Monday, 27 June 2011

Unfinished Business: Breaking Bad first season review (Ep. 5/7)

['Unfinished Business' is a feature where I take up an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it.]

So near and yet so far. Walter White's ill-fated initial incursion into the crystal meth trade may have given him a newfound ability to assert himself, but underneath all the bravado, it turns out he's as weak as ever. There's an ever-widening divide between Walt the family man and his meth-cooking alter ego, yet the latter is beginning to exert its dominance over the former. For a moment, it looked as though it might go the other way: when Walt stated his desire to make his own decisions, it seemed as though the confidence gained (at considerable cost) from his second life had given him the opportunity to make a clear choice about the final months of his life, going to his death with dignity and leaving his catastrophic flirtation with the dark side behind. Yet where Walt the meth cook is cold but confident, Walt the family man is empathetic to the point of self-destruction and can't bring himself to stand by his decision if it means disappointing his family.

One of the recurring themes of the past four episodes has been the consequences of making a terrible choice and whether it is better to accept those consequences with your soul intact, or to keep fighting them off no matter the damage done. In this episode, 'Grey Matter', Walt proves that though he may be relieved to have got out of his scrape with Krazy-8 alive, he hasn't learnt his lesson. This episode was all about choices, and Walt continues to make all the wrong ones.
As is becoming a regular occurance, Jessie functioned as a mirror to Walt's dilemma. The opening scene, where he scrubs up in a suit and applies for what he believes is a sales job (but in fact involves dressing up as a mascot and waving a promotional sign outside a shop), had him making a token attempt to go straight but being pulled back into the drugs life by the difficulty of his circumstances. Walt, on the other hand, has every opportunity to get away with his dignity intact - albeit with the memory of the men he killed still lingering in his memory - yet makes the conscious decision to repeat his previous error.

To an extent, both characters were derailed by pride: Jessie reacts with disgust when he realises the nature of the job opening, while Walt refuses to accept the charity of his rich friend who, upon learning of his condition, offers to pay for the treatment. But Jessie, I think, makes a decision that is at least understandable: his 'opportunity' is a humiliating minimum-wage position that hardly qualifies as a way to start a new life. He makes the effort to scrub up, tries to present himself professionally (although is clearly struggling) and even though it doesn't take him long to abandon his attempts at clean-living and revert to old ways, the effort seemed sincere. As much as it's easy to castigate young people getting involved in the drugs world, if you have no qualifications or chance of being able to make a good living, is it right to look down on them for taking their one opportunity to make decent money? That's not to suggest that it is in any way laudable, but the problem is as much with society forcing a certain kind of young man into an impossible loop, as with the people themselves.

Unfortunately, Jessie's operations have been as disrupted by Walt as Walt was by the opportunity Jessie offered him in the pilot. Having previously sold Walt's perfectly cooked product, he realises that his credibility will be shot by now offering anything less. His moronic, crossbow-wielding friend Badger can't understand this and despairs at the sight of him throwing out what appears to be perfectly good-enough crystal. Badger is symbolic of Jessie's old life and his association with the lowest of the low. Leaving him behind in the desert - something for the series to return to later on? - seems to be Jessie proving that he's not satisfied to stay on the bottom rung of the latter any more, and that if he can't go clean, he's at least ready to make the best he can out of his bad situation.

If Jessie's story involved the acceptance that his old life of crime was the only way to make the most of himself, at least in financial terms, Walt's was about his inability to accept a return to his old life, morally sound but subservient. Unlike Jessie, every avenue was open to him, yet at every crossroads, he walked down the wrong path. At the party for his rich college friend Elliot, though he would have effectively been accepting charity, it was lessened by the face-saving disguise of arriving in the form of a new job, which he was entirely qualified for. He refuses, as we learn later, because he feels that he has never been giving the opportunity to decide the direction of his life for himself. He's as much a slave to his own weaknesses here as he previously has been to circumstances, though: his pride leads him to refuse Elliot's offer, and though he now has the confidence to speak up for himself during the family 'intervention', he can't stick by his choice if it means making his family unhappy. 

Yet his explanation the night before of why he didn't want to go forward with the treatment showed he was considering his family then, but had found a middle ground where he too was able to lead the short but dignified life he hoped for. As has been proven time and time again in just four episodes, Walt is not a long-term thinker, and his quick retreat smacks of short-termism. He's going to try and survive, no matter the cost in terms financial or personal. It looked for a while as though Walt's fall into the abyss would derive from that single bad decision in the pilot. Given the opportunity to make amends though and go back to a decent if shortened life, we now know that whatever is waiting for him in the future, he has no-one to blame but himself.

Best Moment: The long wait to hear Elliot's reaction to Walt's half-hearted 'gift' of ramen noodles was agonising. As was Walt's Roger Moore blazer.


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