Breaking Bad: Gray Matter   Rewatch 
August 17, 2014 4:58 PM - Season 1, Episode 5 - Subscribe

Walt and Skyler attend the birthday party of an affluent former colleague. Jesse attempts to go straight. Skyler organizes an intervention to convince Walt to seek treatment, but the financial burden weighs heavily on him.
posted by scody (15 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I love the acting. Walt sees Gretchen and says "It's so good to see you" but his face has that frozen smile of someone seeing something they don't like but want to be polite about. Then later when Elliott says "I miss this, Walt" he responds "Yeah, me too," again with that frozen expression. There's a lot of pain there for Walt still, and the markers of wealth and influence all throughout this party--the indications of what his life could have been like--must rankle.

I think Walt can't avoid thinking about it, but also can't bear to think about it because any approach to the idea of having stayed on brings up the dim realization that he could only have stayed on if he had responded differently to whatever happened. I doubt that that's possible since whatever happened continues to anger him even after all these years.

In the intervention scene, Walt says that all he can control is how his family remembers him. Such hubris! Walt can't control how people remember him, and as it turns out his family remembers him much more poorly than they would have if he had accepted Elliott and Gretchen's generosity, or if he had died without enacting this mad plan to leave them millions.

It's a classic tragedy: Walt unintentionally engineered his own downfall due to his personal failings.
posted by johnofjack at 6:11 PM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure its an entirely classic tragedy, in that tragedy often feels more inescapable than this does. Walt is explicitly given an out here, which tragic heroes often aren't. This episode frustrated me at the time because I didn't appreciate quite who bitter and twisted Walt was that he couldn't accept charity from these people who he feels have wronged him, even when it will save him from the meth business, which has already demonstrated itself to be a bleak and mean business.

This episode is the first of many indications we get that Hank is actually one of the most decent characters in this story. Sure he emasculates Walt, but he does care about him, and calls out his son for calling him rather than Walt.

Meanwhile Jesse has caught the perfection bug. Ah, if only he had been happy with cooking meth with badger: or dressing in a comic outfit and advertising real estate.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:13 AM on August 18, 2014

Here is where we see Walt's ego assert itself a few times with Elliott, who knows about it a bit and does a whole story pretending that he needs Walt's help. Though possibly this is also true, Elliott only thought of it knowing that Walt was sick, and he's not a good liar so he didn't jump to suggesting the benefits might be helpful for Walt Jr or pregnant Skylar. (Probably this never would have worked.)

I don't recall ever finding out exactly what happened that made Walt leave, but it's another in his list of disproportionate responses.

Walt is given out after out in this show; the tragedy is that he is unable to see half of them, and unwilling to take the other half.
posted by jeather at 5:39 AM on August 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

This was the first time I got truly annoyed with Walt. I have no patience for people who won't accept help or outright charity due to pride, because I've seen the consequences of both accepting and rejecting help, and pride doesn't keep your kids fed or a roof over their heads while you hold yourself proudly. I can understand making meth when it's your only option, but not when you could get over yourself and take a favour from a friend who seems genuinely happy to provide it. I kept waiting for Elliot to turn out to be a douchebag and he just kept being nice.

But this is just one of the many early indications of how Walt is his own worst enemy. And I think it makes a better show than if he'd been completely justified in his actions.
posted by harriet vane at 6:50 AM on August 18, 2014

Yeah I mean Walt's actions from now on are just completely his own. He could have bitten his tongue and done the work and he and his family would have been better for it. But he's tasted freedom after spending decades working for others and can't imagine going back.

I don't recall ever finding out exactly what happened that made Walt leave, but it's another in his list of disproportionate responses.

As far as is shown on the show, he broke up with Gretchen for unclear reasons (I think there was an ama somewhere where the actress playing Gretchen said it was because Walt felt awkward when meeting Gretchen's parents). Some time after Gretchen and Elliot got together. Feeling jealous and unable to work anymore, Walt cashed out of the company and the rest is history. You sort of have to read between the lines for all this though.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 7:32 AM on August 18, 2014

I think the strongest criticism of the show is the 'clockwork universe' (spoilery link up to season five, btw) one, where everything happens as it must for the existential misery of (nearly everyone) to be absolutely maximised. So a Walt who wasn't an almost inhumanly intense bundle of pride and ego wouldn't have turned into Heisenberg.

Cf the Wire, where people mostly all act plausibly, but it's their interactions with each other and with The Machine that brings the drama.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:56 PM on August 18, 2014

I don't quite understand the clockwork universe criticism. If Walt wasn't Walt we wouldn't have a show? To me that's a bit like the joke about how in Canada he would have gotten reasonably-priced healthcare and the show would have ended in episode 1. But I'm kind of fuzzy on the strong/weak anthropoid principle too which is maybe why I'm missing something here?
posted by harriet vane at 6:44 AM on August 21, 2014

"Guess we didn't get the beige memo."

I like that we're not shown the second half of the conversation with Elliott. We hear about it afterwards from Walt ("he flat-out offered to pay for my treatment") and we're left to imagine for ourselves how it played out. ("What do you think I said?")

Meanwhile Jesse has caught the perfection bug.

Yes -- he's trying to replay the first cook, but with him playing Walt and Badger playing Jesse. Notice also how he shows off to Badger the knowledge that he acquired from Walt: "No, that's a boiling flask." "It's just basic chemistry, yo."
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:07 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, the entire Talking Pillow scene is magnificent; grimly uncomfortable punctuated by beats of comic relief. And really well played by Betsy Brandt I thought. Is this the first episode that she's given some substantial lines to work with? It feels to me like Marie was a more incidental character up to this point.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:18 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was reading the clockwork universe criticism as being less about characterization and more about how interconnected everything is.

The odds are very low that, say, you would send your friend out to sell meth on a particular corner, causing him to get shot to death, and later you'd start dating someone and discover that her younger brother is the shooter. The odds are very low that you'd go to a bar in a city of 500,000 people and start a conversation with the father of the girl you let die. The odds are very low that you'd be searching for your brother-in-law and leave a city of 500,000, go out in the middle of the desert to the house where he just happens to be, that you'd then kill his kidnapper, giving him a chance to escape without being seen, and that once you got back to town you'd be in process of interrogating a prostitute about the alibi she's giving to the man whose car you found at the house where you were hoping to find your brother-in-law, but that she'd clam up because she remembers you once brought your nephew-in-law to the hotel she was working and used her as an example of why he shouldn't use drugs.

I don't think the authors made the plot so neat and tidy without thinking about why they wanted it like that, so to me the clockwork universe criticism of Breaking Bad seems a bit like criticizing an expressionist painting for not being more representational. I've been there; I remember more than one film I couldn't get into because it wasn't at all what I was expecting or what I wanted, but I'm not sure it was the film's fault.
posted by johnofjack at 4:56 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think clockwork universes work in part because they satisfy the viewers sense of justice. The hero is cruel to a random person earlier on, and this comes back to bite them. This is often the case in Breaking Bad, although not always, I'm not convinced the conclusion to Season 2 works.

Although, considering how incredibly lucky Walt is pretty much right up to the end I don't know what kind of gods are running the breaking bad universe.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 5:57 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks johnofjack, that helps. Thinking about it some more, I guess I have a high tolerance for coincidence in fiction, and I can see where it'd be annoying if you prefer more randomness. Like there's only a limited number of people in the world and the rest of the apparent 7 billion are just filler, sort of.
posted by harriet vane at 8:22 AM on August 24, 2014

So my partner and I first started watching BB in 2010. And it was either this episode or the next one where we quit and didn't start watching again till late last year -- because, at the time, I was going through cancer treatment myself, and I identified so strongly with Walt and was so enraged by Skyler that it was too uncomfortable to carry on watching. (Interestingly, I think this also has something to do with why I'm actually running a few episodes behind my own rewatch schedule; part of it has been feeling distracted/depressed by general goings-on in the world over the past few weeks, but another part of it has been not wanting to relive the Fun With Cancer period of my life.)

In the intervention scene, Walt says that all he can control is how his family remembers him. Such hubris! Walt can't control how people remember him, and as it turns out his family remembers him much more poorly than they would have if he had accepted Elliott and Gretchen's generosity, or if he had died without enacting this mad plan to leave them millions.

It's so interesting to hear your take on this scene, because to me, what Walt was saying struck me (both at the time and even now) as absolutely heroic. As he says, he has lived much of his life without ever feeling like he had much choice.* And now, when faced with his mortality, he wants to make the final and most profound choice that he can: to die on his terms. The fact that he doesn't want to die in pain, stripped of dignity, watching his family watch him this way... god, I remember that exact same feeling when we were in that weird gray area of not yet knowing how bad my cancer was, and being absolutely 100% committed to the idea that if it did turn out to be terminal (it didn't, yay!), I was NOT going to be talked into a treatment plan that was just going to prolong my agony for the sake of my loved ones getting to put off their goodbyes a little longer.

So, to me, Walt is grappling with one of the great existential dilemmas here -- which, surprisingly enough, both Hank and Marie have some compassion for. But Skyler responds seemingly without any empathy: she wants him to live (for the most understandable reasons in the world, course), but she believes that her fear of losing him necessarily trumps his fear of losing control of the rest of his life (and the manner of his death). She doesn't allow him any autonomy, at the moment Walt most needs her to at least acknowledge the legitimacy of his position. So yes, Walt is going to wind up failing Skyler and his family in countless abominable ways as the series progresses. But watching this scene again, I feel like Skyler actually fails Walt, in a way that is fairly emotionally significant.**

This is not in any way to shift the blame for everything that follows to Skyler, of course; Walt could have been talked into treatment and then allowed Elliot/Gretchen to pay for it, but he absolutely chooses not to do that, just as he chooses to do everything else. But, again, I find myself sympathetic to his refusal to let Elliot/Gretchen pay; it's like, he's been talked into humiliating/degrading himself through treatment (we don't know at this point that it's going to go into remission, of course), but by god, he's not going to compound that by the humiliation/degradation of going cap in hand to them. Yes, it's prideful and stubborn and leads to all the carnage that follows. But it's also recognizably human. I think this is why my identification with Walt lasted so long through the series, and why I don't think he really is/becomes a sociopath.

It occurred to me when I was watching the final scene (where he says "I'll do it") that, from this point forward, whenever Walt says "I did this for my family," he's not just talking about cooking meth; he's also talking about staying alive in the first place. He was willing to die, and the death toll would have stopped at 2. But he decided to live -- for their sake. That he chose to finance the last years of his life in becoming the world's greatest meth cook -- well, that was wholly for himself.

*Leaving aside the question of the degree to which he felt he had a choice when he left Gray Matter.

**I have lots to say about Skyler, both as a character and in terms of Anna Gunn's portrayal of her, but in the interests of not doubling the length of an already too-long comment, I'll have to post about it some other time. I also have some thoughts about how Walt actually does fit pretty perfectly into a Shakespearean model of the tragic hero, but I'll also have to post about that another time!

posted by scody at 11:22 AM on August 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

(flagged as Fantastic)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:41 AM on August 24, 2014

I'm totally sympathetic to Walt not wanting treatment, and it made me think better of Marie and Hank that they could support that. I love your take on it that when he says he did it for his family, he's referring to the decision to live, not his subsequent actions. I'll definitely keep that in mind on the rewatch.

There are so many things to discuss about Skyler, aren't there? Here I think she takes a common stance, one rooted in ignorance of what cancer treatment is actually like and a conventional take on the preservation of life. The question doesn't come up in the show of whether she regrets that stance later or would recommend it to friends in a similar situation, but I like to think her take on it develops nuance through her experiences.
posted by harriet vane at 6:00 AM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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