In pretty much every way, “I See You” is a deliberate ramping down of the tension that’s been building up throughout the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad.” This makes sense, in a way. The episodes of “Breaking Bad” that often have the least tension in them are the season premieres, and after last week’s episode, most of the show’s big storylines had come to a close. After a full season of having the screws turned more and more tightly on him, Walt was almost completely in the clear. The Cousins had been removed from the picture, Dean was going to be at least temporarily off Jesse’s trail, and no one was going to be getting in his way. Walter White has been weaseling his way out of impossible situations for so long, that I was worried the drama would disappear from the show as the suspense did.
So did it? Well, this episode was a bit of a step back from the previous two, but it was also a nicely paced hour, with at least a couple of jolts to the system.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (May 9) “Breaking Bad” after the break…]
In particular, I’m impressed with the way the show has been playing Gus’ storyline in the background of everything. Because we haven’t been specifically keyed in to what Gus’ plan is, most of us probably haven’t spent very much time trying to figure out what his long-range plan is. “Breaking Bad” is, by and large, told from the point of view of Walt, with occasional side trips to find out what it’s like in the world of Jesse, Hank and Skyler. This means that we have a necessarily limited vision of what’s going on in the world of, say, Saul or Gus. We may be able to draw some conclusions about what’s happening based on the information we have, but the series rarely pulls back enough for us to put these pieces together.
I’m sure many fans have been asking just how all of Gus’ actions – assuming you guess that he was the one to tip off Hank last week, as I and most fans do – fit together into a coherent plan, but because the series was so focused on just how Walt was going to get back into the drug cooking game and then on how he was going to avoid Hank’s ever-tightening noose, we weren’t really invited to wonder just why Gus might pit Hank up against the Cousins and seemingly hope for Hank to come out on top of that battle. “Breaking Bad” certainly provides us with enough clues that Gus is up to something, and Giancarlo Esposito’s nicely subdued performance hints at the many layers of violence lurking in the man’s soul, but we just don’t pull out far enough to have a better look until tonight’s episode.
In one of the very final scenes, we see Gus talking to someone south of the border whom he apparently works with on drug deals. Gus talked to him earlier in the episode, but now we see that his death has arrived in the form of Mexican federales who are pushed into action by DEA agents in the U.S., who want the cartel that led to the Cousins taking on Hank taken out. It’s not immediately clear what Gus is doing, just yet, but we now know enough to see that just about everything he’s been up to since we’ve met him was some sort of power play, a way to better consolidate his power and take it away from his partners to the south. I don’t know that all of this makes complete sense just yet, but the smile that curls across Esposito’s lips as his former partner’s death screams light up his cell phone and the following quick snap of the phone into two sell me on the idea that all involved know just where they’re going with this.
Gus’ presence looms large throughout the episode, actually, as Walt is pulled away from his new venture, just as he’s getting it online, because he needs to go to the hospital and stand vigil with his former family to hope that Hank doesn’t die. At first, Gus is just someone to be feared, as both Walt and Jesse have to make excuses for why there’s no cooking going on in the basement lab. But then he comes to the hospital, his presence reminding us of just how wonderfully “Breaking Bad” uses the idea that seeing characters in one context can never quite prepare us for seeing them in another context. Seeing Gus helping out with the DEA is always a wonderfully jarring turn, but seeing him sitting with the Whites and Schraeders in the hospital waiting room was even better. He hides in plain sight, as he tells Walt, and he’s tremendously good at it, much better than Walt. How often do we see this guy feel anything? Really, the only emotion you can’t write off as a kind of long con in this episode is that smile at the end, and even that is barely expressed. This is a man who’s worked a long time and tamped down a lot of emotions to get where he is. In some ways, he’s been someone for Walt to aspire to be, but this episode reminds us of just how little good would come from Walt being just like him. Walt’s actions are awful, sure, but he’s not yet cold-blooded. Gus is, for better or worse, completely so.
The other presence that looms large in the episode is, of course, that of Hank, who spends most of the episode off-screen, somewhere in surgery, no one able to find out just how he’s doing. This season has done a good job of humanizing Hank, of placing his character in a new context where we’re able to see him as a man who will do the right thing when push comes to shove. “Breaking Bad” has always been good at shifting its moral center from one character to another, with Walt’s struggle to cope with the things he needed to do to compete in his new profession forming the center of season one’s ethical struggle, Jesse’s slow realization of the cost of what he did forming the center of season two’s and Skyler and Hank’s various dilemmas forming the core of this season’s so far. The episode accurately captures the feeling of waiting in a hospital and not knowing what’s going to happen next (which makes it flirt with being a little boring from time to time), but it also captures the feeling of being centerless, of missing the person that unites all of you together into a single unit.
In a real way, hospitals are mostly a place to feel these absences. The people who come to hospitals, who wait in the waiting rooms, are often people who wouldn’t necessarily be bound together by anything other than the person they all miss and hope recovers. Is there any way that Walt would be thrown into a room with Marie and Skyler naturally, other than in an emergency like this? Sure, he’s still trying to be a part of his son’s life, but when it comes to these two women, well, they’d probably rather have just about anyone other than Walt spending this time with them. And yet, Walt doesn’t do too bad of a job. There’s that sense you get in every interaction he has with normal people that he’s completely, nauseatingly self-centered, but he somehow manages to save the moments he has with the others, sometimes at the last second.
Take, for instance, the scene where Walt is trying to comfort Marie with thoughts of how hard it is to be headed in to the hospital, but he’s just so bad at it, as he turns the whole thing into an excuse to reminisce about his time in the hospital for his surgery. It’s a wonderfully squirmy scene, a scene that comes right up against the edge of something like cringe humor before Walt makes the save at the end by telling Marie he’s not even a fraction of the man her husband is. It’s certainly what she wants to hear, but almost certainly not preceded by Walt’s self-serving monologue about wanting more time with his family before his surgery.
This scene and the others at the hospital – particularly the one where he fixes the table with the too-short leg and the scene where he talks about his teeth feeling messy – work because they exploit one of the things that increasingly drives the show at its heart: Walt is someone who is more and more forced to wear a mask to play the man he used to be. There’s an uneasiness to these scenes because Walt – who’s taken away from the world he was in at the series’ start – is uneasy in these situations. When he still had his marriage or his “day job” to cling to, it was easier for him to fake these kinds of interactions. But now that he’s pretty much a full-time drug producer and now that Skyler knows who he really is, there’s just no way for him to come off in these scenes as normal to us. Marie probably doesn’t notice anything, but because we and Skyler and Walt know the truth, that undercurrent of unease becomes the most prevalent thing in the scene.
I also love the way the episode focuses on how Walt is slowly realizing the real danger he’s opened himself up to by being in this life. It’s simple coincidence that leads him to see the one surviving Cousin, but the shot of the man crawling toward the one he knows as Heisenberg, blood trailing from his stump, is simply terrific. If Walt needed a graphic reminder of just how far these people will go to get him, well, he has one now, and it’s obvious that the message is driven home. When he talks to Gus at the hospital, all he wants to know is if he and his family are safe. He is, of course, since Gus and Mike are looking out for him. But without those two, Walt would have long ago stumbled into something he wouldn’t have been able to handle. [Just as Walt ended up acting as Hank’s “guardian angel” last week, Gus and Mike act as his. There’s a fairly complicated web of relationships on “Breaking Bad,” for a show with so few characters, but it’s surprising just how many of them boil down to someone offering someone else protection.]
The other side of the episode is spent in the basement lab, watching as Jesse whiles away the hours, waiting for Walt to return and begin cooking. (And I have a quibble here: Does Jesse actually spend the 36 hours plus that Walt is at the hospital in the lab? Are there beds down there?) After a season where he’s gotten beaten around both literally and emotionally, it’s just nice to see Jesse having a moment to goof off and roll around the lab in his chair, but these scenes add to the overall feeling of inertia that comes from the episode. Obviously, the hour needed somewhere to cut to, since spending the entire episode in a hospital waiting room might have been fruitless, but the show might have done better to spend more time with Gus or even the other DEA guys at the hospital.
“I See You” is probably my least favorite episode of this season so far, but I still rather enjoyed it. The perspective we get on what Gus’ end game might be is valuable, and it’s always nice to see Walter having to deal with social situations and us getting to enjoy the tension that comes from the guy having to act normal. There’s plenty of good stuff in an episode that was a necessary palate cleanser after the catastrophic events of “Sundown” and “One Minute,” both of which took the characters right up to the breaking point and then elegantly got them out of those situations. This isn’t a bad episode of television, by any means, but it is one that feels just a bit like a stall, and in such an intricately plotted season of television, that can’t help but feel a little disappointing.
Some other thoughts:
*** My lament for as long as I’ve been covering this show (two seasons, now) has been that Betsy Brandt never gets anything to do. I’d say in these last two episodes, she’s essentially eliminated that argument from my arsenal. It still might be nice to see Marie drive a storyline (though I have no idea what that might look like), but I’ll take what I can get.
*** I like the way “Breaking Bad” reminds us of just which lies Walt has told to which people. I wouldn’t have remembered (before “Sundown”) that Walt told everyone he bought weed from Jesse and that was their connection, but the show has done a good job of working in reminders fairly organically.
*** The opening sequence was one of the season’s weaker ones (particularly since it seems that Albuquerque has just the one hospital), but I enjoyed the look of unfettered joy on Jesse’s face as he realized the sheer coincidence of what had just happened.
*** I hope this is not the last we see of Gale, who was an enjoyable character in the few scenes he was in.
*** Any alternate ideas on who might have called Hank last week? I’ve seen some people suggest it might be Hank’s boss, but that seems like a stretch even for this show.
*** That shot of Skyler slouched against Walt as the family sleeps in the waiting room: foreshadowing of a reunion or just the simple need for a body pillow?
So, does the DEA travel in packs? Or just for Hank?