Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season Two

by PopMatters Staff

12 August 2013

Over & Mandala


S2E10 Over

“I’m not exactly sure who that was yesterday, but it wasn’t me.”

If it wasn’t you, Walter, who was it? Heisenberg? It’s certainly appearing so. The title of this episode is Clue #3 in the season’s trail of crumbs leading to the plane crash. Like the others, it’s a little piece of misdirection that benefits from the multiple interpretations of its meaning.

It’s over. Walter’s cancer is in remission and his immediate financial requirements have been satisfied. It’s over. There’s no longer any need to risk his sanity, his family and his life in pursuit of the drug trade. It’s over. The lies can stop. It’s over. Walter can now devote himself to fixing up the house and preparing to return to work. It’s over. It’s over. It’s over.

How dull.

If you’re going to make anyone, Mr Chips or otherwise, at some point he’s going to have to stop working for a higher goal and start working for his own ends. In Over, Walter reaches that point. The remission is taken by everybody, Jesse included, as a happy event, sorry, “kickass good news.” This is what they wanted, surely? But not Walter. For him, the diminution of the tumor robs him of something precious. It was his reason for his cooking. It was not only a conscience-salving excuse for his drug work, it was also a reason to live. In a piece of agonizing irony, the news that he is going to survive removes his very reason for doing so.

What’s he got to go back to? That pointless old sadsack life. After what he’s been through, it would be a demotion too far, and no amount of displacement activity will compensate, though it may get his plumbing running faster and hotter water.

When I got my diagnosis—cancer—I said to myself, you know…‘Why me?” And then… the other day when I got the good news… I said the same thing.”

In Breaking Bad, layers of meaning abound in the dialog as much as they do the titles and Walter’s little toast to his own “good news” is a case in point. Look at his coyness, calling the cancer a “diagnosis” before correcting himself and the euphemistic “good news” to describe its remission. It’s the careful language of avoidance. He doesn’t want to say the thing because it would validate it. It’s not unusual to be in denial about a grim medical prospect. Quite another to be so about its removal. For Walter, changed by his experiences, the remission is a diagnosis. He may as well have been sat down by two wise and patient doctors and told “It’s bad news Mr White: you don’t have cancer. Given its lack of spread, we can’t say with any certainty that you’ll have any less than 20 to 30 years of life. With intervention, we could reduce that to as few as two, but we don’t want to make any promises. Is there somebody you can call?”

Faced with the prospect of having to actually live, Walter tries some denial. He pours his son several tequilas, to the evident concern of Hank, and is annoyed when Walt Jr looks to his uncle for approval. In their little family unit, Hank had always been the alpha male, the brash and garrulous dude with a head full of tall stories and a mouth perpetually pregnant with some smartass quip. His presence offends Walter, who has had a taste of life on the edge and cannot bring himself to relinquish it now that the opportunity to do so has arrived.

It occurs to Walter that he hasn’t gone far enough, and certainly not as far as he is capable of going. There’s too much Walter and not enough Heisenberg at the moment and it needles him to admit it. Even the killing of Tuco had to be outsourced to Hank while Walter cowered in the desert. It’s too much for the ego to bear. Wasn’t it Walt who had walked into Tuco’s hideout and blown it to smithereens? And yet, here’s Hank acting the dad to his son. That cannot stand. There’s a similar reflex at play in “Shotgun” when Hank suggests that Gale is Heisenberg. It’d be too perfect. Had Walter the discipline, were he a little more like Gus, he’d let Hank keep believing it. But no. His ego had to get in the way. It threatens to be the aspect of his character that will eventually destroy him. And here, with the bottle of tequila, we see an earlier flowering of it.

The same impulse appears in the hardware store. Just look at these idiots. They’re using the wrong matches. And buying it all at the same store? Amateurs. It offends Walter’s ego to see them behave like this. And in his territory? No. Not on Walter’s watch. “Stay out,” he tells them, or rather, Heisenberg tells them.

And Walt? Where’s he? He’s gone. He’s over. Michael Noble


S2E11 Mandala

“A Diet Coke and five minutes of your time.”

Oh, how those nine words—spoken from a failed high school chemistry teacher to his soon-to-be-boss—would go down in the strange, dark world of Breaking Bad lore.

Season Two’s “Mandala” introduced us all to Gustavo Fring, the fast-food-chicken-joint-owning villain even angels could love for his wide smile and unassuming impression. Not since The Wire‘s Stringer Bell has it been this easy to warm up to a guy so well constructed, so immaculately presented, that he instantly becomes likeable for reasons impossible to ever truly understand. He wanted nothing to do with the unsure, rag-tag, small-time drug cooker Walter White at the time. Little did he know that before it was all said and done, he should have trusted those initial gut instincts.

Odd, for a man who built his reputation on being overly cautious and strictly professional. You would think that after a couple decades in the trade, Gus could see the trouble his potential employee was bringing his way. But, as we all know by now, Walter White has the ability to transition his life from a tropical storm into a category five hurricane on a dime, and at this moment in the narrative’s progression, the winds were only beginning to swirl.

It wasn’t just Walt who would feel the brunt of that breeze, either. Skyler, we learned here, just can’t help herself when it comes to her scummy boss, Ted Beneke, and his birthday wish that she offer up the single most awkward employee-party moment in the history of corporate America. Playing Marilyn Monroe to his JFK, she serenades her boy toy with an especially pregnant rendition of “Happy Birthday”, complete with requisite initial denials. Naturally, she later finds out that her mister-ess is cooking the books and (shock!) decides to come back for another day on the job.

Maybe not as surprising is Jane’s relapse thanks to her boyfriend, Jesse. Dabbling in meth quickly turns to her object of affection’s introduction to heroin, somewhat snakily soundtracked by the Platters. Through the duration of the series, we see Jesse hit some pretty rough patches, though this might be his lowest of lows (yes, this includes the moments after he killed Gale). The short and slight look on his face the morning after he reintroduces his muse to the dark side is reason No. 83,921 that Aaron Paul’s is the single best supporting performance television has seen.

Not lost on him is the death of his buddy Combo, whose death plays out masterfully in the can’t-miss Scenes Before The Credits. Creator Vince Gilligan’s best pitch is his curveball, and despite blowing through strike three with the heat in this instance (still can’t understand why the guy needs to be shot four thousand times for the moment to make its point), there’s no way he would have been able to earn a victory here without the help of his off-speed stuff.

It’s easy to do in retrospect, but people like to play this game with Breaking Bad a lot, so now seems to be as good a time as any to give it a whirl: if Combo doesn’t die, Jesse doesn’t insist on getting high during a visit from Jane. If Jesse doesn’t get high during a visit from Jane, Jane never falls off the wagon. If Jane never falls off the wagon, she never ends up overdosing on heroin. If Jane never ends up overdosing on heroin, her father doesn’t become distraught because of her death. If her father never becomes distraught because of her death, two planes never crash in the sky. If the two planes never crash in the sky ... well, you get it.

The point? Even the death of a throwaway character can send abnormally everlasting ripples through the always-connected Breaking Bad universe. Gilligan would have it no other way, of course, and that’s what ultimately makes a good television show great, or, in some cases, a great television show legendary. If nothing else, “Mandala” served as proof that the series was happily on its way between the first and the second superlatives in that breakdown.

Speaking of breakdowns, we found out here that our protagonist’s cancer might be headed toward doing as much. A person with ordinary morals would suggest that this means he’ll be around to raise his daughter, presumably bringing joy and happiness to a guy who at one point was eager to refuse treatment altogether and call it a day. Walter White? Well, that compass is already begging to be shifted in the opposite direction.

That’s why when Gus offers him the opportunity to prove himself, he stoops to lows unimaginably tasteless for such a vanilla guy: ignoring phone calls and text messages relaying the information that his wife is about to give birth to their second child, Walt instead opts for the hour drive to deliver the goods to the Los Pollos Hermanos mogul, hoping this will lead to a fruitful partnership.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the moment Gus tells Walt that he can never trust a drug addict after he ridicules the man about working with Jesse. Yeah, Mr. White might not be addicted to drugs proper, but what happens when a previously hapless man starts to become hooked on himself? Deliberately turning the other way when your own child is about to be brought into this world indicates, if nothing else, an obsession a certain someone might have with a certain something far stronger than a loaded needle or smoke-filled pipe could ever be.

“What do you want me to say, Jesse?” Walt asks his cohort at one point while they eagerly await meeting Gus for the first time at one of his restaurants. “Things have changed.”

And they wouldn’t stop. Colin McGuire

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