Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season Two

by PopMatters Staff

12 August 2013




“Doing well is the result of doing good. That’s what capitalism is all about.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s probably safe to say Ralph never came across anyone quite like Walter White kicking around 19th century rural Massachusetts. A common refrain of free market capitalism advocates is that society benefits from self-interest as a natural byproduct. A functioning society has needs and the people who fill those needs in the most efficient and cost-effective manner are the ones who best their competition in the end. It’s a warm and fuzzy worldview that, when paired with an Ambien, allows many a ruthless tycoon to sleep soundly at night on their 1,000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.

The consequences of fulfilling the public’s need do not end with the public’s temporary satisfaction of that need, however. This temporary satiation is not the solution—the solution is finding a perfect process that allows the public to always satiate that need. As the curtain finally falls on Breaking Bad‘s Second Season, the unintended consequences of Walt’s foray into crime are far more sinister than even the most experienced drug-runner could anticipate.

The butterfly effect posits that if a butterfly flaps its wings in a farmer’s field in Iowa, it can touch off a series of interconnected events that result in a tsunami in Japan. In Vince Gilligan’s frightening universe, the sensitive dependence on initial conditions begin with the purposeful omission on Walt’s part to save Jesse’s bad-news girlfriend Jane of a drug overdose. The culmination: a catastrophic mid-air collision of two commercial airplanes, guided together by an air-traffic controller consumed by his daughter’s tragic death.

In between, “ABQ” answers the question of the origins of the assorted bizarre images that sporadically lurked in the background while Walt further descended into a world of amorality. The commotion at Walt’s house as seen looking up from the blue void of his backyard pool was very much caused by Walt’s meth business; however, the federal agents on Walt’s block aren’t there to arrest Walt, they are there to clean up his mess. For as many close calls as Walt and Jesse have had, law enforcement has never been high on the list of threats. As we’re discovering, the enemies that threatened Walt and Jesse lie within every bit as much as they do in the world surrounding them.

Broken and drug-addicted, Jesse’s method of self-destruction is much more conventional than Walt’s winding path. His grief and guilt are befitting of a man who has knowledge what his deeds have wrought on the girl that he loved. The pain consumes him and he deals with it by exposing himself of all manner of awful things that can happen to a person passed out on heroin in the sketchiest crack house ever seen on television. That Walt ventures into the crack den to save Jesse against the advice of fixer Mike Ehrmantrout is hardly surprising at this point. Walt is always out to prove that he isn’t afraid of anything and as useless as he has become to the business, Walt needs Jesse because he’s the only person that the new Walt (see: Heisenberg) can trust.

Walt’s frustration over Jesse’s condition is nothing compared to his anger at being seen as a charity case. Out of all of Walt’s obvious and many faults, it’s his pride that has set in motion his life’s violent third act. A disappointing career, a death sentence from the cancer doctors, the charity of his well-meaning yuppified former business partners, these are all things that conspired to rob Walt of whatever shred of pride he once possessed. That no one in his immediate or extended family knows that he has reclaimed his sense of self with a vengeance annoys him to no end. This annoyance is brilliantly stoked by the incessant dinging of the charity website Walt Jr. has set up to accept donations for his Dad’s cancer treatments. Every ding is an indication of another soul out there moved to give to help a sorry case like Walt.

Skyler, Walt Jr., Hank, and Marie have all made what they have wanted to of Walt’s illness. Skyler uses the cancer to distract her from the lies that have become more frequent and far more audacious (can anyone say “fugue state”) to rationally explain. Walt Jr. is by far the most altruistic of the bunch. He loves his Dad and tries to contribute in the most direct method he can think of, help his seemingly cash-strapped family out with the bottom line. Hank too seems to care, although he isn’t much for having heart-to-heart chats with the ailing Walt and his contributions to the cause are limited to dropping one-liners to the boys in the DEA office before passing around a jar. The fame-mongering Marie is all too quick to turn Walt Jr.‘s social entrepreneurialism into a local Albuquerque news story.

But Walt isn’t above faking it, playing the familiar role of pathetic, sick suburban dad. He knows he must in order to keep Heisenberg alive and thriving. He plays the game of loving father, doting husband, mensch-of-a-guy brother-in-law as well as he can. But the edges are fraying. While Skyler has intimated some of her suspicions of Walt throughout the season, she loves and pities him enough to warehouse her fears about what might be really going on. Walt is far from a perfect liar and the cracks in his story split wide open when he groggily inquires to Skyler about which cell phone of his she is asking about before finally succumbing to the effects of his pre-surgery anesthesia.

At the close of “ABQ”, Skyler wants Walt out. She admits that she is too scared to know the truth and that the bits of verity that she has been able to cobble together paint a scary enough of picture of what Walt is doing to himself and by extension to her and her children.

In real time, Walt has not even been dealing meth for a year. However, his world has changed irrevocably. His relationships both inside and outside of his straight life are breaking apart and being torn to shreds worse than that one-eyed pink bear floating in his pool. The mid-air collision that Walt indirectly-but in a way entirely directly caused-is almost an afterthought at the close of Season Two. The personal carnage, the stuff we are more intimately connected to as an audience is mounting at breakneck pace. “Doing good” has its costs and they are huge.

We knew nothing would be the same the moment Walt decided to buy an RV with the sole purpose of cooking meth. Now we’re seeing what that new world looks like. Robert Downs Schultz

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//Mixed media