Why We Love Breaking Bad, Reason #2: Character Metamorphoses

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As part of a continuing exploration of why Breaking Bad is so compelling (see Reason #1), I turn to Reason #2: character metamorphoses. And, if it’s not already apparent, I’ll do a formal *PLOT SPOILER ALERT*. (Plot spoilers are something you can expect for MOST pieces I write on this blog, so, yeah, Roger Ebert would be mightily pissed off at me.)

Walt, in “Crazy Handful of Nothin’ ” (1.6)

He becomes “Heisenberg,” interestingly, in retaliation to the assault on Jesse. The—by now characteristic—in medias res plot structure of the episode shows us the aftermath of the metamorphosis, when he’s clutching the bag of money and leaving the smoking, burning building in his wake. It’s the look on Walt’s face that stands out: stiff-jawed, determined, and bloody intimidating. After this episode, we learn (just as Walt does) how he possesses the chameleon-like ability to blend into backgrounds, and the skilled actor’s ability to switch roles when the need arises: loving father one minute, hardened criminal the next. Though the incidents in the Pilot might constitute the point of no return for Walt, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” is the first important step to becoming the drug kingpin we see in the later seasons. There would be no “I am the one who knocks” (“Cornered,” 4.6) or “Say my name” (5.7) if Heisenberg had not emerged in this episode.

Jesse, in “No Mas” (3.1)

Like his partner Mr. White, Jesse “Capn’ Cook” Pinkman is in way over his head, though the first two seasons seem to burn something out of him. Shall we call it a certain attitude towards morality? This changing course runs parallel to Walt’s, though Jesse’s story is different as a result of his drug addiction. His “recovery” treatment ironically leads him to fully embrace rather than reject the lifestyle that had harmed those close to him and nearly done him in. Literally following his counsellor’s advice that he needs to accept who he is, Jesse comes to the conclusion, which he expresses to Walt in the first episode of Season 3: “I’m the bad guy.” Though he has recovered in terms of his diamond-hard resolve to stay clean, Jesse resumes his role in the drug trade with greater conviction. That new dead-eye stare (which we might associate with Gus’s henchman Victor or his “corporate security” guy Mike) makes us believe that, for all his vulnerabilities, he can be the “bad guy.”

Skyler, in “Breakage” (2.5)

True, she might cower during Walt’s declaration, “I am the danger” (4.6), but long before this point, Skyler has learned to adapt to her husband’s mood swings and shady extracurricular activities. In “Breakage” we get the first of many memorable Skyler moments, as she proves she can dish it out as well as Walt. When scolded for smoking, she puts on the perfect poker face, and declares, “Perhaps I smoked them in a fugue state,” throwing Walt’s earlier lie (“Bit By a Dead Bee,” 2.3) back in his face. Fans have had the harshest things to say about Skyler and Anna Gunn herself (see Gunn’s own editorial in The New York Times from August 2013, as well as Andy Greenwald’s Grantland piece and Maureen Ryan’s coverage for Huff Post TV the same month). But consider that she has had to put up with Walt’s (and his fans’) bullshit day after day. “Breakage” anticipates Skyler’s later resolve to go back to work (Season 2) and to single-handedly run the car wash (Season 4).

“Growth, then decay, then transformation”

But the complexity of the characters (which demonstrates the brilliant writing on the show) means that their metamorphoses are neither one-directional nor predictable. Walt has his Heisenberg hat—symbolic of the “uncertainty principle” of working with a man whose unpredictability is as important as his chemistry genius. He can be the hard-hearted kingpin, but also the warm, loving father (or father figure to characters like Jesse). -And then, go straight out and betray family and friends. Jesse, who seems more vulnerable after his drug recovery due to the accumulating guilt and regret, shows incredible bravery when he stands up to Walt, Mike, Gus, and Gus’s henchmen. Skyler similarly continues to surprise throughout the second half of the series, putting Walt in his place, inventing better lies (like the gambling story), and taking a firm hand in the money laundering business to secure the alibi for all the money. But she also reveals the vulnerability of anyone (not just a woman) forced to live with a part-time (and soon to be full-time) sociopath.

In other words, Breaking Bad characters don’t simply evolve in the sense of some progressive change in one direction (just as humans did not “evolve” in the progressive way we once assumed). They “change” in the manner hinted at in the show’s Pilot, when Walt describes chemistry as the study of “growth, then decay, then transformation.” The simultaneously intriguing and frightening thing is not knowing what that character transformation might turn out to be.

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