Friday, 8 July 2011

Unfinished Business: Breaking Bad first season review (Ep. 6/7)

['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.]

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, as far as I can understand it, says that it is impossible to measure both the present and future state of a subject at the same time with an equal amount of precision. In other words, the more exactly one state is observed will directly impact on the accuracy of observations of the second state. 

How elegantly damning is it, then, that Walter White chose to adopt the street name 'Heisenberg' under which to conduct his future in the meth black market? He is a man whose two identities seem to be in a constant state of flux, with the influence of each determining the direction of the other. The more we see of Walter White, downtrodden chemistry teacher, the more unpredictable it makes Heisenberg, the meth wizard and risk-taker. The more we see of Heisenberg, the less we can say about what will become of Walter White. They represent the same body in two different states, but the more we see and learn about either, the less we seem able to say about how or where they will end up. In a momentous episode, the man Heisenberg took control of the present, but might have cost Walter White his future.
The idea of change has been at the heart of Breaking Bad's first season. In the pilot episode, Walter White extolled the virtues of that concept to his students whilst being every bit the man who avoided it in everyday life to his constant cost. When cancer forced change upon him, he took a chance on making a change he thought he could control, for once. Yet the more he thought about and prepare for the future, the less he was able to control the present. Walter White wanted to make a straight swap: a moral compromise for his family's well-being once he had passed away. To say that things didn't quite go to plan is an understatement of meth-ological proportions. Heh. Pun.

Yet change cannot only exist in the future, as a new goal whose success can be measured by the ease of making a decision in the present. Walt could never have predicted that his decision would result in the birth of Heisenberg, a new person that has been growing within Walter White until finally emerging five episodes later. Now that we've seen the consequences of Walt's decision play out in the present, his future - if the Walter identity has one anymore - is blurrier than ever. Once, he would have died of his cancer, loved by his family but as anonymously in death as in life. Now he's fighting that cancer, fighting for his right to make a mark on the world, but also fighting to be the same man his family loves. Walter Jr. says his dad's new shaved-head is "badass" - surely the last word anyone would previously have used to describe Walter Sr.

The Uncertainty Principle, so important to every aspect of this episode, was beautifully played out through one of the programme's forward-flashing openings, this time contrasting Walter making the point that he is "just the chemist" to Jesse, before jumping to a bald, bloodied Heisenberg (not that we knew his new name yet) walking calmly away from devastation behind him. No Jesse, the man supposedly charged with handling the street-level side of the business, in sight. We observe the present and the future, yet don't know enough about either to say how one will become the other.

The poker game that follows is another masterfully judged scene, not only for reinforcing the importance of Uncertainty to the episode - Hank thinks he can predict Walt's hand through his knowledge of the man he thinks is sitting in front of him, yet his idea of the future is distorted by his inability to maintain his focus on what has been going on in the present - but also foreshadowing key events between the two. Despite his early mistake, he constantly falls for Walt's bluffs and cannot conceive that his brother-in-law might be the man responsible for the supposed break-in at the school chemistry department, as well as the super-pure meth leaking onto the streets, despite Walt rationally being a strong candidate to have done both. But equally so, Walt's determination to maintain his present state leads to an unexpected and unpleasant change in the future, where the kindly janitor Hugo is arrested.

But the real change comes in the main plot, where Walt realises that he and Jesse's little operation needs to expand in order to bring in the money he needs. Walt formulates that finding a wholesale distributor will allow them to continue as they are doing, but with significantly more money coming in. Thus, he sends Jesse off to use his one connection to get a meeting and make a deal with the main drug lord in town, who goes by the name of Tuco. But again, Walt seems so fixated on his plan for the future that his previous troubles with former distributor Krazy 8 seem to have been largely forgotten, and soon enough Jesse is in a hospital bed and Walt has to take over the business side of the operation, which he vowed never to touch.

Walt's transformation into Heisenberg has been marked by moments of chemistry-related badassery, in his dispatch of the two drug dealers threatening his life in the pilot episode to the destruction with a window washer of an obnoxious man's car later on. This episode had Heisenberg at both his most awesome and most terrifying. 

Shaven headed, he walks into the dank office of the man who has beaten his lieutenant to a pulp and demands $50k in cash for his product, plus Jesse's pain and suffering. When Tuco tries to assert himself, Heisenberg shows he means business by blowing out the wall of the office. (Again, Tuco is too fixated on what he sees in the present to realise the improbability of the situation, leading to him surrendering his negotiating position in the future). Having acquired everything he demanded, Heisenberg walks back to his car, away from the havoc left in his wake. Before setting off, he lets out a paroxysm of violent celebration for his victory. Yet what he's celebrating is only the present, and as the hospital-ridden Jesse should be a reminder of, being in business with a man like Tuco makes the future far from a certain deal.

Until this episode, Breaking Bad's first season has predominantly comprised of strong episodes held back from greatness by little annoyances or compromises. With the season finale still to come, 'A Crazy Handful of Nothin'' was the first time it felt like the program's reputation had not only been fully justified, but exceeded. It promises a future that is thrillingly unpredictable.

Best Moment: Heisenberg emerges victorious from Tuco's destroyed headquarters.


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