S1E5 Gray Matter
If there is one thing Breaking Bad wants you to believe it is, that one thing would be misleading. Does it work? Sometimes. While it’s not unfair to note how watching Jesse and Walt’s friendship fundamentally break down almost routinely has become trite and overtly predictable at times throughout the series, it’s also imperative to recognize that unpredictability lies at the crux of what makes the show so addicting. Or, in other words, even though you know they can’t kill Walt at the end of Season One, you still—at least initially—want to find out how he manages to live through what seems like impossible circumstances.
Maybe the series’ most subliminal illustration of such comes in the form of Season One’s “Gray Matter”, easily one of the best Breaking Bad episodes to date. Beginning with Jesse hopelessly trying to enter the real-world life of a job that would supply him with banker’s hours and big-boy benefits, our favorite high-school underachiever learns quickly that the employment opportunity wasn’t what he thought it would be while he slowly glances out the window to see his malcontent friend Bagder haplessly (or happily?) walking around town donning a ridiculous dollar-bill costume. Conversely, we find Walt confronting the same brand of bogusness as he arrives at Elliott Schwartz’s birthday party, wrapped Roman Noodles in hand, to find that despite the instruction to bring no gifts, his old college buddy has a plethora of outlandish offerings in his honor, waiting to be revealed for all to see.
Naturally, both instances ultimately lead the two main protagonists in this narrative to return back to their untoward intentions. “Wanna cook?” Walt asks Jesse about 45 minutes after the fact. Cut to black. Fill in the blank. Metaphors abound.
What makes the episode so affecting isn’t necessarily what happened during the limits of its own existence; rather, the moments gain perspective on both the breadth of the story and the depth of its characters as the entire operation advances through subsequent seasons. It isn’t even until midway through Season Five that we learn exactly what happened between Walt and his college buddies/business partners and why he was left out of the fame and money that Gray Matter enjoyed after he left for what he later calls “a $5,000 buy-out for a few months of rent.” Creator Vince Gilligan loves his loose ends, and this episode in particular allowed him to create troves of them.
Yeah, we know that something went down between Gretchen and Walt, but details are scarce. Yeah, it’s not the most surprising thing to hear Walt note he’s never had a say in his life up to that point, but what exactly that might mean—and whether or not it had anything to do with his wife Skyler—is up for debate. And despite the implications that accompanied the former chemistry teacher’s decision to finally seek treatment for his cancer, it’s never explicitly stated what made him change his mind overnight about his lack of will to live.
Speaking of that swift about-face, lest we be remind that this is That Episode—the one with the single greatest failed attempt at an intervention AMC programming has ever seen, all taking place in the Whites’ living room during an “intervention.” In retrospect, it may very well be the best illustration of how humane Gilligan can be as a writer. The entire sequence is like a roller coaster ride through ... well, through a meth lab. Second-handedly hysterical and unexpectedly heavy, that pocket of minutes should be enough for any doubter to stick with the series for at least another season or two.
Yeah, Hank’s sports metaphors are laugh-out-loud funny, but the piss-your-pants moment comes when Marie chimes in with timing that can be described as only perfection by asking her husband, “Hank, what the hell are you saying?” Those chuckles quickly turn tender, however, as Walt. Jr. single-handedly flips the tone of the exercise on its head. “This is bullshit,” he tells his dad. “I’m pissed off ‘cause you’re a pussy, like, ready to give up. What if you gave up on me?” The pillow then lands with Walt, and a monologue for the ages ensues.
In hindsight, this might be the moment that we can point to when considering precisely how far Mr. White has veered from his former self. Knowing that the current version of who he is has made him one of the most detestable (and frankly, obnoxious) characters in all of television is a lesson in devolution of the purest, most scary kind. Here, he struggles with the decision to keep himself alive, succumbing to pressures of a family who so clearly loves him. To hear Skyler eventually tell him that her life is dedicated to waiting until that cancer returns so he can cease to be a problem in her life down the road is, with the events of this episode in mind, shocking.
But Breaking Bad does shocking well, and it does so in ways that run so far deeper than the death of a character or an utterance of candor. “This is the white in Gray Matter,” Elliott Schwartz tells people at his birthday party (Schwartz, of course, being German for the color black). Who knew that the difference between the two could be so subtle? Who knew that the absence of one could lead to the discovery of another? Who knew that the span separating both colors wasn’t nearly as far as most people probably think?
Walter didn’t. But now he does. Colin McGuire