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Television

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

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.

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."

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