Jesse Pinkman (dressed in red) looks on as his younger brother works at a computer

Bad Nauseam: “Cancer Man” & “Gray Matter”

Cancer Man

Walter reveals his cancer at a family barbecue. Jesse seeks solace at his parents’ house.

A slower episode than the previous three, but it gives the audience an opportunity to learn a bit more about our characters and how they think. Walter finally comes clean to his extended family that he has terminal cancer and I love the build up to this reveal. Walt is focusing on all the little pleasures he never fully appreciated before – the smell and sound of meat cooking on a BBQ, the feeling of a cold can against his skin. The writing and direction is excellent and the cute story of how Walt took up crossword puzzles in order to break the ice with Skyler makes them feel like a real and affectionate couple.

The conversation in the lounge later that night also shows another side of Walter – his inability to express his desires. Hank, Marie and Skyler are having an intense discussion about Walt’s cancer diagnosis, but he is barely saying anything. This doesn’t seem like denial on his part – if we think back to Walt’s birthday party, he behaved very passively when Hank was making fun of him. Walt has clearly allowed bad relationship dynamics to develop by refusing to challenge them. We get a great example of this in the closing moments of the scene, where Hank says that “whatever happens … I’ll always take care of your family.” You can just see the anger and sense of emasculation in Walt’s face, but he is unable to express any of this.

Bryan Cranston portraying a man suppressing the urge to punch his brother-in-law in the face

Meanwhile, we learn more about Jesse and his similar struggle to build supportive relationships. We meet his friends Combo and Skinny Pete1, who threaten to walk out of his house unless he smokes crystal meth with them, despite Jesse saying it has been making him paranoid. Unable to rely on his friends, Jesse flees to his parents’ house, who are reluctant to let him stay because of his drug habit.

It is obvious that the Pinkmans aspire to be a “respectable” upwardly-mobile family, and their eldest son doesn’t really fit into this vision. It is unclear why Jesse was thrown out, but I like that his younger brother Jake has also started to use drugs, presumably as a way to cope with the unrealistic expectations placed upon him. I do think Jake is a bit too young to be able to purchase marijuana, but the writers have made their point – drug consumption isn’t just something “bad” people do. This will be a theme the show explores more in the future.

Odds and Ends

  • I haven’t really mentioned the creator of Breaking Bad Vince Gilligan yet, but he got his start on X Files and “Cancer Man” is a reference to one of the antagonists in that series who smoked all the time.2
  • I believe that this is the first time Jesse calls someone a “b***h” – better get used to it because it is going to become a semi-official catchphrase for him.
  • Jesse throws the drug money at Walt when he visits him, which falls into the pool and symbolically “befouls” it. Walt then uses a pool skimmer to remove it, reinforcing the metaphor.
  • The Pinkmans have a hispanic housekeeper – this helps highlight the racial hierarchy of New Mexico society, although this may have been unintentional on the part of the writers.
  • Obviously, Walter shouldn’t have blown up the rich asshole’s car (it was parked right next to a petrol pump you fool!) but it is hard to feel upset about it. Of course, that is the point – our protagonist needs to slowly do more and more extreme things while still remaining sympathetic.
  • This is the only time we see Jesse’s younger brother, but his parents will turn up for the next two seasons and in El Camino.3

Gray Matter

Walt and Skyler attend the birthday party of an affluent former colleague. In the aftermath, Walt decides to undergo cancer treatment and keep cooking crystal meth with Jesse.

If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, you’ve heard a variation on this joke:

“A British version of the show is in the works – it’s one episode long, as Walt is diagnosed with cancer and receives free treatment on the NHS.”

The thing is, medical bills are not the reason Walter embraced a life of crime, and this episode explains that very thoroughly.

We see a different side of Walt when he attends his friend Elliott’s birthday party. He is a better conversationalist; he smiles more. While he is in awe of the wealth around him, he is socially adept enough to navigate the party and choose an appropriate gift. You can be forgiven for wondering why he ever left Gray Matter (the successful company he helped create) if people at this party still remember Walter’s accomplishments as a postgraduate chemist?

Walt and Skyler being welcomed to the party by Elliott and Gretchen

Turns out, Walt’s pride and passivity is what has been holding him back. Elliott offers him a job as a consultant – a position that would make him subordinate to his old friends but would still bring him a lot of money and prestige. Walt turns it down and becomes enraged when Elliott then suggests paying for his cancer treatment. We don’t see the end of this conversation, just Walter snapping at Skyler afterwards, implying that he didn’t have the courage to tell Elliott to his face how angry the offer made him. As they leave the mansion, Walt berates Skyler for discussing his diagnosis with “people who are not even in our lives anymore” – a statement that is unconvincing after all the fun we saw him have at the party.

This scene is important because it shows us that Walter was not forced to become a criminal – he had other options, a support network he could draw upon. The issue is that it would require him to face up to his own sense of inadequacy and his past mistakes, something he refuses to do. Like Hank, he defaults to the comfort of toxic masculinity.

This theme is explored further during the intervention organised by Skyler. This could have just been a repeat of the discussion the family had in the last episode but thankfully the show decides to focus on how each character thinks about disease. Skyler believes that medical costs and pride are the main reason her husband does not want chemotherapy that would extend his lifespan. While this is a valid concern, as the segment progresses Skyler becomes less and less sympathetic. Marie (in her best moment in Breaking Bad so far) says that Walt’s decision to decline treatment is a valid one, considering how debilitating the side effects can be, and Skyler just explodes at her. Skyler cares about keeping her husband alive for as long as possible – all other concerns are secondary to her.

Fun fact: this is Betsy Brandt’s favourite scene in the entire show

It is Walt Jr.’s intervention though that I find the most interesting. He starts by calling his dad “a p***y” – a typical patriarchal insult – but then asks why his parents encouraged him to go through physical therapy, reassured him that it was OK to use crutches, if his dad is frightened of side effects? Walter begins to weep as he hears this – his son has never measured up to the patriarchial ideal of virility, but Jr. had to learn to accept that. Now Walt must examine what makes life worth living, and if he believed what he told his son for all those years.

Unfortunately, this is why I find the ending sort of unsatisfying. Walter takes charge for once, overcoming his passivity to tell everyone that he is frightened of losing his autonomy. He worries that he will have nothing left to enjoy in life if he accepts treatment. His wife will be reduced to his nurse, tending to a man who cannot reciprocate affection or even leave his bed. Walt shows vulnerability and tries to tell his son why their situations are different, but the writers don’t give us a good resolution. Walter wakes up in bed the next day and quickly decides that he will undertake chemotherapy. This could be interpreted as Walt realising he needs to appease his family, but it feels jarring after the affecting speech he gave earlier.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain – by choosing to undergo treatment but not accepting Elliott and Gretchen’s money, Walt now has justification to work with Jesse again. He needs cash and that means cooking crystal meth, whatever the consequences might be.

Odds and Ends

  • The guests at Elliott’s party wearing beige while Skyler and Walt wear blue isn’t just a one-off joke. Gilligan and the production/costume designers would meet every season and decide what specific colours would represent and which characters would be associated with them – something for new viewers to look out for as the show progresses.
  • Hank, despite being a DEA agent, isn’t too concerned about his nephew trying to buy alcohol or his brother-in-law smoking marijuana – it raises questions on how much he actually believes in the War on Drugs.
  • Jesse has a subplot with his friend Badger4 that is mostly disposable but there are two things I like about it:
    1) Jesse knowing all the right names for the glassware in the RV is a nice understated way to show that he is learning from Walter.
    2) The fight with Badger was easily avoidable, and when the brawl starts Jesse thinks it’s a good idea to throw dangerous chemicals in his friend’s face – he is bad at fighting and at managing conflict!
  • We never find out exactly what happened between Walt, Elliott and Gretchen but Peekaboo (Series 2, Episode 6) and Buyout (Series 5, Episode 6) suggests that he left for petty personal reasons and remains in denial about it.
  • Jesse’s desire to make the best meth he possibly can could be linked to the story he tells in Kafkaesque (Series 3, Episode 9) about Mr Pike’s woodworking class.
  • Walter’s fear of becoming “artificially alive, just marking time … and that’s how you would remember me” is reinforced in Salud (Series 4, Episode 10), when we learn about the circumstances of his own father’s death.
  • This video has spoilers for all the remaining seasons, but it persuasively argues that Gray Matter was a turning point for Walter’s character and the show:

Please use spoiler tags in the comments, as some Avocadians are watching Breaking Bad for the first time