*As a heads up, this essay contains a SPOILER to Season 2 of Breaking Bad at the very end, and some extremely mild spoilers to other seasons.
To set the scene: An older, bald man named Walter White finds a booth next to the window in a chicken fast food restaurant somewhere in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Walt’s joined by Jesse Pinkman, a former student, a drug addict, and now his business partner in meth production, which uses Walt’s impeccable chemistry skills that he acquired years ago and until recently used to condescend to students as a high school chemistry teacher. An unassuming busybody manager in a yellow shirt takes some orders from behind the counter. Jesse’s high and both he and Walt are impatient; they’ve been referred to this restaurant by their criminal attorney (emphasis on “criminal”) Saul Goodman (because it’s all good, man), who knows this motley meth-cooking duo is looking to expand their territory, the reach for their very potent and very blue product. A previous attempt of theirs to muscle some independent dealers off their long-established corners failed (we’re talking about a chemist and a short, vulnerable drug addict, after all), resulting in the death of one of Jesse’s friends. Walt’s plan to cook meth and earn money before terminal lung cancer takes him from this mortal coil is on its last legs—he’s down to less than $20,000 and, with his teacher’s salary paling in comparison to his former (and now wealthy) colleagues Gretchen and Elliot, nary a nest egg to speak of for his handicapped son and soon-to-be-born daughter. Jesse leaves, but Walter waits it out, expecting a visit from the guy who knows a guy who knows Saul, who might distribute “the blue.” The restaurant empties, leaving only Walt and the manager, who walks over. After some prodding from Walt, the manager’s smile drops.
This, if you’re familiar with Breaking Bad, is the introduction of Gus Fring, fast food-cum-meth magnate of the Southwest, and for me the conversation that ensued between Walt and Gus (the one I’ve set-up above) in “Mandala,” the eleventh episode of the show’s second season, marks the moment that Breaking Bad ceased being a great concept and starting becoming one of the best shows of all time. Ridiculously, I couldn’t find this scene on YouTube, but you can get a taste for it here, if you start at 2:08, and here, which is Gus’ closer, referring to Jesse: “You can never trust a drug addict.” Through its first seventeen episodes, Breaking Bad laid all the elements for an epic—location aside, Breaking Bad is in many ways a classic Western—on the table; what it lacked to that point, and what Gus embodied, was an adversary for Walt, one who could expose the depth of the monster that he is.
Much analysis of Breaking Bad turns on distinguishing between meek, milquetoast Walt, the sad-sack soon-to-die science teacher who instantly inspired your sympathy (Jesus, he has terminal cancer!), and Heisenberg, Walt’s depraved, greedy, and manipulative meth cook alter ego. Sure, you can draw a distinction between when Walt wears his black pork pie hat (the sartorial choice commonly associated with the Heisenberg persona) and when he doesn’t, but I’d argue this is a false distinction, one that many critics either ignore or don’t fully pursue (though I’ve read some that differ, especially lately, as I’ll quote below). Walter White and Heisenberg are one and the same; Walt didn’t suddenly become evil, he instead broke bad by choosing to act on his vindictive predilections that had been inside of him, repressed and beaten-down, all along.
I’ll let A.O. Scott take it away, from last month in the New York Times:
In truth, though, [Walt’s] development over five seasons has been less a shocking transformation than a series of confirmations. [Vince] Gilligan’s [the show’s creator] busy and inventive narrative machinery has provided plenty of cleverly executed surprises, but these have all served to reveal the Walter White who was there all along. The sides of his personality — sociopath and family man, scientist and killer, rational being and creature of impulse, entrepreneur and loser — are not necessarily as contradictory as we might have supposed.
The most recent in this series of confirmations arrived in “Buyout,” Season 5’s sixth episode from last fall, in which Walt revealed to Jesse his intentions to remain in “the empire business.” Gray Matter, Gretchen and Elliot’s—and once, Walt’s—company, now has a net worth in the billions; Walt, rankled that he sold out years ago for a paltry $5,000, checks this figure daily, fueling his self-loathing, self-pity, and greed while wounding his titanic pride. (Walt will tell you that his research still gilds Gray Matter’s coffers—one more turn of the screw—but as with any venom Walt spews, the truth of this assertion remains unreliable.)
Another confirmation, I believe, comes after reflecting on the earlier seasons, when Walt was still teaching. Everybody (on the show and us viewers both) recognize Walt’s brilliance, but I think few realize that Walt was a shitty teacher. Take a look at some of those classroom scenes: The students are apathetic, chewing gum, not invested in whatever it is the man standing in front of the chart with all those two-letter symbols on it is saying. That’s because Walt is lecturing rather than teaching—Walt’s into chemistry only to aggrandize his own intellect and prove, if only to himself, that he’s the smartest guy in the room. His terse comments, whether shared verbally or written in the margins of failed tests, to the kids in his charge—APPLY YOURSELF; PAY ATTENTION; STUDY HARDER—demonstrate this, as if Walt takes a sinister pleasure in etching a condescendingly bold, red F.
Walt’s treatment of Jesse, dating to Jesse’s own high school days and continuing through their strained partnership, illuminates that Walt is a neglectful teacher. Walt flunked Jesse in his chemistry class, even though all we have learned of Jesse over Breaking Bad‘s run insinuates that Jesse can apply himself, can pay attention. Season 5 provides an absolute plethora of examples corroborating this: In “Live Free or Die,” it’s Jesse who suggests using a magnet for their caper; in “Hazard Pay,” it’s Jesse whoo devises how to smuggle the cookware into a private residence to that they can maintain their cover as pest exterminators; in “Fifty-One,” Jesse pronounces Mike’s last name, Ehrmantraut, the way Mike pronounces it, unlike Walt (or Hank); in “Gliding Over All,” Jesse, reminiscing with Walt on their RV-in-the-desert (that is their pre-Gus) days, discusses his inventive quick-fix to keep the oft-stalled RV running. “Why’d we have the world’s shittiest RV?” asks Jesse. “Inertia,” Walt responds—damn right. Walt is active in many ways—he loves to toy with the minds of those closest to him, perhaps Jesse most of all—but is an inactive, inert teacher. That Jesse still refers to Walt as “Mr. White” is a cruel irony; Walt isn’t the only person who has neglected Jesse (his parents deserve plenty of blame there), but Walt was in a position some years ago to give Jesse an opening before the door of addiction closed behind him. Walt’s selfish misuse of his great intelligence is one of his defining qualities that has helped him amass his empire (at great cost), and it also spawned Jesse’s tragedy (and others’, collaterally) well before Vince Gilligan introduced us to Breaking Bad‘s Albuquerque.
Initially it’s not obvious that Walt sucks at teaching, because until “Mandala” and its follow-up, “Phoenix,” there’s still plenty of reason to sympathize with him—Breaking Bad has yet to fully expose Walt’s bottomless evil—which is where Gus comes in and the triumph of Breaking Bad begins. Until Gus, you’d probably have preferred Walt to the other drug-underworld combatants that had stood in his path. The first season’s antagonist, Tuco, was clinically insane and clearly was not living in a world where moral choice was a part of his personal calculus. Tuco was fertile ground for black humor (which Breaking Bad has surprisingly maintained, to a certain extent), much of it slapstick, but you were definitely rooting for Walt, always prideful and by this point a killer who had broken bad, but at least he broke. Walt’s badness might be as innate was Tuco’s was, but Walt exerts greater control over his badness and chooses to act on it. Tuco, by contrast, was just fucking crazy.
Enter Gus, who immediately gave Walter reason to dig lower, into his malevolence. Gus’ first remark to Walt, who anticipated creating some synergies (BUZZWORDS, PEOPLE) with Gus’ distribution network, in that scene from “Mandala”—”I don’t think we’re alike at all”—is tantamount to a threat to Walt, accustomed to asserting his authority through his intelligence and now being challenged by someone who is not intimidated in the slightest by his skills. His parting words, the ones that admonish Walt for trusting Jesse, defy Walt’s ego, too: If Walt wants to build an empire, here’s a reproach from someone who would know that Walt would have no clue about how to run one. Walt must be the boss, and I’d contend that all of Walt’s scheming to replace Gus has its genesis in their very introduction. Another early confirmation of Walt’s true nature, and perhaps the series’ most jarring, follows in “Phoenix,” when (HERE’S THE SPOILER) Walt allows Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend, to choke on her own vomit because he knows he can save his meth, his money, and get back to the business of fucking with Jesse and now, overtaking Gus. After meeting Gus and letting Jane die, Walt can claim to be ruthless, competitive, calculating, and smart, but he loses any claim to being “conflicted” or an anti-hero. Breaking Bad‘s deception is in the persistence of your sympathies for Walt after he crossed this line.
That Gus ultimately takes a shine to Jesse’s own smarts—something Walt never did—underscores the force of Breaking Bad‘s message. The show doesn’t just ask whether Mr. Chips can turn into Scarface, but whether you can recognize that evil could lurk inside all of us mere mortals. Both Walt and Gus are evil, relatively speaking, but it aided Breaking Bad immensely for Walt’s deeds to engender more horror or shock than his most direct competitor. It’s enough to see our early version of Walt in a new light (a very, very dim light), and it was enough to make Breaking Bad complicated, challenging, and legendary.