“Different items, different stores”
Breaking Bad, AMC
From London Review of Books:
There’s a scene in Breaking Bad, a third of the way through the 54 episodes shot and screened on US TV so far, that marks a significant moment in the gradual passage of its central character, Walter White, from hero to villain. Walter, a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher who’s become a manufacturer of illegal drugs, is walking down the aisle of a DIY superstore in his home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, buying paint for his basement, when another customer’s laden trolley catches his eye. Walter realises the stranger is buying precursor chemicals to synthesise methamphetamine, ‘meth’, the same addictive, feel-good narcotic Walter and his partner secretly cook up in the back of a jumbo camper van in the desert.
At this point in the story Walter’s hours in the meth lab and violent encounters with drugs trade players are interspersed with sessions in the classroom, where he grades papers and, with evident pleasure, talks teenagers through the intricacies of valency and oxidation. It’s from this side of his personality – the patient teacher, pedantic, pernickety, but eager to help a future colleague – that his immediate reaction to the stranger’s shopping list comes. He tells him he’s buying the wrong matches.
‘What?’ asks the stranger, a shambling, dead-eyed wreck of a man. With gentle muzak warbling in the background, Walter clues him in:
Those matches, they’re the wrong kind. Red phosphorus is found in the striker strips, not the matches themselves. You need to get the big 200-count case of individual matchbooks. More striker strips, you understand? Those only have the one.
Walter the educator can’t stop. He has an irresistible urge to share the drugs lab lessons he has so painfully learned.
And don’t buy everything in one place. Do it piecemeal. Different items, different stores, attracts less attention. Are you following me here?
The stranger panics and rushes away. At first Walter laughs and makes for the checkout. But as he waits in line we see his face harden and the new Walter assert himself: the criminal businessman with a market to protect from rivals. He marches into the parking lot and faces down the stranger’s meat-mountain boss. ‘Stay out of my territory,’ Walter says, with utter conviction in his own menace; without a word, his nascent competitors flee the scene.
In the smile that creeps over Walter’s lips after his act of intimidation we see an early glimpse of the real allure that drives him on, although he doesn’t yet realise it. As Peter Robb writes in Midnight in Sicily:
The colossal wealth brought by the drug trade brought no improvement to the lives of those who risked their necks for it. The furtive enjoyment of a fast car or a gold Rolex or expensive clothes was cold comfort in a life of hiding, sexual misery, mistrust, the constant fear of betrayal and death. The old mafia reward hadn’t been wealth but power. ‘Giving orders is better than fucking,’ was an often-heard mafia saying.
Walter is played by Bryan Cranston, previously best known for comedy roles – the father in Malcolm in the Middle and the dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfeld. Walter White is, for Cranston, a great mid-life unfolding of talent meeting opportunity: the challenge of a part within a part, an actor playing a man who is constantly forced to be an actor in order to preserve what he has, up to and including his life. White has to lie to his pregnant wife, Skyler, and his disabled son, Walter Jr, about his mysterious absences and who’s paying for his cancer treatment, but also to his brother-in-law Hank, a senior agent in the Drug Enforcement Agency. He has to lie to his partner in crime, young Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and the various dealers, users and killers he works with and against. At first, the lie is to make him seem more dangerous and ruthless than he is. As the story goes on, the lie shifts and we see Walter claiming the root personality of a decent, civilised man, forced by circumstances into temporary lawbreaking, even as the evidence mounts that his first lie wasn’t a lie at all; that he is the most dangerous and ruthless of them all.