Re-watch: Season 2 of Breaking Bad

12 Apr

Jesse and Walt taking a break

Warning:  This post is about Season 2 of Breaking Bad.  I will not be revealing specific spoilers from later seasons but I will allude to them generally, so watch out if you’re not up to date.

I re-watched Season 2 of Breaking Bad recently with a friend watching it for the first time, and I appreciated it a lot more than I remembered appreciating it the first time through.  There were a couple of plotlines I had forgotten about completely, and a couple that occupied less or more time than I had thought.

In particular, I forgot what a different show Breaking Bad is in Season 2 than it becomes in Season 3 and especially in seasons 4 and 5.  Breaking Bad Season 2 is the show as its most human; the characters are still regular people, and not superheros with special meth-peddling, empire-building, abilities.  Season 4 of Breaking Bad was one of my favorite seasons of TV in a long time, and I’m really looking forward to watching the next couple of seasons all the way through a second time, but only after watching Season 2 again did I realize the starkness of the differences.

Season 4 has suburb pace and direction, and it’s a brilliantly plotted and stylized suspense movie with deep characters and themes, but the characters pop out of the real world as super characters who have special abilities regular people don’t.  Season 2 has at least some of all these characteristics of course, because it’s the same show at heart, but it’s much less densely plotted, and it’s much more about dealing with our characters as regular people.  Notable super characters Mike and Gus are not yet really present, and this is before the full transition to Heisenberg; Walt is still a science teacher and only a part-time druglord.  Walt still lives a more or less ordinary suburban nuclear home life.  Walt is uncertain; he lies constantly but he rarely acts on the reserves of power and ego that he builds up in the later seasons.  Only once, when he comes onto Skyler from behind when she’s in the kitchen, and Walt Jr is about to come home, does it really feel like he’s acting out his power fantasies and attempting to rise above the rules that apply to regular humans.  Other than that, even though he loves the way his can dominate the meth market in a way he could never the law-abiding science world, he’s much more committed to evasion than exercising his power.  He absolutely hates the idea of laundering his money through his son’s charity site in a way that doesn’t let them know the money is coming from him, but he eventually accedes.  Saul, while helping him and Jessie, who, he correctly notes, are terrible at dealing drugs, also acts as a cheap therapist occasionally where Walt, unafraid of being caught, can vent his frustrations before going back and lying in the real world.  Walt’s biggest god moment in the season is actually a moment of inactivity, when he lets Jesse’s blackmailing and methhead girlfriend Jane, choke on her own vomit and die.  It’s a stepping stone in the timeline of Walt’s comfort level with violence and his own power, but it signifies where Walt is at at the moment; the extent of his power is doing nothing.

Walt is less confident here in these early seasons.  He lies but he doesn’t really know how to do it yet, and he still cares whether Skyler believes it.  I forgot how quickly into the show Skyler didn’t quite trust Walt; it was the first great lie, the fugue state that Walt fakes after being kidnapped by Tuco in the second episode, that sets off her radar.  She very soon doesn’t buy the fugue state explanation, and the second cell phone gnaws and gnaws at her until it finally returns in the last episode when Walt, doped up before surgery, alludes to his having multiple phones.

I’ve said for years that the second episode of the second season was what really hooked me on the show (not that the earlier episodes weren’t excellent, but this was the confirmation to me that this show was really on to something).  It’s still brilliant,though the non-Walt and Jesse parts aren’t quite as good as the Walt and Jesse parts alone with Tuco and Tio, and his bell, in the desert.  Excellent segments I forgot about included Jesse’s attempt to “take care” of the methhead couple who robbed Skinny Pete, which is just a fantastic piece of film-making.  Breaking Bad also, as always, has the best montage sequences in television, managing to convey quickly ideas and plots which take days and weeks in stylistically elegant and informative ways, such as showing Badger, Skinny Pete, and Combo selling the blue meth and expanding their territory.

I can’t talk about this brilliant season of television without mentioning the one ploy that doesn’t work at all, the plane crash.  I’ve never met anyone who disagrees, and I don’t really want to waste time talking about the single bad part in an otherwise great season.  Still, it’s a shame it happens at the very end.  My theory, and I forget whether I’ve read anything that confirms, or at least informs this view, is that by the time the writers got to the end of the season, they realized that the plane crash didn’t work the way they had intended, but since they had committed themselves by having those occasional flash forwards from the first scene of the season, they felt like they had no choice, and could only minimize it’s relevancy.

Jesse gets a lot more real meat this season than he did in the first season, and we see how human and vulnerable he is.  Also, an underrated aspect of Walt that I think is not properly appreciated is on display.  Walt, for all his bluster, actually does care for Jesse.  He may have a strange way of doing it, and it may be locked up into his own selfish reasons, but he puts himself on the line several times for Jesse, including making sure Tuco doesn’t kill him early on.  When he asks Jesse to go to rehab, sure, it’s better for business, but I think he’s not wrong that it’s better for Jesse too.  I’m not sure if I’m in the majority or minority here, but I think Jesse running away with Jane would have been a drug-addled disaster.  I’m not sure if in the long run staying with Walt will be better for his health, but I don’t think the Jane option at that point would have been brilliant either.

If there’s a grand narrative to just the meth sales aspect of Breaking Bad, it’s the constant back and forth between Jesse and Walt trying to sell it themselves, and then failing for some reason, and then distributing through someone else, and having that not work for some reason, and repeat, as their production operations get bigger and bigger. This season, after Tuco’s death, is them really trying to do it themselves on a decent -sized scale the first time.

I couldn’t end this write up without another salute to the entrance of lawyer Saul Goodman. I didn’t initially realize he would be a frequently recurring character, but he was a fantastic addition to the show, giving Walter a reality check quickly, and adding some much-needed humor to a show that could easily be dragged down by overbearing seriousness and tension.  Humor is a sometimes underrated element of Breaking Bad; the show can be laugh out loud frequently funny, often by way of Saul or Jesse, and that helps the writers keep their feet to the pedal of the dramatic aspect of the show without it being overwhelming.

Lastly, I’ve always adored the passion and concern Walt exudes when telling his son and wife that their house has rot in the tenth episode of the season, “Over”.  I might be the only one, but I quote those lines over and over.

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