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'Breaking Bad': Raise your hand if you cried

May 3, 2009 | 11:01 pm

It’s OK, fellas. Be confident enough in your masculinity. That'll be your story. And mine.

Yes, my hand is up. Call me a softy. At the end of this one, these eyes welled.

Why? Because “Breaking Bad” is a show so bleak – a man has cancer, two years to live, deals drugs, lies to his family – that the good news is just so rare. When it arrives, you notice.

Why again? Well, because by giving this story’s protagonist a death sentence in the first place, the story itself is forced to slow down, which might sound like a detriment but has in fact become the series’ greatest strength. By pacing itself like this, by squeezing every bit of juice out of this man’s remaining days, the series tends to enrapture you in both the highs and lows. You're given the time and space to feel them. 

But because we've spent far more time in the valleys than on the peaks, Sunday's ascent to the good news was especially exhilarating. The big news: The tumor in Walt's chest has shrunk by 80 percent. He's by no means out of the woods, but he may have a little more time on this earth than just the two-year window he was initially given.

Now, for many of us, we can't necessarily say that this was entirely unexpected, because we unfortunately live in an entertainment world where behind-the-scenes news now informs our on-screen expectations. Rather than allowing ourselves to be surprised, we hear casting rumors and network news; and in "Breaking Bad's" case, we knew AMC had recently renewed the show for a third season. So it's not like we actually expected Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) to die out there in the desert. Nor should it have been that much of a shocker when we learned in the end of Walt's improved condition.

So why again? Why did my eyes go wet?

Oh, yeah. Because of the writing. Because of the acting. And because how you reacted to that scene was probably relative to how much you'd already put in to the story.

If new to the show and just taking a peek, for instance, you may not have felt much when the doctor broke the news to Walt and the loved ones who surrounded him. You might have even taken the cynical view, noting that the show seems to be doing well for AMC, and so of course Walt will now magically live on for a little longer.

But if you’ve been there from Day 1, when the story effectively began with another doctor giving Walt his death sentence and Walt channeling all of that confusion into being bothered by the mustard stain on the doctor’s collar -- well, if you’ve been with Walt since then, then you had to feel as if you too were in some way part of Sunday’s collective exhale, part of the tears that streamed down Marie’s (Betsy Brandt) cheeks, part of the smile that spread across Walter Jr.’s (RJ Mitte) face. Admit it: Your shoulders loosened just a bit, in the same way that Walt's finally did as well. 

And you also completely understood the bathroom scene when Walt, seconds later, saw his reflection in the paper towel dispenser of a public restroom and smashed it repeatedly with his fist.

Sometimes there are no words. Just emotion. “Breaking Bad” has a knack for nailing these moments.

And I haven’t even gotten to the first two acts of the show. That’s how this episode unfolded -- Act 1 was a comedy, Act 2 was desperation, Act 3 was elation.

Act 1 -- We Laugh

Saul Goodman: “How much time they giving you?”
Walter White: “Weeks, maybe.”
Saul Goodman: “Mm. Sorry to hear it. I was, uh, hoping we could make some real money together.”

Because of “extenuating circumstances,” Walt explained to Saul (Bob Odenkirk) he’d made only about $16,000 to launder for his family by cooking meth to that point, or about $9,960 after Saul took his cut. “Congratulations, you just left your family a second-hand Subaru,” Saul told the dying man.

“We’ll just have to cook more. A lot more.”

“Yeah. That’s, uh, that’s my legal opinion.”

And so Walt and Jesse bolted to the desert, where they cooked up a huge batch of fresh meth. Forty-two pounds of it. That’s $672,000 worth. For each of them.

It was time to celebrate, time to retire to a hotel and a Denny’s somewhere close. We were laughing and celebrating along with them. And then . . .

Act 2 -- We Worry

A comedy of errors suddenly turned to horror. Jesse had left the keys in the ignition, which drained the battery. They were stranded in their mobile meth lab, at least 15 or 20 miles from civilization. Their cellphones were dead, their generator blown, their water supply gone.

The fun montages of them cooking meth were now replaced with slow, dreary sequences of desperation: Walt churning away at the generator, manually trying to recharge it. Then Jesse. And each of them did this in the glow of unrelenting sunlight.

“I have it coming. I deserve this,” Walt said later, he and Jesse now laying inside the RV, void of energy and actually facing the real possibility of dying here and now. “All I ever managed to do is worry and disappoint them and lie,” he said of his family. “The lies -- I can’t even keep them straight in my head anymore.”

His eyes were closing. And then . . .

Act 3 -- We Cry


In a last flurry of desperate energy, Jesse yelled. “You need to cut out all of your loser, cry-baby crap right now and think of something scientific,” he screamed in a somewhat dillusional rant. Use the brilliant mind. Mix up the remaining chemicals and materials in the RV and build something. Rocket fuel. A homing device. A robot. A battery. Anything.

Walt’s eyes opened. He got up. Our modern day MacGyver had another idea.

He then spouted off a laundry list of things for Jesse to gather: loose change, nuts, bolts, screws -- anything galvanized -- and the RV's brake pads.

“What are we building?”
“You said it yourself.”
“A robot!?”
“A battery. Move.”

They moved. They built. They conquered.

And they drove that RV right back to Albuquerque. Alive.

-- Josh Gajewski