The most important thing about telling a lie is not the lie itself. It’s not coming up with a believable story or figuring out just the right way to diverge from reality to win over the person you’re lying to. All of that helps, of course, but the most important thing about telling a lie is the decision to do it, the commitment to the fact that you are going to willingly deceive another person to achieve your own ends. Once you make that choice, you can usually pull off the performance, suck the person you’re lying to down into your web. Walter White’s been making that choice since episode one of “Breaking Bad,” and despite a few missteps here and there, he’s become exceptionally good at misleading just about everyone he meets. In “Kafkaesque,” what’s notable is that his wife chooses to join him down in the depths.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (May 16) “Breaking Bad” after the break…
The lie that Skyler tells Marie is not particularly believable, I don’t think. I’m sure that there are inveterate gamblers who discover a system, burn through lots of money before it works, then hit it big. I’m just not sure that Walt is completely believable as one of these, particularly as Marie knows him. One misstep from Skyler would sink this lie completely (and, indeed, once Marie tells Hank, as she inevitably will, Hank will surely start to see the holes in it and perhaps begin to conneect a few dots Walt would rather he didn’t). But she commits. She sells it completely. She turns the whole thing into a just barely disguised version of the truth, and that allows her to express all of the horror and weird admiration she feels for Walt over what he did. And Walt, for the first time, is allowed to show some pride for his accomplishments in his wife’s presence, allowed to be the guy who provided to her.
It’s a tricky, delicate scene, one that could go wrong so, so easily, but all involved play it perfectly, and both the writing and direction of the moment make it one of the quintessential “Breaking Bad” moments. The best scenes on this show are ones where everybody in the room has different levels of knowledge about what’s going on and we in the audience have the most knowledge of all. There’s rarely been a better example of that than in this scene, where Skyler just plunges ahead, damn the consequences, and we see a full range of knowledge bases, from Marie, who knows basically nothing, all of the way up to us, who have the knowledge to see what’s coming, to know that out there lurk men who are about to make life for Walt and all he knows very complicated indeed. Really, what Skyler does is kind of a stupid thing, but the show both sells her desperation at the fact that her brother-in-law is getting squeezed out of the best kind of medical care, despite his heroism, and her growing recklessness in the face of her life having nothing approaching a center anymore. [And, honestly, if this health care reform bill works as its proponents say it will, no show will seem more like a quaint relic of its time than this one.]
“Kafkaesque” is an episode that embraces the fact that all of its characters are dancing between multiple lies, trying to keep ahead of the truth. Gus has been misleading very bad men for a long time now, and he’s on the verge of capturing exactly what he wants. Jesse is trying to stay clean, but he knows that if he ever came completely clean about his job (his description of which gives the episode its title), his counselor would blanch. (And this is to say nothing of skimming dribs and drabs off the top of the meth production to sell as his own product, something that seems sure to get him in lots of trouble.) Badger and Skinny Pete come to Jesse’s group to sell their product through rather unconventional means, lying about their own addictions to push what they hope will make them rich. And, of course, we have the central lie of the whole series, the deception that Walt has been telling everyone for months now.
But when one hears the word “Kafkaesque,” one usually thinks of a world filled with complicated, labyrinthine bureaucracies, often ones that seem to have little rhyme or reason to the ways they operate. This episode of “Breaking Bad” is almost as much about that. Jesse is piecing together that Gus is shorting his two most important employees for reasons that aren’t immediately clear (which leads him to rant about how those in charge of production deserve more — Jesse PInkman, Marxist?). Walt gets the last piece of the puzzle that lets him see just how far Gus is willing to go to accomplish his goals. And Marie, of course, spends the entire episode dealing with a system that seems specifically set up to not hear her concerns, to slowly bleed her dry, instead of bankrupting her all at once.
“Breaking Bad” has always had a good ear for the ways people talk in these sorts of social institutions, for the ways that devastating news will be couched in utter banality, the better to make it sound nice, to avoid a scene. The scene where Marie meets with the representative from the hospital and Hank’s doctor, trying to figure out a way to ensure that her husband will walk again, is one of the better examples of this in the series’ run, capturing the way that the health care system can often seem like it’s full of kind and caring people who only want to do good but instead masks a system that only the most intrepid can even begin to figure out. “Kafkaesque” most properly describes Jesse’s therapist’s summation of his description of his workplace, but it could refer to just about anything in the episode or in the America “Breaking Bad” is situated in, a place where the only rational response to inscrutable codes is to find ways around those codes, even if finding those alternate routes leads to lots of collateral damage.
Really, on “Breaking Bad,” it always comes back to money. No one ever has enough of it, and the procurement of more would almost always solve the characters’ biggest problems. The characters of “Breaking Bad” are all thoroughly stuck in the middle class (though we’ve had hints that Jesse’s upbringing, at least, was upper middle class), and there are few TV shows on right now that are as cognizant of just how hard it is to make ends meet anymore, particularly if a disaster, health-related or not, comes along to stop you in your tracks. I don’t think “Breaking Bad” is a series about class struggle or anything, but it definitely doesn’t take place in the murky economic wonderland of most TV shows, where every character always has exactly enough money to get whatever they might want. To that end, Walt and Jesse might have more money than they even know what to do with, but they’re still uncertain of just how they’re going to be spending it. [Well, Walt has some new financial commitments at the end of the hour, but he’ll still have more money than he can reasonably spend without drawing attention to himself.]
This is where that great scene where Saul bids Jesse to come visit him at a nail salon, only to turn the whole thing into a lesson in how Jesse should be spending his money: to find ways to make himself more money. Jesse, really, is running free and clear right now. Hank is out of commission, and after the incident where he beat Jesse up, the DEA is probably going to stay far, far away from Mr. Pinkman. His new workplace is hidden out in the desert, beneath a reputable business, and he’s managed to stay clean so far. “Kafkaesque” is, in kind of a sneaky way, the most Jesse-heavy episode of the season so far, featuring, as it does, several long scenes of Jesse talking about what he wants out of his life or rejecting Saul’s ideas for using the nail salon for money laundering. At the same time, the scene where he talks about how much he’d like to be working with his hands drives this point home even more. When his counselor says, “Forget about money,” he’s making a big request. Unless you’re Bill Gates or something, you can’t forget about money. Money is almost always an issue. Theoretically, after three months of work, money WON’T be an issue for Jesse, in the traditional sense, but it will still be an issue, since he’ll have to figure out a way to get it to himself, free and clear. Money isn’t an issue for Jesse anymore. It’s also the only issue.
Really, what Saul is doing is trying to turn Walt and Jesse into Gus. But the more we get to know about Gus and why his operation works as well as it does, the more we realize that neither of our heroes could possibly hope to be him. Gus is cool, calm, and calculating. He knows exactly when to strike and with how much force. He’s built an entire business around disguising his drug business (expressed by the show in a fairly nifty visual metaphor of the blue meth being hidden right there in the fried chicken batter he ships to his restaurants). His ability to hide in plain sight is such that he doesn’t worry about the DEA ever connecting the spread of the blue meth to the states that have Los Pollos Hermanos restaurants in them. Gus is the best liar of anyone on the show, simply because he’s so fully committed to selling the lie of his upstanding behavior.
I doubt that “Breaking Bad” will ever give us a “Lost”-style origin story for Gus, where we flash back to his time as a child and learn just how he came to be a criminal kingpin. But it doesn’t need to. Gus is the character who remains the most shrouded to even us because he’s the character who remains the most shrouded to everyone around him. This is, really, the one place where “Breaking Bad” is keeping us out of the loop, to some degree, only allowing us to catch up as often as the other characters do. (Even when Saul is scheming, we’re usually privy to it.) The Los Pollos Hermanos commercial that opens the episode functions almost as well as an origin myth for Gus, really. It’s presenting a sanitized version of who he is and what he’s done, but that’s the version he seems to almost have convinced himself of. He’s a man of two worlds, and, for the most part, it’s only the surface world that he’s going to let us see.
“Kafkaesque” is an episode that makes sure all of the players are in the right place for the season’s final episodes. It pushes everyone into the positions they need to be in for everything else to go forward. It’s another episode dealing with consequences and revealing more of Gus’ plan, but I think it’s a little more sure on its feet than “I See You” was. If nothing else, it seems to have a better sense of where Skyler fits into all of this (seeming as if she’s going to be drifting back toward Walt until she definitively shoots those ideas down at the end). For my money, though, what makes it better is that it has a clearer sense of Walt’s place in the order of things.
If there’s a “complaint” to be made about season three of “Breaking Bad” — easily the show’s finest so far, for my money — it’s that Walter White has been less central to much of the action, often standing to the side as other characters take control of the story. I don’t think this is a bad thing. If this is just a story of how Walt becomes a drug lord, it will run out of story sooner rather than later (probably a season ago). Since the series has expanded its world, it’s become one of the best shows on TV, but it’s also always been careful to remind us of where Walt is in the midst of things. I don’t know if that’s been the case always this season, but this episode reminds us that he’s a very smart man, though one who no longer has nothing to lose. The scene where he makes it clear to Gus that he knows just what Gus is up to is a standout of the season (and for both Bryan Cranston and Giancarlo Esposito), but it also suggests that Walt has no idea what he’s getting into, that when he gets into bed with the devil himself, he will almost certainly end up burned.
Some other thoughts:
***I’ve seen some speculation that Hank’s boss called him to warn him of the attack. I’d say this episode makes it seem pretty clear that Gus was the one doing that, though I suppose there could be a last-minute reversal. It just makes way more sense that it’s Gus, and “Breaking Bad” doesn’t pull off a huge number of big, shocking twists.
***I don’t think I’ve ever praised Dave Porter’s work scoring the series, so I will here. His spare soundtrack for the show accentuates the key sequences and is well-written without calling attention to itself.
***Not entirely sure what to make of the scene where Walt goes into some sort of fugue state while driving home from his meeting with Gus. Is he suicidal? Ecstatic at the thought of never having to worry about money again? Slowly losing it? It’s an interesting scene, but it passes almost entirely without comment.
***Poor Ted. In another life, Walt didn’t make the choice to pursue drug dealing, and he died of his cancer, and Skyler ended up marrying Ted because he was the only one who could really help her out. Instead, he’s just a guy she used to get back at her ex.
***I’ve watched the scene where Hank indicates how much he can feel the doctor poking and prodding at his extremities a number of times while my wife has watched it once. On both of our first viewings, we wondered if Hank wasn’t lying about feeling what the doctor was doing, though on subsequent viewings, I’ve come to think more and more that he’s telling the truth. What do you think?
***More anal-retentive cleaning with Walt: This week, he’s scrubbing the vats in the lab until he can see himself in them more clearly.
***This was another fantastic episode for Betsey Brandt, who makes her impotent fury at the hospital and her insurance plan very plain. I also liked her saying she’d take Hank’s story to “Nightline,” though she wasn’t even sure if there was a “Nightline” anymore.
This week’s question for discussion: How does Jesse plan to get away with pulling a fast one over on Gus? I know he’s never met the guy, but he has to know him by reputation, right?