Though not all would agree, I believe the first 3 episodes of Breaking Bad could function as a self-contained, dramatic, topical horror movie. And no, I’m not saying this because I’m high on meth (I swear that I’m not).
To begin with, Breaking Bad is about what many horror movies dabble in: Certain horrors hidden behind mundane, ho-hum, everyday life. Certainly, few characters seem as mundane as Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher and family man from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who works at a car wash for supplemental income — that is, at first.
Shortly after his 50th birthday, Walter discovers he has severe lung cancer. After doing a “ridealong” with his DEA agent brother-in-law (Dean Norris), Walt decides to blackmail a former student of his — Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) — after Jesse fled the scene of the bust. It’s not the standard blackmail deal, however. Walt wants Jesse to show him how to cook meth, presumably to help fund his cancer treatment.
The two purchase an RV and head to the desert for privacy. As it turns out, Mr. White is a Mr. Wizard at meth cooking, due to his knowledge of chemistry. However, when Jesse’s attempting to sell tupper market meth, two competing drug dealers and former partners — Krazy-8 (Maximino Arciniega) and Emilio (John Koyama) — mistakenly accuse Pinkman of being a DEA informant, and force him travel to the RV at gunpoint. This is where things get a little crazy!
Craftily, Mr. White pretends he’s sharing his recipe with the drug dealing kidnappers. Of course, he’s really poisoning them with phosphine gas. In a moment of seemingly necessary sadism, Mr. White locks the drug dealers in the camper — presumably to die — and waits until the poisonous gas clears. It seems the two are indeed dead, lying in the back of the RV.
At this point, some people might say, “Meh, it’s still not horror.” However, by the next few episodes, the horror elements become considerably stronger.
Episodes 2 and 3: “Cat’s in the Bag…and the Bag’s in the River”
Walt and Jesse face the issue of disposing the bodies. What to do? It’s not a question every high school chemistry teacher toys with, and presumably there are only so many methods available. There’s a little problem, though: One of the guys isn’t dead! In fact, in a creepy yet strangely comical scene, Krazy 8 is shown walking down the street, breathing heavily in broad daylight, while the usually mild-mannered Walter White is trying to pick him up and bring him back to Jesse’s home — the designated impromptu kill site.
It’s hardly easier getting rid of the drug dealer who actually died. The knowledgable Mr. White suggests using hydrofluoric acid to break down the body, and demands that Jesse get an appropriate plastic container for the job. After failing to find a large enough plastic bin, Jesse returns to his home and gets blasted on drugs.
Meanwhile, Walt puts off the murder of Krazy 8, deciding to hang out with his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), instead. While they have warm, tender moments discussing the newborn baby, she confronts him about phone calls from Jesse. Forced to improvise, Walt tells her that Jesse’s his pot dealer. Apparently, being truthful about their drug dealing, meth making, murder planning hi-jinks would go over even less well.
Very upset, Skyler pays Jesse a visit, threatening him for selling her husband pot — while the deceased Emilio is hidden just barely out of sight. Not long after that, Jesse finally gets the nerve to begin dissolving the corpse.
There’s just one little problem: The acid eats through the bathtub and the bathroom floor, and the hideous remains fall down to the floor below. (Interestingly, the Mythbusters tested this scene in a special Breaking Bad myths episode, proving that the acid probably wouldn’t eat through a bathtub. Still, fans could contend that Walter White — a genius chemist — probably concocted a more powerful combination of chemicals, but didn’t mention it in the plot).
In the next episode, called “…and the Bag’s in the River,” we see Walt flush these human remains down the toilet. Honestly, you don’t need to get much more horror-oriented and bleak than that, do you?
Krazy 8’s Crazy Fate
Let me put it this way: Sometimes when writing horror reviews, I think of Robert Englund’s comments in Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, where he calls a scene a “brutal sequence.” Well, this was a brutal sequence, and things don’t slow down much as events unfold. Krazy 8 has the pleasure of being chained to the basement with a bike lock around his throat.
To complicate matters, Krazy 8 blurts out Walter’s name, which immediately suggests Jesse had blabbed details to him. Enraged, Walt pursues Jesse and tries to make murdering Krazy 8 his responsibility.
Jesse — an occasional man of honor — reminds Walt, “We flipped a coin, you and me! Coin flip is sacred! Your job is waiting for you in the basement.” It’s an argument that many people would make, regardless of circumstances. Sure enough, if you flip a coin, roll a die or place a bet, you are supposed to be honor bound to it. To cheat or reverse the decision is usually considered highly dishonorable. Still, under these circumstances, how much should honor even matter?
At What Price Honor?
Hesitating in his duty, Walt creates a handy list of pros and cons between letting Krazy 8 live or die. Being new to this, he thinks it over more, and decides to make a sandwich for the prisoner. Unfortunately, Walt’s cancerous symptoms get the better of him and he falls to the basement floor, breaking the sandwich plate. Upon awakening, Walt picks up the plate pieces and implores Krazy 8 to “sell me” on reasons to let him live.
Although Walt and Krazy 8 find common ground and humanity in their conversation, Walt is still faced with a burgeoning inhumanity within himself. He seems to know he can’t turn away from it. When he heads upstairs and realizes Krazy 8 took a piece of the shattered sandwich plate, it works like another coin toss or a roll of the dice. We know the decision has been made. When Walt wields a knife, we wonder if he will use it benignly to make another sandwich, or to savagely end Krazy 8’s life.
Any plea from Krazy 8 could just be dismissed as tactical or cowardice. Regarding the bike lock around his neck, Krazy 8 had said, “I wouldn’t do this to my worst enemy.” However, any such claim is debatable in this world. If roles were reversed, wouldn’t Krazy 8 consider doing the same thing? This is the scenario created — essentially out of thin air — by these characters, and no one understands how or why these decisions are being made. They believe they are in control, but no one ever is. The illusion of control is what sets them all against each other, and inevitably leads to death and degradation.
So, the first episodes of Breaking Bad should have us wondering how many potential Walter Whites there are out there. Sure, no one will be in his exact scenario, doing those exact things, but plenty of people in existence try on evil just to keep the ball rolling. Would you be an exception? This is why, if you ask me, certain episodes of Breaking Bad could be considered honorary slices of horror. Long story short, it’s some pretty bleak stuff.