“He does it because he’s a man.” – Gus Frings
“Breaking Bad,” down at its most basic level, is a show about men who are trapped between who they think they should be (largely driven by biological imperatives and traditional societal standards of masculinity) and who they actually are in a world that long ago abandoned the idea of the cheerful father who goes to the plant every day to make the money he needs to support his family. Not all of these men have made the choice to take hold of their own fate like Walter White has, and not all of them have taken the dive into the deep end of doing very bad things. But all of them are men who are adrift, uncertain of how the world looks at them or how to capture an ineffable something they always thought would be their birthright by virtue of their gender.
[Full recap of Sunday (April 18) “Breaking Bad” after the break…]
Maybe the show inspires such jeering toward Skyler from some fans because, from that point of view, she is what stands between Walter and his ability to be a “man.” Middle-class white male resentment’s a big undercurrent of “Breaking Bad.” The series doesn’t wholly buy into it, but by at least understanding where it comes from, it often threatens to have its central mission statements co-opted by a nation of fans who feel just like Walter or Hank or even Ted and wish that the world would return to one they were promised, one that simply makes sense. To be a man in the world of “Breaking Bad” is to never, ever know where you stand. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the man who’s best able to navigate these waters is Gus, the man who mostly just stands back and doesn’t call attention to himself.
Reading “Breaking Bad” solely as a study of masculinity, of course, has its problems. It’s about a lot of other things in addition to that. But there’s definitely that undercurrent there, always present. The series is always careful to suggest that the angry resentment that runs in Walter comes from a very specific place of feeling that his whole life, he’s been overlooked, and it’s very careful to suggest that Walter is a unique combination of factors – high intelligence, resentment, a penchant for self-destructive behavior – that lay mostly dormant until the shock of his cancer diagnosis gave them just enough room to come out of hibernation. It is a very specific show, certainly, and not one given to grand pronouncements about the Way We Live Today. (Even as the economic crisis that began in late 2007 has dominated our news cycles, “Breaking Bad” has mostly kept evidence of it in the background, even as it could have made hay out of it.)
The centerpiece of “Mas,” the episode that finally sets Walt back on the path of cooking meth, is a scene where Gus takes him down into the lab he’s built specifically for Walt to provide him with the product he needs. Gus’ plan to seduce Walter back into production is clearly working. Walt has been riled by the fact that Jesse is using his formula without asking his permission, and the money that just landed in his lap in the last episode has clearly pushed him further off the deep end. Walt’s seemed off this season simply because he’s lacked his center. He doesn’t have his family. He doesn’t have his old job. And he doesn’t have meth. Without those things, he doesn’t have a way to define himself. And in the basement of his plant, Gus gives him a way to define himself. Walt will be, like the sitcom dad of old, a provider, someone who keeps doing the hard things that need doing because the family needs them to be done, the man who does something not because it’s easy but because it’s right.
It’s a smart play by Gus. It’s not a popular thing to say, but there’s a deep attraction many of us have to the old, traditional gender roles, one that’s deep enough that politician after politician has made a play for a family values vote by promising a return to a 1950s America that simply never existed anywhere other than in television shows. Of course there’s something alluring about knowing just where your place is, about knowing whether you are the provider or the one who’s provided for. The world we have now is better, as far as letting people be who they want to be and giving them the freedom to step outside of societal norms and all that, but we’re social animals, and social animals almost always like knowing where they fit in the hierarchy. A world with social mobility for anyone is also a world where you don’t know who you’re better than or where you fit. Skyler likes her independence. But she also likes seeing that big duffel bag full of money, thinking that Walt could now, in some ways, give her things she’s never had.
I think it’s no coincidence that this episode proper (i.e., everything after the opening title and the teaser, which, in usual “Breaking Bad” fashion, is connected to the story that follows only obliquely) begins with a shot of Skyler’s feet, luxuriating in the wonder that is Ted’s heated bathroom floors. Being with Ted has awakened Skyler to the fact that she wants certain things. The show’s conflation of Ted with Walt (in that they both do illegal things) has always been a little clumsy, but this is one of the better uses of that idea, as Ted has used his profits to buy some very nice things, like a house with heated floors and a giant shower. When Skyler looks over the big bag of cash later, it’s not hard to see her imagining this life with her husband, the man she had already built a life with and the father of her children. She’s not to a point where she even wants it yet, but there’s a sense that plays across her face of her knowing what that could be like. You see it again when she talks over Walt’s crimes with her lawyer, and the lawyer reminds her that she’s already an accessory by not telling the police. And yet …
Even more interesting here is how Gus’ maneuverings lead, in a roundabout way, to Walter granting Skyler that divorce she wants. If he’s going to be a provider to his family, to the wife he still obviously has some sort of feelings for (even if he’s unsure of how to express those feelings), he’s going to have to give in on some things. And the first of those things will be granting his wife the divorce she wants and moving out of the house. It’s interesting that the series drops this point in here and now, rather than later, since most of the episode seems to be devoted to pushing Skyler closer to Walt than she’s been in weeks. But if he’s going to do the work he needs to do to live up to his bargain with Gus, then he’s going to need to limit his distractions. And if that means releasing his wife to her new life with Ted, well, so be it.
The episode’s thoughts about masculinity don’t end with Walt, Skyler and Ted’s triangle either. There’s always been the same undercurrent of underappreciation in Walt within Hank, who started the series as an avuncular guy who just happened to be blind to the bad turn his brother-in-law had taken and has gradually become a man who was offered something better and screwed it all up. Hank’s self-resentment is definitely coming from a different place than Walt’s, and it’s hard to argue that he thinks he’s owed anything. But when he’s offered something, something he wanted very much at one time but no longer knows if he can take, simply because he’s been slowly falling apart for months and months now. The show’s never given Dean Norris a showcase as good as he gets in this episode, and he proves himself up to the challenge. Rather than being the friendly, goofy guy who always wants to be on your good side, he reveals himself as a man wounded by his inability to get past a series of scarring events and driven by a compulsion to put right the things that set him on that path.
Most other series would keep Hank from finding the people peddling the blue meth for a long, long time. Most other series would make him kind of an idiot (and, indeed, “Breaking Bad” seemed to be heading down this path in its first season). Even if most other series decided to have Hank catch up to Walt and Jesse, they’d keep that from happening until the season finale or some other appropriate time. Instead, Hank’s instinct to track down the RV that he saw from the gas station’s ATM camera is paying dividends, as he’s tracked it to the house of Combo … and found the photo of Combo and Jesse at the strip club, the night Jesse stole the RV. Hank surely remembers Jesse from the time when Hank shot Tuco, and he’ll surely be ready to go and talk to Jesse again (and the girl from the gas station will also surely remember Jesse offering her the meth). And, of course, this is when Jesse’s partnership with Walt has completely shattered and splintered and fallen apart. Hank is dealing with his own disappointment over his inabilities and over his partner leaving to take the El Paso job by becoming almost ruthless about solving the Heisenberg case, and unless the series cheats somehow, it’s very hard to see how at least Jesse doesn’t end up in serious trouble for what’s happening.
But the episode is also something of a sad reminder of what Walt and Jesse had at one time and how far that has fallen from where it was. The Walt and Jesse partnership was the emotional heart of season two, and if the show was going to continue, it was always going to have to test it in some way. But watching Walter and Jesse rage at each other like this hurts. It really does feel like two real people you know are yelling at each other, and you can’t quite understand why they can’t just put it all behind them. The scene where Walt reveals that Gus was using Jesse to get him back in the game is gut-wrenching, but so is that opening teaser where we learn that the story of how Walt and Jesse first came to be working together isn’t the simple story we thought we knew from the beginning.
Context, then, is everything. We can never have the full picture, but as we get more and more pieces of it, we slowly begin to put together an understanding of what’s going on. That understanding could be wrong or it could be right, but the more we come to grasp it, the more we start to understand who we and the people we know really are. “Mas” is an episode about what you’ll do to regain what you think is rightfully yours, particularly if you’re a man, but it’s also an episode about what happens when you gain new information that places everything else in a new position. Cleverly, the series is doing this with us as well, taking us back into the story’s history and helping us realize that not everything here is as cut-and-dried as we’d like. The more it goes on, the more “Breaking Bad” becomes a series about trying to make peace with the fact that you’re not who you thought you were.
Some other thoughts:
*** Both Ted and Hank, who are at the center of the show’s whole masculinity mission statement, took long showers in tonight’s episode and talked to their female companions while in those showers. Hank angrily berated Marie (who, again, is finally getting some stuff to do), while Ted tried to seduce Skyler even farther. But they were both trying to play their women in one way or another.
*** More goodness from Saul, as he tries to negotiate with both Walt and Jesse and fails miserably in both cases.
*** Hank stumbling across the two old people in their underwear threatened to be a little too broad, but the series somehow kept from making it that way.
*** Liked the little chimes of magical, mystical music as Walt looked around his new lab in obvious awe.
*** Is it just me, or is Skyler drinking a lot?
*** Nice to see Combo and Skinny Pete again and to be reminded of just how much Jesse has personally lost in this attempt to corner the Albuquerque drug market. Using flashbacks to fill in characters who weren’t terribly well-defined before seems like a very “Breaking Bad” thing to do, and I liked it.
A question for discussion: Hey, what happened to the Cousins?