The Breaking Bad pilot laced different types of humor into what essentially could have been a heartrending drama of a man, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), finding out he has a cancerous death sentence—if it weren’t for his unorthodox and decidedly criminal stab at providing for his family. Series creator Vince Gilligan didn’t stop with the opener. As the writer of the first three episodes of season one, he continued to stir Walter’s life deep into a black-comedy cauldron in episode two’s “Cat’s in the Bag.”
The episode begins with Walt and his new sidekick Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) amazed by their incredible luck. A passing Good Samaritan (albeit a hulking, poker-faced man who accepts a wad of dripping cash) pulls their RV back on the road and the engine finally coughs over after first appearing to be flooded. Not to mention, they’ve just bested two killers. But you can’t have your yang without the yin—as Walt drives away from the crash site, our miscreants hear rustling from under the tarp in the back of the RV. One of the drug dealers that Walter had “snuffed out” with a toxic mix of chemicals that created phosphine gas is still alive. Against Jesse’s vehement disapproval, they take the RV to his house to dispose of the dead Emilio (John Koyama) and figure out what to do with Krazy-8 (Max Arciniega) who somehow survived.
Some good, old-fashioned slapstick is dropped when Krazy-8 escapes from Jesse’s less than attentive eye, and Walter finds the wheezing man shuffling down the Ozzie & Harriet-like street. Krazy-8 sees Walt and bolts, running—SMACK!—into a tree. Walter’s car radio is playing “You’re Moving Me” by Clyde McPhatter (“I wanna sing and shout, baby, you knock me out”) as Walt loads Krazy-8 into the car.
Slapstick turns to straightforward deadpan humor when Walt delivers Krazy-8 back to the house. While weighing the options of their dilemma, Walt suggests, “In a scenario like this, I don’t suppose it is bad form to just…flip a coin,” to determine who gets the “easier” job of disposing of the already-dead gangster, as opposed to killing Krazy-8. “Best two out of three?” Walter retorts when he loses the toss. Making light of an intense subject matter is a tricky thing to do. Go too far over the line of good taste, and you could lose the audience. But based on the enduring popularity of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan had the admixture just right here—a pinch of humor with a splash somberly pensive. The hysterical facial expressions of Walter and Jesse, as well as their witty banter, help offset the grim, sordid world of meth and murder.
There’s even some whimsical humor thrown in for good measure. Cue a scene with Walter sliding items, one at a time, across the basement floor—a jug of water, a sandwich on a plate, a 5-gallon bucket, toilet paper (rolled the right way so it won’t unravel), and hand sanitizer. When Walter asks Krazy-8, who’s pulling the crust off the bread, if he doesn’t like it, you just know a follow-up scene will find Walter meticulously cutting off the offending edges—he’s certainly sensitive and considerate of the man he has to kill after losing a wager.
And then there’s satirical humor. Handing over a couple of large bottles of hydrofluoric acid to dispose of the body, Walter instructs Jesse to use a plastic container for the job, polyethylene to be exact. After searching local stores for the right size, even climbing into one to test the fit, Jesse decides to simply use his second floor bathtub. Later, he criticizes Walter for making him run all over town looking for a plastic container. When the entire ceiling, tub, and remaining chunks of Emilio come crashing down to the first floor, Walter sarcastically says, “That stupid plastic container I asked you to buy. You see, hydrofluoric acid won’t eat through plastic. It will, however, dissolve metal, rock, glass, ceramic. So there’s that.” Now that’s funny, no matter who has just been liquefied. (Trivia: Mythbuster’s devoted an entire episode to the science of Breaking Bad and found the incident of the tub crashing through the floor didn’t hold water.)
With the heaviness of the subjects of drugs, addiction, relationships, and death resonating underneath, all the humor infused throughout gives the show a levity that makes it easily likeable in its decidedly dark-comedy delivery.
David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books http://www.beattoapulp.com/ and writer of the forthcoming The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.