Breaking Bad Episode 104 “Cancer Man”

After all of Walt’s internal battling, pros and cons listing and indecision, he murdered Krazy-8, cleaned it (and him to such pristine perfection that you almost didn’t know Krazy-8 was even there, then went home to his wife and told her he has lung cancer.

We don’t see a lot of internal struggle on Walt’s part after this first murder of his. It’s nothing like what we will see a few seasons later when Jesse kills someone. Of course, the person Jesse kills is more innocent than Krazy-8, so there’s that, but I also think that internally, even just going into this whole business endeavor together, Walt and Jesse are two very different people, with different moral compasses, tendencies to violence, and all that.

The main evidence we see of what happened in the previous episode is when Walt is changing his bandage from where Krazy-8 stuck him with the plate and get some blood on his pants. And when he’s outside bbq’ing with Hank, he stares at the fire all distracted, maybe thinking about the fire in the first episode (looks very similar for a few moments) or spacing out thinking of the implications of what he’s done. And there’s also that scene where he’s in his car and hears sirens and starts really freaking out. He’s even more paranoid when Jesse comes by later. So there’s some fear of being caught, but no sign of any sort of severe guilt or existential crisis.

In fact, is he maybe, a little revved up by what he’s done? There is the whole “KEN WINS” thing after all. Although that guy totally had it coming. Probably everyone in that bank wanted to blow up that asshole’s car. Cancer Walt just went ahead and did it.

We get some backstory in this episode, more than we have at any other point so far. We learn that Hank practically stalked Marie trying to get her to go out with him and Walt, while working at the lab, slowly pursued Skyler by doing crossword puzzles with her at her summer job. But the person whose background we learn the most in this episode is Jesse.

I have read a few articles that complain about the lack of a compelling origin story for Jesse. We never find out why he started smoking and cooking and dealing meth. He doesn’t have some tragic background, some horrific story that led him to his lifestyle. But I think there are two things to keep in mind here. The first is that Jesse really was a small-time druggie kid before getting connected with Walter White. You get the feeling it was something Jesse mostly did for himself, that he used most of the product he made, sold to some of his friends, was doing some wheeling and dealing with Krazy-8 and Emilio but was essentially really low-key with it.

But the more important thing is that sometimes there isn’t some big origin story. Jesse’s a very likable character–he’s funny, he’s smart (as we see later on), he maintains some innocence somehow throughout all the insanity and criminal behavior that ensues from that first cook, and he becomes more of a moral compass as Walt sinks deeper and deeper into his Heisenberg persona, so that our two protagonists almost swap emotional and moral places in the show–and I think that if Jesse had some tragic story of how and why he started doing drugs, it would just be the clincher on making him this completely sympathetic character.

Which is exactly why I’m glad there’s not some big dramatic origin story for Jesse. One of Breaking Bad’s greatest strengths is that the characters inhabit such gray areas of moral ambiguity, and that would be diminished some if Jesse getting into drugs had some too-sympathetic cause. And I think it’s realistic. Sure, sometimes there are clear and direct causes for the choices, good or bad, that people make later in life, but a lot of times, it’s just not that linear. People do things for all kinds of reasons, and when there are direct causes, I think it’s often more subtle and protracted and insidious than some big dramatic event. More difficult to explain, more complex.

And we do get a sense of the insidious, protracted and subtle things that might have led Jesse to become who he is at the start of this show. The family seems nice enough at first but even in that first scene, the way that the parents are bugging Jake about every activity he’s part of feels a little suffocating. You get the feeling that there is a LOT of pressure to perform well at everything, and Jesse probably gave up on living up to that awhile ago. Failing classes and doing drugs was probably his way of saying fuck you to all of that, and I think that’s realistic too, a way that a kid might react to constantly feeling like a disappointment. Or just as a tension release to all the pressure. Even the little brother is smoking pot. There is a normalness to the family that somehow is so normal (the music at the dinner table in the first scene just clinches it) that it goes over some invisible edge and seems unbearable.

But you can also see Jesse’s parents’ point of view. When his mom says that he always says and does just enough to get them to relent or support him, well, that’s probably true. I feel that when he sets the table. It’s this very small gesture, kind of a manipulative way of trying to seem helpful and back in the family fold and you can see that his mom wants to believe. She can’t let go of the hope. It’s kind of heartbreaking. Maybe they were never this crazy about activities and stuff with Jesse, and are just doing that with Jake out of fear that he will end up like Jesse and trying to stuff Jake’s life so full of accomplishments and awards that he’ll never think of following in his big brother’s footsteps. And is Jake smoking pot to try to relieve the tension of all that parental pressure, or is he trying to emulate Jesse because he’s all the parents talk about?

It walks this really fine line. Jesse’s parents are just irritating enough that you sort of side with Jesse and see why he does what he does, but they are also loving and concerned and you can tell they’ve been through the ringer with Jesse so you can’t think he is some poor victim either. Complexity, yo.

Back at the White house, Skyler makes an appointment for Walt, and he “borrows from his pension” to be able to afford it. Of course his pension is the vent in the nursery for the baby on the way. Jr. finds him in there and Walt says something about thinking he heard mice. Jr asks Walt why he is acting so weird. Later, when Walt says he may not want to get treatment, Jr asks him, “Why don’t you just fucking die already?” I like this side of Jr b/c he’s direct and calling his dad on his shit. I also like that Jr. says (at the bbq) that he wants beer, and they have the whole conversation about him and girls, b/c it all reinforces the idea that even though Walt Jr. has CP, he is mostly just like any other kid. I really like that.

It was also nice to see Hank at work. This is the first time we see him leading the team like this, putting pieces together, working a case. He seems really competent and funny and also a little silly (sorry, I gotta agree with Gomez on the whole Operation Icebreaker thing, it so does not sound badass).

One of my favorite lines of the whole episode was when Combo asked Jesse if something happened to his ceiling and he says no, the house is just “settling.” LOL what?! Hilarious. And then later, “I’ve been working on this new formula that’s really, it’s like chemically…shit, it’s just the bomb yo,” or something to that effect.

Walt has this really terrible thing going on. He’s got lung cancer. He just killed a man. He has no way to pay for treatment, and doesn’t even know if he wants it. He’s in a bad place. Everyone around him is trying to help but everyone’s saying the wrong things. The only one who might not be doing that is Jr b/c he’s not afraid to say the wrong thing to his dad. In a lot of ways, he really is a voice of reason. Skyler gets upset and wants to get him an appointment ASAP or figure out what it was that caused Walt’s cancer. Marie wants to get him the oncology dream team. Hank assures Walt that he will take care of Walt’s family should anything happen to Walt. They’re all reacting out of love, which is great because it does establish the family closeness between everyone, which remains central throughout. I also think it establishes a closeness between Walt and Hank that does comes into play several times later on.

At the same time, all these things people are saying are only aggravating Walt more. It’s hard to be in Walt’s shoes, and it’s also hard to be someone in his inner circle. It’s hard to know what to say to someone in Walt’s shoes, and (though I HATE to make generalizations like this), I think it is harder when that person is male. A similar situation crops up a few seasons later when Hank is injured and everything Marie does is wrong. I can see why these things people are saying to him irritate Walt but at the same time I can see that Skyler, Marie and Hank are coming from a well-meaning place.

I really like Dr. Delcavoli. He’s so level-headed and upfront and positive and charismatic all at once.

Also, Combo and Skinny Pete!

How much of a chem nerd does it make me that I actually tried to freeze-frame Jesse’s chem test to see what kinds of questions were on it and how hard they were? A lot of it was naming of (mostly inorganic) compounds, and in most cases Jesse had just copied the chemical formula from the question, no attempt at naming any of it. I think there may have also been some sort of combustion reaction on there.

Ridiculous! Apply yourself!

~Emilia J

Next Episode: Gray Matter

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3 thoughts on “Breaking Bad Episode 104 “Cancer Man”

  1. Pingback: The Best Relationship Stories − Your Questions About Cancer Man Disappearing Act

  2. One things that has always bugged me (and I am on my second viewing now) is that Walt seem to know how to cook crystal meth by some divine intervention. OK, perhaps years back he may have learned how to do it while doing something else, but still he manages 99.1% purity on his FIRST cook, despite a substandard lab an difficult conditions… No trial and error, no learning curve… perfect the first time with next to no effort. OK, later on we hear from Gale that he is very good indeed and that moving from 96% to 99% is actually a big deal and Gale could not do it, but Walt manages so easily in the desert that makes you wonder if the others are a bit thick, rather than him being a genius :D

    • Well, I think you want to think of it like cooking, literally. Because a lot of organic chemistry and synthesis really is a lot like cooking. I’ve had lab instructions that say things like, “Add charcoal, then return to a boil.” Sounds like you’re cooking spaghetti or something (except the charcoal part). So it’s not so much who has the most experience cooking one dish (meth) but who has the most experience cooking in general, who has that intuition that comes with spending a lot of time in the kitchen (lab) and who just has the natural ability to think outside the box of what might go together better.

      To put it another way, Walt is like the master chef. He may not have ever cooked meth before his first stint in the RV, but he’s cooked a lot of other substances. He’s familiar with ingredients (chemical compounds) and how they mix together (reactions) and recipes (syntheses) and has the experience and the know-how not only to have great lab technique but also the ability to think of new ways to cook things. Gale is more like the kind of cook that has to go off the recipe, maybe isn’t as imaginative or innovative, has to work harder at coming up with what Walt can just put together naturally.

      I can tell you that this sort of difference does exist in chemistry. Some people naturally see things, put unexpected things together and can create that way. Others go more by the book and don’t have that flash of inspiration or have to work a lot harder at it. I’m not sure this would really apply to meth–it seems to be a fairly simple synthesis–but it definitely would apply to chemists in general, where one could have that genius insight innovative thinking, and the other while very good and practiced, may not.

      ~EJ

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