Cat’s in the Bag…
Skyler becomes suspicious of her husband’s behaviour. Meanwhile, Walter and Jesse have to deal with a corpse and a hostage.
In case it wasn’t obvious from my entry on the pilot, Bad Nauseam is not going to be an in-depth recap of the events of each episode. If you want that kind of detail, I highly recommend that you check out the Breaking Bad Wiki, lovingly created by fans of the show and packed with plot synopses. What I want to focus on is the themes, performances, character beats – in short, the deeper and more interesting things that the plot facilitates.
For example, while re-watching this episode I appreciated how quickly Skyler became suspicious of Walter’s behaviour. She doesn’t buy for a moment that Walt was talking to a telemarketer on the phone and directly confronts her husband about it. It shows an attention-to-detail in the script and makes things feel real.1 Walt can’t just rely on luck or plot contrivances to succeed as a drug dealer – he (and by extension the writers) have to work for it.
This is also the first episode where the show comments on drug consumption. Walter smokes a joint of marijuana, while later on Jesse uses a glass pipe. They both use drugs for fairly benign reasons – to dull their senses and escape from the horrible situation they have found themselves in – but a precedent has been set. Breaking Bad is not just going to depict drug use but also explore the reasons why people take them.
Finally, I want to draw attention to Jesse’s website profile. We only see it briefly but the page is full of Jesse’s attempts to live up to patriarchal ideals. He boasts about his sexual prowess, including pictures of himself fully clothed while surrounded by women wearing comparatively little. He also makes his life sound more violent than it actually is, claiming that he was educated on “the STREETS, YO!” and into motorcross & martial arts. This ultra-masculine bravado does not tally with Jesse’s childish pleading to Walt that they “flipped a coin” and he doesn’t want Krazy-8 in his basement anymore. Jesse is not as competent or self-confident as he makes out, and that is going to get him into trouble.
Odds and Ends
- Kind of weird that the man who tows the RV out of the ditch doesn’t talk. I presume he speaks English?!
- I like that Walter keeps stealing equipment and chemicals from the school – it makes sense and is more exciting than the characters just buying everything they need.
- A real mixed bag of an episode when it comes to special effects. The composition of the fake scenery through the RV windscreen at the start looks atrocious but the final shot – Emilio’s partially-dissolved body crashing through the ceiling and viscera flying everywhere – is spectacular.
- This can be considered the first time the writers use one of their favourite plot devices: “Walt and Jesse have a big problem and they use science to solve it”. Other examples include when they were both stuck in the desert or when Walt used arcing electricity to free himself from Mike’s zip ties.
- We get a callback to this episode in Box Cutter (Series 4, Episode 1) where Jesse and Walt use hydrofluoric acid to dispose of Victor’s body after Gus Fring murders him to make a point.
…And the Bag’s in the River
Walter must finally decide what he is going to do about Krazy-8.
I consider this to be one of the best episodes of Breaking Bad. All of the episodes in Season 1 are of a consistently high quality, but the sequence in the basement between Walter and Krazy-8 left a lasting impression on me. The characters are placed in a Hitchcockian situation: one of them has to die, unless they can successfully negotiate some kind of truce. Walt desperately wants to let his hostage go but he knows that Krazy-8 can use that desperation against him. Particular praise needs to be given to actor Max Arciniega, who is easily matching the performance of the much more experienced Cranston.
The scene also challenges the audience’s expectation of what a hispanic drug dealer must be like. The first thing we saw Krazy-8 do in the pilot was train his rottweiler to attack people. He carries a gun and drives a lowrider. Yet in the basement, we learn that his real name is Domingo, he used to work at his family’s furniture store and he has a degree from the University of New Mexico. He has been putting on an ultra-masculine, domineering persona – something we have seen Jesse try (and fail) to do.
The sequence comes to a crescendo with Walt discovering that Domingo has stolen a shard of broken crockery, a reveal all the more satisfying because the show gave us all the clues needed to work this out ahead of time. Walt’s subsequent act of murder, a brutal and graphically-depicted garroting with a bike lock, feels earned by the narrative. I interpreted it as Walt’s sense of betrayal giving him just enough temporary resolve to take another human’s life, an act he takes no joy in. He didn’t triumphantly vanquish an enemy – he murdered a young man in a filthy basement.
I haven’t really discussed Hank and Marie yet, but until this episode they haven’t done much worthy of attention. Marie and Skyler are siblings and while actress Betsy Brandt is doing her best with the material she’s been given, she doesn’t really have a character yet beyond “prying younger sister”. Hank2, on the other hand, gets more to do from the writers. When Marie thinks that Walt Jr. has been smoking marijuana, she convinces Hank to try and “scare him straight“. So, Hank decides to take his nephew to a downmarket motel.
This scene is interesting because Hank clearly does not think highly of the residents of “the Crystal Palace” and uses a lot of dehumanising language, blaming the poverty around him on moral failings. However, we know from his earlier conversation with Marie that Hank doesn’t think marijuana is that dangerous or that gateway drugs are a real thing. Hank also tries to be emotionally vulnerable and bond with his nephew over how frightening the world can be, but he stops the moment he realises he can shout at a sex worker and use his authority to humiliate her and teach Walt Jr. a lesson. Hank defaults to the comfort of toxic masculinity.
On that point, I should mention the racist and antagonistic “banter” that keeps taking place between Hank and his DEA partner Steve Gomez.3 I find it difficult to decide what the tone is supposed to be during these conversations – they insult each other but neither of them gets too upset about it. It could be a commentary on the difficulty men have expressing emotions in a healthy way. That said, Hank regularly assumes that meth dealers have to be hispanic and treats these suspects roughly, so is there an element of tokenism in the way he treats the Mexican-American Gomez? Something to watch out for in future episodes.
Odds and Ends
- In 2017, Dean Norris was accused of sexual assault – no charges were filed but if I praise Norris’ performance in Bad Nauseam, please do not construe that as approval of him as an individual.
- The lab partner in the flashback is Gretchen, who will be introduced properly in Gray Matter. I suppose technically that is a spoiler, but the first time I watched this episode I assumed it was Skyler. It’s not!
- Jesse has less screentime in this episode, but that feels like the right choice as it gives more room for the conversation between Walter and Krazy-8/Domingo.
- Last week we were treated to some homophobic language, and now we get to enjoy some ableist slurs. A very rough start to this re-watch…
- Wendy (sensitively credited as “Meth Whore“) will return in two future episodes – the show’s depiction of sex work leaves a lot to be desired, but the writers will explore drug addiction in a much more nuanced way in the next season.
- Marie steals the shoes from the store more out of entitlement than anything else but in Open House (Series 4, Episode 3), her acts of theft are portrayed much more sympathetically and are clearly connected to the attack on Hank’s life and the strain this has put on their marriage.