"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Breaking Bad: Gray Matter

This episode served as a bridge to the next chapter of both Jesse and Walt's lives. In the previous installment, Walt withdrew from the sordid world of drug trafficking and focused on his family, revealing his cancer and looking at the varying options available to him. Meanwhile, his erstwhile partner Jesse had a bad drug reaction and sought refuge in the home of his parents, which didn't turn out as well as he had hoped. Here they both continued their efforts to move on with their lives, to varying degrees of failure.

The failure for both seems also to be a matter of some pride. For Jesse, it is the same pride that hinders so many young people trying to make a go of it in the professional, or so-called "real" world. Not willing to pay his dues at the bottom of the corporate ladder, a la his whacked out friend Badger, Jesse sought to get a real estate sales job with no prior professional experience. And when offered the costume wearing sign spinning job, he balked.

For Walt, it's a little more complicated. "Gray Matter" refers not only to the portion of the brain that can be irrevocably destroyed by crystal meth, but also to the name of the company that apparently Walt should have been a part of. When Skyler and Walt attend a birthday party for Elliott Schwartz, I learn that the two were science partners in college. In fact, it was the combination of their names (Schwartz is German for black) that created the Gray Matter name that became Gray Matter Technologies, Elliott's award-winning research company that he owns with his wife, the very familiar Gretchen. Gretchen is the girl from the flashback I saw to Walt in college breaking down the components of the body a couple of episodes ago.

Elliott lives in a palatial estate with his wife and receives personally signed gifts from the likes of Eric Clapton, while Walt struggles to make ends meet with a high school teacher's salary and a son with cerebral palsy; let's face it, medical bills aren't cheap in this country. And yet Elliott proudly introduces Walt as an integral part of Gray Matter as well as a "master of crystallography," indicating that there certainly doesn't seem to be any ill will from Elliott's perspective toward Walt. Even his subsequent job offer seemed sincere, despite the fact that Skyler had already spilled about Walt's cancer.

The question becomes: Why did Walt walk away from this enterprise to become a high school teacher? Was it because of Gretchen? Did Walt pine for this girl in college only to lose her to Elliott, or was there more to it than that? I wonder, considering the difficulties they've faced, how Skyler feels about Walt's decision to not be a part of Gray Matter, or even how much she knows about it. Perhaps she came into Walt's life well after that chapter was closed. Certainly she seems to want him to do what's best for himself and struggles to see why he doesn't always seem to want to.

It was this concern that led to the intervention scene with Walt, Walt Jr. and Skyler, as well as Hank and Marie. While Skyler wanted to have this "family meeting" so that everyone could tell Walt what a terrible mistake it would be for him to deny chemotherapy, she was appalled when first Marie and then Hank supported the notion that Walt should be able to make his own decision. At that point, Walt took the pillow and revealed that he felt kind of like he'd never made a decision of his own in his entire life; this is a very interesting statement and the fact that Skyler let it stand with nary a retort is also very interesting and potentially telling. He wanted to take control of this one aspect of his life and rather than live out his last days weakened and sick from chemo, he wanted to really live.

In the end, though, after a touching scene with Walt in bed hugging Skyler's pillow, looking over her mix of cancer and baby books, and smelling her skin creme, he reneges on his original convictions and tells her he'll get the treatment. But, despite the fact that Elliott still has an offer on the table to pay for the treatment because, as Gretchen told Walt later, half of everything they own including their company name is rightfully Walt's, Walt insists that he can take care of the expenses himself. Pride? Or something more going on with his past?

Meanwhile, Jesse's impatience to earn money in the real world, probably that is made more difficult by the crappy pay that he'd be facing there compared to what he can make in the drug trade, leads him back in the meth business, this time with the paroled and imbecilic aforementioned Badger. Taking most of the credit for the pure and beautiful meth Walt had cooked, Jesse convinces Badger that the two of them can accomplish the same thing. But when the batches consistently come out cloudy and below Walt's established standard, Jesse rejects and pitches them. Ultimately, Badger can't take it anymore and the two of them fight tearing up equipment in the Winnebago, which leads to Jesse abandoning Badger in the desert.

As such, both of my wayward "heroes" have failed to accomplish their needs and desires on their own, and so I have Walt in the final scenes showing up back at Jesse's with a simple proposition: "Wanna cook?" The significance of this decision by Walt is profound. He had an offer on the table for a legitimate job in his preferred field of study, offering excellent insurance working with his college friend and partner. He also had a second offer to just flat out pay for his surgery from that same friend. But Walt would rather take the inherent risks of cooking meth and trying to become a drug producer/dealer than take any legitimate and real offers. The falling out between Walt and Elliott/Gretchen story has to be simply epic. Not so bad that Walt wouldn't go to his party, but enough that he'd make this decision rather than take what he perceives as "charity" from Elliott and Gretchen.

Light on the action but heavy on background and character depth, I thought this was an excellent episode of a show that continues to impress me more and more. I still have no idea where it's going to go, but I suspect it will end the same way the series title does. And it's gonna be a helluva ride all the way down. The stage is set for the action and chaos to kick into gear.

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