Before you start reading this, or anything else on this blog, be aware that there are spoilers! I’ve watched all of the episodes through season 5, episode 8, and am writing from that perspective, trying to make sense of it all before the last eight episodes. If you’re not up to date on your watching and don’t want to know anything that happens ahead of time, don’t read anything I’ve written until you’ve watched everything that’s come out so far.
Season 1 Summary
Episode 1 (Pilot)
The opener introduces the violence, criminality, and resultant problems (especially for amateur criminals) of the first season. Walt, the main protagonist, is desperate to have gotten involved in these activities, and just as desperate not to get caught.
In the first few scenes, which show us a “before” of Walt’s life, he’s a mild-mannered, Milque-toasty 50-year-old high school chemistry teacher with an efficient but controlling 5-months-pregant wife and a mildly disabled, but otherwise normal, teenage son. Skyler, Walt’s wife, seems to take him pretty much for granted.
We get the theme of the series the first time we see Walt teach and hear his “chemistry is transformation” speech. All the characters will change in relation to Walt’s transformation, as show creator Vince Gilligan has famously put it, “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” Walt’s teaching also shows us that he’s an egghead and very competent in his field, though that’s his only claim to fame. His lack of worldly success – relative poverty – despite this gift is demonstrated by the fact that he’s had to take a demeaning after-school job at a car wash in order to support his growing family. Walt’s getting fed up with the way he’s treated at the car wash, and probably by extension with the way his wife treats him. They don’t seem to have a sexual relationship that’s satisfying to him, and he doesn’t feel respected as a person or a as a man.
We meet Skyler’s younger sister Marie and her husband Hank, a DEA agent and see that Hank’s everything Walt isn’t: bold, brash, confident, and funny. A big part of Hank’s job is trying to curb illegal methamphetamine production in Albuquerque. Since Walt’s concerned about providing for his family, his interest is piqued when he learns that meth sales bring in a lot of money.
The next day, Walt, who’s been coughing throughout, collapses at the car wash, is rushed to the hospital, and learns that he has advanced lung cancer and only months to live. He doesn’t tell anyone about the news, but knowing that his days are numbered causes him to rethink his life. He quits his job at the car wash, and on a ride-along with Hank sees Jesse Pinkman, a former student and small-time meth “cook” and dealer, escape arrest. Walt goes to Jesse’s house that night and says he wants to cook meth with him. Jesse wants nothing to do with this, but Walt threatens to turn him in otherwise. When they develop their plan, Walt disparages Jesse’s chemical abilities, but has to accept his former student’s practical knowledge about the meth business. The odd couple, push-pull, father-son team is born.
Walt’s transformation takes another step when he fiercely confronts three teenage boys who are making fun of Walt, Jr. With nothing to lose, thanks to his cancer, he can now dare to be a man.
The first cook scene degenerates rapidly when Jesse approaches his distributor, Krazy-8, who wants to take the operation over or eliminate it. We find out in a later episode that he was the one who informed the DEA about Jesse and Emilio’s “lab.”
Which brings us back to the opener. Just after Walt decides to put the gun he’s been holding out against the oncoming, sirens-shrieking vehicles back in his underpants, three fire trucks whiz by to put out the fire started at the cook site by Emilio’s cigarette.
Back home, Walt literally launders money, then forcefully makes love to Skyler. A minute or two later, they’re both in shock (especially Walt), and a song plays about a man who’s out of time.
Episodes 2 and 3
The episode 2 opener shows us how Walt and Jesse got the RV they use for cooking back to Jesse’s house. The two both want out after they “clean up the mess,” which includes the bodies of Krazy-8 and his cousin Emilio. The next morning, Jesse calls the White home, and a little later Skyler figures out his name and address, and hears his crazy phone message.
Walt talks about “chiral polarity” in class, introducing the theme of mirror images that aren’t quite the same – the two sides of Walt himself, and later, the Mexican twins and Gustavo Fring (Gus, like Walt, has a mild-mannered persona and a cold, cruel side).
Walt and Jesse discover at about the same time that afternoon that Krazy-8’s not dead. They lock him to a post in Jesse’s basement and decide by a coin flip that Jesse will dissolve Emilio’s body in acid and Walt will kill 8. Neither is remotely prepared for this type of grisly task – they’re finding out that the meth business is more violent than they’d thought, and that they’ll have to be violent themselves if they want to hold their place in it. Walt, for example, can’t kill 8 until he realizes that his victim is prepared to kill him with a piece of broken plate. And Jesse, who didn’t following Walt’s directions for his task, creates a major mess and damage to his home.
When Skyler asks Walt who Jesse is, he tells his first overt lie – that Jesse sells him pot. He also, with a weird fake sweetness, asks her to “climb out of his ass.” Later, Skyler confronts Jesse at his house, almost seeing Emilio’s body.
At the beginning of episode 3, we see a flashback of Walt and Gretchen, a former love interest.
Walt catches a freaked-out Jesse smoking meth, they fight over the meth, and Jesse runs off to have sex with Wendy, a meth user/prostitute. Marie steals a pair of purple heels, and talks Hank into scaring Junior straight about pot use.
At the end of the episode, we see another flashback of Walt and Gretchen. She’s speculating about “the soul” being part of the chemistry of the human body, but Walt’s only interested in its physical aspects.
Hank and his team are investigating the new meth producer(s) in town.
Walt tells Skyler about his illness, then breaks the news to his family after a trip down memory lane to his and Skyler’s meeting. Skyler and Marie want to get Walt started on treatment, and Hank tells Walt he’ll take care of his family if need be.
Even though he realizes it hasn’t been helping him, Jesse has to break out the meth to keep the company of his friends — Badger, Combo and Skinny Pete. Deep into the habit the next day, he mistakes two Mormon missionaries on bicycles for Hell’s Angels on Harleys coming to kill him. He literally runs across town to his parents’ house, where he sleeps for almost 24 hours.
The next day, Jesse, having sold what remains of the meth to Combo to re-sell, ends up throwing Walt’s share of the money ($4,000) on the ground and into the Whites’ pool when Walt first thinks he’s wearing a wire, then tells him to “get out!” Jesse had wanted to reconnect with Walt and “debrief” – come down from the horrors of what they’ve done together. Walt doesn’t seem to be suffering as much from this as Jesse is, focusing more on his health, his family, and maintaining his new-found manhood.
Walt and Skyler have an initial appointment with an excellent but expensive oncologist. Walt pays for the visit with drug money, telling Skyler he borrowed it from his credit union. Later, he tells her he doesn’t want to pursue the treatment because he’ll die anyway, leaving the family destitute. Skyler and Junior are upset.
Jesse gets kicked out of his family’s home because his supposedly exemplary little brother has stashed a joint in his room.
Walt uses his scientific knowledge to destroy the red sports car (power/masculinity symbol) of an obnoxious alpha male he’s observed and been irritated by.
After finding out how hard it is to get a straight job, Jesse runs into his friend Badger and tries to cook meth with Badger’s help in the RV in the desert. His standards having been raised by his exposure to Walt, however, he throws away both of the batches he cooks.
Walt and Skyler go to old friend Eliot Schwartz’s birthday party, and we realize both how far down Walt has come from his youthful promise, and how determined he is to make it on his own financially. When Skyler organizes a family intervention, Walt says he’s against treatment because it’ll just stave off the inevitable temporarily, while making him a basket case with no ability to enjoy the bit of life he has left. The next morning, however, he realizes, viscerally, how much he loves Skyler – and how much love she’s showing him – and agrees to get the treatment. Since this means he needs more money, he goes to Jesse’s house and asks him if he wants to cook again. Jesse, now feeling unable to earn a living without Walt, and needing him emotionally despite their constant arguing, agrees.
Walt has to lie to Skyler about the time he spends away from home. Jesse realizes that Walt needs money because he has cancer. Walt insists that his partner find another distributor, even though the only one Jesse knows of is a violent man with whom he has no connection. When Jesse approaches Tuco, the latter steals his meth and beats him up.
Hugo, the school janitor who’s been nice to Walt, is arrested on suspicion of stealing the chemistry equipment Walt’s taken.
Walt’s bluff hand in a family poker game foreshadows his going to Tuco and getting money for the stolen meth, a future two-pound-a-week deal, and $15,000 for Jesse’s pain and suffering. Heisenberg, Walt’s alter ego, is born! Walt/Heisenberg’s secret weapon: fulminate of mercury that he uses to cause an explosion.
Walt screws Skyler in their car after a DEA agent comes to the school to explain to parents why Hugo was arrested.
Jesse puts his “haunted” house on the market and moves into the RV. When Walt visits him and tells him about the deal he’s made with Tuco, Jesse’s not at all excited about the $32,500 Walt gives him or making $35,000 a week. He doesn’t want to work with Tuco, and says he can’t get enough pseudo (from Sudafed) to make the deal work.
At the first of two junkyard meetings with Tuco, Walt talks his way out of the fact that they’ve only brought a little over half a pound of meth. Having figured out a new way of making meth, he ups the deal to four pounds a week, to Jesse’s chagrin. Later, he convinces Jesse that his life will be worthless if he doesn’t go along with the plan and shop for all the items needed for the new cook method. Using thermite from Etch-A-Sketches to blow open a locked warehouse door, the pair steals a barrel of methylamine, their new precursor.
Since the RV won’t start, they cook in Jesse’s basement, making it necessary for Jesse to burst out into the kitchen during an open house, and declare that the place is no longer for sale. The pressure of Walt’s needs has made Jesse’s previously heedless life into a living hell.
Skyler confronts Marie about the baby tiara she stole from a jewelry store as a shower present, and Tuco likes the new blue meth, but beats up one of his henchmen at the second junkyard meet.
“Who’s gonna save my soul now?” asks the music that ends the season.
Some thoughts on Jesse (admittedly by far my favorite character)
Color symbolism is supposed to be important to “Breaking Bad” creator and head writer Vince Gilligan, so I pay attention to the clothing the characters wear. Jesse wears black and white (mostly black), augmented with red and yellow (mostly red), and adds “Chili P” (chili powder) to the meth he makes. With the last name of Pinkman, he is white (innocent) and red (lively, sometimes naughty). The added black and yellow of his clothing increases the badness (he’s a badass or wannabee badass) and the liveliness/innocence. In his early twenties, Jesse’s given up on his artistic talents and boyhood dreams because of lack of support from his perfectionistic middle-class parents and the rest of society and the escapist temptations of drugs, alcohol, and sex. At least at this point, he’s a case of arrested development. We’ll learn in the next seasons that he still loves kid things like bumper cars and video games. He also gets along well with and loves children.
Unlike Walt, who’s lived in his head all his life and becomes obsessed with achieving and maintaining his power/masculinity, Jesse’s deepest need is for connection with others and family. Seeing Walt as a father figure and craving his approval, he’s easily manipulated by him, and gives up the things he wants (like, later, a family connection with Andrea and Brock) because of this. Walt also takes these things away from Jesse unbeknownst to him: allowing Jane, Jesse’s first love in the story, to die of a heroin overdose, and almost killing Brock with a plant poison. Color-wise, Jesse is full of the life that Walt lacks (Walt starts out as all-beige, then switches to black.)
During the course of the story, Jesse gains in competence and confidence, maintaining and even increasing his goodness, despite the fact that he kills Gale, against all his instincts, at Walt’s instigation. He sees opportunities to quit the meth business at various points, realizing that he has enough money and that the business leads to the harming of innocent people. Walt, never wanting to quit, always manipulates Jesse into continuing, however. Many people have imagined that Jesse will be Walt’s comeuppance in the final episodes, perhaps even killing him. They think that, somehow, Jesse will have to find out about Jane and Brock, and that this may prompt him to seek revenge. Others have speculated, from the opening teaser of the fifth season, that Walt comes back to Albuquerque on his 52nd birthday and arms himself for a showdown to protect someone, perhaps Jesse. They do have a love-hate relationship, but since one of Jesse’s dominant traits is loyalty, I have a hard time imagining him killing Walt or turning state’s evidence against him. Still, the posters fro the new season show Jesse standing practically shoulder to shoulder with Hank, so maybe Walt does something even more horrendous — or threatens to — that rearranges Jesse’s values.