Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season One

by PopMatters Staff

11 August 2013


Crazy Handful of Nothin'


Image: Jules Riviera from Heisenberg Chronicles

S1E6 Crazy Handful of Nothin’

Walt’s transition to Heisenberg manifests itself from massive moral and physical transformations, both of which are heavily symbolized throughout the episode.

Initially, Walt is still primarily concerned with his family’s financial stability, fiercely independent, and a just a tad self-centered. Rather than let Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz, who presumably stole his research to form Gray Matter Technologies, pay for his cancer treatment, Walt eagerly desires to use his chemistry skills to make his own profit and resumes business with Jesse. While surveying their now bullet-ridden RV, he makes it clear that he does not want to repeat the gut wrenching events that he and Jesse experienced with Emilio and Krazy-8. Walt immediately names himself a “silent partner” in their covert operation, putting himself in charge of all of the meth making while leaving Jesse to deal directly with distributors and customers. “No more bloodshed. No more violence,” Walt declares, desperately clinging on to any sense of morality even in the most immoral of circumstances. In short, Walt is trying to find a way to have his cake and eat it too.

However, Walt’s aggressive chemotherapy treatment catalyzes major physical and emotional changes in him. In fact, the effects of his chemotherapy are continually portrayed in a strikingly similar manner as those of a drug addiction, visually collapsing Walt’s personal and public struggles into one. First, Walt becomes increasingly deceptive. During one of his first chemotherapy treatments, Walt plays up his unassuming nature to convince Skyler to let him attend his chemotherapy sessions alone and assures her that he is taking care of Elliot’s nonexistent checks, all so that he can continue to cook with Jesse undetected. Skyler is, of course, quite pleased, although her lingering stare reveals that she is slightly skeptical of Walt’s words.

Skyler’s wariness of Walt’s behavior only grows from there; she even voices her concern about his quietness and frequent absences during a support group session later in the episode. Walt responds by simply stating that it “feels better not to talk at all about anything to anyone.” As vague as it sounds, this line so beautifully sutures his two biggest anxieties: he cannot bear to talk about the cancer that has so obviously wreaked havoc on his body, and, at the same time, he is outwardly articulating his feelings about his clandestine illegal activities.

As with other Season One episodes, Breaking Bad‘s writers also flesh out Walt’s biggest dilemmas through a science lesson. Walt’s explanation of the volatility of fulminated mercury during a chemistry lecture perfectly symbolizes the dramatic changes occurring in his own life. He says, “If a reaction happens quickly, otherwise harmless substances can react in a way that generates enormous bursts of energy,” indicating that a dramatic change is yet to come. Soon after, he stumbles into the bathroom to violently vomit—the first of many of Walt’s extreme side effects as a result of chemotherapy. Hugo, the selfless school janitor, patiently and readily cleans up Walt’s mess, emerging as Walt’s sidekick when his bathroom trips grow more frequent.

At this point, Walt can no longer conceal his cancer, even with Jesse. While cooking one afternoon, Walt works himself up to the point of exhaustion in the stifling heat of his dark trailer. He limps outside, slumps in a chair, and unzips his suit to cool down, drawing attention to the large scar on his chest. Jesse quickly realizes that Walt has cancer, since his beloved aunt, who died only seven months after she was diagnosed with cancer, bore a similar scar. “I am your partner, man. You should have told me,” Jesse says, promptly taking over Walt’s cooking duties. This exchange completely alters and strengthens Walt and Jesse’s working and personal relationship, as a kindhearted Jesse demonstrates that he genuinely cares about Walt’s wellbeing. Nevertheless, Walt seems to see this as the worlds he so staunchly wants to keep apart slowly colliding, and he is seriously worried. 

What follows is a signature quirky yet powerful Breaking Bad scene: a dizzying, cinematic montage of Jesse both selling and indulging in meth to Paul Rothman’s “Scoobidoo Love”. Scenes like these continually remind us why Breaking Bad is one of the greatest television shows ever made, as it flawlessly conveys gritty realism with a dark sense of humor. The images of drug addicts in dark and seedy locations, coupled with the song’s lighthearted innocence, underscore addicts” quotidian nature of consumption and elaborate upon Jesse’s own battle with drug dependency. Likewise, it parallels the images of Walt’s own reaction to chemotherapy, which at once seems to sustain and destroy him. The most striking of these images occurs later in the episode, when Walt slowly throws his head back and releases a drawn out sigh as the medicine enters his veins, much like a drug addict taking a hit would react.

Even though we are blindsided by the number of customers Jesse visits in one day, he and Walt barely make a profit. “I am breaking the law here. The return is too little for the risk,” Walt barks. Though he is still primarily concerned with his family’s financial security, he is now willing to be more aggressive to attain it. Walt’s eagerness ultimately presses Jesse to get in touch with Tuco, Krazy-8’s successor, so that they can distribute their product in bulk. Luckily, Jesse discovers that his friend Skinny Pete shared a jail cell with Tuco in the past and manages to gain entry into Tuco’s headquarters. Tuco adores the product, but his megalomania and penchant for violence does not gel with Jesse’s diffidence. When Jesse asks for money upfront, Tuco beats him so badly that Jesse winds up in the hospital. As a bloodied Jesse lay on the floor, Tuco yells, “nobody moves crystal in the South Valley but me, bitch!” establishing himself as a force with which to be reckoned.

Meanwhile, the cat-and-mouse chase between Hank and Walt flourishes in this episode. Earlier on, Hank and Gomez meet to discuss the analysis of the respirator that they found at Walt and Jesse’s former mobile meth lab site. The back of the mask reads, “Property of J.P. Wynne High School,” an immediate signal that the culprit is either from or has ties to Walt’s high school. A completely unsuspicious Hank pays a visit to Walt, who nervously plays it cool. When Hank finds that the materials commonly used to make meth are missing from the storage room, he advises Walt to guard his materials more carefully. “We don’t want people to start worrying about you,” Hank laughs. Hank’s constant jabs at Walt never get tiring—though the humor is lost on a paranoid Walt, we as an audience know that the joke is actually completely on Hank. But Walt gets a lucky break, as it is Hugo who is later connected with and publicly arrested for the crime, despite there being no evidence linking him to taking the equipment or cooking meth. Walt looks on indifferently, relieved to have flown under the radar.

It is only during a family poker game that Walt processes the repercussions of his actions. Hank revels in Hugo’s arrest, stating that he “fit the profile” even though the only justification for his arrest was a small amount of marijuana found in his car. Through this, Hank demonstrates how deeply flawed and racially charged the police system in which he operates truly is. Realizing that he has cost Hugo his job and dashed his future prospects of employment, Walt is momentarily guilt-ridden and even tries to defend him, but, of course, he is not nearly guilt-ridden enough to fess up to his actual laundry list of crimes. Given his reticence, it is obvious that Hugo is just one of many people whose lives Walt destroys for the sake of his own safety.

Ultimately, it is Walt and Hank that face-off in the poker game, paving the way to another golden exchange between the two. “Are you gonna man up or are you gonna puss out?” Hank asks. Not only does Walt apply this to his poker game, but, as we will see, he applies it to his newfound career. “I’m all in,” Walt answers defiantly. Hank folds, assuming that Walt has a much better hand. It turns out that Walt simply has what Marie calls a “handful of nothin,’” referring to the memorable line from Cool Hand Luke (1967) whose eponymous character is known for his bluff.

The outcome of the poker game bears several layers of meaning. First, it shows that Walt really has an exceptional poker face—he may have a “handful of nothin,’” but as long as he puts on a brave persona, others will quite literally fold to him. Second, it implies that Hank may not have the best fate, especially when it comes to unknowingly delving into Walt’s affairs. He does, after all, narrowly escape death later in the series because of Walt, and it remains to be seen what will happen to his character in the latter half of the Fifth Season.

The next day, Walt visits Jesse in the hospital. The scene is frightening; Jesse is unconscious and wears a neck brace as Skinny Pete remains by his side. “You the guy?” Skinny Pete asks Walt, to which Walt responds, “Yeah. I’m the guy.” He’s not merely a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher, but a rising star with a budding reputation. Given Jesse’s state, Walt knows that he must up the ante, even when he only has a handful of nothing. Walt inquires Skinny Pete about Tuco and the way that he operates, readying himself for a serious confrontation.

Walt, with a large bag of crystal in tow, visits Tuco’s headquarters noticeably more confrontational and utterly fearless. He informs one of Tuco’s henchmen, “I want to talk to Tuco and I won’t leave until I do.” After an extensive cavity search, Walt introduces himself to Tuco as “Heisenberg,” after Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who died of cancer. Evidently, Walt considers himself an indisposable scientific genius.

By changing his name, Walt shows that he is not only concerned with growing his finances and maintaining anonymity, but also his viability as a brand. Gray Matters may have usurped him of his potential and effectively led him to his current state, but Walt is not going to let the opportunity to brand his intellect slip away from his fingers again. He unflinchingly demands that Tuco pay him $50,000 in order to cover the cost of the pound of meth that he took from Jesse as well as Jesse’s hospital bills. “Let me get this straight, I steal your dope, I beat the livin” piss out of your little mule boy, and then you walk in here and bring me more meth?” Tuco laughs. In response, Walt grabs a piece of crystal from Tuco’s desk and slams it on the floor, which creates a terrifying explosion so large that it even blows out the windows. As Tuco and his men regain their balance, Walt demands that Tuco sells two pounds of his and Jesse’s meth per week and gives him money upfront, lest he cause an even larger destruction.

Tuco agrees, asking Walt what the crystal actually was. “Fulminated mercury, a little tweak of chemistry,” Walt responds, recalling his chemistry lecture from earlier in the episode. Once again, the fulminated mercury symbolizes Walt; he started off in this episode as almost otherwise harmless, but the tweaks of chemistry that have occurred within his body due to chemotherapy have generated an entirely new person altogether. With a sack of money in tow, Walt marches out of the building, wiping a stream of blood running from his nose. Though Walt earlier asserted that there should be no more bloodshed, Jesse’s hospital visit and Walt’s bloody nose indicates that there is much more bloodshed yet to come—especially for the both of them.

As soon as he gets into his car, Walt grasps the crumpled up stacks of bills and takes a moment to digest what has just occurred: for the first time in his life, Walt has made a profitable deal for himself, and an immensely profitable one at that. He grips the steering wheel begins releasing his pent up rage and excitement by growling and screaming, akin to a human transforming into a monster. Heisenberg has officially arrived, and he’s not going away any time soon. Karina Parikh

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