After a first season compromised by a Writers Guild strike, Breaking Bad‘s first “full” season goes deeper, darker, and through a burned pink teddy bear, indicates that something truly horrific is on the horizon.
S2E1 Seven Thirty-Seven
Our sympathies for Walter, such as they are, are driven by his circumstances and the ease with which we recognise them. Lung cancer aside, he’s not in a terrible situation. Sure, money is always tight. His job isn’t as creatively fulfilling as it might be. He has appalling dress sense. But it’s not so bad. He has a family that loves him. He has a profession and hey, he could always get a better haircut. Isn’t that just like us? The problems he has are ones that we can all probably relate to. With Walter still needing to address the immediate problem of Tuco, we must defer to Skyler for itemization duties:
“[I’m an] almost 40-year-old pregnant woman with a surprise baby on the way. And a husband with lung cancer who disappears for hours on end and I don’t know where he goes and he barely even speaks to me anymore. With the moody son who does the same thing. And the overdrawn checking account. And the lukewarm water heater that leaks rusty looking crap and is rotting out the floor of the utility closet and we can’t even afford to fix it!”
This is the stage we’re at as the Second Season gets underway. Problem solving. Walter, the cancer-stricken husband is only disappearing for hours on end in the pursuit of a solution to these problems. A rationalist, he works out exactly what it would take to replace him, financially. If we leave Tuco for a moment, the problems are still of the domestic, Walter White-type. The cancer is still there and, as a family, the Whites are still skint. Skyler remains ignorant of Walter’s extracurricular chemistry and he’s still pursuing it to make the money for which he is desperate. “Seven Thirty-Seven” may begin the Second Season, but spiritually, it belongs to the first.
Breaking Bad has a curious dramatic structure, at least by the standards of episodic drama. The killing of Krazy-8 was dragged out over several episodes, rather than being wrapped up in a single one, with the actual killing occurring in the final act. Similarly, Tuco, as the putative Big Bad of the season, managed to make it to the show’s second year before being dispatched early on. It confounds the expectations of the viewer, disrupting the expected rhythm of the drama and providing a woozy uncertainty to the show. Much of this may well be due to the Writers Guild strike, which truncated the First Season, but traces of it remain and some of it is certainly deliberate. Season Two was, uniquely of all the seasons, planned out in detail before being written, but doesn’t introduce Gus Fring until the third episode from the end. A lesser show would have introduced him towards the beginning of a season (best guess, S3E1), but Breaking Bad is not that show.
Whatever the intended structure, we’re still resolutely in the first act of the show as a whole. Walter still expects to be dead inside of two years and he needs to make enough money to support his family in time to get out of the drug game and live out what life he has left. It’s all still just solving a straightforward problem. So straightforward in fact that he can even put a figure on it. Seven thousand and thirty-seven dollars. Seven Thirty-Seven.
Walter is only interested in the drug game as far as it is expedient for him to be so. The dangerous complications added by the likes of Krazy-8 and Tuco are unfortunate inconveniences, occupational hazards that he’s prepared to live with only untilt he can walk away. Calculating that he and Jesse can make $70k a week, Walter can even put a timescale on it. “Eleven more drug deals and we’re done,” he says. “Definitely doable.”
If only it were that easy. This is not some eBay business he can run in his spare time, or even a begging bowl website attracting donations from around the country. The meth game is a serious business with serious consequences and Walter is about to learn that he cannot simply cook meth to the quality and in the quantity that he is without attracting attention.
So the Tuco problem has to be solved. Quickly, decisively and cleanly. Jesse, who dismissed Walters’s arriviste idea that last season’s drug meet should take place in a junkyard nevertheless makes the suggestion that they just shoot Tuco. It’s a bit obvious, isn’t it? For Walter, who has already used chemistry as a weapon twice, has a better idea. Enter ricin.
Killing Krazy-8 dragged Walter across a moral line over which he can never cross again. Now, his experiences with Tuco teach him an awful lot about fear. Staring out of the window, afraid of every phone call, of every unexpected sound, he comes to realize that this feeling isn’t simply going to disappear, nor can he just walk away from it. In becoming Heisenberg, Walter will need to out-scare anyone who gets in his way. There is no hiding place, and, although he is by his own admission, better than those “boys from Juarez,” Hank is beginning to sniff around too. Walter is waking up to a war on two fronts. Things will never be as easy as Season One again. Michael Noble
From the very beginning of this episode, wel’re to understand the focus is going to be on bringing together two diverging storylines—Walter and Jesse as Tuco’s hostages in Mexico, versus Hank’s dogged search for the missing Walter. Tuco’s sudden appearance at Walter’s doorstep with Jesse at gunpoint at the conclusion of the previous episode came as Hank’s crew from the DEA raided his headquarters, As Hank encourages his agents to study Tuco’s file and “get a big raging hard-on for capturing this guy,” he clearly has no idea he’s about to be drawn into the firefight of his life. Nor does he have a clue that his search for Walter will bring him, for the first time, within inches of capturing the kingpin known as Heisenberg.
Gonzo has disappeared, which makes Tuco believe the man, his brother-in-law, has ratted him out to the DEA, since he misinterprets the connection between the two. We know Gonzo died, crushed while trying to move No Doze’s dead body for a more proper burial. No matter—Tuco has a plan, which involves shutting Walter and Jesse down to Mexico, allowing Heisenberg to live his life as an employee of the cartel, making meth and money without having to live under the nose of the DEA. Jesse quickly learns that this deal could take place regardless of whether he lives or dies. Tuco’s only interest is in Walter. Which brings the ricin into play. The two know their lives hinge on whether they can get the crank-crazed Tuco to ingest the poison and then make their escape before the two mysterious “cousins” show up to carry them to their new prison.
Of course there’s a kink in that plan named Hector Salamanca, Tuco’s uncle, who lives in the ramshackle shack they’re all holed up in down Mexico way. “Tio” has clearly suffered a stroke at some time in the past, but Walter and Jesse lack knowledge that he’s far more lucid than would initially appear. Their conversations, out in the open in earshot of the old man, clearly show they’re up to something, that they want to kill Tuco and escape. And Hector isn’t going to stand for that.
Once their first plan fails—Jesse blows it by saying the “special recipe” meth he’s got on him contains his favorite ingredient, chili powder, something Tuco abhors—they have to move on to “Plan B” and poison Tuco through his food. They add ricin to Tuco’s burrito while his back is turned, but “Tio” knows what’s going on. He’s heard their plan, and he makes enough of a fuss to get Tuco to allow him to eat first, only destroying the burrito before anyone can taste it. He then sets his sights on exposing Walter and Jesse for the snakes they are, Walter tries to palm it off on having changed the channel on Hector’s telenovela, but the old man’s too sharp for that. Once Tuco realizes his uncle knows the men are a risk, all bets are off.
Meanwhile, Hank’s been trying his hardest to help Marie and Skyler search for Walter, who as we know received a phone call and then disappeared. This is the moment the second cell-phone is mentioned for the first time, thanks to Marie’s big fat mouth, and of course Skyler is stunned by the idea her mild-mannered husband would have any reason to have more than one. Spurred by Marie’s insistence that perhaps Walt’s disappearance has to do with his marijuana addiction, Hank follows the “Jesse Trail” all the way to Pinkman’s parents’ home, where he interviews the reluctant mother, which leads to the mention of Jesse’s Monte Carlo. Hank makes a wild guess that the low rider might have a tracking device installed, and when he learns it does, he’s got his way to track the car all the way to Tuco’s hideaway, where all points diverge in explosive fashion.
Jesse is dragged outside by Tuco, beaten and led to a shallow grave at gun-point, where he begs for his life. “Tell me what you did, Walter!” Tuco yells, Walter says nothing, just watches as Jesse prepares to throw dirt in the eyes of his would-be killer, “We tried to poison you,” Walter then says, “because you’re an insane degenerate piece of filth and you deserve to die!” Jesse attacks, gets hold of Tuco’s gun and shoots him, then kicking him into the shallow grave. “Let him bleed,” Walter says, as the two leave Tuco there, returning to Jesse’s car just as Hank’s car drives up the dirt road. The keys to the car are in Tuco’s posession. There’s no way out.
Though Hank will later blow the shootout up to heroic proportions, in truth he stumbles into the entire situation by pure dumb luck, and it’s only by sheer grace that he’s not dead on the spot. He pulls up as Tuco leans against the Monte Carlo and assumes the bleeding man is the Jesse Pinkman he seeks. Tuco turns his head and Hank realizes the truth; “Oh, shit.” Encouraging the man to take it easy fails—Tuco just cracks his neck and lunges for the gun in Jesse’s front seat, setting off the bouncing car motif we saw in the pre-credits sequence. Both begin firing indiscriminately, but Hank’s able to take cover behind his open car door, giving him enough time to reload, shooting Tuco just as he’s about to take the kill shot himself. All’s quiet, except for the car bouncing in the desert, while Walter and Jesse watch from afar, realizing who just felled Tuco.
“Oh God, Hank,” Walt gasps, then runs into the desert, leading Jesse, confused, away from the scene. We close on one of Breaking Bad‘s signature shots—Hank stands over Tuco’s prone body, gun raised, car bouncing out its last ragged breaths. We hear a lonesome “ding” from inside the house, Hector’s bell. Then silence.
A critical episode on many levels, “Grilled” sets up an entire season of tension. Hank’s now a hero in the eyes of the DEA, even though he simply walked into a situation and managed to cling to his life by the skin of his teeth. But that, as we know, will get him the El Paso job, where he’s over his head and suffering from post-traumatic stress over the Tuco killing. A situation made even worse by exploding turtles and his utter lack of preparation for life lived on the edge of the “real” war on drugs.
Walter, meanwhile, will have to dig his way out of this situation via whole new layers of lies. There’s the second cell phone knowledge to be dealt with, and he’ll have to create the world’s most expensive alibi in order to keep Skyler in the dark. And with Tuco out of the way, there’s nothing to stop “Heisenberg” from making his move into distribution as well as manufacture. There’s nothing like a power vacuum to give a guy like Walter room to move into more dangerous territory.
That’s the real dark fun of Breaking Bad‘s Second Season—that sense of rising tension in every storyline, tension just waiting to tighten like a noose on any character at any time, with Vince Gilligan behind the scenes pulling the strings. Walt lives on to find his way in the meth trade, where he’ll seek as much power as he can possibly grab. Hank, meanwhile, will have to battle against his own demons over the things he has to do in search of the blue meth which haunts him, never knowing how close he’s come repeatedly to confronting the truth lying right in front of him the entire time. Jonathan Sanders
S2E3 Bit by a Dead Bee
The title of this episode is a reference from a line used in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not based on the Hemingway novel by the same name (I’m uncertain as to whether the line is directly from the novel). No one utters the line at any point in the episode, but it fits particularly well with all three of our primary characters’ narratives this week—particularly Hank’s, having been gifted Tuco’s “grill” after the shootout last episode. But Jesse and Walter are also in some danger of being bit by their dead bee as they attempt to tie up Season One’s loose ends. By episode’s end, all three have pulled off their respective lies, creating a deceptive sense of finality that will inevitably come back to haunt each of them in turn.
If I had to characterize this episode in a sentence, I would call it: the one where everyone is debriefed. While these debriefings serve the narrative, they also provide a revealing answer to the unspoken question: “Who is your character, and what might he be dealing with in the days to come?” Walter, Jesse, and Hank are each put through a bit of an interrogation at some point during the episode. In each case, they do some heavy lying. Hank’s lie is the most subtle, and thus likely to be missed by viewers as he sits with his two bosses, robotically recounting the events that occurred in the shootout with Tuco, and how he came to be there in the first place.
Prior to this debriefing, Marie describes Hank as “indestructible,” leading us into Hank’s recital of the events. But Hank is not indestructible, a fact that becomes clear as this season progresses and we see his hidden PTSD linger, ultimately being compounded by the cartel bombing later in the season. An interesting aside in Hank’s debriefing is that he only hesitates in the story when he’s asked how he got himself into a shootout without backup in the first place. Before this question, he mechanically details the events like stereo instructions, jettisoning his normal bravado, and often offensive, rhetoric in a situation he is obviously taking seriously (or at least has affected him seriously). And what is his hesitant answer to why he was there in the first place? “I was attending to an un-related matter.” This is the kind of thoughtful dialogue that really makes this show so worthwhile for revisiting.
As far as landmark moments for Walter in this episode, I believe this is the first major convoluted scheme he constructs (the showdown with Gus in Season Four, and evidence vault magnet caper, to name a couple others). He has made plans before, but nothing to this caliber. I’ll come back to Walter later, as I would like to spend a bit more time with him.
Jesse has a major role here, and although Walter has his concerns (and a lack thereof for Jesse-specific problems, as we see in their phone conversation near the episode’s end), Jesse handles himself particularly well during Hank’s interrogation. We will see Jesse’s self-confidence go through a number of ups and downs throughout the series. Walter is rarely a source of encouragement, and this payphone exchange is no exception. This scene shows us how capable Jesse is under pressure. But from Season Two onward, we will see Jesse repeatedly put through the ringer with varying degrees of support from partner/ pseudo-father figure Walt.
While Jesse is taking care of the lab and his alibi, Walter is trapped in his own kind of daylong interrogation. At the hospital, he has to explain his disappearance to his family, his doctors, and even a psychiatrist. Walter deals with each as needs be, and rather than just recap specific encounters, I’m going to use this space to examine Heisenberg’s presence, and one of the most important set pieces to this episode (important in part because it returns in Season Five’s “Gliding All Over”).
On the wall of Walter’s hospital room is a painting of a family on a beach, waving to a man rowing away from them. Throughout “Bit By a Dead Bee”, Walter keeps staring at this painting. We see him looking at it early in the episode with his family in his hospital room, while the psychiatrist is talking to him, and again when he returns to his room from cleaning up his “cash on hand” loose end back at the White residence. This early in the series, the painting represents Walt’s concern over losing his family. He has created an alter ego—Heisenberg—in order to maintain his family on the shore. When he looks at the painting, does he see a man leaving his family? Or does he see a man leaving out of a need to provide for his family? As we later learn in Season Five’s eighth episode, “Gliding All Over,” wherein the painting returns, Walter sees whatever he wants to see.
The most telling scenes in this episode for Walter come during and after his cleanup of the “cash on hand” and gun back at his house. In order to hide the money and revolver he left out before Tuco abducted him, Walter has to sneak into his own house, hide from his family, and ride back on an empty bus to the hospital. It’s made fairly evident by the heavy-handed “Missing” poster of Walter at the bus stop, but I’ll go ahead and say it: this is not Walter White. That’s not to say we don’t see Walter in this episode. It’s hard not to see some regret as he’s looking through the nursery door at Junior comforting Skyler. But we can also see some Walter White in the half-truth confession to the bound-by-doctor-patient confidentiality psychiatrist:
Psychiatrist: What did you feel you had to run from?
Walter: Doctor, my wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend. My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 a year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable. And within 18 months, I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?
This is pretty much the pitch for the show. I know any time someone asks me what Breaking Bad is about, I tend to recite some form of this impetus rather than just say it is about a guy who starts cooking meth (because, who wants to watch that show?). And it really is, after all, about so much more. This short monologue is Walter White’s reason for cooking meth. But then lying in the background, we’re also privy to the writers’ goal of telling a story of “how Mr. Chips can turn into Scarface.” As the show goes on, there is less and less evidence of Walter White’s drive to help his family, and more of a drive fueled by failure and envy, with increasing amounts of hubris. Heisenberg lives in the shadows of this episode, but we’ll see his rise in the seasons to come.
The painting in “Bit By a Dead Bee” haunts Walter like Tuco’s paperweight “Grill” is going to haunt Hank. Yet neither character is going to be able to fully get away from these haunts through the indirect paths they have chosen (Hank’s bottling up of his trauma, and Walter’s growing web of family lies meant to keep Heisenberg on the DL). Walter perhaps gets an unlikely bit of a foreshadowing from Junior when Walter refuses to drink his apple juice and Junior insists. Reluctantly drinking the juice, and like all the doctor’s questions leading to the insistence of a psychological evaluation, Walter gets a reminder that the web of lies he has spun isn’t once and done operation, but rather something he is going to have to continue acting out.
Like all of Walter’s carefully calculated plans, nothing will ever be 100% tidily wrapped up. Walter’s going to have to keep playing whack a mole with all the incalculable threads that come loose, all the while hoping his family buys into it. Walt promises Skyler, “I will not let this happen again. I’m still here. I’m still me.” Logistically, his plan worked. Tuco is a closed case, Jesse is semi-off Hank’s radar, and Walter is reintegrated into family life, complete with faux-McGuffin for his family that explains away his “missing” days.
But Skyler isn’t buying it, and Walter isn’t completely “Walter” anymore. And so I return to the painting and Walter’s return to the hospital after his lonely late-night bus ride. Having seemingly tidied up all the loose ends, returning to his hospital bed for rest, the image of Walter looking at the painting one final time and painfully re-inserting his own IV reminds us that even a dead bee can still sting. Brian Steinbach
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