AMC’s Breaking Bad
Season 1, Episode 4: “Cancer Man”
Directed by Jim McKay
Written by Vine Gilligan
* For a review of the previous episode, “…And the Bag’s in the River” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Gray Matter” – click here
Agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) introduces a new operation for the DEA. They have their eyes on Krazy-8, whose car was found in the desert recently with high-grade meth in it. Turns out, he was ratting on people. They’re both missing, which we know already. But the focus here is the methamphetamine – purest their lab “has ever seen“. The gas mask found out there tested for the same grade meth.
Amazing editing here. Cutting from Hank talking about a new kingpin in the city to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in his tighty whiteys, brushing his teeth like a dummy and looking hilarious, it is absolute genius. Makes all the difference for the writing and a juxtaposition for us to see what irony there is in this statement.
At the White residence, everyone is having a nice barbecue. Walt and Hank are poolside by the grill, as Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Marie (Betsy Brandt) are sitting in the shade, the latter having a drink. The happy family is happy, though, Skyler eyes Walt; not suspiciously, but with a sad eye. At the end of the previous episode he was about to reveal something to her. She knows something now, and it weighs on her. Heavy. In fact, as the story of Skyler meeting Walt for the first time (over crossword puzzles) comes out from his lips, she breaks down slightly and their strong front is weakened. Walt then tells everybody what’s been going on: he has terrible cancer. Everyone is obviously shocked, Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) is devastated. Worse than that is the fact Walt hid it from his family so long, a whole month. He’s just such a strong, independent type. He doesn’t want people doting on him, worrying, and most of all he doesn’t seem like a person who wants other people to make his decisions. Walter is a man of principle, despite his faults. When Hank says “I‘ll always take care of your family“, you can see the look on Walt’s face; an appreciation is there, but the fact is he wants to take care of them. Only him.
Walt: “You know I, I just think, that ah, things have a way of working themselves out.”
Jesse (Aaron Paul) introduces his friends Combo (Rodney Rush) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) to the new product he and Walt cooked up. Now, the meth is out there. It’s already digging claws into addicts. Even Jesse alone, who we find in the next scene alone by the window, paranoia running wild as he peers outside, smoking another bowl. The editing again here is perfect. It brings out his paranoia so well. Then he has a vision of two bikers coming up over his lawn wielding weapons. This entire sequence really plays with your head for a few seconds before you figure out what’s actually happening – two Mormons are knocking at the door, leaving a pamphlet when nobody answers. Meth psychosis is real, folks.
Tending to the plate shard wound in his leg at home, Walt uses a bit of glue to seal the wound, patching a bandage over top. Then a little blood seeps through his pant leg. The whole time he coughs and hacks over the sink. His double life is ever so slowly, like the blood through his pants, soaking into the fabric of his regular life, Skyler just outside the door knocking and wondering what’s going on.
More money piles up in debt at Walt’s door, as Skyler and Marie have hooked up a five-star oncologist to give a second opinion on the lung cancer. There is a further need for money now, worse than before. This will likely drive Walter back to the meth instead of staying away from Jesse and that entire world. The double life reels him back in. For the time being, he uses money from the stash in a vent, conveniently in the baby’s new room.
We see Walt have a run-in with a guy who steals his parking spot. Well, there’s no confrontation, only a pissed of Walt left waiting in the lot. Inside the bank this guy talks loud enough to fill the room, everybody noticing his obnoxious nature, which isn’t easy to ignore. Walt eyes him with an evil eye, then goes about his business. This is not a red herring, a passing thing. We’ll come back to this guy and his vanity license plate.
Cut to Jesse falling all over the patio furniture at his parents’ house. They’re not overly thrilled to see him. His younger brother is a vastly different person than Jesse. Although, it’s clear the parents haven’t given up on their oldest boy. He is no doubt a disappointment, especially considering all the stuff they don’t know, even while they know a good deal. Still, if they could see what he’s been doing they might never look at him in the eyes again. They clearly worry for him. Jesse wants to try setting things right with his parents, after the events of the first few episodes have rocked his soul to the core. But they’re reluctant to just dive right into forgiving him, letting him do what he surely does every time. With one scene we feel the history of the family, so evident and in your face. Again as I’ve said plenty already the writing in this series from Vince Gilligan has been something special.
Parallel to Jesse and his family there’s Walt and his own. The opposite situation. They’ve all watched Walt live his life as a straight and narrow type of guy. Suddenly, he’s transforming into a starkly difference human being. Seeing the two characters of Jesse and Walt go through their separate yet oddly similar troubles, it’s a great way to bring out the life in them. We feel bad for Walt, even if he is resorting to criminal activity; his situation sucks. Likewise, even though Jesse is a bit of a washout, smoking meth and cooking it, generally going nowhere, you feel bad because now we’re seeing more of him – who he used to be, before drugs took him. As a former drug addict, I know what it’s like to change, and see the person you once were. Strangely enough, Jesse finds an old chemistry test he failed, big red marker on it from Mr. White. Then after all this beginning of growth, our feelings for Jesse starting to rise, Combo calls and needs some of the new meth. Tempting Jesse away from any thoughts of trying to change.
Jesse goes to Walter’s place, after the “ball breaker” leaves. He wants to have a little meeting with Walt, to “touch base“. Only it turns out Jesse has a bunch of money, and everyone is loving their meth. To an extreme. Junkies on the street are already dying for more of the product, they want, need, any and all of it. Seems as if Jesse’s fleeting dreams of something more were exactly that. Now he only wants to do more cooking.
And perhaps the $4,000 from the initial batch might start to change Walt’s mind, too.
At the same time, Walt also goes to meet the new doctor. He’s told about great, supposedly effective treatments at the clinic aimed towards prolonging life. What we’re seeing now is Walt having to make a choice: chemotherapy, or no chemotherapy. It is a tough choice, no doubt. Problem being others want to try and make it for him. He doesn’t feel in control, yet this is one way he can control his life; by choosing to not do something, if that’s what he truly wants. His family, obviously, is concerned.
Over at the Pinkman house, the maid finds a joint. Everyone assumes it belongs to Jesse. His parents confront him. Then after all sorts of argument, Jesse discovers the weed belonged to his little brother, the angelic little boy nobody expected. Jesse takes the fall, but also crushes the joint instead of giving it to his brother. An admirable moment here from a guy nobody seems to want to help. He’s a lone wolf.
The White family has a confrontation over Walt’s decision to possibly not seek treatment. Walt Jr is upset, as is Skyler. They want him alive. He just doesn’t really want to go that route, having to hook up to chemo, to suffer through all that brings on. He also is afraid of the money, not wanting to leave his family in crippling debt. “Then why don‘t you just fucking die already?” Walt Jr yells at his father. “Just give up and die.”
Walt coughs blood into his hand a little while later while driving. It just so happens this nasty surprise brings a better one. Pulling into a parking lot, Walt ends up seeing the tool from earlier: KEN WINS, on his license plate. The man parks at a gas station, still talking on his Bluetooth headset. Walt saunters over to the pump and picks up the windshield squeegee, pops the hood and jams the thing inside. It sparks, creating fire. It explodes, as Walt walks back to his vehicle and heads out.
Maybe Walt can’t control cancer. Maybe he can’t beat it. For now, he’ll take settling up with one of the world’s assholes.
Next episode is titled “Gray Matter”. We’ll start to get more into the family dynamics and the cancer diagnosis, as well as the series starts to bring in more of Walt’s life from earlier on after former research partners reach out to try and help funding his treatment. Stay with me.