Crazy Handful of Nothin’
Jesse tries to negotiate with a high-level dealer and pays the price. In order to avenge his partner, Walter adopts a new persona.
Rewatching this episode, it occurred to me that Jesse Pinkman is not an experienced drug dealer, despite what I assumed when I first watched the pilot. “Cap’n Cook” talked big but he was perfectly happy selling a little crystal meth here and there to friends and acquaintances. Walt has other ideas – he wants as much money as he can lay his hands on and is willing to put his partner in dangerous situations to get it. Jesse would never have been brutally beaten (or been an accessory to multiple murders) if it wasn’t for Walter’s machinations.
Jesse’s attacker is a drug lord named Tuco and I’m in two minds about this character. Actor Raymond Cruz is drawing upon real-life experiences – he grew up in East L.A. with gang members in his own family. When he was thirteen, he saw a man high on PCP climb onto a police car and smash the windscreen in with his bare feet. Cruz tried to capture this mania and sense of spectacle in his performance.1
On the other hand, combining “violent” and “mentally unstable” to portray a villain is deeply unoriginal and, to be frank, problematic when addicts and the mentally ill are much more likely to be marginalised by society or murdered by the police. It also doesn’t allow for suspence to build when Tuco is on-screen, because he has no restraint and over-reacts to everything. When I compare these scenes to the negotiations in the basement with Krazy-8, there is no contest for which one I find more engaging.
However, there is one interaction with Tuco that I really like. In the aftermath of the mercury explosion, all of Tuco’s bravado has gone – he cannot bully or threaten his way out of this situation. He speaks slowly, more deliberately, making sure he and Walt understand one another and can work together for mutual gain. There is also a note of curiosity in his voice at how this unassuming man was able to outsmart him. I appreciate the contrast here.
One last point I’d like to touch upon. Walter restarts his partnership with Jesse by announcing that he wants “no interaction … whatsoever” with the people who are buying his meth; he is foolish enough to think that he can break the law and compartmentalise the consequences. What’s interesting is that the show proves Walt wrong in two distinct ways. Obviously, he adopts the moniker of “Heisenberg” so he can negotiate with Tuco directly, but there is also Walt’s relationship with Hugo, the custodian at his school.
Hugo is a bit character but he was only ever kind and considerate to Walter, reassuring him that he can clean up his vomit and offering his colleague some chewing gum to remove the foul taste from his mouth. Nevertheless, because Walt stole chemistry equipment from the school, Hugo is publicly arrested, fired from his job and sent to jail. Walter could have prevented all of this if he had confessed, or even just taken the effort to cover his tracks a little better. He might have temporarily bested Tuco, but Walt cannot (and often will not) stop innocent people from getting hurt – his hands will never be clean again.
Odds and Ends
- It is a crime that I haven’t mentioned Breaking Bad cinematographer Michael Slovis yet, as this might be the most beautiful episode of the show so far. The lighting and camera angles in the teaser; the lingering shots of Albuquerque and the surrounding desert; Walt’s hair falling out in the shower and the blood in his urine. There is so much care and attention behind the camera here.
(ETA – Turns out I was wrong as Slovis didn’t join the show until Season 2. John Toll was the cinematographer for the Pilot; Reynaldo Villalobos was responsible for the rest of Season 1.)
- During the montage of Jesse “slinging crystal”, he doesn’t just sell to junkies but also to businessmen in suits and a middle-aged woman using a laundromat. Once again, we are being shown that people from all walks of life use drugs – it isn’t limited to addicts and deviants.
- In Cancer Man, Hank wasn’t too concerned about his brother-in-law smoking marijuana but he absolutely relishes arresting Hugo – “a major league pot head” – humiliating him outside the school before tearing the man’s house apart in a police search. Race is clearly the reason why Hank was so aggressive towards one person and so lenient towards another so fuck him.
- Season 1 was originally going to have nine episodes, but this had to be reduced to seven due to a writers’ strike. Looking back, this would have been a stronger series finale than the next episode – it literally ends with a bang!
- Tuco is a member of the Salamanca family, part of a Mexican cartel who will be periodic antagonists on Breaking Bad until the end of Season 4.
- Walt starts this episode demanding that he cooks on his own but as time passes, he comes to rely on Jesse’s assistance. By the end of the show, Jesse can make crystal meth just as well as Walter can.
A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal
Walt and Jesse ramp up their production of crystal meth and cement their business relationship with Tuco. Skyler realises that her sister is a shoplifter.
I think this is the weakest episode so far – not necessarily bad, but the script isn’t as strong as previous entries. Over and over, we keep coming back to the topic of illegality – Walt and Skyler having sex in public; Marie stealing jewellery; Hank’s cuban cigars. Walter actually asks his wife directly at one point what she would do if he broke the law. There is almost no subtlety in the writing and that is concerning when this is the first script from Peter Gould, who will be responsible for ten more episodes of the show.
That said, everything about the methylamine heist is great. The deal Walt struck with Tuco after blowing up his office is recontextualised from a moment of dominance to a man ignorant about the meth business promising far more than he can deliver. Jesse admonishes his partner for not understanding that the pseudoephedrine they have been using to cook comes from over-the-counter cold medicine, and they cannot buy or steal enough tablets to make two pounds of meth every week. I appreciate the amount of time Breaking Bad is dedicating to the difficulties of mass-producing illicit substances – these are the kind of details a lesser show would skip over to get to the “more exciting” stuff, but watching our protagonists overcome obstacles in a realistic way is engaging.
As for Marie’s subplot, I think it is necessary for Betsy Brandt’s character to get more screentime and explore her relationship with the rest of the cast. Unfortunately, a shoplifting habit is not the best way to accomplish this. If you are going to give a character in your story a flaw, you need to contrast it with their more positive qualities. Marie not even acknowledging that her older, heavily pregnant sister was detained because of something she did makes her extremely unlikeable for no good reason, and robs us of a more dramatic and tense argument between the sisters that might have actually been interesting to watch.
Odds and Ends
- The parents at the meeting demand that the school be fitted with metal detectors and sniffer dogs after Hugo’s arrest, essentially turning it into a prison. This came across to me as darkly comedic – a bunch of panicking adults making their children’s lives worse because of their own paranoia. I certainly found it a lot funnier than anything that happened during the open house segment.
- While I don’t like Marie’s subplot, I do appreciate that Skyler used patriarchal expectations to her advantage when the store detained her, heavily playing up her vulnerability as a pregnant woman so that the two men would let her go. It wasn’t the most dignified solution, but it shows emotional intelligence on her part.
- This is the first appearance of “blue meth”, which will be the signature product of Walter and Jesse from this point onwards. The method they use to cook it is based on a real technique called phenyl-2-propanone (or P2P) – it was used by biker gangs in the 1970s.
- The scene with the estate agents2 causes a minor continuity error later in the show. While Jesse lives in his aunt’s old house (having cared for her when she was dying of cancer), his parents are the ones who actually own it. They will kick him out in Down (Series 2, Episode 4) after discovering a meth lab in the basement.
- The next season starts in this junkyard, with the characters dealing with the immediate aftermath of No-Doze’s horrific beating.