Monday, March 31 2014
I’m binging on Breaking Bad and discovered what might be the best (only?) depiction of the effects of prednisone ever shown on TV.
The episode is “Over” — Season 2, episode 10. In the previous episode, “4 Days Out”, we learn that mild-mannered meth chef Walter White has ‘radiation pneumonitis': the radiation treatments have inflamed his lungs, even though they put his cancer into remission. White’s oncologist tells him he’s going to prescribe prednisone for his pneumonitis, and doesn’t warn him about the side effects.
So the next episode, “Over” starts with Walt trying to adjust to his new prognosis: he thought he was dying, but he has to live. At first he’s happyish, though bewildered. Then he turns angry, at a party his wife throws for him. The next time we see him, he’s relatively happy again.
Walt then spends most of the episode on home improvement. He starts off replacing the water heater, deciding to purchase a top-line tankless model. After that is installed, he discovers rot from the old, leaky water heater — which sends him under the house to remove and replace the rotted structural beams. The project consumes him, to the point that he skips work to keep at it.
Breaking Bad is about a guy going from high-school teacher to drug-dealing supervillain, so you would think an episode in which the main character spends most of his time on home repair — including three visits to the hardware store — would be irrelevant to the whole becoming-a-malevolent-person theme. Also boring. Why is it important, or even interesting, that Walt is repairing his house?
The manic-depressive mood swings, the incredibly bad impulse control, the obsessive focus on a pointless project — these are all common side effects of prednisone. Prednisone explains everything. The drug isn’t even mentioned, but it’s as much a part of this episode as meth is. Prednisone makes Walt pissy, makes him tear apart his house, drives him back to the hardware store over and over.
Sure, it’s possible this is all coincidence: that we’re meant to get something else from the episode. But anyone who knows prednisone will recognize in Walt’s cheery obsession with floor rot that somebody involved with this episode knew exactly what they were doing. Somebody involved with the show has taken prednisone, or has watched someone undone by the drug. (I reached out to the episode’s writer, Moira Walley-Beckett, but she never replied.)
Prednisone is the point of this episode, driving it into Walt’s unmaking. When he makes his last trip to the hardware store, and bumps into an aspiring meth cook loading up on supplies, it’s prednisone telling Walt to confront the competition. It’s prednisone giving him crazy enough to scare aware the cook and his partner. It’s prednisone that turns him back into Heisenberg.
This is all done so subtly, so carefully, that you can watch the whole episode and miss it. They don’t mention prednisone in the episode, much less explain how it affects Walt. How brave, how badass is that: to bury a crucial plot point so deeply that 99% of your audience won’t get it? That is some creative risk-taking, right there.
As far as I know, there has never been a cinematic depiction of the effects of prednisone. “Over” is the best I have ever seen, and most people missed it. And though I would be surprised to learn prednisone overshadows subsequent episodes, it is still worth considering how far into the show Walt’s behavior is affected by the drug.
How much is Heisenberg meth, and how much pred?