Breaking Bad: "Gray Matter"
A-

Breaking Bad: "Gray Matter"

A-

Breaking Bad

"Gray Matter"

Season 1, Episode 5


Has AMC changed its name from American Movie Classics to just AMC, an acronym with only a historical connection to the words it used to stand for? Kind of like Kentucky Fried Chicken did a few years back? That would explain why they counterprogrammed the Oscars -- the friggin' Oscar's, for God's sake -- with a new episode of their flagship series. Because of certain three-hour liveblogging activities taking place yesterday, I didn't get to catch up with "Gray Matter" until tonight.

Luckily, it was worth the wait. Let me count the ways.

1. Jesse cleans up nice. I really started to feel for Jesse for the first time, last week's fiasco with his tough-love parents not withstanding, when he put on a tie and tried to get a real job. Unfortunately, the job he's applying for is a sign-shaker gig, the last refuge of no-skill dropouts. The scene where his bud Badger, the current occupant of the position, runs across the street in a big foam dollar-bill suit with little white wings, is classic television all on its own. (Add in the dollar-bill smoking a joint for the cable audience, and you've got pure gold.) Badger convinces Jesse his future lies in crystal, but the batches they cook up are subpar. See, Jesse now has quality standards. Dude, you're moving up in the world.

2. Teasing the backstory. So how did Walt get from that Nobel plaque to the high school and the car wash? Tonight we start to find out. Walt and Skylar show up at a swanky birthday party for Elliot, an old college chum, and they couldn't be more out of place. (Kudos to the costume designer, who put the two of them in shades of blue and the entire rest of the guest list in beige, white, and earth tones.) Turns out Walt was a crystallography guru back when, planning to partner with Elliot in a commercial venture called Gray Matter. Elliot Schwarz plus Walter White equals Gray, get it? Now Elliot has the company and a ton of money, not to mention that female grad student we saw in Cheesy Flashback back in episode 3 (whom a helpful commenter identified as Jessica Hecht, aka Susan, Ross's ex-wife's lesbian lover). Her name is Gretchen, and yes, she and Walt had something going years ago ... but more on that later.

Elliot knows about the cancer. Whether he pressed it out of Skylar or Skylar set up the whole deal, he's fully briefed and wants to offer Walt a job with full health benefits. Or really, just the money to pay for his treatment, no need to show up at work. Walt, humiliated, turns him down.

3. A family meeting where everyone can voice their concerns and be heard. After Hank rescues Walt Jr. from the off-duty cop he foolishly asked to buy beer for him, Skylar's had enough of family breakdown, and she's going straight to the source: Walt's selfish refusal to seek treatment. This leads to an awkward intervention, complete with "talking pillow," in which Skylar tries to get Walt to act rationally, Walt Jr. rolls his eyes, and Hank offers incoherent sports metaphors and munches on the deli tray Skylar has graciously provided for the occasion. After Marie undermines the whole operation by opining that Walt should be able to make his own decision, Walt finally grabs the pillow and explains himself. "My entire life, I don't feel like I ever had a say," he confesses. The decision to refuse treatment and control his body for the final months of his life -- to be an agent, not a patient -- is his last chance to make a choice in the face of the illness.

But then he wakes up in the morning and feels the pang of love for his wife ... and he chooses for her, instead of for himself. So it's treatment, then. On the credit card, and Elliot will reimburse them, right? Walt says he'll set it up, but when Gretchen calls to renew the offer, Walt lies to her and says the insurance company has decided they'll cover it.

So how's he going to get the money? It starts with M and ends with H and involves a lot of cold medicine. In one sense, we're back at square one for the series -- but things have subtly changed. Jesse's no longer a complete loser; he's interested not just in doing the job, but in doing a good job. Walt may not want to live, but he wants to appear to want to live to please Skylar, without undergoing the complete loss of control that taking Elliot's charity (and associating further with Gretchen, the living reminder of some better past) would involve. It's midway through the season -- are we about to experience better living through chemistry? Only if you consider being flat on your back vacuum-packed in some kind of medical device "better living." I'm not sure Walt has made a good trade, but we'll see how much freedom he can wring out of this bind he's gotten himself into.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:


- When the old colleagues at the party ask Walt whether he's still involved with Gray Matter, he mutters, "I went a different direction, into education." Then they ask what college he's affiliated with. Just another in a long series of humiliations. And a silence about how that one-eighty happened, that we can only hope will be filled with the rest of this backstory soon, preferably without the mood lighting and metaphor telegraphing that we saw in the Cheesy Flashback (producers, take note).

- Walt does an impression of a professor he and Elliot remember, who could be set off by any mention of a Bunsen burner: "Remember the waving? "He didn't invent it, he just improved it!'"

- Walt Jr.'s attempt to get a liquor store patron to buy a six-pack for him and his underage friends is just adorable. First off, the crutches are an integral part of the act, apparently, since his Native American buddy offers to make the approach if Walt will give up the metal. Second, when the mark says sternly, "You know what you're asking me to do is illegal," Walt Jr. proffers, "Um, no it isn't?"

- Hey, my profanity lip-reading skills are extremely poor. When Walt hurls a bad word at his dad during the intervention -- "You're a _________" -- what was it?

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