struggling schoolteacher while Elliot casually accepts birthday gifts like a guitar signed by Eric Clapton? Was he cheated out of his end of the business, so that now a guilty Elliot feels he owes Walter? More likely, was there some sort of falling-out because of Gretchen - did Walter have an affair with her, or did she leave him for Elliot? This is heavily implied in his phone conversation with her near the end (in fact it's when she gently asks if she's responsible that he concocts his excuse). We may yet find out Walter is a far too self-regarding martyr, but for now his discomfort with being funded by Elliot and Gretchen resonates...even if we're not quite sure why. Despite this big dilemma, and a very somber final fifteen minutes starting from the moment Water gets "the pillow" at the family discussion, much of the episode is quite comical - easily the most overtly humorous Breaking Bad has been since the madcap premiere. The director is Tricia Brock, who wrote the Twin Peaks episode where that series took a turn for the goofy and perhaps her hand can be felt in many of the comical sequences, especially those featuring Badger and the pillow-passing intervention. (Coincidentally, this episode aired on "Twin Peaks Day," the nineteenth anniversary of Laura Palmer's death and Agent Cooper's arrival.) Additionally, Breaking Bad has a new writer - Patty Lin's teleplay is the first not authored by the series creator Vince Gilligan. In a sense, the episode ends with us right back where we began the series, with Walter and Jesse joining forces to manufacture meth. Until then the focus has been elsewhere. The last episode was called "Cancer Man," but it's probably this one which goes furthest to remind us that Breaking Bad has two hooks, not one: yes, the eye-catching, thrill-seeking drug dealer storyline, with a timid fish out of water preparing to navigate the New Mexico crystal trade...but also a more down-to-earth, sobering narrative of a man who knows he is dying and must decide how to navigate the personal suffering, family turmoil, and end-of-life decisions looming on the horizon. How these two genres will co-exist is, of course, one of the central questions going forward.

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