Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season One

by PopMatters Staff

11 August 2013


...And the Bag's in the River


Image: Grimbold from Heisenberg Chronicles

S1E3 ...And the Bag’s in the River

When first viewing this season back when it originally aired, one could be forgiven for not quite realizing how pivotal a pair of episodes 102 and 103 were. After the raw fury of the pilot, which set everything in motion—Walt’s cancer, his desire to manufacture methamphetamine, and the chain of events which led to the poisoning of Emilio and Krazy-8—the episodes which followed didn’t seem to pack quite the same punch.

Until Walt finally morphed into Heisenberg and the shit hit the fan in the final moments of the strike-shortened season, to some the show seemed a victim of its own inertia. Re-watching the First Season knowing where Gilligan and his writers were going, it becomes possible to look back on these episodes for the masterclass of foreshadowing they truly were.

Following the explosive start of the pilot, Walt and Jesse each had to fight against themselves for any hope of redemption. By the end of this episode both have killed someone, both wish they could simply turn back the clock and erase what has happened, yet neither can do so. Over the next three episodes they’re continually pushed toward and against each other, two damaged people who must wait to be set in motion before their infinite capacity toward damaging others can be fatally exposed.

It’s fitting then that this episode begins with us flashing back and forth between present-day Walt, disgustedly cleaning the chemically melted remains of Emilio, and a two-decade-old version of Walt with his partner-in-science Gretchen. The two sit in a classroom discussing what really makes up a human being, and when both run out of science and still lack the full picture, Walt stares at the chalkboard and muses: “There’s got to be more to a human-being than that.”

Present-day Walter, scrubbing the bloody remains, would have to agree. There has to be more to me than this ... what am I becoming?

The episode has more than its share of side-plots, many of which will continue to resonate in the future of the series. We’re introduced to Marie’s kleptomania through an early scene where we see her talking to Skyler and Walt Jr. while wearing the nursing shoes she’ll later trade in for black pumps she steals from a boutique. Though there’s no elaboration within the episode, clearly there’s more to come. Marie’s nonchalance in these scenes foreshadows the ease at which she’ll later steal that baby tiara and give it to her sister, never understanding quite the effect it might have, or why Skyler takes it so seriously.

The same goes for Walter, in that he’s trying to “provide” for his family, while never quite comprehending that there’s no way that money can provide for his family without also jeopardizing both their safety and moral wellbeing. He’s also continuously pulling away from the very family he says he hopes to protect, lying to Skyler and forcing her hand as she tries to figure out just what to make of the sudden personality changes.

When she calls him later in the episode on his bullshit (“You’re with Bogdan? I called Bogdan, and he gave me quite the earful. Wherever you are, why don’t you just stay there tonight?”) she’s clearly not ready to just take the “midlife crisis” and deal with it. Looking back in hindsight, we know nothing gets Walt to confess anything without the facts being dragged from his lips, and he’s not afraid to spin lie after lie he’ll later be forced to contend with.

But Skyler’s no pushover either. Eventually those lies must come home to roost.

Hank, meanwhile, gets drawn into the story via his wife’s misplaced suspicion that Walt Jr. is on drugs. Despite Hank’s protests that Walt should be the one dealing with his son, Marie tells him he’s the one Walt Jr. trust, which leads to the pivitol scene wherein Hank introduces Walt Jr. to Wendy, proving to be completely inept as a communicator. “How much do you charge for a windy, Wendy?” he asks, sneering, not realizing that these very casual words will come back to haunt him in Season Two. “You ever smoke anything, Wendy? Sausages don’t count.”

By the time Hank’s cocked-up version of a morality scene plays out, Walt Jr. has absolutely no idea what the point was. He’s not on drugs, so he just thinks it’s “cool” that his uncle chose to show him this piece of his day as a DEA agent. In the meantime it becomes easy to understand how Hank would seem a more authoratative figure for Walt Jr. than his own father, while also showcasing why Walt works so hard via his newfound life of crime to earn his son’s respect, even though the things he does assure that such respect can never be earned.

The heart of this episode, however, lies in the quandaries faced by both Walt and Jesse. Jesse, scarred by what he’s done to Emilio in the botched disposal attempt, turns as he will in many future episodes, to drugs—maybe if I can blunt this pain, I can deal with it—even as he understands there’s no way he can escape what he’s done. When Walt attempts to flush the drugs down the toilet, the chase scene which results is revealing, in that Walt remains too weak to even put up much of a fight, physically. But Jesse gets to the heart of the matter in their ensuing confrontation.

“Back off, man!” he yells at Walt. “You’ve got work to do. I did my part!
“That obscenity?” Walt sneers. “That’s your contribution?”
“I didn’t ask for any of this!” Jesse responds. “How can I live here now?”

It all comes down, Walter implies, to Jesse’s inability to follow simple instructions. “You told him my name, you damn junkie!” Walter accused moments earlier as he confronted Jesse in the bathroom. To Walt, the worst thing that can happen is he’s exposed for what has happened over the previous two episodes. For Jesse, Walt can’t seem to comprehend, the moral impact of what they’ve done is already taking hold. It eventually drives Jesse into the arms of Wendy, who, after the whole exchange with Walt Jr. and Hank, will provide him drugs and sex as further means to distance himself from his actions.

Walt, meanwhile, does have work to do. He must confront Krazy-8 and determine once and for all what makes up this human-being named Walter White. That’s the essence of this episode: the battle for Walter’s soul. Once we’ve moved past the death of Krazy-8 at Walter’s hands, he’s finally free to become Heisenberg, that scientist’s very uncertainty principle personified.

It’s darkly humorous that, at first, Walter tries to solve this issue of what to do with Krazy-8 via a list of two columns: let him live vs. kill him. “It’s the moral thing to do,” Walt writes next to other notes including “murder is wrong,” “you are not a murderer” and “he may listen to reason,” though the other column proves telling. “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him live,” Walt writes, and against that calculus it becomes difficult to make any convincing argument to the contrary: Krazy-8 must die.

After making his captive a sandwich and then collapsing down the stairs, shattering the plate as Krazy-8 watches, shocked, Walt recovers enough to have a conversation with the man he’s debating killing. First he gets him to tell him his true name, Domingo, even though his captive tells him that’s not going to make it easier not to kill him. “I’m looking for any reason not to,” Walt says. “Sell me ... tell me what it is.” That leads to a particularly strong monologue by Krazy-8, who responds in a surprisingly calm, cool manner.

“I guess I’d start out by promising you that if you let me go I won’t come after you,” he says calmly. “That you’d be safe. I guess I’d say what happened between us never happened. And what’s best for both parties is to forget all about it. But you know that anybody in my situation would make promises like that. Well in my case they happen to be true. But you’ll never know for sure.”

Eventually Krazy-8 admits to Walter that he’s “ABQ born and raised,” and that his father ran a popular furniture store, Tampico Furniture. The two seem to bond over that as Walt remembers buying his son’s crib there, lured in by the store’s catchy-yet-inane jingle. Small world that it is, Krazy-8 even admits “I might have even helped ring you up, you and that extended warranty on the crib.”

“The paths we take,” Walt muses.

The two then discuss the cancer diagnosis. Jesse doesn’t know, and neither does Walt’s family, he admits. “That’s not a conversation I’m even remotely ready to have.” Understanding Walt’s motivations, Krazy-8 offers to cut Walt a check if he lets him go, beating Elliot to the punch a few episodes early. No dice. But the captive reiterates that he doesn’t think this line of work suits Walter. What he fails to understand is just how well Walt is willing to adjust in order to make himself suit this line of work.

Walt, of course, doesn’t yet know that, when the plate shattered as he collapsed down the staircase, Krazy-8 was able to grab a lone shard of glass while Walt was unconscious. When Walt finally decides in his own mind to free his captive, goes upstairs to get the key and then realizes the truth, he begs for it not to be true. “No, no, no, no, no!” he cries out. “Why are you doing this?” He could be speaking to himself as well as Krazy-8. Why are you doing this, Walter? What do you hope to get from it all? Money can’t provide everything.

“You’re doing the right thing, Walter,” Krazy-8 says as Walt returns to the basement. Walt asks if he’s angry. Live and let live is the response, which Walt muses is “very understanding.”

“Whatever, man, I just want to go home,” Krazy-8 replies, and Walt’s response seals it. Me too, he says. And when Krazy-8 asks him to just unlock him, Walt jeers at him. “When I do, are you going to stick me with that broken plate?”

From there the battle for Walt’s soul comes to an abrupt end as he strangles Krazy-8 against the pole with the lock, leaving us to watch as the light leaves his victim’s eyes for good even as he mechanically attempts to stab Walt in self-defense until the last bit of life soaks from his body.

“I’m sorry,” Walt repeats, in tears, as he completes the deed. But it’s too late.

At the end of the episode we flash back to Walter and Gretchen, as he muses that something must be missing. What about the soul? Gretchen asks, and Walter laughs. “The soul ... there’s nothing but chemistry here!”

As we watch Walter let Krazy-8 slump back to the floor as the scene fades out, it is immediately clear that’s all Walt has left—the chemistry, and a soulless existence.

The kicker is the final scene where Hank and Gomie discover the cook site from the first episode. When Hank unlocks the trap-car compartment and discovers his snitch’s secret stash of ultra-pure meth, we realize who Walter really has killed. That brings up questions which never will be answered—was Krazy-8 telling the truth, that he would have let Walter go? Was the shard of glass purely for self-defense, or was this also Krazy-8’s way out, a way to either win big or die trying?

It doesn’t matter. Walter clearly couldn’t seize onto any hope of redemption. His die was already cast, he’d made his choice. And the direction of Breaking Bad was set in motion, the moral destruction of Walter White already begun. As Walt looks at Skyler and says he has something to tell her, leading to the cancer reveal of the fourth episode, there’s no hint in his eyes that he’ll ever let her in on the true secret.

He’s set in motion the very destruction of the family unit he swears he only wants to protect. That’s the brilliance of this show, and it was already laid bare just three episodes in. Jonathan Sanders

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