Down & Breakage
The charred pink teddy bear returns in “Down”, once again seen floating in the pool. But this time, we receive a little more context for this image as the scene progresses: from the bear’s perspective, a person in a hazardous material suit looks down into the pool, then scoops the bear out, places it into an evidence bag, and adds it to a plethora of evidence bags lined alongside the pool. As the camera scans the bags, it stalls on one that contains a pair of glasses that are exactly like Walt’s. The viewer is left wondering: has Walt been a victim of a massive crime, or was he involved in it?
Although that question in not answered in this episode, it provides necessary introspection on the dramatic tension in Walt and Jesse’s personal lives and how they mirror and influence one another (which, as we will find out, will later contribute to the opening scene). Things seemed to be looking up for the two at the end of “Bit by a Dead Bee”, but the problems in their neglected personal lives have grown too large to ignore.
With Walt’s amnesia stunt and Jesse’s arrest just behind them, the partners really cannot risk interacting in public. Walt and Jesse plan to secretly meet at a convenience store, pretending to browse as they talk to one another from across an aisle. While Jesse claims that “this is stupid,” Walt tells Jesse that there will be “no cooking until things settle down,” adding that he must “mend fences” with Skyler, who recently discovered his second cell phone and believes that he is cheating on her. He slyly passes Jesse an envelope containing $600 and temporarily ceases contact with him. With all that they have endured, is normalcy even a desire? More importantly, is it even a possibility?
Despite their separation, the two men go about resolving their personal issues in similar ways. The first thing that they do is concoct ridiculous lies to win back their families. In the process, they also concoct ridiculous lies about themselves: Walt paints himself to be the ultimate family man, while Jesse attempts to be a do-gooder on the straight and narrow.
Walt makes a borderline pathetic and rather comical attempt to regain his Skyler and Walt Jr.‘s trust by enthusiastically cooking a large pancake breakfast for them the next morning. The two are completely puzzled; Walt Jr. seems to pity his father, even indulging him in a little conversation about music until he has to leave for school, while Skyler’s skepticism does not wane. Not only is she deeply scarred by his recent disappearance, but she also definitely knows that it is uncharacteristic of Walt to be so overly attentive and that he must be overcompensating for something.
To make matters worse, Walt awkwardly brings up his second cell phone in their already one-sided conversation, explaining that he has a cell phone alarm that is different from his normal ring tone to remind him to take his medicine. But this forced, hard sell only drives Skyler further away. While Walt continues to babble, she takes off from the house. Clearly, Skyler is starving for genuineness, and Walt is anything but genuine, as he has completely lost touch with his emotions.
When Skyler returns home, Walt falls short once again by showering her with unnecessary and unbelievable news, such as telling her that he fixed the garage door and is flirting with the idea of rejoining his support group so that he can vocalize his issues better. “I think that’s great,” Skyler says, obviously feigning her enthusiasm. What is so humorous about this scene is that Walt can flawlessly handle toughened drug lords, but cannot even carry on a remotely normal conversation with his wife.
Meanwhile, Jesse meets with his parents and his parents’ lawyer. His father bluntly tells Jesse that they are aware of his involvement in cooking meth, and his mother brings up Hank’s unnerving visit to their home. All Jesse can think to do is claim that he actually works for the DEA as an informant, painting himself as the noble hero rather than a wayward felon. But it is too late: unbeknownst to Jesse, his parents have a spare key to his aunt’s home and have already discovered his meth lab in the basement. They have no choice but to make Jesse vacate the home within three days. At this point in the episode, it is apparent that both partners are facing domestic turmoil: one belongs to a broken home, while the other is completely homeless.
As expected, Jesse ignores the warning. Using her spare key to enter his aunt’s home, Jesse’s mother arrives with a group of movers and abruptly wakes him up. Unaware of the movers, Jesse quickly uses this time with her to convince her that he is turning his life around, claiming that he is seriously considering pursuing a business degree online. His pleading tone suggests that there may be truth to his goal, giving us a glimpse to the life Jesse could have lead had he not been so displaced.
Unfortunately, not only is his mother unyielding, but she informs him that the movers are already in the house. In a final push to secure his home, Jesse reminds his mother that he took his Aunt Jenny to all of her medical appointments and made her lunch every day, a fact that his mother refutes. Whether or not Jesse is telling the truth, it is clear that he and his aunt shared a deep, loving relationship, a relationship that he has not been able to replicate ever since her passing. Furious, his mother slaps him across the face, begging him one last time to get his act together.
It is interesting to note that, in trying to “mend fences,” both Walt and Jesse try to play the cancer card to delineate their innocence—Walt claims that his second ring tone is an alarm to remind him to take his medicine and Jesse reminds his mother that he took care of his ailing aunt and thus deserves to remain in her home—just to carry on with making meth. Thus, the disease has bonded the two in a more significant way than previously thought; Walt is not only a former teacher and business partner to Jesse, but also a father figure onto whom Jesse projects his affection and admiration for his aunt. Likewise, Jesse’s partnership and support gives Walt a real reason to live, as he considers himself a mentor and legendary meth cook. At the same time, the physical and emotional damage that cancer has caused them is no longer the reason why they cook, but a mere excuse to cook—the men’s priorities have completely shifted.
In the next scene, we see how dependent Jesse has become on Walt. Once again, Walt tries to win over his family with an elaborate breakfast, this time opting for omelets. But his picture-perfect fantasy is interrupted when Walt Jr.‘s best friend, Louis, comes to pick him up early, referring to him as “Flynn.” Insulted that his son has essentially erased his association with him, Walt approaches Skyler as she brushes her hair in the bathroom and asks her if she knew of Walt Jr.‘s new name. She nods, matter-of-factly telling him that “he wants his own identity ... your disappearance upset him.” As we glance at Walt’s mirror image, we are reminded that Walt too thirsts for his own identity, or the ability to be Heisenberg without having to feel like a stranger in his own home. Walt again attempts to do right by Skyler, but the phone is ringing off the hook, giving Skyler an excuse to slip out of the house.
It’s Jesse calling, breaking one of the cardinal rules of their partnership. Jesse begs Walt for more money to get by as movers strip his home of all of its furniture behind him. Walt, unsurprisingly, is enraged, not only because Jesse has called his home and interrupted his alone time with Skyler, but also because he does not believe that Jesse deserves any more money than he already gave him. “Your problems are just that. Your problems,” says Walt, emphasizing that they must keep their business and personal lives separate.
As their argument escalates, Walt slams the uneaten omelet into the trash while Jesse slams his phone into the receiver, only to have a mover snatch the phone from him. The realization has hit both of them: the lines between their business and personal lives are far too blurred, and they may only have each other. After all, Jesse acts more like a son to Walt than Walt Jr. does; whereas Walt Jr. emotionally distances himself from Walt by changing his name, Jesse respects Walt (evident by him calling Walt “Mr. White”) and vies to scrounge any emotional connection with him in order to gain his financial support.
Jesse manages to reconnect with an old high school friend, Paul, who kindly allows him to stay at his house. It is obvious that they have not spoken to one another in years, demonstrating how little close friends or family Jesse has. The differences between the two men are astounding: the clean-cut, sharply dressed Paul has a beautiful home, wife, child, while the grungy Jesse only has a small crate of belongings to call his own. Again, we get an idea of what Jesse’s life may have been life had he never gotten involved with drugs.
After Paul’s wife returns from a shopping spree and blatantly pulls him aside to tell him that Jesse cannot stay at their house, Paul promptly yet gently tells Jesse a white lie to get him to leave. Jesse calls other acquaintances on a pay phone outside of the convenience store where he met with Walt earlier in the episode, growing so frustrated that he repeatedly bashes the phone into the booth. To add to his sorrow, his bike is stolen, leaving him with no way to travel far to stay for the night.
The only place closest to a home that Jesse can think of is the mobile meth lab that is now parked in Clovis’ repair yard. To get to it, Jesse climbs over a high chain-link fence, balancing himself on a port-a-potty. Jesse’s luck then literally goes to shit, as the port-a-potty’s top caves inward, leaving him covered in blue fluid and excrement. Soaked and gagging, Jesse manages to make his way into the RV where he finally breaks down, putting on a respirator just so that he can fall asleep without smelling his own stench. In essence, making meth is the only viable way that Jesse can pull himself through his current situation.
Hoping to repair his damaged relationship with Walt Jr., Walt suggests that the two do “something fun.” He takes him to an empty parking lot to practice driving. At first, Walt is proud that his son is doing so well, only to learn that Louis has been teaching him how to drive. Walt grows visibly more upset with the fact that he has not been there to fulfill his fatherly duties and teach his son how to drive, but tries to remain calm. But when he realizes that Walt Jr. has been driving with two feet instead of one, the two get into an argument, causing Walt Jr. to crash into a traffic barrier. Walt has become more of a hindrance than a support, and he is losing his grip on fathering Walt Jr.
Unfortunately, Jesse’s presence in the RV does not go undetected. In the morning, Clovis quickly notices the broken port-a-potty and follows a trail of blue footprints to the RV. After confronting Jesse with a rifle, Clovis tells him that he can have is RV back for $1,750, which, of course, Jesse does not have. Since Jesse cannot come up with the money quick enough, Clovis kicks him out of the site, hoping the sell the RV and its contents elsewhere. But a defiant Jesse sneaks back into Clovis’ repair yard while he is on the phone and drives the RV through the fence to make his escape.
Back at Walt’s home, Walt begs Skyler to talk with him. Though she sits down next to him on the couch, the intense chiaroscuro in the room implies that the conversation is not going to go over well. Walt apologizes for his emotional unavailability and tells Skyler that he wants to have more contact. Moreover, he vehemently denies that he is cheating, but once again, Skyler does not believe him. She says, “You have to tell me what’s really going on right now. Today. No more excuses ... you don’t want to lose contact with me, Walt? Good. Then tell me. Now.” Walt hesitates, muttering, “Tell you what?” At her wits end, Skyler leaves the house once more, but this time, Walt chases her outside.
As Skyler pulls out of the driveway, Walt notices that the RV is parked on the curb close by. He furiously bangs on the door, reprimanding Jesse for showing up near his house. “You don’t think,” he yells, “you are a pathetic junkie, too stupid to follow simple, rudimentary instructions.” With that comes the ultimate test of their twisted father-son relationship: Jesse grabs Walt by the neck, slamming him around before strangling him on the floor. “Do it,” Walt gasps, baiting Jesse to kill him. Jesse lets go, falling over to Walt’s side. Both men hopelessly look up at the ceiling, equally down.
Walt eventually lets Jesse into his house. While Jesse attempts to freshen up in the kitchen, Walt retrieves Jesse’s share of the money from the vent in the baby’s room, putting it in a diaper pail bag (drawing attention to the fact that it is literally dirty money). When he gives Jesse the money, he says, “Eat some breakfast.” At this moment, both men concede to the notion that they are each other’s best support system—they are their own family.
The episode closes with a glimpse of one of Skyler’s mysterious daily excursions. She sits in a convenience store parking lot, about to light up cigarette until she meets eyes with a woman in a nearby car who is visibly disgusted with her. Skyler is momentarily peeved, but quickly gets over it, lighting up and taking a long, satisfying draw. Her expression mirrors Walt’s when he received a chemotherapy treatment in the Season One episode “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”, which, as we know, seemed to aid his transformation into Heisenberg. Skyler certainly has another side to her, and we’re just about to find out what it is. Karina Parikh
“Breakage” is a key episode in the launch of the Breaking Bad mythology, in that the overarching metaphor ties almost every major character together in their submission to the agents of change.
For Walter and Jesse, the title symbolizes both the danger of losing product in the drug game, juxtaposed against Walter’s submission to his role as Heisenberg, a new Tuco for the region’s meth industry. For Hank, the breakage is internal, as he battles the inevitable stress caused by his firefight with Tuco, which gets him hero status and a promotion he clearly doesn’t want, a promotion which we now know will come close to getting him killed on more than one occasion. Even Skyler’s not immune, dealing with her stress about Walter’s health and subsequent aloofness by taking up smoking.
What’s particularly great about this episode is how much of this is shown, rather than outright told. That’s particularly true on Walter’s end. At the start of the episode we see him dealing with his final session of chemotherapy, and after receiving the hefty bill he’s not particularly ready to embrace the “hope” implied by the cheery secretary’s gifted button. No, Walter, frustrated by these costs and those imposed by “the world’s most expensive alibi,” simply wants to make money through meth.
Not wanting to get in bed with another Tuco, he agrees to Jesse’s new division of labor, in that Jesse’s fully in charge of distribution. But, frustrated by Jesse’s inability to prevent theft from his new drug-dealing charges, Hank wants him to “handle” the problem by any means necessary. He’s not happy making money in thin streams. We’ll see this become even a bigger issue when he learns of Jesse’s success in dealing with the thieving Mr. and Mrs. Splooge in the next episode. What’s that get Walter? The need to rapidly expand into the empire business, against all better judgment.
Jesse, meanwhile, just wants to get back on his feet. Homeless, he shuffles into the salvage yard to pay his debts to Badger’s relative, and winds up with a place to keep the RV along with a new car—a Toyota Tercel, perhaps the only car almost as crappy as Walter’s famous Aztek. He then proceeds to find himself an apartment as well. It’s at that point we meet his future love interest Jane, who of course is critical to the advancement of this season’s plot.
But he really shines in the scenes with Walter out in the desert, the frustration coming off him in waves as he tries to rationalize the “hiccups” in distribution as the cost of doing business. Walt begs to differ. “What are you going to do when people realize that Jesse Pinkman, Drug Kingpin, can be robbed with impunity?” Jesse is disgusted, of course. “You’re upset over $1,000?” throwing the money at Walt, who then throws it right back at him, a perfect tantrum. Shit get real, of course, when Heisenberg shows up at the end of the episode with a gun and a mission: “I want you to handle it.” Easier said than done, as “Peekaboo” will of course showcase.
I think the episode’s character transformation, however, is most complete in what we witness in Hank.
It’s evident in the bookends, both at the start when we see Tuco’s grill fished out of the water by a river-crossing coyote, and at the end when we see Hank, frustrated, throwing away the one piece of memorabilia he just can’t bear to slough off. It’s telling that a man like Hank, so quick to hide everything in bouts of bluster, truly was deeply affected by what happened in those two minutes battling for his life against Tuco in the Mexican desert. He’s not happy with the gold teeth on his desk, or with the promotion he gets from his boss, all cloaked in shark references. Just the sight of the teeth, thrown to him by Gomie as they prep to go for a celebratory lunch, sends Hank into a full-on panic attack in the elevator, hearing the sound of that infernal bouncing car as his life flashes before his eyes.
That said, Hank tries to cloak his fear by taking time for his hobby, home-brewing “Schraderbrau” in his garage, sending Marie into paroxysms of disgust. She can’t possibly understand why he wouldn’t be happy about the promotion, even as she calls El Paso an “armpit” and says he’s all but serving his time for her to eventually get a condo in Georgetown. Even the man cave refuge proves insufficient. We see it as the bottle explodes in Hank’s hand after Marie exits, and it’s made even more clear when, that night, the bottles in the garage all explode, sounding like the very gunfire Hank wishes he could erase from his memory.
For Walter, all this obsession with Tuco brings up is his need to understand where “guys like this Tuco” come from. He wants to understand because he is a guy like Tuco, though Hank just dismisses it. “You might as well be asking me about the roaches. All I know is there are a lot of them.” Hank has dedicated his life to ridding the world of Tucos and Walters, while Walter wants to build his empire and prove to men like Hank that, in the grand scheme of things, people care more about criminals than they do those who stop them.
For the true Breaking Bad aficionado, “Breakage” is steeped in foreboding. We know where Hank and Walter will each be in the space of a single year spread over the ensuing Third, Fourth, and Fifth Seasons. This is the episode where, even though little actively happens on screen from an “action” standpoint, all the pieces are coming into place from a character perspective. And that’s where Breaking Bad has always shined. By the time Hank sits on that toilet and discovers Walter’s secret via Gale’s autograph in a book of Whitman poetry, we know more about these characters than perhaps we’re willing to know about ourselves. And only one thing is clear: a showdown is coming. Rewatching Season Two, we’re able to see what sets the showdown in motion, one case of breakage at a time. And it’s well worth the setup. Jonathan Sanders
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times.