Binging Late (S1:E5) – Dark Matter
My enduring memory of this episode is the scene in which Walter White and his family sit huddled around the living room, talking pillow in tow, to discuss Walter’s decision to forego cancer treatment. From wife Skyler’s insistence that everyone speak freely, to sister-in-law Marie’s audacity to actually speak freely, to brother-in-law John McClane’s awkwardness, to son Walter Jr.’s Jimmy-like stammering around the word “pussy,” that single scene was rife with so many powerful moments that I suspect it is indelibly etched into my cerebral cortex. What I will remember most from it is Bryan Cranston’s performance; as he sat through that train wreck, Walter White’s reaction was dramatic, compelling, and almost exactly how I envision I would have reacted under the circumstances.
What else I’ll remember about this episode is what it made me feel: fear, regret, confinement, anxiety, hopelessness, despair. We learned a lot about Walter and his motivations in this episode, including that his reluctance to undergo life-extending treatment is not really about the money, and that the romantic flashbacks we’ve glimpsed revolve around the now-wife of his once-schoolmate friend. Mostly, though, we learned more about what Walter’s predicament feels like; and it’s awful. The cathartic effects notwithstanding, it’s difficult to expect an audience to consistently sit through material as distressing as this. Placing viewers in a position to contemplate wrangling with specific knowledge of one’s impending and premature death, or being forced to make the gut-wrenching decisions that such a death sentence entails, is to force those viewers into a place of intense discomfort—not exactly the best way to boost ratings early in a show’s inaugural season. I respect the show’s writers for taking us there despite the unpleasantness of the journey.
Decades later, one of Walter’s schoolmates still seemed tickled by the notion that a biotech company conceived of by men with the last names Schwartz (“black” in German) and White took the name “Gray Matter.” The show’s creators obviously shared in this delight, bestowing the same title on this episode. As I experienced it, “Dark Matter” would have been more appropriate.
Everyone eventually called The Sopranos a family drama. Not so with Breaking Bad. It was in many respects the opposite: Tony had Carmela, AJ, Meadow, Christopher, Adriana, Sal, Paulie, Artie, and the rest. Those were people he had real, honest interactions with, showing vulnerability and love and hate. Walter has those people in the pillow scene, and Jesse, but almost everything is a performance. Walt uses the ‘this is about my family’ trope as a disguise for what it’s really about, revealed in the perfect juxtaposition this episode with Gray Matter.
I wonder if a fair reading of the show is as one big send-up of the ‘I did it for my family’ cliche. (Latrel Spreewell’s comments immediately come to mind.) It’s an all-forgiving, all-excusing explanation for behavior that would otherwise be deemed avaricious, or evil. On that couch you have four people who love and support Walter, unconditionally. They respect his reluctance to go though chemo, despite desperately wanting him to live. Isn’t that what every person wants? And yet he consciously–and repeatedly–shits on that love, choosing to exorcise his regrets instead.
All in the name of family.