It’s tough to say much about “Green Light” without saying anything about next week’s episode of “Breaking Bad.” I normally try to avoid watching additional episodes unless I’ve been able to write up the ones I’ve already seen, but these two hours of “Breaking Bad” work so well together, almost as one, big, two-hour “Breaking Bad” movie, that it’s hard to avoid the cause and effect the two episodes set up and pay off. This week is all cause (for the most part), while next week is all effect. “Breaking Bad” has never been a series that has had a lot of non-serialized elements, but these two hours tie tightly together in the mind, even after I’ve rewatched this hour, and they work well as a suggestion of how the series sets up storylines to come.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (April 11) “Breaking Bad” after the break…]
Here’s the thing. We all know Walt is eventually going to get back to cooking meth. It doesn’t happen in this episode, and it could happen next episode or the episode after that or in the season finale. But we all know it’s going to happen. It’s the center of the show, and TV shows are necessarily addicted to returning everything to the status quo. (This is why, incidentally, while I admire the way the show is playing out the Walt and Skyler split, I rather assume they’ll be back together by the end of the season. There’s just no good way to keep her in the storyline unless she’s still married to him, even with her brother-in-law hot on the trail of Walt and Jesse.) I am, however, really impressed by just how long the show is keeping Walt out of the game, even as it seems everything else in his life is lined up behind pushing him back into it. Would another series even DO this?
The closest comparison I can think of (off the top of my head) is in season two of “Friday Night Lights,” when Coach Taylor began the season as an assistant coach at a Texas university, while a new coach had taken over the Dillon Panthers. Now, because this was TV, you knew that Taylor was going to get back to coaching the Panthers at some point, but the series never really did anything to examine who he was without his beloved team or without his family. He was just kind of … there when he was with the college team, a part of the show but more for his absence than anything else. The series often seemed like it was just marking time until it could get the band back together.
That is far from the case with what “Breaking Bad” is doing right now. Walt has already had an offer that most any of us would have accepted thrown at him, and he’s already rejected it. He didn’t take Gus’ $3 million for three months of his time. He aimed, instead, to get his family back together, and it’s been a disastrous call for him, as he no longer knows how to win Skyler back by being the man he was at the beginning of the series. He’s used to taking what he wants, now, and that’s far from what Skyler would want. He’s an impatient man, and the more that he doesn’t get what he wants, the angrier and more destructive he becomes.
Now, I didn’t quite buy that Walt would try and make out with the principal at his school (which leads to him losing his job). I buy that he would be slowly sinking into a morass of undependability. I buy that he would have an almost virulent hatred of both Jesse and Skyler. I buy that he would lose his job SOMEhow. I just didn’t wholly buy that scene in the principal’s office, which was fun, yes, but also seemed a little too broadly comic. Indeed, he almost seemed drunk in the scene, and I don’t know that I buy a borderline drunken Walter White at work. I get that the point is to show how he’s in a tailspin without his meth work or his family to keep him grounded. And I get that this is playing off of the longtime fan suspicion that Carmen would become Walt’s girl on the side and nicely poking a hole in that idea. I’d like to have a hard and fast reason why this scene doesn’t work for me, but I just don’t. I think, ultimately, it was just too broad, even on a show that sometimes makes broad comedy work within its confines. I love seeing Walter be desperate, but this felt somehow beneath him. I didn’t buy that he wouldn’t realize the consequences of what he was doing, no matter how angry he was about Skyler and Ted.
By removing cooking meth from the show’s equation for the most part, “Breaking Bad” has become something very different this season so far. It’s a show about a marriage that has cracked apart and how one participant has no desire to put it back together while the other has no clue how to do so. I’ve seen some grousing that the show has embraced this domestic plotline too fully, but that’s one of the things I’m really enjoying about the season so far. “Breaking Bad” is, to some degree, a show about collateral damage, about all of the lives that are wrecked by Walt’s decision to do this bad thing. You might think he’s still a basically good guy at heart (as some of you argued to me last week over Twitter). But you can’t deny that what he’s done has led to a long string of deaths and ruination of lives that didn’t need to happen, that wouldn’t have happened had he not made the choice he did.
Add to that list the marriage of the Whites. I was rewatching a couple of season one episodes earlier in the week, and I was surprised to see that the series has not always portrayed this marriage as somewhat troubled. In the early going, there were the usual problems a marriage between two people who don’t have a lot of money to spend will have, but the White marriage seemed fundamentally strong, between two people who obviously loved and cared for each other a lot. There was a bit of a sense that Skyler was the one in charge, and Walt resented that, but there was no real sense that it was in imminent danger of cracking apart, in the way that the show has made clear that the things that drove Walt to cook meth were as much inside of him as anything else.
But the White marriage was the one bright spot in Walter’s life. It makes sense that he would fight so hard to hang onto it, even going so far as to go and try to attack Ted at work (in a broad and funny scene that actually worked quite well for me). At the same time, it makes sense that Skyler would be running so far away from it. It’s not necessarily that she feels so strongly about what Walter is doing being illegal or anything like that — she’s quite willing to put up with Ted’s crimes, after all — but he is, in some ways, not the man she married, even if he actually is. He’s been a man that put on a mask of respectability all this time, a man who kept his own worst side hidden, and now that he’s let it out, it’s consumed everything that he was and made him seem like an alien to the woman who knew him best but also didn’t know him as well as she thought she did. In a way, it’s very like one of those old pod person scenarios. He’s just Walter enough to pass with people who only want to see the good in him — like Walter, Jr., and Hank — but he’s different enough to utterly alienate those who loved him best.
The alienation of the middle-aged man in suburbia seems to be one of the major driving themes of the series (granted, this isn’t a big revelation, but it’s one that’s driving this season particularly). The series is not particularly sympathetic to this point of view, but it at least understands where it comes from and that it doesn’t just lead to actual destructive behavior but, rather, sometimes leads to simply self-destructive behavior. As the “counterpoint” in tonight’s point-counterpoint scenario, meet Hank, who’s still struggling with the stress from his move to El Paso and his shootout with Tuco from way back in the first half of last season. Once again, he’s been called up to El Paso, and this time, he’s just not going to go, unable to find anywhere to put that stress and unable to deal with it in a healthy way. Instead, he’s pursuing the manufacturer of the blue meth, thinking, somehow, that if he catches up to Heisenberg, then he can move on, maybe finally go to El Paso.
It’s here that the series’ strategy of keeping everyone in plotlines that are running parallel but rarely intersecting starts to pay off. Hank finds out the blue meth is back on the verge of leaving for El Paso. And how does he find that out? They find it on a junkie, who insists he got it from someone named Mel who was “definitely wearing tan pants.” Now, Mel, the junkie admits, might be some other M name. And that leads to Max. And who’s Max? Well, he works at a gas station where we saw Jesse filling up the RV. And in lieu of cash, he gave the girl behind the counter (Native American, though the show doesn’t make a big deal out of meth destroying the reservation — unlike certain other shows, cough cough “Big Love,” cough cough) a packet of blue meth. Which she gave to Max. Which ended up in the junkie’s hands. Which ended up in Hank’s possession.
“Breaking Bad” has always enjoyed chasing these little chains of cause and effect down the rabbit trail. Maybe the series is too reliant on them, on its idea that all of life can be boiled down to one, big chemical reaction with an unpredictable set of byproducts spinning off into the world of Albuquerque. But one of the things that makes it such a good show is the sense that everything that happens in its world, ultimately, can be traced back to one decision by one man. It’s a series with a sort of Shakespearean weight to it when you consider it that way, and maybe when you view all the scenes of broad comedy in that light — after all, the Bard was known for loving to mix things up with some odd comedic bits in the middle of everything else — it becomes something much more focused. Late in the episode, Walt hears how Jane’s dad has tried to kill himself, and he has to change the station. In his own way, he’s become like Hamlet or Lear near the middle of those plays, trying to understand how one bad choice could cause everything to spiral out of control so utterly.
Some other thoughts:
*** Liked this episode a lot. Liked next week’s even more. The show really hasn’t let up from the pace it achieved by the end of season two, has it?
*** As much as I do miss the Walt and Jesse show, I like just how much the series is deepening all of the characters not named Walt or Jesse. We’ve seen Hank do a variation on this routine before, but never as harrowingly as this, and even Marie is getting shades beyond “supportive wife” to play in all of this, as we see her doubt and fear about sending her husband off to El Paso.
*** Similarly, I like the way that Gus, Saul and Mike continue to all take varying degrees of sides in the Walt and Jesse conflict. Gus, most obviously, is up to something here, but what?
*** Then you have that creepy scythe chalked into the pavement outside of Walt’s house. Is Walt going to stay there long enough to reap what is coming to him, or is there going to be a much, much more tragic ending to this story? Skyler, in some ways, is complicit at this point, so her death would be “justified” in “Breaking Bad’s” moral universe, but Walter, Jr., and Holly are, of course, still innocent.
*** A very nice scene between Jesse and Walt in the school parking lot. I liked the way the series nicely played Walt’s jealousy in this sequence and the use of the big box of his stuff, even if the shattering of the “World’s Greatest Teacher” mug was a little too on-the-nose insofar as symbolism goes.
*** Last season, Beneke was kind of a boring jerk. This season, he’s kind of interesting to hang out with. Is this just the series shifting how we see him through Skyler’s eyes? Or is he just figuring out how to relate to her better?
A final question: Just how many plots can the show keep suspended in midair for just how long?