‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Bug’: Eye of the tiger?

Senior Television Writer
09.11.11 211 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I enter it in the Quicken…

“Then get the fuck out of here and never come back.” -Jesse

I’m so glad I get these “Breaking Bad” episodes a few days in advance so that I’m not under pressure to write a review straight away. In the case of “Bug,” the final scene was so powerful that I honestly don’t think I would have been able to start writing immediately after. I was literally shaking after that. I had to leave my office just to get some fresh air (in a rainstorm) and clear my head before I could do anything, and I felt like I needed to leave “Bug” alone for a while before even thinking of writing about it.

When I saw the episode’s title, I assumed it was some kind of spiritual sequel to “Fly,” which aired at roughly the same point in season 3 and was, like this episode, co-written by Moira Walley-Beckett (here working with Thomas Schnauz). But this wasn’t another of the series’ patented Walt-and-Jesse two-handers where virtually the entire hour is about our two heroes hanging out together, cooking meth and getting into trouble. The two spent most of the episode apart, intersecting briefly on occasion (outside the laundromat, and then when Mike and Jesse brought the corpse to the Super Lab), but only interacting significantly in the final scene…

…which suggests it may be a long, long time – in a series that doesn’t have a lot of time left, episode-wise – before we get another hour where Walt and Jesse hang out, have misadventures and occasionally enjoy each other’s company.

Holy. Cow.

Ultimately, what “Bug” reminded me of wasn’t so much “Fly” as season 2’s “Down,” which also climaxed with a Walt/Jesse brawl that left the two lying on the floor next  to each other, gasping for air. But both men, and their relationship, were so much younger and more innocent then. Walt actually wanted Jesse to hurt him, and the fight wound up being a useful bit of catharsis for both. This? This was as ugly as it was violent: several seasons’ worth of resentment and misundertandings flooding out all at once and being turned into pure kinetic force. Both of these men have killed now, and witnessed a whole lot of death and other gruesomeness, and they’re at a point where they desperately, desperately need each other. But because neither man trusts the other – I would say fairly on Jesse’s part (you know how Walt would have reacted to the truth about the times Jesse didn’t use the ricin) and unfairly but true-to-form for Walt – their relationship reaches a potential point of no return(*), in a scene that was as well-acted(**) as any that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have played together so far.

(*) And gets there without even bringing up the greatest sin Walt ever committed against Jesse. If this is how mad Jesse got to find out Walt bugged his car, imagine the level of violence and rage if the truth about Jane’s death were to come out.

(**) On the other hand, the stunt doubling work wasn’t fantastic, even with the use of both shadows and long shots to obscure that we were suddenly watching two other men hurl each other around the living room. When your two leads are either bald or close to it, and your viewers have spent a lot of time staring at the shape of their exposed skulls, it’s really hard to substitute anyone for them and not have the replacement seem obvious.

For a few weeks now, it’s been unclear exactly where Jesse’s loyalties lie. Has he declined to poison Gus because he’s starting to like the guy, because he can’t deal with killing another man or, simply, because the opportunities have never been as perfect as they sound to Walt? (Two weeks ago, he had access to the coffee pot, but no control over who got served from it, for instance.) Based on Jesse’s reaction to Gus at dinner (a darker version of the dinner Gus once invited Walt to), and then his monologue to Walt back at his house, I think Jesse was just scared to do it, and/or unable to under those specific circumstances, but that his loyalty was still to Walt – and especially after witnessing the murder and then the way Mike talked to Walt at the lab. And then Walt offends him so deeply that Jesse is now an enormous wild card in this Walt/Gus beef. He no longer has loyalty to anyone but himself and what’s left of his morals, and that makes him unpredictable and incredibly dangerous.

There was a lot of discussion after last week’s episode about people suddenly feeling their sympathy pulled away from Walt and towards Gus. I think the show’s done a lot of interesting, complicated things with sympathy over the years. I had already grown to view Walt as the villain of the show in early season two (around “Down,” in fact) and Jesse as the sympathetic one, and I think the series’ empathy bounces back and forth among a number of characters. Walt’s a sonuvabitch, but only some of his current circumstances are his fault, for instance. Gus has a tragic origin story that both makes him seem more human and more like Walt and/or Jesse, but he’s also been responsible for many deaths (above and beyond all the collateral damage he creates as a drug kingpin). Skyler has on some level been trapped by circumstance, but has also chosen to get deeper and deeper into Walt’s world. Jesse tried to use a 12-step group as a drug client base. Hank is obsessed with Gus as much out of ego as any desire for justice. Etc. No one is purely good or evil on this show, no one is entirely likable or despicable. They’re all just in a big mess, and no matter what they do to get out, they inevitably get pulled deeper.

Skyler looks at the (legitimate) receipts for the car wash and begins to wonder if Walt might be able to retire from the drug game, not comprehending how Gus would respond to such a request. And she thinks that she can get Ted Beneke out of his IRS debacle by putting on a slutty dress and pretending to be his incompetent bimbo girlfriend-turned-accountant, not realizing the huge financial hole Ted is in. (Though the hatchback clues her in but good.) She has enough cash stashed in those garment bags to get the IRS off Ted’s back, but that feels like one of Walt’s solutions from early in the series, where the answer to one problem wound up creating three more messes to clean up.

Outside his distribution center, Gus stands up to the cartel’s representative in impressive fashion, striding out into his field of fire without even flinching as the bullets approach, knowing that the cartel needs him alive. But the triumph is short-lived, because Gus knows the cartel has more resources than he does and can keep coming and coming. So he capitulates, and hopes that sending Jesse to Mexico rather than Walt will allow him to both survive and keep his business thriving. But Jesse points out all the holes in that plan to Walt, and because the two partners then have a spectacular falling-out, Walt’s not going to be helping Jesse through this at all.

“Bug” opens with a provocative teaser: a broken, blood-stained pair of eyeglasses, an obscured figure in suede shoes dripping more and more blood as he moves. It’s an image that suggests something truly bad is coming, and once we see those shoes on Walt’s feet in the very next scene, we fear the worst, even as we know Walt has 20-something episodes of life left, at minimum. And though Walt survives that fight – and also doesn’t kill Jesse(***) – the violent break-up of the White/Pinkman partnership is pretty apocalyptic within the world of this show, and we can see the promise of many more terrible things on the horizon.

(***) It’s a measure of how effective that fight scene was, and the overall quality and guts of this show, that I genuinely believed there was a chance Jesse might die in that room, then and there, even with so much time left in the series.

Before, no matter how bad events got for either Walt or Jesse, they usually had each other to rely on. Now? We’re fixin’ towards a bloody outcome, to quote Dan Dority, and both of them will have to stand alone.

Brutal scene. Brilliant episode.

Some other thoughts:

• Once again, Vince Gilligan must have gotten special dispensation from AMC to let Jesse say “fuck,” even with the audio dropped. (As a basic cable channel, there are a handful of things AMC can’t do that HBO and Showtime can; the F-word is one of them.) He first did that in the episode where Walt hurled an F-bomb at Gretchen, explaining afterwards that he felt there was no other way to convey the pure venom Walt felt towards Gretchen in that moment than to have him say “fuck,” knowing that even without the audio, viewers would know exactly what was being said. He hasn’t done it often, and so the usage makes a line like Jesse’s stand out even more than if we got one bleeped “fuck” per week.

• Early in the episode, Hank starts singing “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme song from “Rocky III,” while he and Walt are on their way to pick up the GPS unit from Gus’s car. “Rocky III” ends with a fight between rivals-turned-friends Rocky and Apollo, but that’s treated as a joke – a match so light-hearted that the film actually stops right as the first punch is being thrown – where the climactic fight here is anything but.

• A number of you (and several prominent critics like Todd Van Der Werff and Emily Nussbaum) saw something I initially didn’t in last week’s flashback: that Max and Gus were actually lovers, as opposed to just the butt of homophobic jokes by Tio. It’s not something that occurred to me at the time, but going back I can absolutely see how that interpretation could be valid. On the show’s official podcast, Vince Gilligan neither confirmed nor disputed the theory, simply saying that he would (at least until/unless there was more evidence for or against within the show) let the audience decide for themselves. I think Gus’s desire for revenge works quite well even if Max is just his friend/protege as if they were lovers, but that would certainly up the stakes of his quest.

• When Walt is trying to pump Jesse for information outside the car wash laundromat, he asks for a cigarette, but Jesse can tell he’s not inhaling. I’ll let the people who want to take this as a sign that Walt’s cancer is or isn’t back fight it out amongst yourselves.

What did everybody else think?

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