Characters, Compounds, & the Study of Change in ‘Breaking Bad: Season 3’

Creator Vince Gilligan and the writers of AMC’s Breaking Bad made their intentions known from the outset. They’re not trying to sell you a story. They’re trying to describe a process.

Breaking Bad is, ostensibly, the story of “Walter White” (Emmy winner Bryan Cranston), a brilliant chemist living a not-so-brilliant life in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the series pilot, we find Walter (affectionately and/or diminutively called “Walt” by friends and family) working as a high school chemistry teacher. He is mild in manner, conservative in dress, steady and measured in his actions. By working a second job at a car wash, he provides a decent, modest income for his wife “Skyler” (Anna Gunn) and his son “Walter, Jr.” (R.J. Mitte), who has cerebral palsy. Skyler is pregnant with a second child. Meanwhile, Walter and his family get along reasonable well with Sklyer’s nosy and rather judgmental sister “Marie” (Betsy Brandt) and Marie’s wisecracking husband “Hank Schrader” (Dean Norris), who works for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Apparently, one of the perks of Hank’s job is raiding street level methamphetamine laboratories.

Great. Now, let’s leap to the end of Season Three. At this point, Walter is facing certain death, staring down the barrel of an assassin’s gun (the assassin is “Mike”, played by a steely Jonathan Banks) because he double-crossed a successful drug distributor (Giancarlo Esposito’s “Gustavo Fring” or “Gus”) in an attempt to save the life of his business partner and former student “Jesse Pinkman”( Emmy winner Aaron Paul).

See, Walter and Jesse cook crystal methamphetamine for Gustavo in a deal summarized as “three million dollars for three months of your time.” Gustavo furnishes them with a secret high-tech laboratory disguised as a laundry facility. Skyler White, originally clueless to her husband’s criminal activity, concluded Season Two with the realization that he was up to no good, and opened Season Three with every intention of divorcing him. But by the time the finalé rolls around, not only has she remained married to him (a conscious decision because “spouses can’t be forced to testify against each other, so there’s that”), she’s explaining away his meth-gotten gains as gambling winnings from a card counting system and she’s using her bookkeeping skills to help Walter launder his money.

Hank, the DEA Agent, comes painfully close to uncovering the source of the mysterious trademark blue methamphetamine gaining ground in the region, although he still has no idea the “source” he’s searching for is none other than his mild-mannered brother-in-law. By season’s end, Hank is unable to walk, recovering from multiple gunshot wounds in a showdown with Mexican cartel assassins who, unbeknownst (again) to Hank, jumpstarted the season looking for revenge against Walter for the Season Two death of their irrational crystal meth-dealing cousin “Tuco (name pronounced ‘Two-coe’) Salamanca” (Raymond Cruz).

As for Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s frequently reckless sidekick, his story arc involves an emotional rollercoaster animated by intense grief over the Season Two drug overdose of his girlfriend “Jane Margolis” (Krysten Ritter). He tries to stabilize and reorient himself through rehab, but the experience doesn’t yield the intended results. “It’s all about accepting who you really are,” he explains in the season opener. “I’m the bad guy.” With that mindset, he quickly evens the score with his disappointed and disapproving parents, extorting them into selling their home to him for far less than the market value. He then rekindles his activities in the crystal meth trade. It’s when he’s eventually confronted with the grim realities of criminal life — the reasons behind the murder of his friend “Christian ‘Combo’ Ortega” (Rodney Rush), the misuse of children in gang life and drug peddling — that he adopts a new attitude, casting aside shades of gray or, rather, creating his own demarcations of “right” and “wrong” while blurring the ethical lines when it comes to upholding those boundaries. Often, Jesse sees the world as random and chaotic or, as he says in the ninth episode, “Kafkaesque”.

How did it get to this point? That’s always the question for Breaking Bad because the show is about process, connections, and chain reactions. Walter White didn’t just wake up one morning and decide he’d spice up his life by cooking methamphetamine and muscling his way into a business with life-or-death stakes. It was a chain of events. Walter, shortly after his 50th birthday, received a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer, which seemed to free him of his inhibitions. He quit his job at the car wash (“F*ck you and your eyebrows,” he growled at his boss on the way out) and kept his diagnosis a secret from his family.

Mostly, he didn’t want his family saddled with a mountain of hospital bills. Rather, he wanted to provide for them after his death by building a nest of cash to handle the mortgage, daily expenses, health insurance, and college tuition. After a ride-a-long to the takedown of a meth lab with his brother-in-law, Walter realized that if he coupled his knowledge of chemistry with someone else’s street expertise (enter “Jesse Pinkman”), a lot of money could be made. Where the average dude, like me, would see methamphetamine and think, “Jail”, Walter White thought, “Science”. Indeed, the high quality of his methamphetamine is revolutionizing the biz.

In Season Three, with his cancer in remission and plenty of money to burn (as he actually attempts to do in the premiere), Walter’s motive to earn cash for his family is no longer as pressing as it once was. In refusing Gustavo’s offer to cook meth under contract, he is adamant, “I have more money than I know how to spend. What I don’t have is my family.” But later, when he finally does accept Gustavo’s offer after Jesse attempts to go solo with Walter’s methamphetamine formula, Walter dons the face of a scientist who has discovered a cure for an infectious disease rather than a criminal betrayed by his partner, “I simply respect the chemistry. The chemistry must be respected.”

Watching Walter’s entry into the meth cooking business is like witnessing the origin of a superhero, or a super-villain as the case may be. As we watch, we wonder who Walter White truly is, at his core. Is he a family man, a loving husband and father? Is he really the menacing underworld figure he’s created under the name “Heisenberg”? Are these simply different facets of the same man, and he’s struggling to keep them separate?

“I’m not a criminal,” Walter says, seemingly prepared to completely exit the meth business. His hiatus doesn’t last for long. I prefer to view Walter White in conjunction with his class lecture on the principle of “chirality”, which, as he explained to his Season One chemistry class, is derived from the Greek word for “hand”. The principle here is that the right hand and the left hand are mirror images, “identical yet opposite”, or alike in all respects, except they cannot be superimposed. Although organic compounds may look the same, said Walter, they may not always behave the same.

Accordingly, Walter exhibits traits of molecular chirality, looking the same but behaving quite differently, and possessing qualities that yield drastically different results — harsh versus gentle, survival instincts versus suicidal thoughts, defiance versus resignation, and pride versus humility. Camera work on Breaking Bad frequently captures reflections of Walter, honing in on the mirror image motif. His situation, then, is more like the Bruce Banner-Incredible Hulk or Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde dichotomies than the Bruce Wayne-Batman secret identity routine. Both facets are within him — the family man and the meth cooker — and, like the Incredible Hulk, he is acutely affected by the chemical processes occurring within his body. Only, Walter White doesn’t turn green, he’s been making green — and plenty of it.

Appropriately, Breaking Bad‘s third season addresses past decisions and forces the characters to deal with the consequences. It’s a season of fallout, wherein the question is no longer about locating and resolving the ethical dilemmas of what’s been done — lying, cooking and selling methamphetamine, killing people, and so forth. Actually, the ethics of it all ceased to be the focus after just a couple of episodes in the first season, back when Walter and Jesse kidnapped mid-level drug dealer “Krazy 8” (Max Arciniega) in Jesse’s basement, clasping his neck to a pole with a bicycle lock.

Do I even need to tell you they felt they had a good reason for doing this? If you’re still hung up on ethics, just know that Krazy 8 and his cousin Emilio tried to kill them.

Trapped, Krazy 8 hoped to say anything that would allow him to escape, so he appealed to Walter’s sense of decency, “Walter, I don’t know what you think you’re doing here. But trust me. This line of work doesn’t suit you.” But little did he know Walter and Jesse had already dissolved his cousin’s body with chemicals in an upstairs bathtub, and when the chemicals ate through the tub and sank the entire mess through the second floor, they cleaned it up and flushed it all down the toilet. Once you’ve liquefied a man and sent him into the sewage system, you’ve gone far beyond debating about ethics. It’s about repercussions, now. In Season Three, seeing Walter slice the crust from his sandwiches, as was Krazy 8’s preference when Walter held him captive, does more than recall the question of whether Walter has “this lifestyle” in him. It answers that question, as Walter consumes the sandwiches rather routinely, much like he’s consumed the lifestyle.

If you didn’t watch Season Three when it aired, it matters not that I’ve told you about its finalé. It’s not about where the characters end up; it’s about how they get there. It’s about every decision, tantrum, tear, smile, grimace, flinch, and gulp in the throat that transforms these characters ever-so-surely from what they were in Seasons One and Two to what they are in Season Three and what they will become in Season Four. Breaking Bad is serial in every sense of the word — those who’ve never seen it are best advised to start from the very beginning, as Season Three revisits old enemies and acquaintances while also filling in bits of backstory to past plotlines. Tuco’s aging, ailing uncle “Tio Salamanca” (the magnificent Mark Margolis), who can only communicate nonverbally (through facial expressions, by grunting, by ringing a bell) returns — and with zero love for Walter White. Bloodlust to avenge Tuco’s death haunts the first half of this season while Walter struggles to remain with his family.

Very little about Breaking Bad is a mystery. The storyline might reveal surprise connections between characters, but the plot itself is rarely advanced by such devices. The show’s hallmark is suspense, continually developed by pitting complicated and often opposing characters against each other and letting the viewer anticipate the fireworks. The writers were upfront about this from the start, during Walter’s lecture to his chemistry class in the pilot episode:

Technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change…Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well, that’s all of life, right?…It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really.

As in chemistry, where elements possess properties such as atomic mass, density, and boiling point, Breaking Bad presents characters that possess distinct properties — intelligence, cunning, greed, compassion, ambition, and the like. That the elements and the characters are meant to be analogized is suggested by the Breaking Bad logo itself, the “Br” in “Breaking” and the “Ba” in “Bad” boxed into squares from the periodic table, as are particular letters in the names of the actors and actresses during opening credits. These characters combine, like elements forming compounds, in unexpected ways and under unanticipated conditions. Through this process, the characters undo a series of reactions, literally, and the characters change, though usually not for the better.

Every change disturbs the universe, the consequences of which might be as minor as a young child finding a gas mask left behind one of Walter and Jesse’s cooking sessions, or as major as an air traffic control worker’s pain over his daughter’s overdose causing an airplane collision that kills 167 people. Just as scientists observe physical changes in substances, like when ice melts, so too do viewers see physical changes in Breaking Bad‘s characters, most notably Walter, who has shaved his head after chemotherapy and makes changes to his facial hair. Season Three suggests dramatic transformations, akin to full scale chemical reactions, wherein the personalities and value judgments of the characters are altered. Thus, the characters themselves are changing, and they are in turn changing those around them. “Jesse, your actions — they affect other people,” Walter warns in the season’s penultimate episode. “Sometimes compromises have to be made for the best of reasons.”

The Law of Inertia Is at Work Here, Too

Characters, like elements, form and lose bonds with other characters, and can be stable or volatile depending on the circumstances. Walter White’s bond with his son has a calming effect on him. His bond with Jesse Pinkman, on the other hand, is only predictable insofar as it is usually explosive. Breaking Bad‘s characters also find themselves connected to others in bizarre and unexpected ways, as in Season Three’s revelation that the same man who employs Walter and Jesse to cook methamphetamine also employs two men who ordered a boy to shoot Jesse’s friend “Combo”. The law of inertia is also at work here: characters at rest would remain inactive or uninvolved, but once the characters are in motion, usually by virtue of their own decisions, it takes a more powerful force to stop or alter them.

The question is never whether Walter should or shouldn’t do something, or even whether he’s capable of it or not. The question is how he’s changed by whichever decision he makes, and how others react in the aftermath.

A reoccurring thread in the series is the fact that people are not always what they seem. DEA agent Hank Schrader is, on the surface, indelicate and abrasive, more concerned with crude jokes and stereotypes (he likes the term “beaners” for Hispanics) than justice. In truth, Hank is a gifted agent, with a sharp eye for detail. His nose for following the right hunches nearly leads him to catch Walter and Jesse until Walter devises a desperate ploy. By fooling Hank into believing his wife Marie was severely injured in an accident, Walter and Jesse are able to escape before he can learn the whole truth. In this instance, beneath his tough-guy exterior, we find that Hank’s emotions run deep, echoing the profound fear he experienced during his Season Two stint in Mexico. Here, though, his concern for his wife is touching, his relief in knowing she is all right is palpable, and his outrage at being duped is understandable.

Physically, Hank could be described as a little on the heavy side, and perhaps not in his athletic prime, but his back-against-the-wall takedown of Tuco Salamanca’s younger, fitter cousins in Episode Seven (“One Minute”) is absolutely impressive. Throughout the season, we see a lot of grit and determination in this character as he learns to confront the things that terrify him. Not to mention the fact that, down the line perhaps, an exciting development would be his reaction to the fact that Walter’s drug money has paid for his treatment and physical therapy.

Like Hank, Jesse Pinkman has emotional depth, and his capacity for empathy and humanity is unparalleled in this cast. By episodes 12 and 13, Aaron Paul’s portrayal has run the gamut from melancholy over his girlfriend’s death and competiveness against Walter to extreme rage upon learning that Gustavo’s men had ordered a young boy to kill his friend. Refusing to keep the peace with Gustavo’s men, Jesse confronts the kingpin, “These assholes of yours, they got an 11-year-old kid doing their killing for them. You’re supposed to be some kind of reasonable businessman. This how you do business?” With a gruff, sometimes booming voice that seems at odds with his thin stature, Jesse emotes an uncontainable sincerity that shines brighter than what he lacks in ruthlessness and thorough planning.

Thus far, Hank has gained some insight into Jesse’s criminal activities, but not Walter’s. Probably, Walter’s bespectacled, conservative demeanor belies the ruthlessness with which he has survived in the drug business. Likewise, Gustavo Fring, who also wears glasses, rarely brings attention to himself. As owner of the restaurant chain Los Pollos Hermanos (“The Chicken Brothers”), Giancarlo Esposito’s Gustavo is superbly affable, unassuming, and soft-spoken, with a slight accent that conveys his South American background. No one would guess that this man, who donates time and resources to the community, including law enforcement, would be using his restaurant chain as a front for his drug network or that he’d have designs on undermining the powerful Mexican drug cartel. “I hide in plain sight,” Gustavo tells Walter White. “Same as you.”

Along these lines, Skyler White’s discovery of Walter’s double life initially repulses her, prompting her to seek a divorce attorney and keep him far away from the family. As Walter struggles to resist her demands, Skyler begins to understand his motives, and she too ventures outside of her comfort zone. When Walter moves back into their home, and Skyler is unable — or, rather, unwilling — to remove him by informing the police of his crimes, she opts instead for an affair with “Ted Beneke” (Christopher Cousins), a divorced father of two for whom she works part-time as a bookkeeper. Calmly, she comes home and matter-of-factly lets Walter in on her secret, “I f*cked Ted.” Skyler is changing, reacting to new circumstances, slowly becoming something new and different from what she was at the start. For his part, Ted has been fraudulently cooking his company’s financial books, which Skyler previously objected to but begins to accept in Season Three.

Skyler’s descent into Walter’s criminal side, as a keeper of his secret and then as an accomplice, is a chilling yet endearing development. “This money,” he tells her in Episode Three, “I didn’t steal it. It doesn’t belong to anyone else. I earned it.” Personally, Skyler strikes me as being a bit impressed by Walter’s resilience and resolve in making his criminal enterprise work so well. Unfortunately, an enterprise that began as a means of providing his family with financial security threatens to plunge them into a lair of unknown but certain danger. Soon, everyone he cares about will be connected to methamphetamine. What’s next? Will Walter, Jr. join the family’s side business with designs on cornering the high school market?

Some of Breaking Bad‘s characters affect storylines and illuminate changes in other characters without changing much themselves. Such characters, simply by being present, impact specific outcomes. In scientific parlance, they are catalysts. Gustavo seeks to observe and ultimately control behavior, sometimes through direct meetings with a specific agenda or by manipulating temperaments that are already on a collision course. Gustavo hasn’t changed as much as he has prompted and experimented with the changes in others.

Walter, Jr. also functions as a catalyst, but in a much more passive manner, as he knows nothing of his father’s transgressions and sees his mother’s initial distance from his father as unfair. Walter, Jr. is surprisingly vocal and forthright, sometimes to a fault (“Why do you have to be such a b*tch,” he yells at his mother), but he is vital to the family dynamic. Given an opportunity to confess her husband’s crimes to the police, Skyler can’t do it because their son is in the room, declaring, “She won’t even say what my dad did, and it’s because he didn’t do anything.” Skyler’s sister Marie operates in much the same way, nursing her husband Hank back to health after he’s attacked and pushing for a positive outcome with his attitude and his physical therapy.

The best example is probably “Saul Goodman” (Bob Odenkirk), the sly attorney who is not above lying, extorting, and money laundering to help his clients, and himself, turn a profit. While he’s a bit of a caricature of the “sleazy lawyer” type, he facilitates deals, connections, and opportunities more quickly than if events were left to play out on their own. He is also a source of comic relief, signified by his name sounding like, “It’s all good, man” when he says it fast, and most of his scenes display a quick wit. Goodman, who reminds me of Gene Hackman’s “Lex Luthor” in the Superman (1978) movie, personifies the show’s ability to find the lighter side of its heaviest material. No matter how desperate the situation or how bleak a character’s outlook, there are still many laugh out loud moments. Most of the time, the lightheartedness is poignant and judiciously executed. In Episode 10, “Fly”, Walter’s obsession with a fly contaminating his state-of-the-art laboratory offers physical comedy and hijinks but does feel somewhat pedestrian compared to show’s usual rapid pulse.

Nonetheless, the “Better Call Saul” commercial extras are a comedic bonus, as are the “Pizza of Destiny: Bryan Cranston’s Greatest Shot” and “Team S.C.I.E.N.C.E.” entries. “Pizza of Destiny” has fun with a scene in which Walter’s attempt at a pizza dinner with his family is rebuffed by Skyler, provoking him to fling this giant pizza onto the rooftop. “Team S.C.I.E.N.C.E.” turns the show into a hilarious fantasy cartoon, using some of the superheroes Jesse Pinkman dreamed up in his sketchbook in the second season. With three uncensored episodes, cast and crew commentary on nine episodes, mini video podcasts for every episode, 20 episodes of Inside Breaking Bad, lots of deleted scenes, and a gag reel — Season Three’s four-disc DVD set is hardly short on goodies.

The show isn’t hurting in the cliffhanger department, either. At the close of Season Three, Walter has made a grand gesture in saving Jesse’s life, but he’s also placed himself in the crosshairs of Gustavo’s wrath. This puts Jesse in a position to return the favor and save Walter, if only he will kill the man Gustavo has handpicked to learn Walter’s special meth-making techniques, making Walter expendable. The plan is simpler to explain than to execute: if Walter’s replacement is dead, Walter becomes valuable again.

The season ends with Jesse pulling the trigger, but then the screen goes black, and we are left to wonder whether Jesse is able to commit the act. But the question isn’t whether he should or shouldn’t do it, or even whether he’s capable of it or not. The question is how he’s changed by whichever decision he makes, and how others react in the aftermath. The drama comes through in the process.



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