Why We Love Breaking Bad, Reason #1: “Cancer Man” (1.4) and the Beauty of Human Frailty

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Why do I love this show?” I asked myself this when I recently started rewatching Breaking Bad—the third time in two years, and on a binge basis. Had I developed a sort of addiction, on par with a methamphetamine craving? Was there some vicarious pleasure in watching a criminal mastermind get away with Machiavellian mayhem?

As the two-year anniversary of the show’s finale fast approaches (“Felina” aired on September 29, 2013), it seems appropriate to contemplate this question. About the love of—or, rather, obsession with—a show that, according to Tim Surette, “makes the rest of television look like utter shit.” (That was from 2011, before the show ended, but I think the terse statement stands up in 2015. Sorry, Mad Men fans!)

I think I discovered the answer when I got to “Cancer Man,” Episode 4 in Season 1: The beauty of human frailty. That’s it. In my mind, no show outside of The Sopranos articulates that theme so poetically. (As I write this, I wonder if the Fargo series has the ability to make a similar claim, or if Deadwood might have done this ten years ago… please let there be a new season!)

The beauty of human frailty. It’s in the way that Walt sneakily lets Skyler tell the others—Walt, Jr., Hank, and Marie—about his cancer, and then goes all quiet. (And I’m led to think of another duplicitous character, Edward Norton’s “Jack” in Fight Club: “If I didn’t say anything, people always assumed the worst.”) We haven’t even seen Walt’s weakest, physically frailest days, and yet the moral frailty is there. I don’t want him to get caught at this point; I want an out for Walt; and he gets one. The cancer. The true “beauty” here is that Walt doesn’t have to lie… well, not exactly. He lets the truth effortlessly cover up lies, frailties. He is weak or weakened, and—true to the definition of “frailty”—he succumbs to the temptation to “break bad” at 50 when he discovers how costly his treatment will be.

The beauty of human frailty. It’s also in the way that Jesse retreats to his parents after a bad drug trip. We get the sense that Jesse might be using his parents here, and there is some indication that he has duped them in the past. Indeed, between he and Walt, Jesse is supposed to be the frailer of the two: a poor student, clearly something of a meth addict, and unlikely to stay on the straight and narrow for very long. One scene in particular stands out. Jesse, unable to sleep, begins to dig through a chest filled with toys and drawings from his youth, and eventually finds the caricature of his old chemistry teacher, Mr. White: when Jesse flips over the paper, which turns out to be a chem quiz, we see the “F” and Walt’s angry red comments: “Ridiculous! Apply yourself.” While we, like the parents or Walt, may grow tired of Jesse’s endless excuses, his frailty has been helped along by others.

And if there is anyone who both encourages and exploits human frailty, it is surely Walt himself. Walt, who just prior to this, has garnered our sympathy, assumes that indignant parent/teacher role (and there seems to be a clear parallel between the elder Pinkmans and Walt) when Jesse shows up at his door. He’s shocked, annoyed, and outraged that a weasley little druggie would show up in his house, would threaten to sully his good name. The hypocrisy is apparent, especially after Jesse storms off and Walt frantically scrambles to scoop four thousand dollars of drug money out of his pool.

There’s lots of foreshadowing in “Cancer Man,” of course, but the episode firmly establishes the beauty of human frailty. While we have not seen the worst of Walt’s exploitation (like the ricin business in Seasons 4 and 5), “Cancer Man” reinforces the complexity of the characters, who show weakness in their inability to resist temptation and simultaneously exploit that same weakness in others. (Jesse does his share of exploiting, though he has a weaker stomach for it than Walt.)

In the episode’s conclusion, the douchebag lawyer with the vanity plate “KEN WINS” gets his comeuppance when Walt jams the squeegee into the carburetor and sets the sports car on fire. And we love it. Why? I think you know the answer.

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