Characters, Compounds, & the Study of Change in 'Breaking Bad

Season 3'

by Quentin B. Huff

8 June 2011


The Law of Inertia Is at Work Here, Too

Characters, like elements, form and lose bonds with other characters, and can be stable or volatile depending on the circumstances. Walter White’s bond with his son has a calming effect on him. His bond with Jesse Pinkman, on the other hand, is only predictable insofar as it is usually explosive.  Breaking Bad‘s characters also find themselves connected to others in bizarre and unexpected ways, as in Season Three’s revelation that the same man who employs Walter and Jesse to cook methamphetamine also employs two men who ordered a boy to shoot Jesse’s friend “Combo”. The law of inertia is also at work here: characters at rest would remain inactive or uninvolved, but once the characters are in motion, usually by virtue of their own decisions, it takes a more powerful force to stop or alter them.

The question is never whether Walter should or shouldn’t do something, or even whether he’s capable of it or not. The question is how he’s changed by whichever decision he makes, and how others react in the aftermath.

A reoccurring thread in the series is the fact that people are not always what they seem. DEA agent Hank Schrader is, on the surface, indelicate and abrasive, more concerned with crude jokes and stereotypes (he likes the term “beaners” for Hispanics) than justice. In truth, Hank is a gifted agent, with a sharp eye for detail. His nose for following the right hunches nearly leads him to catch Walter and Jesse until Walter devises a desperate ploy.  By fooling Hank into believing his wife Marie was severely injured in an accident, Walter and Jesse are able to escape before he can learn the whole truth. In this instance, beneath his tough-guy exterior, we find that Hank’s emotions run deep, echoing the profound fear he experienced during his Season Two stint in Mexico. Here, though, his concern for his wife is touching, his relief in knowing she is all right is palpable, and his outrage at being duped is understandable.

Physically, Hank could be described as a little on the heavy side, and perhaps not in his athletic prime, but his back-against-the-wall takedown of Tuco Salamanca’s younger, fitter cousins in Episode Seven (“One Minute”) is absolutely impressive.  Throughout the season, we see a lot of grit and determination in this character as he learns to confront the things that terrify him.  Not to mention the fact that, down the line perhaps, an exciting development would be his reaction to the fact that Walter’s drug money has paid for his treatment and physical therapy.

Like Hank, Jesse Pinkman has emotional depth, and his capacity for empathy and humanity is unparalleled in this cast.  By episodes 12 and 13, Aaron Paul’s portrayal has run the gamut from melancholy over his girlfriend’s death and competiveness against Walter to extreme rage upon learning that Gustavo’s men had ordered a young boy to kill his friend. Refusing to keep the peace with Gustavo’s men, Jesse confronts the kingpin, “These assholes of yours, they got an 11-year-old kid doing their killing for them. You’re supposed to be some kind of reasonable businessman.  This how you do business?” With a gruff, sometimes booming voice that seems at odds with his thin stature, Jesse emotes an uncontainable sincerity that shines brighter than what he lacks in ruthlessness and thorough planning.

Thus far, Hank has gained some insight into Jesse’s criminal activities, but not Walter’s. Probably, Walter’s bespectacled, conservative demeanor belies the ruthlessness with which he has survived in the drug business.  Likewise, Gustavo Fring, who also wears glasses, rarely brings attention to himself. As owner of the restaurant chain Los Pollos Hermanos (“The Chicken Brothers”), Giancarlo Esposito’s Gustavo is superbly affable, unassuming, and soft-spoken, with a slight accent that conveys his South American background. No one would guess that this man, who donates time and resources to the community, including law enforcement, would be using his restaurant chain as a front for his drug network or that he’d have designs on undermining the powerful Mexican drug cartel. “I hide in plain sight,” Gustavo tells Walter White. “Same as you.”

Along these lines, Skyler White’s discovery of Walter’s double life initially repulses her, prompting her to seek a divorce attorney and keep him far away from the family. As Walter struggles to resist her demands, Skyler begins to understand his motives, and she too ventures outside of her comfort zone. When Walter moves back into their home, and Skyler is unable—or, rather, unwilling—to remove him by informing the police of his crimes, she opts instead for an affair with “Ted Beneke” (Christopher Cousins), a divorced father of two for whom she works part-time as a bookkeeper. Calmly, she comes home and matter-of-factly lets Walter in on her secret, “I f*cked Ted.” Skyler is changing, reacting to new circumstances, slowly becoming something new and different from what she was at the start.  For his part, Ted has been fraudulently cooking his company’s financial books, which Skyler previously objected to but begins to accept in Season Three. 

Skyler’s descent into Walter’s criminal side, as a keeper of his secret and then as an accomplice, is a chilling yet endearing development.  “This money,” he tells her in Episode Three, “I didn’t steal it. It doesn’t belong to anyone else. I earned it.”  Personally, Skyler strikes me as being a bit impressed by Walter’s resilience and resolve in making his criminal enterprise work so well.  Unfortunately, an enterprise that began as a means of providing his family with financial security threatens to plunge them into a lair of unknown but certain danger. Soon, everyone he cares about will be connected to methamphetamine.  What’s next?  Will Walter, Jr. join the family’s side business with designs on cornering the high school market?

Some of Breaking Bad‘s characters affect storylines and illuminate changes in other characters without changing much themselves.  Such characters, simply by being present, impact specific outcomes.  In scientific parlance, they are catalysts.  Gustavo seeks to observe and ultimately control behavior, sometimes through direct meetings with a specific agenda or by manipulating temperaments that are already on a collision course.  Gustavo hasn’t changed as much as he has prompted and experimented with the changes in others.

Walter, Jr. also functions as a catalyst, but in a much more passive manner, as he knows nothing of his father’s transgressions and sees his mother’s initial distance from his father as unfair. Walter, Jr. is surprisingly vocal and forthright, sometimes to a fault (“Why do you have to be such a b*tch,” he yells at his mother), but he is vital to the family dynamic.  Given an opportunity to confess her husband’s crimes to the police, Skyler can’t do it because their son is in the room, declaring, “She won’t even say what my dad did, and it’s because he didn’t do anything.”  Skyler’s sister Marie operates in much the same way, nursing her husband Hank back to health after he’s attacked and pushing for a positive outcome with his attitude and his physical therapy.

The best example is probably “Saul Goodman” (Bob Odenkirk), the sly attorney who is not above lying, extorting, and money laundering to help his clients, and himself, turn a profit. While he’s a bit of a caricature of the “sleazy lawyer” type, he facilitates deals, connections, and opportunities more quickly than if events were left to play out on their own. He is also a source of comic relief, signified by his name sounding like, “It’s all good, man” when he says it fast, and most of his scenes display a quick wit. Goodman, who reminds me of Gene Hackman’s “Lex Luthor” in the Superman (1978) movie, personifies the show’s ability to find the lighter side of its heaviest material.  No matter how desperate the situation or how bleak a character’s outlook, there are still many laugh out loud moments.  Most of the time, the lightheartedness is poignant and judiciously executed. In Episode 10, “Fly”, Walter’s obsession with a fly contaminating his state-of-the-art laboratory offers physical comedy and hijinks but does feel somewhat pedestrian compared to show’s usual rapid pulse. 

Nonetheless, the “Better Call Saul” commercial extras are a comedic bonus, as are the “Pizza of Destiny: Bryan Cranston’s Greatest Shot” and “Team S.C.I.E.N.C.E.” entries.  “Pizza of Destiny” has fun with a scene in which Walter’s attempt at a pizza dinner with his family is rebuffed by Skyler, provoking him to fling this giant pizza onto the rooftop. “Team S.C.I.E.N.C.E.” turns the show into a hilarious fantasy cartoon, using some of the superheroes Jesse Pinkman dreamed up in his sketchbook in the second season.  With three uncensored episodes, cast and crew commentary on nine episodes, mini video podcasts for every episode, 20 episodes of Inside Breaking Bad, lots of deleted scenes, and a gag reel—Season Three’s four-disc DVD set is hardly short on goodies.

The show isn’t hurting in the cliffhanger department, either.  At the close of Season Three, Walter has made a grand gesture in saving Jesse’s life, but he’s also placed himself in the crosshairs of Gustavo’s wrath. This puts Jesse in a position to return the favor and save Walter, if only he will kill the man Gustavo has handpicked to learn Walter’s special meth-making techniques, making Walter expendable.  The plan is simpler to explain than to execute: if Walter’s replacement is dead, Walter becomes valuable again.

The season ends with Jesse pulling the trigger, but then the screen goes black, and we are left to wonder whether Jesse is able to commit the act. But the question isn’t whether he should or shouldn’t do it, or even whether he’s capable of it or not. The question is how he’s changed by whichever decision he makes, and how others react in the aftermath. The drama comes through in the process.

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//Mixed media