Breaking Bad: "Cancer Man"
B-

Breaking Bad: "Cancer Man"



Context, dude. This week we're backing off from the intense in-the-moment experiences of last week, and taking the long view. Family's gotta be told about the cancer. Meth's still out there to be sold. Debt's still being floated from credit card to credit card. Walt might only have six months, but he's still got to live it day to day with the folks who want to make plans and have hope and, you know, basically go on with their lives.

This episode doesn't have the wow factor that the series has had so far -- it's about moving the pieces into place for long-term strategy. Yet there's still some interesting themes being explored. As we rejoin Walt and family, it's two days since Skylar learned that Walt has cancer. Thanks to her emotional breakdown at a cookout with Ray and Marie, everybody else knows now, too -- which means that everybody starts trying to figure out what to do next. And that's exactly the kind of planning Walt has long since left behind. As Marie starts talking about second opinions and Skylar bucks herself up with the thought of concrete action, Walt and Walt Jr. are the only ones who seem to feel as adrift as the situation actually warrants.

Meanwhile, Jesse bails on his aunt's house and goes back to crash with his parents -- a middle-class couple with a younger son in private school and a long history of tough love with their delinquent progeny. The Cap'n, feeling backed into a corner, is trying to escape into the safety of home, but the folks aren't ready to welcome him with open arms. They worry that their high-achieving baby Jacob will be corrupted by the family black sheep, although Jake isn't exactly the model citizen his prep-school uniform indicates. Forget being the good kid -- Jake believes that Mom and Dad's obsessing over Jesse means he's always going to play second fiddle, and he might just try to live down to the label.

When some of Walt and Jesse's crystal gets out on the streets, Jesse awkwardly tries to woo Walt back into the meth business. Not coincidentally, the chemotherapy that the bigwig oncologist recommends is going to cost $90.000 out of pocket. And he can't figure out how to explain to Skylar and Walt Jr. that he's not interested in a long-shot cure. But is he really interested in being, as Ray describes him unwittingly in the cold open, the "new kingpin in town"? Because that's a long-range plan, too. Really, Walt just wants to live in the moment, getting high on the kind of endorphin rush that comes from delivering rough justice to Bluetooth-eared, convertible-driving, chauvinist assholes. He's already burned his bridges -- he doesn't want the hope. But death is still a long way off, and short of driving off into the New Mexico sunset in his Pontiac and abandoning his family, he's going to have to figure out a way to live.

I'm not worried that the show's going to lose its way, even though this week is the first that we've really been taken out of Walt's head and stuck with equally prominent plotlines concerning other people. The attempt to contextualize Jesse isn't as interesting as the portrait of his parents; how many upwardly-mobile suburbanites have had to resort to applying some kind of agreed-upon strategy to deal with their druggie children? Watching Jesse at the kitchen table getting dressed down by his folks was less a filling-in of his backstory than a facet of this week's theme: the humiliation of having your life plans and self-image obliterated by other people who know what's best for you. Come back next week with some serious Cranston, BB, and we'll know we weren't wrong to trust you.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:


- Ray confirms that Krazy-8's our snitch, and that they're assuming he's dead based on his abandoned car.

- In all the drama this week, lots of perfect character moments: Skylar wailing that she's had a horrible 48 hours since Walt told her about the cancer because on top of everything it was the weekend, so she couldn't call his doctor to talk about it; Walt scooping Jesse's $4000 out of the pool with grim determination, as if he weren't being reduced to pool-boy indignities; Skylar industriously making notes about possible side effects in the oncologist's office; Walt cursing as the A/C sucks up some of the drug money he hid in the nursery airvent; Jesse explaining that he's laying off the meth for like, health reasons.

- In fact, Jesse gets off a wealth of good lines this week, including "Check out these fake Pop-Tarts, they're mad tight" and "Way to make mad inroads with the business community!"

- There's an echo of last week's exploration of binary choices when Walt suggests, "Maybe treatment isn't the way to go." Exactly what other "ways to go" are going to make sense to Skylar?

- This episode was directed by Jim McKay, director of Our Song back in 2000 and a few eps of Law and Order and Big Love since.

- Next week: Back to the Winnebago!

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