Several themes emerge in the short first season of Breaking Bad. First and foremost, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) feels emasculated. At first it's just his job. A talented scientist in his younger days (as evidence by flashbacks), Walt is relegated to teaching dumb, disrespectful high school kids. Worse, he works a part-time job as a clerk at a car wash. His boss often asks him to wash cars, leading to humiliation when those same students of him see him scrubbing a tire on his hands and knees. His son (RJ Mitte) is ridiculed for his cerebal palsy at times too.
Walt's cancer takes it to a whole new level though. He resigns himself to death, but his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) wants to pay for the best treatment. Not only does Walt lose control over decisions about his health, but now expensive treatments will stop him from providing for his family after death. His brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and old friend Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) each offer to pay for his medical bills. Hank even assures Walt that whatever happens, he and Marie (Betsy Brandt) will take care of his family. No man wants to hear that another man will see to his family's security though. This is especially true with Hank, a masculine DEA agent whom Walter Jr. looks up to. The teenage boy eats up Hank's stories about drug busts, while his stuffy science teacher father looks on. When Walter Jr - who prefers to go by "Flynn", discarding his father's name - gets in trouble with the law - allegedly smoking pot, actually getting busted for trying to buy beer - it is Hank who is called in to fix the problem. Walter Sr. is watching watching his son reject him as a father during his illness.
In the pilot Walt, thinking he is about to die, sends a later aborted message to his family.
I just want you to know that no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart.
But that's not true. Instead of taking two legitimate offers, Walt turns to "cooking" methamphetamine (crystal meth) with a former student, Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul). So it is quite early in the series that the audience loses sympathy for Walt. Had he swallowed his pride Walter White could have saved his family.
Walt kind of gets off on his new life. In his car after the explosion in Tuco’s office Walt breathes in the adrenaline rush. He twice makes passionate love to his wife after stressful situations (and once pushes the issue too far). His first kill is self defense, but a subsequent murder is slightly more cold blooded.
A life of crime is obviously going to involve a lot deceit. Walt's lies quickly start to affect his marriage. He fails to tell her that he quit his job. When a "telemarketer" calls, Skyler traces the call back to Jessie. Then when she confronts Walter about his partner, Walter lies again about their relationship. He lies about how he's paying for treatment, and uses other alternative treatment as a smokescreen to go cook meth. He explains much of his absence as just needing time to deal with his illness. Regardless, he is distant.
Breaking Bad looks like it will follow a similar path as Weeds. Both shows indicate that you can't just be a small time drug dealer. Larger dealers will not just let you exist peacefully. You either grow or die. Unfortunately, Walt and Jessie, while carrying a superior product, are inept at selling it. After selling on their own for only a short time they try to hook up with two small-time dealers Krazy-8 Molina (Maximino Arciniega) and Jesse's ex-partner Cousin Emilio (John Koyama). When that sours they step up to a better financed and heavily armed group lead by Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), a most vicious criminal. They take their beatings and face death from both groups.
The show's first scene is very clear about how bad they are at this. With Jesse unconscious next to him, Walter crashes a Winnebago in the desert in his underwear. When we come back to that scene we find out that the duo has barely escaped death, while starting a grass fire, and leaving evidence behind. Walt attempts to kill himself, but fails to take the safety off the gun. When he attempts to kill a drug dealer who will almost surely kill him, Walt hesitates, making a list of pros and cons and ultimately almost letting him go. Later in the season they stumble trying to secure supplies - Walter allowing Hank to trace supplies back to his lab, and the two clumsily stealing a large barrel of methylamine. Their mistakes are reminiscent of Nancy Botwin's (Mary-Louise Parker) in Weeds.
Jesse is an immature junkie drug dealer of limited intelligence, while Walter is a stuffy, precise science teacher. The two have little in common, but the development of their relationship is something to watch. Walter hides a lot from Jesse and Jesse is suspicious of Walter's reasons. The "good guy" and the "bad guy" are actually reversed in the relationship. Walter treats Jesse - somewhat fairly - as a child. Jesse is the one that shows a middle class man's care and understanding. When he learns of Walter's cancer he admonishes Walter for not telling his business partner, but also offers him advice on how to deal with treatment, his aunt having succumbed to cancer.
Walt becomes somewhat of a father figure to Jesse. Instead of ditching his new partner in the desert, he puts a gas mask on him and drives him to “safety”. After Jesse’s beating from Tuco, Walt comes back with vengeance to get their money but also for compensation for Jesse. Walter’s burgeoning care for Jesse comes along with deep condescension. Walter definitely feels superior to his former student. Jesse doesn’t help it though. He often fails to listen to Walt’s orders, most famously resulting in bit of Cousin Emilio falling through his ceiling.
One subtle theme in Breaking Bad is that the actions of Walter and Jesse have consequences beyond the drug underworld. Obviously people die and drugs ruin lives. I reaches further though. When the cops come looking for the thief who stole the school's chemistry equipment they find not Walter, but Hugo. It was the lowly janitor who compassionately helped Walt when he was fighting the affects of his cancer treatment, vomiting in the bathroom. Hugo is a good man, who happened to have a little bit of pot and a short rap sheet. Half of his reason for helping Walter was so that he could go back and teach his kids. When he gets arrested he not only loses his job but will probably go to jail.
It’s interesting that Breaking Bad goes in this direction. You would expect it to speak of the immorality of the drug war, but there is little of that. Over Cuban cigars, Walt remarks on the arbitrary nature of which drugs are made illegal to Hank. This is more of an attempt at justifying his action than a commentary on the war on drugs.
A more innovative part of the show is that Walt is like a chemistry super hero. He’s able to extricate himself from dangerous situations using his deep knowledge of chemistry. It’s not done in a hokey manner though. He’s not MacGuyver and he’s not trying to educate you like he’s Mr. Wizard. According to Jesse, Walt makes the best meth he’s ever seen. When Sudafed is lacking, Walt cooks it from a more basic ingredient, methylamine. To break into the warehouse that stores it he burns through a lock using thermite extracted from Magnadoodles. He escapes Cousin Emilio and Krazy-8 with a concoction that creates poison gas. Walt disposes of the body with hydrochloric acid. He blows up a car by placing a squeegee on some jerk’s battery. And in the most intense scene of the season, Walt walks into Tuco’s office and nearly blows the psychotic dealer up with fulminated mercury, or as Walt puts it “a little tweak of chemistry”.