Director: Adam Bernstein
Writer: Vince Gilligan
Every Sunday, viewers tune in to Breaking Bad to see how bad Walter White will break and how much he’ll sacrifice for money, power, and survival. By season five, the answers to that are "really fucking bad" and "seemingly everything," but in "...And the Bag's in the River," before Walt's become Heisenberg, the bad guy in the black hat, he is still a well-intentioned high school teacher in way over his head—and up to his ankles in the gooey remains of a drug dealer who threatened to kill him and Jesse.
In one of the series’ goriest cold opens, Walt helps Jesse fill plastic buckets with the slop formerly known as Emilio Koyama, which lays splattered all over Jesse’s hallway because he failed to follow instructions on how to properly dissolve a corpse with hydrofluoric acid. While sifting through the muck, Walt recalls a conversation he once had with his college chemistry assistant and lover Gretchen Schwartz (Jessica Hecht) about the human body’s complete chemical composition. “There’s got to be more to a human being than that,” says young Walt, pondering an unaccounted for .111958 percent, while in the present old Walt dumps all the hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, calcium, iron, sodium, phosphorus, and whatever else constituted poor Emilio into the toilet and flushes it.
As jarring as it is to see one person send another swirling into the sewer system, the episode’s great turning point concerns the fate of Emilio’s cousin Krazy-8 (Maximino Arciniega). Walt has cooked meth and used his knowledge of science to kill and dispose of a human being, but there’s a difference between making a spur-of-the-moment decision to poison two men with phosphine gas because they have a gun to your head, and premeditatedly murdering the one who survived and is shackled by the throat with a U-lock to a pole in your partner’s basement.
Apparent in Walt’s nuanced, occasionally claustrophobic story is the fact that he is a decent guy. Hell, he cuts the crusts off of his captive’s sandwiches for him. Sitting on the toilet he’s recently flushed Krazy-8’s cousin down, rational Walt makes a pros and cons list looking for a convincing reason to let him live, but there’s only one argument that matters: “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.” Realizing this, Walt nonetheless splits a six-pack with 8 and attempts to get to know him, still searching for an out. He even opens up about his lung cancer for the first time, perhaps because it’s a personal thing to share in these circumstances, or perhaps because the secret may soon die with 8. It’s not until Walt discovers that the affable prisoner has secreted a shard of broken plate to use as a shank once freed, that he reluctantly garrotes him with the U-lock, apologizing while 8 stabs at him wildly, sinking the ceramic into his leg. In the end, they are two men who just want to go home, and Walt, it turns out, is capable of doing whatever it takes to make sure he’s the one who does.
What he loses in that bargain is immeasurable, but writer Vince Gilligan, on his A-game here, has a word for it. After disposing of 8, Walt parks and stares off into the oblivion of the Albuquerque highway, returning to that conversation about the missing elements of humanity. “What about the soul?” Gretchen suggests. In perfect summation of present Walt (and the even colder, more calculating and ruthless drug kingpin he’ll eventually become), his younger self laughs, leans in amorously, and replies, “There’s nothing but chemistry here.” It would take a lot more than a plunger for Walt to recapture everything else that went down the waste pipe. —Justin Monroe