I’m doing you all a favor and rewatching all of Breaking Bad before the final eight episodes air. What follows are my immediate takeaways from each season so far, so expect five of these in total. They’re partly recaps, but mostly just the stuff that strikes me as interesting while I’m shotgunning the show. Also, this should be a no-brainer, but don’t read this if you ever plan on discovering the show for yourself.
Season 2 of Breaking Bad is, in retrospect, it’s weakest. But when you’re going through a show that’s so universally great as Bad, even a weaker season is still better than pretty much everything but the best seasons of AMC’s other ace, Mad Men. And a lot of why this season ranks lower than the others is because of a season finale that’s a bit on the nose. We’ll get to that later, but the most important thing that Season 2 does is establish who the real “heroes” of the show are: Jesse Pinkman and Hank Schrader. Neither of them fit their archetypes completely, but they do define how far Walter White has fallen down the rabbit hole in their own ways. With Jesse, the writers of Breaking Bad take him from one low to another, breaking him down in ways that shatter him so completely that they can rebuild him anyway they choose. Hank, on the other hand, is allowed to break out of his shell as the douchey frat-boy cop, and we see that despite all of his ridiculous bravado is one of the smarter cops in television history, and the foundations they lay here are what allowed the show to become what it is.
The beginning of the season has Walt and Jesse running scared from Tuco , who they have just witnessed kill a man with his bare hands. Tuco gets to them first and takes them back to a home he has in the country, where it’s painfully obvious to both Walt and Jesse, and the audience, that he plans on killing them. Also, the country home is where his Mexican Cartel partners have been keeping his uncle, Tio Salamanca, a former Don in the cartel. It’s hard to understate how much the rest of the season draws on what happens in Season 2’s first two episodes (“Seven Thirty-Seven” and “Grilled”). At least until halfway through the third season, Walt and Jesse are still dealing with the ramifications of what happens in this two episode arc. Hank, too. What makes it work so well is that with Tuco forcing Walt into such a desperate situation, it gives us yet another opportunity to see how crafty Walt is. He’s become something of a wunderkind in the later seasons, but this is where Gilligan and his writers start selling us on it. Walt isn’t just another brilliant chemist; he also has a virulent streak in him that’s creative enough, in a criminal sense, to come up with ways to get out of the worst situations. This is where we’re first introduced to ricin, a poison that Walt makes out of beans, and that continuously comes back into play during the series. Walt tries to poison Tuco’s food while they’re at the country home but is found out, and it’s the first time we see him beg for his life in such a believable way, only to flip the script when it suits him. When he and Jesse manage to escape, Hank, who’s been looking for a missing Walt for the majority of the day, stumbles upon the house and gets into a shootout with Tuco.
This is the first, but nowhere near the last, instance of Hank as total badass. When he takes down Tuco with a headshot right between the eyes, it’s exhilarating, and also instrumental in showing the acumen Hank does have for his job. He may put on the dumb lug front, but Hank is every bit as capable as the square-jawed television cops of yesteryear, maybe even more so. When he gets a job opportunity in El Paso – a direct result of his takedown of Tuco – with another branch of the DEA to deal directly with Cartel affairs, we see that he’s not as mentally impervious as other television cops have been portrayed. The stuff he’s dealing with actually impacts him. He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his shootout with Tuco while in El Paso, and the Cartel only makes matters worse. He, along with other agents, are the victims of a Cartel bombing that leaves Hank picking up the pieces of himself for most of this season and the beginning of the next. But it also furthers his development as the only cop who might be able to piece together what Walt’s gotten himself into.
While all of this is playing itself out, Walt has to make up a story about amnesia to walk back into his family’s life, and the rest of the season has Walt dealing with the aftermath of his own confrontation with Tuco, while still trying to expand his territory and make more money for his family. Walt eventually finds out he’s in remission, and we see how torn up he is by this, as he bludgeons a paper towel dispenser in rage at himself for getting involved in something so dangerous when he could have lived a normal life and still escaped cancer’s grip.
But the biggest character growth for both Jesse and Walt happens because of one decision that Walt makes towards the end of the season. I’m obviously talking about Jane’s death. It’s the first of the things that Jesse goes through because of his association with Walt that completely wrecks him as a person, and it’s one of the saddest moments in a show full of them. Jesse meets Jane, his neighbor in the apartment building he has to rent after his parent’s evict him from his aunt’s house, and they soon become romantically involved. Jane is, as it turns out, a recovering addict, and when Combo, one of Jesse’s dealers and friends, is shot, he spirals into a using hole. Jane resists at first, but eventually introduces him to heroin, and that paves the way for Walt’s worst moment of this season.
After a deal with Gustavo Fring (the first introduction of Giancarlo Esposito’s seminal meth lord) is made more difficult because of Jesse’s using, Walt won’t give him his half of the money until he sobers up. Jane decides to blackmail Walt after Jesse tells her about it, and Walt eventually has to give them Jesse’s money. After talking at a bar with who is unbeknownst to Walt, Jane’s father, about family and the like, Walt goes back to Jesse’s house to try to apologize and he finds Jane and Jesse passed out from one last heroin trip. Walt attempts to wake Jesse by shaking him, and Jane rolls over on her back and starts to vomit, essentially asphyxiating herself, and Walt makes no effort to intervene, instead just looking on with equal parts horror and cold calculation. Walt lets Jane die, so that he can wrestle control over Jesse back from her. It’s so, so, awful, and remarkably, it doesn’t feel out of character. Walt was already to this point, he just hadn’t had any situation to act out this side of himself until now.
The aftermath is made even more painful because of Aaron Paul’s incredible turn as Jesse. You can feel his guilt over letting Jane go back to using, and the way he tries to resuscitate her hours dead body when he wakes up is enough to make you sick. That kind of acting, along with the writing, is what has me holding out hope that Jesse can somehow make it out of this desolate ass show alive. Like I said earlier, this is just the first thing that he has to deal with because of Walt that breaks him, but it stays with him throughout the rest of the series.
Now, I don’t have a problem with any of what happens with Jane, insofar as she’s someone that Jesse falls in love with, who is taken from him by Walt’s inaction. What I have a problem with is how she contributes to the “oh shit!” moment of the season, which is the plane crash in the season finale. As it turns out, Jane’s dad, who Walt not only ran into in a bar before going back to Jesse’s apartment, was an air traffic controller, who, after weeks away from the job dealing with his daughter’s death, accidentally causes a plane crash killing hundreds in the Wayfarer Flight 515 collision. All season long, there were periodic prologue stingers in choice episodes that showed bodies and children’s toys strewn violently across the White household, and the payoff in the end is that this plane crash happened right over Walt’s house. That reeks of either the writers not knowing if they’d get another season, or changing something drastically as Season 2 went along. Both of those reasons are fine, if that’s a version of what happened, for changing the ending, but I think what they did come up with relies too heavily on the butterfly effect to really sell me on it. Walt’s decision to let Jane die isn’t terrible enough, but it has to be beat into our heads with the knowledge that by letting her die, Walt unwittingly set off a chain of events that led to a plane crash? It’s just too loud and in your face. It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t fit with the established excellence of the plotting of a show that is so dependent on it. We know Walt sucks already, we don’t need such a cataclysmic affirmation like the plane crash on top of it.
Yet while Season 2 has its problems, it introduces us to great characters like Gus Fring, Saul Goodman, and Mike Ehrmantraut, who become essential pieces of the show in Seasons 3 and 4. Without this bridge, Breaking Bad couldn’t have so easily vaulted from one of the best shows on television right now, to one of the best shows on television ever in such a short amount of time. The jump in quality from Season 2 to Season 3 is astronomical. It becomes the show after this. Walt debuts his Heisenberg goatee in the season finale, signaling even more change within himself. Jesse ends the show in rehab, with Walt sending him there to clean himself up, which allows the Jesse of Season 3 to become a successful cook in his own right. Hank continues to deal with what happened to him in this season for the majority of the next two, but without these events, he can’t develop into the polar opposite of Walter by the time these final eight episodes begin to air. Season 2 might be the weakest, but it’s still an essential part in chronicling Walter White’s downfall.