TV’s Defining Moments: Breaking Bad
Television has a rich history of shows which have entertained, thrilled, and moved us. Some of the very best shows in television history have singular moments that crystallize that which makes them unique into a single scene. Defining Moments is a series that catalogs those scenes.
The Series: Breaking Bad
As is appropriate for a series which revolves around the drug trade, Breaking Bad is one of the most addictive shows on television, with a reputation built on word of mouth and critical acclaim. Those who have not been viewers since the show premiered on the AMC cable network in January of 2008 are most likely to have caught up to the series through a marathon viewing. A Breaking Bad marathon (as I can personally attest to) is as grueling as it is rewarding, presenting the viewer with brilliant moments of black comedy along with harrowing moments of inner turmoil and visceral fear. And yet, each episode keeps you hungry for the next.
The series centers on Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a meek high school chemistry teacher, who receives a diagnosis of lung cancer on his fiftieth birthday. At Walt’s birthday party his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, watches a news report of a huge meth lab bust. Seeking a way to provide for his family after his death, Walt is transfixed by the stacks of money uncovered during the raid, and asks Hank to do a ride-along. During his ride-along Walt witnesses a drug bust and notices a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), escaping from an upstairs bedroom. He tracks Jesse down and proposes that they cook meth together—Walt will handle the chemistry and Jesse will handle distribution. With each episode Walt descends further into the criminal underworld and transforms from a loving husband and father to a cold, calculating murderer. As series creator Vince Gilligan memorably described it, Walt goes “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.”
One of the strengths of Breaking Bad is its tightly woven narrative. Every action on the series causes an equal and opposite reaction that carries the story forward (Jesse might sum up that principle with a hearty, “Yeah, science!”), so in a sense everything that happens in the series stems from Walt’s decision to cook meth. And that’s exactly the way Walter White wants it.
Walt is a control freak, a man of science who seeks to understand and control everything that happens to him. He can justify any action to himself, as long as he was the person who made the decision. But if someone else tries to take the reins, he stamps and bucks until he’s leading the charge again. And, as you may imagine, he doesn’t like being told what to do.
For most of the first two seasons of the series the main things that Walt was told, at least by his associates in the drug trade, was that Jesse was a liability. Jesse was Walt’s connection to the streets, and the one who taught Walt to cook meth (but it was Walt, of course, who perfected the recipe for their infamous “blue” crystal), but Jesse didn’t stop at cooking meth: he was also an addict.
Jesse’s addiction became the chief impediment to Walt reaching a deal with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), owner of a fast food chain that was, in fact, a front for the largest meth distribution center in the Southwest. Fring ran a clean, professional operation (a concept that appealed to Walt’s meticulous nature) and he disapproved of a wildcard like Jesse. But Walt, acting out of loyalty to Jesse (but also, again, because he wanted to be in control of the situation) insisted that Jesse be brought into the fold as Walt’s assistant.
The Episode: Season Three, Episode 12: “Half Measures”
Jesse has just learned that certain branches of Fring’s organization have been using children to deal their product—and sometimes to kill their competition. Before Walt and Jesse joined up with Fring Jesse they were the competition, and one of their dealers, Jesse’s friend Combo (Rodney Rush), was murdered by one of these child soldiers.
Jesse’s soft spot for children has gotten him into trouble before. When it comes right down to it, Jesse Pinkman just isn’t cut out for the drug game, not hard enough to do what the other guy won’t. Now, focused by righteous indignation, Jesse is bent on making the dealers pay—and Fring, if he was the one who approved the use of children. He asks Walt to help him poison the dealers, but Walt declines. “I’m doing it,” Jesse says, “with or without you.”
Walt scrambles for ways to keep Jesse off the streets, asking their legal counsel, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) if they can have him arrested and put in jail long enough to cool down. Mike the Cleaner (Jonathan Banks), Fring’s hired muscle, puts an end to that possibility. “My boss, your boss,” he explains would “take it as a problem” if Jesse wound up in jail. He urges Walt to take decisive action by taking Jesse out himself. “No more half measures, Walter,” he advises.
As Jesse is about to go forward with the poisoning (to be delivered courtesy a bag of burgers handed to the dealers by a prostitute), he is picked up by Mike and taken to a meeting with Fring, Walt, and the rival dealers. Fring orders the dealers to stop using children and orders Jesse to shake hands with them.
But Fring’s command to “stop using children” leads the dealers to kill the boy that murdered Combo. Jesse sees the child’s body and disappears. That night at dinner Walt sees a news report on the boy’s death, and realizes where Jesse must be. In a rush, he excuses himself from the table and leaves the house.
Jesse sits in his car, tapping out some blue meth onto a CD in his lap. Before he snorts, he stares at his reflection in the mirrored surface. He’s a mess, and he knows it. He rolls a dollar bill and takes a quick bump. He throws his head back and coughs (and as he does, the shot is framed so that Jesse’s face is distorted by the windshield, mirroring his frame of mind). His hard-won sobriety doesn’t matter anymore—he needs a bit of crystal courage to do what he’s about to do.
He lets the high wash over him, and checks out the action on the street. He sees a dark car pull up—it’s the dealers. Someone walks over to the car, which gives Jesse a moment to steady himself. His face is conflicted and sad. He doesn’t want to do this, but he feels he has to. Since the death of of his girlfriend Jane at the end of the previous season, Jesse hasn’t truly wanted to live, and now he can die for a higher cause. He reaches for the gun under his seat. He loads it and waits until the man leaves, then opens the car door with purpose and begins a slow walk toward the dealers’ car with his gun in his pocket. We follow Jesse step by fateful step, the camera showing the same moment three different times, each time a little closer to Jesse’s tortured face.
Jesse continues his walk as the dealers (in the background and out of focus) get out of their car and begin to may their way toward him. They stop halfway to him, on the sidewalk, but Jesse continues his advance. The dealers ready the guns in their belts, as Jesse pulls his out of his pocket. All three raise their weapons as a struggling car engine roars. We see wheels spinning their way toward the dealers and then—BAM—Walt’s Pontiac Aztek bursts into frame, flipping one of the men over its hood and rolling the other underneath the wheels. Jesse gasps in shock and steps back.
Walt steps out of the car, over the dead body of one of the dealers, to where the second dealer lays crawling toward his gun. Walt reaches the gun before he does and stands over him. He takes a moment to steady his shot, then puts one bullet through the dealer’s head. Blood sprays the sidewalk as the dealer falls to the ground, dead. The camera pulls close to Jesse’s horrified expression, then pushes into an extreme close up of Walt. There is no regret on his face, no emotion at all. He stares at Jesse and says “Run.” We cut to black—and the end of the episode.
With an ending like that, how can you not continue on to the next episode? Like so many of Breaking Bad’s great moments, it leaves you with an adrenaline rush, hungry for the next hit. It’s also a perfect mixture of the elements that make the series so unique—pulpy, violent action combined with virtuoso acting.
On one hand, Walt kills the dealers to save Jesse’s life, but on the other he is just acting (as usual) to stay in control. Walt’s decision will almost get him killed by Fring. In the end, he will survive only by ordering Jesse to kill Gale Boetticher (David Costabile), a rival meth cook, ensuring that Walt remains the only person who knows the recipe to the valuable blue crystal. It’s a risky gambit, but as Mike counseled him, Walt is no longer taking half measures. He is able to rationalize everything that comes after, actions that will ultimately lead to him killing Fring and taking over his organization. Everything will happen according to Walt’s will, and he will be ruthless with those that don’t fall in line.
Two episodes before “Half Measures” came “Fly”, an episode that takes place almost entirely in the lab, as Walt becomes obsessed with trying to kill a fly that has become trapped there. Walt becomes sleep deprived and paranoid and, in a moment of pitying sorrow, confesses to Jesse that his plan was to die, and that his perfect moment to do so had passed. “I lived too long,” he whimpers, “You want them to actually miss you.” Walt considers a few opportunities before landing on his perfect time, a night that he fell asleep in front of the television listening to his wife, Skyler, singing a lullaby to their infant daughter Holly.
What we the viewer know, that Jesse doesn’t, is that after that moment Walt leaves the house to try to rescue Jesse from the influence of his girlfriend Jane, with whom Jesse has slipped into an oblivion of heroin use. Walt tries to wake Jesse up, and stirs Jane. She rolls over onto her back and begins to choke on her own vomit. Walt panics—should he help her? Jane had threatened to take Jesse away from him, and in Walt’s moment of inaction he sees her as an annoyance that can be dealt with without having to get his hands dirty. It’s a turning point for Walt, a line he never thought he’d cross. That is the moment that Walt hopes to avoid in choosing his perfect time to die. “Oh, if I had just lived right up to that moment, and not one second more,” he tells Jesse in the lab, “That would have been perfect.”
When Walt saves Jesse’s life, he effectively takes away Jesse’s perfect moment. There’s little doubt that Jesse will die as he approaches the two armed men (who would care as little about shooting Jesse as they did killing a child), but maybe that’s what Jesse wants. If he dies in that moment, Jesse dies in control of his own destiny. But when Walt intervenes Jesse is kept alive long enough to be put in a position to take an innocent life to save Walt’s in the very next episode. Jesse chooses to pulls the trigger, but he will be forever haunted by his choice, and Walter White will live on to become an unrecognizable monster.