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Ecks Factor: Breaking Bad Part II

***SPOILERS: This is without a doubt a spoiler-laden article. I have essentially recapped the entire season and sprinkled in various opinions here and there as I go along. This is your last warning. If you have yet to see Season 2 of Breaking Bad, I will spoil virtually everything***

Season 2 picks up roughly where Season 1 left off: Tuco (Raymond Cruz), the insane drug kingpin dealing with Walt and Jesse, mercilessly beating an associate to death over an off-handed remark. It's then that our unlikely duo realizes they need to deal with Tuco sooner rather than later. Back and forth paranoia leaves both fearing the worst until the next best thing to the worst happens: Tuco kidnaps them both, just as Walt struggles to quell Skyler's fears that her husband is lying to her.

The kidnapping of Walt and Jesse is tense. Tuco is neither a forgiving man nor a predictable man, leaving them with no real alternative except to try and kill him before he catches wind of their plot and offs them. With a botched scheme and an accusing eye from Tuco's sick uncle later, Tuco decides Jesse is expendable to his plans with Walt. Jesse shoots Tuco in the stomach before he and Walt head for the hills. At this point, Hank is searching desperately for Walt and comes up with Tuco's address, looking for Jesse. It's then that Tuco meets his end, by Hank's gun.

After Walt resumes his life (after feigning a mental breakdown to explain his disappearance), Skyler discovers too many unanswered questions pertaining to Walt. These suspicions culminate for all characters in the episode "Down", which was absolutely perfect, start to finish. It's here that everyone hits rock bottom in their own way: Jesse is kicked out of his house by his parents, leaving him broke after being arrested and released by the cops; Walt Jr. no longer feels a connection to his father and even starts calling himself Flynn rather than Walt Jr.; Skyler doesn't know what her husband is doing behind her back and is unwilling to let it go; and Walt cannot fix any of these problems. Walt can't help Jesse without arousing suspicion from his family, he can't regain love and trust with his own son, and he can't tell his wife all his secrets or he'll drive her away forever.

It's incredible how well-crafted Breaking Bad is as Season 2 progresses. Each and every character is layered and flawed. Heroic tough guy Hank (Dean Norris) is rocked by his killing of Tuco, as he's haunted by their shootout in "Breakage". Brash, arrogant Jesse has the rug pulled out from under him constantly. Walt is helpless when it comes to rebuilding his family, but he exerts his power over Jesse because it's the only situation he feels he has control over. And Skyler feels she has nowhere to turn now that her husband is lying to her.

Once Jesse gets back on his feet, he decides to cut out the middleman and become the meth kingpin. He recruits a few of his buddies to help push the product, but when a crazed, meth-addled man and woman hold one of his friends up for the money and the drugs, Walt forces Jesse to deal with it with a gun. In "Peekaboo", Jesse goes to their home and discovers their filthy, unkempt young boy, staying at home by himself with no food, no proper bed and no television. In many ways, he sees himself in this kid, someone who might not have the bright future all kids should have. Once the mother and father return home, Jesse takes them hostage until they hand over the money. Papa Meth (my nickname for him; his actual nickname is Spooge), meanwhile, has his own scheme going: he's stolen an entire ATM machine. Back and forth bickering leads to the wife killing her husband by letting the ATM drop on his head. Ouch. Jesse swipes some cash, calls 911 and makes the boy stay outside until the police get there.

At this point, word on the street is that Jesse killed the man, not his wife, and gains a hefty reputation for it. But before any celebrations can occur, Jesse's dealer friend Badger is arrested for dealing meth. Better call Saul! The boys hire shady lawyer Saul Goodman (a fantastically slimy Bob Odenkirk) to get him off, but Saul worms his way into a deal with Walt and Jesse for the meth dough. Saul Goodman is one of the best characters the series creates in its short two-season history thus far. He's a smart guy doing his job for the late night TV crowd (his ads are seen typically late at night, for a less-than-rich clientele).

After spending days together stranded in the desert (in a typically tremendous showing from Cranston and Paul in "4 Days Out", an episode that would feel boring and claustrophobic with lesser actors), Walt learns his condition is improving. He responds by lashing out violently at a party. Amidst all this, Walt decides he needs out, but Saul puts him in contact with another meth distributor named Gus (a calm, collected Giancarlo Esposito, nominated for an Emmy this past week). How could Walt turn down a seven figure deal? How could Walt turn it down while his wife goes into labor!?

Also transpiring during all these events is a romance between Jesse and new neighbor Jane (Krysten Ritter). She's been sober from heroin addiction for months, but as their relationship grows, she becomes familiar with Jesse and his needs. Soon he's the catalyst behind the end of her sobriety as well as her relationship with her father, Donald. Walt cannot trust Jane with Jesse and after refusing to give him his share of Gus's money, Jane blackmails Walt. In the closing minutes of "Phoenix", the season's penultimate episode, Jesse and Jane are in bed, sleeping, after shooting up heroin hours earlier. Walt arrives there to try and talk sense into Jesse, and while trying to force Jesse awake from his heroin utopia, Jane begins to choke on her own vomit. The most difficult decision in Walter's life comes and goes when he decides to let Jane die. It's not a black and white issue. The gray area is full of real possibilities: if Jane lives, both will be dead in weeks, if that. Walt cannot lose Jesse. For all his griping about Jesse's lack of serious part in their plot, Walter needs Jesse as much as he needs his own family. One won't be able to survive without the other.

In "ABQ", the season finale, Jesse unravels in the wake of Jane's death. Walt enters him into rehab, the only path to his own survival. But the most noteworthy underlying plotline of the entire season finally resurfaces when Skyler catches Walt in a lie she's suspected all along. While being put under for surgery, Walt lets it slip about a second cell phone, something Skyler had suspected since early into the season. She treated Walt with a cold shoulder for a long time until things finally seemed to be returning to some sense of normalcy. Not so in the finale. This triggers a string of events that leads Skyler to a bevy of lies Walt has told since this began. She decides her only option is to leave Walter with whatever business he's up to and take everything else from him.

To bring it all full circle, the opening scene of the season premiere (and additional scenes showing more each time throughout the season) depicted a burnt pink teddy bear floating in the Whites' swimming pool. Two body bags are shown. A man looks down at the teddy bear in the pool. Fast forward to the closing minutes of the finale, as Jane's father, Donald, returns to work as an air traffic controller. Still wracked with sorrow over losing his daughter, he unintentionally directs two planes into the same path. They collide close to Walter's home, sending the pink teddy bear straight into the swimming pool. Walter's decision to enter into the meth game has had severe consequences thus far, but none as deadly as this. Directly or not, Walter is responsible.

Season 1 serves as a prequel, as Season 2 unravels again and again to reveal a complex, exciting and dark look at the life of a man facing death. It really is his decisions that cause these various disasters to unfold: Jesse's deteriorating personal life, his family's distance from him, Hank's descent into post-traumatic stress, multiple fatalities, a highly dangerous drug put in the hands of addicts, etc etc etc. It all leads back to Walt. But if it wasn't him, it would be someone else. That's how he lives. Make hay while the sun shines. Too bad for Walt that the clouds are rolling in.

Start to finish, Season 2 is fantastic. I found myself engrossed in every single episode. I enjoy the character studies ("Grilled", "Down", "Four Days Out") as much as the twisty-turny, action-packed episodes ("Negro y Azul", "Phoenix", "ABQ"). Enough cannot be said for Bryan Cranston as Walter White. He starts the series as a more depressed version of Malcolm in the Middle's Hal, and finds himself as more of a villain than a hero. He's more bad than he set out to be. Anti-hero doesn't even properly describe a man who lies to his wife about his drug dealing, lies to his son about funneling his money into a Save Walter White campaign, treats his partner like an expendable lackey and puts drugs into the streets where anyone with the right coin can get them.

Each time I think I've figured it out, the series takes a sharp left turn. There are never any guarantees on Breaking Bad, except for one: if something's going right, it'll all go horribly wrong very soon. That's the life of Walter White: Meth Dealer Extraordinaire. He's making ends meet, but the ends are loose. Very little holds it all together, and by the time the season ends, he's left with nothing. Well, except a cancer that's shrinking and just under $500,000. I guess that's something.

Until next time, stay tuned.

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