I guess if I were to make a single criticism of “Breaking Bad,” one that I thought most held the show back from being theoretically “perfect” (which, of course, is unattainable), it would be that the show does a fairly bad job of truly portraying the cost of Walt’s actions on the community around him, other than in the abstract. We’ve seen the junkies that trapped Jesse in their house last season and their barely cared for kid. We’ve seen some of the shambling wrecks of people Walt’s dealers sold to in the first season. And we’ve seen a handful of junkies here and there, but mostly, the costs of Walt’s chosen endeavors have been felt in over-the-top action setpieces, like when the Cousins took down Hank or when Walt’s actions indirectly led to a mid-air collision. The consequences of Walt’s actions are almost always writ large, not expressed on an intimate human scale like the best moments of this series usually are.
That said, after seeing “Abiquiu,” I’m starting to see why the producers have always kept it abstract.
There’s a scene in the midst of everything that’s going on in “Abiquiu” that crystallizes just why it may be better to keep the implications of what Walt does on a level where they’re not directly spelled out. Jesse has taken up with a girl he’s met at his addiction support group. At first, he was going to sell the blue meth he’s been skimming off the top of Walt’s production for Gus to her, but once he found out she had a kid, he was understandably much more reluctant to do so. (Kids have always been Jesse’s weak spot.) When he implies that she’s not a very good mother in the midst of a discussion, she takes issue (again, understandably), then launches into a monologue about how what happened to Tomas isn’t going to happen to her son, that she’s going to keep him from the life that is destroying her neighborhood.
In theory, this is all right. “Breaking Bad” is very much a show that lives in the middle class, and it rarely takes trips down to the lower classes, where the real destruction of what Walt has chosen to do can be seen. Even Jesse, who has probably been the poorest of any of the major characters at any given point in the series, had parents who were willing to bail him out for the most part prior to the start of the series. Money troubles inform “Breaking Bad,” but at the end of the day, Walt still has a house to come home to, whether he decides to start producing meth or not. There is a certain level of comfort he’s accustomed to and largely takes for granted, and “Breaking Bad” rarely shows us people who would kill for even the cheap apartment Jesse occupied back in season two. It’s a world of people who have money, just not so much of it that they can ever feel comfortable.
But Jesse’s new girlfriend isn’t like that at all. She lives in a tiny apartment where she tries to raise her son as a single mother. She struggles with addiction, even to the point where she seems to find the support group mostly meaningless. She leans heavily on family members to help her raise the kid, and when they see Jesse with her, they cluck their tongues disapprovingly. She’s just barely hanging on, and she knows it. But she’s also got severely limited options, particularly with her son at the age he is and her desire to keep him from falling into a gang. Again, I’m down with all of this, and I think it could have worked dramatically. But it doesn’t, not quite, and the blame falls almost equally on writing and performance.
The writers of “Breaking Bad” have a tendency to make the characters monologue when they want them to express something they’re thinking about. The reason this doesn’t fall apart and feel like a dramatic contrivance most of the time is due to the fact that the monologues are usually written to be about something without really being about it – like how Jesse’s monologue about the opossum in his family’s house last week was as much about a creeping sense of things going very wrong as anything else – and the fact that the show has a hell of a cast that can sell just about any material they’re handed. I don’t know that I would have expected, say, Dean Norris to be able to deliver a monologue like the one he delivered back in “One Minute,” where he essentially laid bare his character’s soul and showed us the pain he was in from his post-traumatic issues and his obsession with Heisenberg. But every time the show has faith in one of its main cast members, that main cast member backs up that faith by knocking one of these speeches out of the park.
That faith extends to the day players, for the most part. John de Lancie got a chance to monologue every so often last season as Jane’s father, and his work was so good that I hope he returns, despite the various ways such a thing would be impossible. Krysten Ritter, an actress who’s rarely shown the soulfulness she showed last season as Jane anywhere else, delivered some great speeches, even in this episode with that opening dialogue with Jesse about how a door can stand in for something else, at least in art. (It’s a beautiful little prologue, shot through with sadness and tying in to last week’s image of the lipstick smeared cigarette.) And Jere Burns got a terrific monologue in the season premiere, where he talked about how his counselor got into this line of business.
But, again, the reasons these usually work are because they’re rarely direct. They take detours. They talk about feelings without actually talking about them. They, in short, sound like human speech, just slightly elevated. Jesse’s girlfriend’s speech to him about how she’s not going to let her son fall away from her like Tomas did is weird because I could actually imagine someone in her position saying something as direct as this to her new lover. At the same time, though, “Breaking Bad” has established such a particular way of its characters talking, such an elusive and heightened standard, that it feels overstated and too direct, as though the writers are preaching directly at us. It doesn’t help that the actress, Emily Rios, just isn’t up to the level of the material. She does a pretty good job with it but is ultimately unable to find a way to sell it other than barely restrained anger, which doesn’t really work for the scene. And it’s too bad, because she and Aaron Paul have a relaxed chemistry that’s decidedly appealing in their earlier scenes together.
I’ve harped on this scene (and, really, storyline) a lot, but it’s only one of the reasons I think “Abiquiu” is a good episode but probably the least of season three so far. There’s a tendency in the episode toward this sort of overstatement, and while I like some of the twists the episode throws at us and can’t wait to see how they pay off, I’m not sure the way we get to them is completely organic. Let’s begin with another issue stemming from the Jesse storyline: Tomas is the guy who shot Combo last season (also in the 11th episode, “Mandala”). One of the things I’ve grown to really like in this season of “Breaking Bad” is the way that the dead continue to cast their shadow over the living (and it was nice to see Combo in that “origin story for the RV” prologue from a few episodes back), but I’m increasingly less certain of the idea that there are only, apparently, 15 people in Albuquerque, and they all keep bumping into each other.
I get that this is one of the literary conceits of the series, that everything is constructed and some ambiguous higher power (whom the show should never, ever, ever spell out the nature of, please) is pulling the strings so these people keep bumping into each other and coming into contact with each other. I get that providing this underlying sense of connection heightens the show’s sense of being a Shakespearean tragedy, where misdeeds ripple out and sink whole families that had no connection to the main characters before the action of the story. In general, I like this sort of thing, actually. But I am worried that the growing coincidences and connections, which were fun for a while, are in danger of turning the “Breaking Bad” world into the sideways universe from “Lost,” where we’re seeing some sort of spiritual parable or redo of a previous life play out. It’s possible I would have liked this device more if the monologue revealing Tomas’ involvement in things were better written and played (and I do prefer it to my initial fear, which was that Jesse’s girlfriend would be Gus’ daughter). And I like where the episode ends, with Jesse seemingly vowing revenge on a 12-year-old boy and the gang that backs him. But everything that leads to this feels a little too convenient, even for the “Breaking Bad” world.
I feel sort of the same way about Skyler joining Walt in his business. Her choosing to look the other way on his criminal exploits if he’ll just get out of her life, I can buy. Her choosing to manipulate him into using his money to pay for Hank’s medical bills, I can buy. But her headlong plunge into the business side of his life – much as I’d like to see how it plays out in the seasons to come – is just a bit harder to swallow. Again, I love some of this material. Putting Anna Gunn and Bob Odenkirk in the same room and having them bounce off of each other was very funny, as Skyler and Saul come from opposite ends of the show’s moral spectrum. And most of the ideas that Skyler had were solid ones that will definitely push Walt more toward a respectable criminal life, rather than an improvised and ramshackle one. Creator Vince Gilligan has talked about having the show be the story of how a regular guy becomes Scarface, and you need to have this intermediate step where he slowly goes legitimate. With both Skyler and Gus advising him in this process, Walt would likely do quite well.
But I’m just not sure that Skyler would ever take this step. In the first season, she was set up so thoroughly as the show’s moral compass that the series could never figure out what to do with her after that point. Gunn’s portrayal of her has been good, and the slow dissolution of the White marriage back in season two was expertly handled. But having a woman this smart and this moral in the “Breaking Bad” universe meant that the show was always going to struggle with what to do with the character when she learned Walt’s secret. Last season, the show nicely muddied her moral compass by having her look the other way when Ted was embezzling (and then, this season, had her give him some advice on how to better get away with it), but her full leap into Walt’s criminal life – consequences be damned – feels slightly unmotivated and too abrupt, no matter how much she loves her sister and brother-in-law.
Which all ties back in to some of my main complaints with the show. Having that universe of just 15 people works really well when the ties pay off in unexpected and harrowing ways (as when Hank traced Walt and Jesse to the RV). But it ends up feeling a little constraining when the show needs to keep Skyler a part of the main action but can’t find a better way to do so without thrusting her into Walt’s criminal life. Again, I can see where the show has attempted to foreshadow this this season (as when she saw that big bag of money), and I can’t wait to see where it goes, but I’m just not sure all of it makes perfect sense from a character standpoint. “Breaking Bad” has always been a show so meticulous about caring for its characters, even when the plot might overwhelm them, that the few times it steps on its own characters’ motivations always feel just a bit disappointing. This is no exception.
Some other thoughts:
***Hank is still struggling with walking. I think we’re being set up for a much, much bigger story here, and when he inevitably learns what Walt – and now Skyler! – have to do with his injuries, he’s going to explode even more than he might have in the past. Good stuff.
***Badger and Skinny Pete continue to be reliable comic foils. I’d love to see a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” style episode from the point of view of these two.
***With the return of Jane as a major motivator for Jesse’s actions, surely the revelation that Walt was involved with her death can’t be far behind, right? I honestly kind of hope the show never has this fact come out, but it wouldn’t be in keeping with the show’s m.o. to keep it a secret forever.
***Something I’m unclear on: Is Jesse using again? He sure seemed willing to dip into the blue meth in this episode, if only to sell the product, and I’ve seen convincing fan theories that he’s backslid. But I still haven’t seen it in the main text of the show.
***That scene with Gus and Walt at Gus’ house is simultaneously warm and inviting and completely terrifying (just like the Gus character himself). I hope we get to know a little more about Gus and his private life before he’s written out of the show (as I suspect he must be for the dramatic engines of the show to keep rolling along).
***I know I complained about Skyler’s abrupt shift in this episode, but her car wash plan is a pretty good one. I also liked that Saul wasn’t a complete idiot here, as his point that the car wash doesn’t have a “Danny” is a good one. I hope we get more scenes between these two.
***I find it odd how much I’m missing Mike. He doesn’t do a lot, but I love the way Jonathan Banks plays him as the world-weariest man in a universe full of them.
***Honestly, I think the promise of lots of cash could have easily flipped Mr. Eyebrows.
***There’s probably a piece to be written about how the two AMC dramas kept estranged wives in the picture in their third seasons, with “Mad Men” eventually writing Betty into what amounts to her own series and “Breaking Bad” having Skyler feint toward doing this, then ultimately pulling her back into the main fold.
***This week’s question for discussion: Is “Breaking Bad” a moral universe? Is there an unseen moral force pulling the strings, creating the predictable combustions and reactions, as I’ve argued? Or is it all simple chaos?