Season two of Breaking Bad continues with themes established in season one. The most prominent theme is of Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) moving up in the drug industry and dangers associated with that. Hank (Dean Norris), now unknowingly following Walt’s exploits, remarks that the duo is probably stepping on a bigger trafficker’s toes. And, of course, they are.
It is implied that the man they are dealing with now, Tuco Salamanca (played by an old favorite, Raymond Cruz), has connections with cartels in Mexico. Tuco is unstable and paranoid and meets his demise in the desert thinking one partner (Gonzo, played by Cesar Garcia) had betrayed him over the death of another (No-Doze, played by “Jesus Jr.”). He kidnaps Walt and Jesse and hides out in the desert, hoping to escape to Mexico. Walt, Chemistry Super Hero, tries to poison him with ricin, but Jesse, Screw Up Super Hero, blows it. Tuco’s mute, wheelchair ridden uncle Tio Salamanca (played by consummate bad guy Mark Margolis) blows their cover. They end up shooting Tuco, who survives only long enough to get shot by Hank as Walt and Jesse escape into the desert.
With Tuco’s demise, the team must find a new dealer to sell to or, as Jesse suggests, they could be the distributor. Yes, Walt and Jesse will lead a gang of street dealers. Brilliant. Jesse enlists his junkie friends - the fidgety Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), the lovably absent-minded, yet good-natured, Badger (Matt L. Jones), and the far too optimistic Combo (Rodney Rush). So Pete gets robbed by the junkiest of junkies in Albuquerque, Badger gets busted by Kyle from Road Trip (DJ Qualls), and Combo gets killed by a kid on a bicycle. Just as planned.
Walt demands that Jesse get their stolen product back from “Spooge” and his equally reputable wife, forcing Jesse into the role of enforcer, which he is not qualified to be. The experience is almost a complete disaster, but with some luck it turns into some short term street cred. Walt even feels ballsy enough to chase some amateur meth manufacturers from his territory. Badger lawyers up with Bob Odenkirk. Well, actually the character’s name is Saul Goodman, but it’s totally Bob Odenkirk from Mr Show with Bob and David. Odenkirk does not undersell Saul the shady lawyer. I was half expecting Brian Posehn to be waiting for an appointment in some scene. Eventually Saul takes Walt and Jesse on as clients and is able to throw the cops off their scent and keep Badger out of prison, for a large sum of money. They do not weather the death of Combo nearly as well. They lose territory and the illusion of toughness.
Saul smells more money and convinces the duo that they need his expert services. With the cops looking at Jesse (because they found his car at Tuco’s) and Walt feeling exposed (Saul was easily able to track him to his work), they agree to a meeting with a larger distributor. That falls through, but Walt is able to force another meeting with Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), the owner of a chain of fried chicken restaurants. Soon Walt is contacted by an associate (Jeremiah Bitsui) and frantically tries to deliver their product while Jesse is strung out and his wife is going into labor. As the money rolls in, Saul sets up a money laundering scheme through a fund raising website that Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) set up. A full-time drug dealer’s lawyer and a money laundering scheme; our boys have been promoted to the major leagues.
As mentioned earlier, Hank starts to gain more prominence as he unknowingly starts to follow Walt’s exploits. Hank is the one who goes looking for Walt and stumbles upon and kills Tuco in a tense action scene. His heroics land him a promotion, but also test his bravado. He begins to doubt himself at his new office. No longer is he the leader and his new co-workers don’t appreciate his hard-nosed style. He doesn’t speak the language (co-workers mock him in Spanish) nor does he have a solid understanding of his new enemy. After a bomb kills an informant and a Mexican Federale while tearing off the leg of a US DEA agent, Hank has a crisis of confidence. For the first time in his life he is afraid. He faces some of the same problems that Walt deals with with regards to his masculinity. And while Walt rebelled against these forces, Hank essentially backs down. He goes back to chasing the blue meth, never returning to his promotion.
Walter still struggles with feelings of emasculation, but he’s aggressive about regaining it. For instance, Hank has always towered over Walt in the eyes of Walter Jr. So at Walt’s “remission” party, Walt gives his son a shot of liquor in front of Hank. Then he gives him another. When Hank objects to a third, Walt angrily declares that it’s his son before Walter Jr. throws up in the pool from his third shot.
Walt’s lies were causing problems in season one, but they cross into the fantastic after Tuco kidnaps him. He fakes a “fugue state” to explain his absence, but Hank’s investigation brings to light Walt’s second mobile phone. Skyler asks Walt about it but is not satisfied with the answer. Walt’s pathetic explanations only push her away. The stress drives the still pregnant woman to leave the house for long periods and start smoking.
Drugged before major surgery, Walt lets on about the other mobile phone. As Walt is recovering, not only does Skyler figure out the second phone mystery, but she learns that Gretchen (Jessica Hetch) is not funding Walt’s treatment, and that Walt did not visit his mother when she dropped him off at the airport earlier in the season (he went off to cook meth in the desert with Jesse). On that trip, when Walt and Jesse are near death, stranded in the desert, Walt remarks "All the lies, I can't even keep them straight in my head anymore." If the liar can’t even keep them straight it is inevitable that he will be exposed. His doctor (David House) rebukes him for failing to report a health concern, urging “No more secrets, Walt.” The dramatic irony is thick for Doctor Delcavoli, but you have to wonder if it is equally so for Walt.
Walt and Jesse’s relationship has always been tumultuous. Their bonds are strengthened and strained in season two. Their battle with Tuco and almost stranding the RV in the desert causes friction but also ties them together like any traumatic experience would.
Out in the desert it is Jesse who sympathizes with Walt when he coughs blood even though Walt lied to him to get him out there. He tries to reassure Walt about his decision to sell meth despite Walt’s derision towards him. After their adventure in the desert, Jesse assures Walt that “Whatever happens, your family will get your share.” When it turns out that Walt is in remission Jesse is beside himself at the “kickass news”.
Despite his obvious disdain for Jesse, Walt clearly also sees him as his screw-up son though. Jesse loses his half of their earnings and has to beg Walt for more money like a teen asking his father. He bottoms out after being kicked out of his home, getting his bike stolen, and sleeping in his RV soaked in porta-potty toilet water.
When Walt happens across Jane’s father Donald (John De Lancie) at a bar the two strike up a conversation without knowing their connection. Donald has struggled with keeping Jane off drugs. Both are distressed that their children won’t listen to them. Walt is ready to give up on Jesse, but Donald sets him straight. "Family, can't give up on them. Never." Donald may be talking about his biological family, but those words send Walt back to Jesse’s house.
Walt may be a father figure, but he’s a jerk of a father. Jesse causes the desert adventure in the RV by inadvertently draining the battery, carelessly destroying the generator, and rashly wasting their water - but it was Walt’s lies about their supplies that brought the two out there in the first place. When Walt encounters Jane (Krysten Ritter) and Jesse’s drug induced sleep he has a chance to save Jane as she chokes on her own vomit, but instead recoils. Knowing how much Jesse cares about her he does nothing to save him the pain of waking up next to her dead body. Jesse enjoyed his life with Jane, but Walt didn’t approve so he destroyed it. When Jesse inevitably numbs the pain of his loss with copious amounts of drugs, Walt pulls him out of his spiral and puts him into rehab. So Walt “saves” Jesse, but only after the actions that Walt didn’t like ceased.
Once again it is the respectable middle class man whose morality and kindness is underwhelming compared to the junkie’s. After Walt demands retribution in the case of the stolen meth, Jesse reluctantly plays the role of enforcer. Upon breaking into the perpetrators’ house he immediately shows his good nature by taking care of a neglected boy. Jesse’s concern is as heart warming as the little read headed boy’s situation is heart breaking. The boy is disturbingly quiet (like developmentally slow quiet), and as filthy as the dump he lives in. Jesse brings the boy out of his shell by playing peekaboo with, making a sandwich for, talking to, and watching the one channel on TV with him. When the child’s junkie parents return Jesse, to his own detriment, does not harm them in front of the boy. When the situation turns violent Jesse shelters the child from the carnage and shuttles him outside, setting him on the front stoop to wait for the police and imploring him “Just don’t go back inside.” He cares about the boy, but can help no further. "You have a good rest of your life, kid”, he sadly wishes to the child.
I liked the use of flash forwards at the beginning of episodes - Tuco’s grill, Jesse’s bouncing car, the recurring pink teddy bear, even going back to the pilot. The images never gave anything away, and they didn’t effectively foreshadow either, but they were intriguing.
Walt again uses science to get out of some jams. He tries to kill Tuco with homemade ricin. Later, when Jesse dooms their return trip from meth cooking in the desert, Walt builds a battery out of supplies in the RV.
Breaking Bad continues to show the ruinous effects of the drug industry. Jane’s death sets off a chain of events which ends in her distraught father, an air traffic controller, failing to stop two planes from colliding. Hundreds die because of the chain reaction.