Breaking Bad has a certain storyline that it promises its viewers. We expect there to be drug dealing, tense set pieces, and morally questionable actions. However, based on their current situations, it doesn’t quite make sense for Walt and Jessie to cook meth together again. Thus, the current objective for the show is to get Walt and Jessie to that point. A lesser show would have rushed the effort to do this. Instead, Breaking Bad continues to take its time, giving us a second straight, leisurely paced, character based episode here. However, the previous episode was quite flawed, with its Lifetime Movie plot for Jessie and its need to give Walt a token badass moment by blowing up a car. Whereas Cancer Man felt like Breaking Bad with confidence issues, Gray Matter is expertly structured. Four episodes in, Walt’s reasoning for becoming a criminal were fairly basic with the primary motivator being money he needs for his family. Well this episode gives us fantastic insight into Walter White’s psyche and other motivations.
If this was last episode, this would be a reaction shot to Walt poisoning the punch bowl.
Act 1 is all about Walt and Skyler going to his old colleague’s birthday party (whose wife happens to be his ex-lover). Immediately, the focus is on how Walt is insecure about how he is perceived. Walt and Skyler’s fashion sensibilities apparently do not extend to beige for this party and thus, they stand out. Then, in the hilarious gift-opening scene (love Walt and Skyler making fun of Elliott), Walt is worried his gift doesn’t match up to the other gifts, despite having the most heart to it. Most importantly, we learn that Walt and Elliott started a company together (the titular Gray Matter) but are now on opposite ends of the spectrum. Elliott is rich, happy, and an attention whore; Walt is constantly trying to shrink into the background at this party and awkwardly explains his leaving the company as “gravitating towards education”. Naturally, the people at the party assume a man who created this company with Elliott would be teaching at a highly esteemed university. More wounds to Walt’s pride.
And that’s the biggie here. His PRIDE. Walt is having a good enough time at the party catching up with old friends. When Elliott initially offers Walt a job, Walt is caught off guard, a bit flattered, but remorsefully tells Elliott he has some “personal issues”. However, once Walt figures out that Elliott knows about the cancer and offers to flat out pay for his treatment, Walt is furious. He storms out and berates Skyler for bringing these people into their personal affairs. Skyler takes his verbal assault but is flummoxed when she realizes Walt refused all of the offers. YEGADS, his pride, man!
Now, pride is not necessarily a bad thing. I do a lot of things that I shouldn’t because I’m too prideful to ask for help or admit I am wrong. However, when pride leads to you foolishly turning to the drug trade, then you know there is a little something else going on there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even talked about the best scene in the episode: the Talking Pillow scene. Skyler is thoroughly confused by Walt’s belligerence and stages an intervention where the family can get all of their feelings out on the table. What follows is a fantastically written and acted (boy I say that about a lot of scenes in this show) sequence where each of the characters are given some heavy lifting.
Skyler, for her part, is as stubborn as Walt here as she won’t take “no” for an answer when it comes to Walt’s treatment. Now this may come off as overbearing but all Walt has told her is that they aren’t financially in a place to do this treatment. Now, this golden ticket has arrived and Walt angrily dismisses it out of hand and she wants to understand. Hell yes, she’s justified in wanting to know what is going on in that his head.
Less justifiable is her thinking this does not come off as condescending.
Walt Jr. is mad at his dad for not being courageous and going through with the chemo (and damn, does Bryan Cranston knock out the moment when he reacts to being called the “p” word by his son). Hank seems to just be on the fence, which makes sense for his character. Yeah he cares about Walt, but to him, Walt’s decision is Walt’s decision so I can buy Hank not being very persuasive and flipflopping on his opinion during the scene. Marie has the most interesting view, pointing out that treatment is not all sunshine and puppies which Skyler is infuriated by.
But, really, this scene is all about whats going on in Walt’s mind. When he gets a chance to talk, he delivers a very powerful speech about how he’s never felt like he has a choice in anything. He’s felt pushed around by the world, whether it be through his career, his decision to leave Gray Matter, or now his diagnosis. It makes complete and utter sense that this man would want, at what appears to be the final phase of his life, a chance to make his own decision on how to deal with the cancer.
Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that in the very next scene, he relents and acquiesces to his family’s wishes. I know I’ve had big moments where I try to take a stand against my loved ones only to back down once I realize how much it affects others. What makes this heartbreaking though is that Walt relents…but not about taking the generous gift from Gretchen and Elliott. He thinks “fine, I’ll do this treatment but I will pay for it”. Of course, this means cooking meth with Jessie.
But in all honesty, should you be taking a gift from guy who does this?
Oh yeah, Jessie!! He had a strong episode as well, though it was ancillary to Walt’s portion. Fresh off the horrifying events from Episodes 1-3 and from his rejection by his parents last episode, Jessie is in a rut, trying to find his way. Unfortunately, he’s completely under qualified for any respectable work, and instead finds himself lured back to meth when his buddy, Badger gives him props for the meth he and Walt cooked up. Last episode, it became clear that Jessie yearns for approval and praise so it is very reasonable that he would go back to his old ways.
Though all approval/praise from this guy should be taken with a grain of salt
Jessie is not going back completely to his old ways though. If Walt saw him now, he probably would be proud of how Jessie absorbed some of the things Walt taught him in the Pilot. Jessie proudly explains the technical terms for the meth equipment to Badger. Then, where once Jessie was the doofus not taking things seriously, he bristles when Badger can’t get it together during a cook. Finally, substandard meth is NOT something Jessie will put up with anymore. Jessie clearly took the “apply yourself” message he found on his old assignment last episode to heart. All of this makes Walt and Jessie coming back together feel very natural.
But really, this was Walt’s episode. Back in the Pilot, when Walt chose to cook meth, he did it under the pretense of leaving money for his family. It wasn’t a smart decision but there was a sense of nobility to it. This episode muddies the waters while moving Walt and Jessie back together. How is it reasonable for him to go back to being a criminal to pay for treatment when someone is literally willing to give you that money? Its a fascinating question and is a great bridge from the plot of the first few episodes into the next phase of the show.
Lazily Thought out Tangents
- The birthday party is great to just see Walt and Skyler as a couple in a social setting. Its something we haven’t seen much of but its refreshing.
- Nice little scene between Hank and Jr. when Jr. gets busted for trying to buy alcohol. Hank shows who he is deep down when he is immediately concerned about how Walt would take Jr. coming to him instead of to his own father.
- The Talking Pillow scene is phenomenal but I didn’t like the obvious humor of Marie picking apart Hank’s weak analogies. That felt very sitcomish to me.
- That scene of Walt gently hugging Skyler from behind when he agrees to the treatment is so touching, it makes this hardened, unemotional and tough-as-nails reviewer choke up.
- Walt and Gretchen’s conversation leaves so much dangling. You get a sense that something happened that Walt is not willing to let go of just in the way that he flat out ignores some of her questions.
Rating: 78 Grays Mattered Out Of 100