S1E4 Cancer Man
One of the central questions about the story trajectory of Breaking Bad derives from its title. When exactly does Walter White “break bad,” or make the swift from drug manufacturer by necessity to malicious kingpin? During Bryan Cranston’s AMA session on Reddit, he was asked this question by a fan, to which he responded:
“My feeling is that Walt broke bad in the very first episode. It was very subtle but he did because that’s when he decided to become someone that he’s not in order to gain financially. He made the Faustian deal at that point and everything else was a slippery slope.”
This answer makes the fight to root for Walt substantially more difficult. Antihero though he is, ostensibly there are times during Breaking Bad‘s five-season run where one might find Walt’s actions justified in one way or another. The biggest appeal he has comes in his repeated insistence through the bulk of the series that all of his choices in manufacturing the famed blue crystal were made for the benefit of his family. Even though the cancer sub-plot has loomed behind the scenes for the latter half of the series, which would indicate that financial need isn’t as immediate as Walt might make it out to be, the desire for a nest-egg is embedded in the notion of the American Dream—one of the most important areas of examination in the show. A father should want his family to be secure, to have the ability to go to college, and to maybe get out of Albuquerque once in awhile. The line that can be crossed is a relentlessly utilitarian pursuit of that goal, which is exactly the case for Walt. In his mind, the ends always justify the means.
This is where Walt deviates, in some part, from the Faust myth. Traditionally, Faustus’ pact is made directly with the devil, and though he does get enraptured by the gifts the devil bestows on him, eventually he remembers he has to pay the piper. Walt, in contrast, hardly thinks he’s making a deal at all. Cooking meth, in his mind, is a reasonable short-term (there’s the catch) solution to his cancer treatment needs. So long as he does it well and doesn’t get dependent on selling the product (there’s another catch), he should be fine. It’s in this simplistic frame of mind, however, that Walt displays a character trait essential to the Faustian narrative: pride. With “Cancer Man” and its follow-up episode “Gray Matter”, it’s his wounded pride that sends him on the path to truly “Breaking Bad.” If Walt naively believing that there’s no allure in cooking meth is a black mark on his record, it’s nothing like his inability to let others reach out to him—even those closest to him.
Following the title credits, the viewer is thrust into one of the excruciatingly awkward family scenes that Breaking Bad does so well. Walt zones off as he burns a pile of meat on his grill—a tastefully gross visual link to the bodies that pile up as the seasons go on—as his cancer diagnosis, at this point known only to Skyler, occupies the entirety of his mind. As Hank, Marie, Walter Jr., Skyler, and Walt all sit around the tension-clouded patio table, Hank prods Walt to tell Walter Jr. about how he met Skyler. Walt affectionately recalls the story, which involved just a wee bit of romantic stalking, but Skyler begins crying right as he finishes. This leads to Walt confessing his cancer to the rest of the table. “It’s bad,” he says, subtly trying to undercut the importance of the diagnosis. This seems bizarre behavior for a man labeled “terminal” not but a couple of episodes ago, but as Hank expresses his love for Walt and his family, it becomes clear why—amongst many other reasons—Walt chose to hide his cancer in the first instance, and why he is so set on not making it a big deal now.
“Whatever happens,” Hank tells Walt, “I’ll always take care of your family.” To an ordinary person, this should come off as an expression of familial love and devotion. Of course, familial relations in Breaking Bad are far from normal, and Walt’s brooding silence in response to Hank’s kindness provides a glance into the inner workings of his pride-addled mind. To him, Hank’s offer isn’t a gesture of kindness but a threat to his ability to support his family.
This gets at the key distinction that drives Walt to continue manufacturing meth later on—assuming, of course, that the motive is still the nest-egg and not his being drunk on power. For Walt, it is not that his family needs to be provided for in the event of his death, but that he specifically is the one that provides for them. What Walt is ultimately protecting is not his family, but his belittled ego. Natural though it is to want to provide for one’s own family, Walt takes it to the extreme, at the same time putting his entire family at risk by getting involved in circles that are far from safe.
For evidence of “the danger” that Walt becomes and its effects on home life, one need look no further than the situation Jesse Pinkman faces upon trying to return to his parent’s home. Jesse’s relationship with his parents, which is even more awkward than the scene with Walt and his family, is one of Sisyphean back-and-forth. Jesse is prompted to join his family after a particularly nasty meth high, which led him to see a group of Mormon door-to-door missionaries as a vicious, weapon-wielding biker duo. His parents know something is up from the moment he walks into the door. Unfortunately for Jesse, they won’t have any it; their lives appear as idyllic as suburbia could be.
Jesse’s younger brother Jake is, in their eyes, the epitome of boy the drug-addled loser should have been: his room is lined with trophies, he speaks clearly (no “Yo!”), and dresses sharply. Mr. Pinkman speaks to his younger son, a flute/piccolo prodigy, as were he his talent scout and not his father. Jake is for all intents and purposes the anti-Jesse—or so it seems. Unbeknownst to his parents, Jake has picked up smoking weed as a hobby; but, upon a cleaning lady’s finding of a hidden joint in the house, the blame naturally steers wide of the to-be Julliard scholar. Being a good brother, Jesse takes the fall, but not before trying to get some quality time with his brother.
It’s in this touching and sad moment that the downward spiral caused by drugs reveals itself at the core of Jesse’s family. After tossing out an offhand remark about Jake being “the favorite,” Jesse is surprised by the response he gets. “I’m the favorite?” Jake asks incredulously while poring over a document on his Mac desktop, “Yeah right, you’re practically all they talk about.” On paper, Jake appears to be the anti-Jesse, but in reality he’s merely the opposite side of his meth-dusted coin. Jesse’s drug problem leads to his parent’s obsession with making Jake perfect, which then leads to Jake falling back into the same cycles that ruined Jesse. The hunt for perfection bears an eerie similarity to settling for the lowest common denominator.
When Jesse finds an old chemistry test in his belongings with Walt’s stern remarks in bright, scarlet red (“RIDICULOUS. APPLY YOURSELF!”), the connection between the home life of the Pinkman’s and the decisions Walt has made—and will continue to make—becomes all too evident. Cranston may believe that Walt’s Faustian slip-of-the-hand happened with Breaking Bad‘s pilot, but then he was just jaded enough to believe he could pick up cooking meth as a one-off hobby. With “Cancer Man,” the burgeoning pride of this sad-sack chemistry teacher signals the moment when he truly starts to break bad. Walt may fancy himself a family man, but when he takes a brother-in-law’s act of reaching out as a threat to his ability as a father and a man, it’s plain that his mind is prime for the empire-making behavior that will later go on to define the rise of Heisenberg. Brice Ezell