Breaking Bad starts in the way that any truly great show should start: with a pair of pants falling from the sky ...
Breaking Bad, at its core molecular level, is a show comprised of doubles.
The alliterative Bs in the title (and the Ws in Walter White’s name), the father-son coupling of Walter and Walter Jr., the twin Salamancas who hunt Heisenberg, the mysterious second cell phone, the neat division of the White family into two females and two males—all of these base pairs join together to build the show’s narrative DNA. In doing so, they thread together the inverted lifestyles of Walter White and his former high school Chemistry student, Jesse Pinkman. It is this dyadic relationship—the one between teacher and student—which forms the double helix that structures Breaking Bad, distinguishing it from the variety of drug narratives and American westerns that precede it.
The show begins bathed in the cruel blue light that is all too familiar to American high school teachers. Walt, lying awake, emerges from bed at the ungodly time of 5:02 am, the first and last numerals on the clock themselves inverted images of each other. As he rises to complete some early morning exercise in his soon-to-be-born baby’s nursery, he stares blankly at the wall, glumly glaring at his crystallography research award from 1985. “Contributor to Research/Awarded the Nobel Prize,” the bottom two lines of the plaque read. This moment brings the show’s central irony into stark relief: Walt, an award winning chemist, must spend his days associating with people who, to quote one of his students, think that chemistry is the study of chemicals.
This irony becomes even more pronounced when Walter teams up with Jesse to cook their first batch of methamphetamine—the plot event that sets the entire show in motion. Bickering in Jesse’s driveway, the two debate the use of the glassware for their work. Walter, entirely befuddled by Jesse’s inability to understand that boiling flasks are for boiling, asks him, “Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?” Jesse’s response: “No, you flunked me. Remember?” He then issues Mr. White a kind compliment: “Prick!” Once the two begin cooking, Jesse demonstrates all of the typical lackadaisical behaviors of the contemporary student: he spins in circles in his swivel chair, he hovers in front of boiling toxic chemicals without a gas mask, and, of course, he cannot complete any of his tasks without listening to loud music on his headphones.
Still, when the duo complete their first batch of meth, Jesse cannot help but be amazed at the high quality of Walter’s product. “This is art, Mr. White!” Jesse exclaims. In response, Walter, entirely deadpan, reduces his work to its most essential characteristics: “Well, actually, it’s just basic chemistry.” In this one simple statement, Walter reveals the rank absurdity in the criticism that teachers fail their students because they do not make their subjects relevant to the “real world.” For Jesse, the ABQ’s infamous Captain Cook, chemistry has never not been relevant to his real world. Yet, even now that the importance of chemistry has been literally crystallized for him, he can only express his admiration for his teacher in vague generalities. “You’re the goddamn Iron Chef,” Jesse tells Walter. Though these compliments are sincere, Walter is unmoved by Jesse’s kindness. Apparently, Mr. White only makes sense to his student in the context of bad reality television. Here we are now. Entertain us.
The tension between lazy student and beleaguered teacher is Breaking Bad‘s signature—its hint of chili powder, if you will. Though the show quite obviously places Walt and Jesse in the roles of hero and sidekick, the volatility of their relationship saves the show from completely rehashing those character types. While the two have their moments of intimate friendship, their relationship remains a tense one defined mostly by the endless frustration that they cause each other. Walter is repeatedly infuriated that Jesse does not follow his instructions; Jesse is repeatedly infuriated that Walter gives him instructions:
This particular conflict, on the face of it, is a minor one in the pilot episode. Since Walter’s cancer diagnosis is what propels him into the meth business, that plot event, which reverberates outward, creating domestic, personal, and professional problems for Walter and those close to him, quite naturally assumes an importance that overshadows the majority of Breaking Bad,‘s storylines. Nevertheless, as the series unfolds, it becomes undeniably clear that the show is as much about education as it is about drug dealing (or about cancer). All of Jesse’s most memorable moments—his assumption that Walter is going to build a robot, his confusion about whether or not opossums are Irish, his apprehension about going to Mexico to teach the cartel how to cook Walter’s recipe (the instructions on the equipment might be “in Mexican,” he fears)—gain their strength from his intellectual weaknesses, his stupidity, his scholastic failures. However, when Jesse does eventually meet with the drug cartel, the audience cannot help but marvel at, and feel proud about, how much he has actually learned, and how much authority Walter has helped his student assume. Those gleeful moments entirely depend on the contrast between the (sort of) mature Jesse and the Jesse introduced in this episode, a young man who thinks that cows live in cow houses.
As Breaking Bad‘s Fifth Season comes to a close, Hank discovers the volume of Leaves of Grass that Gale Boetticher gave to Walter while the two briefly cooked together. As Hank stares at the book, he realizes that the “W.W.” Gale references throughout his confiscated lab materials is simultaneously Walt Whitman and Walter White. Another pair has been discovered and, as it turns out, has fused together—become one—changing their respective molecular compositions in the process. “[Chemistry] is the study of change,” Mr. White teaches his students in the pilot episode. “Elements, they combine and change into compounds,” he informs his indifferent class, one student working excessively hard to balance what appears to be a pencil on his upper lip, another flirting loudly with his girlfriend. Walt White, like Walt Whitman’s learn’d astronomer, is alone at the front of his room, singing his solitary song of chemical transformation—of growth and decay. His students hardly know who he is or what he means. His lessons, though relevant, glide over all of them—except for Jesse. Eventually, as the show bears out, every atom that belongs to Walter belongs to Jesse, and each of them permanently change as a result. Perhaps, then, Jesse was wrong. Perhaps Mr. White was Welcome Back, Kotter after all. Joseph Fisher