One of the best things “Breaking Bad” has in its corner is its complete willingness to play with our expectations. It’s a show about a man who loses whatever moral center he had when he turns to cooking meth, so while it’s obvious the show is going to be getting back to Walt’s side occupation (and, increasingly, his real one) sooner rather than later, the series’ willingness to let this play out with some sense of how it might really play out when a man had to choose between making a lot of money and getting his family back is commendable. I like a show that takes its time. But I also like a show that just jumps to what you know the end will be. Since the twins crossed the border last week, we’ve known they’d figure out who Walter was and have a run-in with him. But I don’t think anyone would have predicted it would happen this quickly.
[Full recap after the break…]
The final sequence in tonight’s episode – Walt singing “A Horse with No Name” in the shower while the cousins patiently wait for him out in the bedroom – is a marvel of tension, and while the episode finds an out so Walt can continue to live (or at least live with all of his limbs), it’s not the one you’d expect. Sure, the whole sequence relies a little too heavily on coincidence for some to stomach. I’ll admit that I find it a little unbelievable that Saul’s clean-up man Mike, the cousins and Walt would all converge on the former White home at the same time. Absolutely, of course, Mike was asked to check in on Skyler by Saul, who wants to make sure he and Walt don’t have a “wife problem,” and the cousins now know Walter’s name and will go to the address still associated with that name. I suppose I can even buy that Walter would want to go back to the house and sneak in as some sort of power play (repairing his family via brute force). But all three of these parties at the same time? That stretches credulity just a bit.
But at the same time, “Breaking Bad” has always found a way to pull off these improbable coincidences, and I think it mostly does here as well. This is a show where there’s definitely some sort of moral force guiding this universe, though said force hasn’t exactly made itself known. God (or whatever you want to call said force) isn’t as ever-present a force here as He is on some of the other shows obsessed with questions of what His relationship to man is and should be, but you can see that the universe is building up a case against Walter White, a case that he can only withstand so long. For further evidence of this, check out pretty much the entirety of the end of season two, where Walter’s provided with a series of moral choices, makes the wrong choice in nearly every situation and ends up destroying the lives of nearly everyone he’s tangentially touched. It’s gutsy storytelling, and I don’t blame people who don’t buy the coincidences necessary to get to that point. I do, and I love the way the show suggests the plane crash happens over Walter’s house as if to let him know, “You did this.” A vengeful God in the Breaking Bad universe, it would seem.
“Caballo Sin Nombre” is the second episode in a row to keep the criminal activity to a minimum and the second in a row to focus on the domestic gulf that’s opened up between Walt and Skyler and the way that drags everyone else in their lives down with them. Flynn, in particular, is deeply unhappy about what’s going on, finding ways to end up at Walter’s place and angrily chastising his mom yet again (even suggesting she’s calling him Flynn not because he asked her to but because she doesn’t want to think about Walter). Hank and Marie are also unsure of how to proceed, as Hank tries to suggest that maybe Skyler shouldn’t keep Walt from his kids and is shut down cold. Their later conversation about whether or not Walt’s had an affair strikes me as a little too easy of a way to get Hank further pondering what’s going on, exactly, but it’s a good reminder of how these people are touched by what Walt’s up to, even if they have no idea just what it is that’s dragging them down into the cesspool.
But, again, the central conflict here is between Walt and Skyler, even though the two probably share less than five minutes of screen time. She needs him out of her life and is unwilling to explain to anyone else why. (As Saul points out, she has a vested interest in keeping Walt’s secret life a secret. If news gets out that Walt is a drug dealer, it will adversely impact not only her but also Hank, who will be seen as the worst DEA agent ever, conservatively.) There’s a great scene with her boss, Ted Beneke, the guy who’s seemingly had designs on her from before the series began but also the guy who’s doing illegal things with the money the company takes in both to stay afloat and to have a little extra for himself. The series has always presented Beneke as a sort of white-collar counterpart to Walt, and now that Skyler knows both her husband and her boss’ secrets, she’s pitting one against the other, even if neither knows it. She’s helping Ted see where he’s messed up and could get caught (even if she couches it in, “I don’t think you should be doing this”), and she’s asking him things like, “What if your kids found out?” It’s not the most subtle scene, no, but it’s a good way to suggest there’s a part of Skyler that might be able to find a way back to Walt, even if she’s not ready to admit that even to herself.
For his part, Walt’s going even more unhinged. He erupts at a cop about his first amendment rights after the cop stops him over a broken windshield, ending up pepper sprayed and in jail for his troubles. He throws a pizza on the roof of his old place when Skyler refuses to let him in to have dinner with the kids. He roars in disapproval when Skyler calls to suggest she’ll take out a restraining order against him if he keeps up his temper. And, of course, he comes and breaks into the house via the trap door he built while doing repairs last season. What’s he doing here? Ostensibly, he’s going to remove the pizza (which is a great visual reminder of the strife between these two and seems likely to keep popping up for a few episodes more, at least), but he also seems to be trying to get Skyler back through the only way he knows how to get anything, increasingly – by forcing his way into her circle.
Walt’s not the only one who’s trying to get back into his old house, of course. Jesse’s also looking for a way into his aunt’s house, the one his parents took out from under him last season, when they learned he’d been using it for a meth lab. Jesse’s relationship with his parents has always been one of the show’s more understated elements. He’s a kid who clearly had the world given to him (if his parents’ treatment of his younger brother is any indication), but he’s also one who was unable to find any drive from that scenario. He’s a smart, capable kid, but having everything he ever wanted has led to a scenario where he’s unable to do anything but disappoint everyone, seemingly, leading to his choosing the path of least resistance at every given turn. (Season two nicely contrasted this lack of direction with Jane’s similar lack of ambition.)
Now, though, after his parents have kicked him out, after his drug use led to the death of his girlfriend, after rehab and losing everyone he cared about and discovering just how much his new father figure was a cruel, dark man unwilling to accept responsibility for his own evils, Jesse is slowly putting his life together, even if he’s using some very cruel methods to do so. He’s got money, and he needs a place to live, so, of course, he buys the house out from under his parents, but he cheats them out of any profit they hoped to make (though I doubt he would see it that way, choosing, instead, to see it as payback to the parents who unjustly removed him from his home). He’s on the straight and narrow in some ways — 45 days sober! — but he’s also still feeling out just what he’s going to do with his life. And still, the call of his old life is out there, suggesting that all he needs to do is get Walter back in the game, and all will be well again. There’s a sense that Jesse’s doing everything he can to just hang on, and I don’t know that stepping back into the house he once used as a meth lab is the best way to keep from backsliding.
I’m not sure the episode worked as well as the premiere, overall, since there was plenty of interesting stuff going on, but not all of it hung together as well as the best “Breaking Bad” episodes. It’s one thing to have a few storylines running concurrent to each other, but this episode rather throws every character into their own storyline in a way that keeps the episode feeling a little more disjointed than it might have otherwise. The one thread that tied everything together last week – the sheer terror that comes from the cousins rolling into town and on the trail of Heisenberg – is not as present this week, and that keeps things from hanging together as well.
However, the few scenes we do get with the cousins are both fantastic. We first have that scene in the world’s most stereotypical nursing home (where all of the puzzles have kittens on them) that ghoulishly involves the cousins spelling out Walter’s name on a Ouija board while Tio rings his little bell to let them know when they’ve got to the right letter. (And need we mention that this is yet more evidence of the specter of death clinging to the cousins at every turn they make?) Tio has always been one of the show’s most horrifying characters, and his singleminded desire to get back at Walt and Jesse has been one of the great loose ends the show has left hanging out there. This scene, then, is a great reminder of just how angry of an old man he is and just how much he’ll have his revenge.
But that last scene, the one that seems as if there’s no way it will end well, is one of my favorite the show’s ever done. I like the callback to Walt singing “Horse with No Name.” I like the way the cousins sit patiently, perfectly willing to just slowly wait out this man. And I love the way the series finds a way out of this scenario that doesn’t involve some abrupt third party showing up or Skyler coming home or something. The cousins, it would seem, are also employed by Gus (or at least connected to him), and once Mike puts in a call to him, he manages to get them to come to a meeting at Pollos Hermanos, one that gets them off of Walter’s trail for just a little while. “Breaking Bad” has always been about the way crime often comes to drag more and more people down in its web, but it’s also always been a show about how it tends to make strange bedfellows. Are we heading to a future where Walter and the cousins are forced to work together? Or is there simply no way he can avoid the judgment that’s coming? The prior seasons of the show suggest it’s the latter, but if you’re Walter White, you’ve got to be hoping there’s a trap door you’ve built in, one you can still make your escape through.
Some other thoughts:
*** Still liking the use of the teddy bear’s eyeball as a silent judge of what Walt’s up to. I also loved the way the cousins regarded it and then tossed it aside as though it didn’t matter. Naturally, it doesn’t to them, but it also doesn’t matter to them who lives or who dies. A good use of a symbol on a show that will occasionally use symbols in a too-overwrought fashion.
*** According to Alan Sepinwall’s blog (and creator Vince Gilligan), Bryan Cranston nailed that pizza toss in one take. Impressive.
*** Favorite bit of Saul Goodman wackiness this week: His suggestion that Walter should go out and find a mail-order bride from Thailand or the Czech Republic. This guy is the best lawyer ever.
*** I also really liked that scene between Jesse’s parents and Saul, as well as the way he uses his knowledge to get them to sell for far lower than they have any desire to sell for.
This week’s question comes courtesy of the Twitter feed of Daniel Tracy Walters, who asks … Does Walter really still love Skyler? Or does he just want to control her?