A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I have to register my hands as lethal weapons…
“This whole thing, all of this, it’s all about me!” -Walt
Well, it is and it isn’t, Walt.
“Breaking Bad” began as more or less a one-man show. Walt was so much more strongly defined than any other character – and Bryan Cranston’s so revelatory after all his years in sitcoms – that it was hard to pay attention to, or feel empathy for, anyone else. Jesse was a hot-headed loser, Skyler emasculating and distant, Hank a clown, etc.
That’s not the case anymore. The writing of the ensemble, and the performances by Aaron Paul and company, have only gotten deeper as the series has gone on. Jesse in many ways is the more sympathetic character these days – has been for several seasons, in fact.
But this is still the story of Walter White’s transformation into Heisenberg. And as good and as rich as the ensemble has become, they’re all just supporting players in that tale.
And “Cornered” – my favorite episode of season 4 to date – was all about how the two biggest supporting players feel when confronted with that fact.
We knew that Walt’s drunken outburst at the end of “Shotgun” was going to generate problems between Walt and Hank, but Hank’s absent this week, and the more immediate fallout from that scene comes from Skyler. In the stand-out scene of an episode filled with fantastic scenes, Skyler expresses fear for Walt’s safety in a way that’s entirely understandable from her perspective and unbearably patronizing from Walt’s. And Walt, even without the influence of wine, can’t help himself any more than he could at Hank’s dinner table. He can’t stand to be thought of as anything less than the ruthless master criminal he is, and so he gives Skyler her first real look at Heisenberg, telling his wife, “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in: I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!”(*)
(*) Not only is this an incredible moment for both Cranston and (especially) Anna Gunn, but “I am the one who knocks!” instantly enters the pantheon of bad-ass declarative statements, up there with the likes of “I’ll be back,” “My name is my name!” and “Say hello to my little friend!”
Up until now, Skyler’s view of Walt the drug dealer(**) has been one of those half measures that Mike warned us all about. Because she’s felt trapped by circumstance(***), she talked herself into the idea that Walt is just a small player in this game – that he’s the hapless, beaten-down loser she’s known for so long, incapable of defending himself against the genuine criminals. She can’t do that anymore. She’s seen who and what he really is. And her immediate reaction to seeing the face of Heisenberg is an understandable one: she grabs the baby and she runs – runs more than 200 miles to the Four Corners Monument to flip a coin about her future. It seems like a grand gesture – and no doubt Skyler feels the need to do something big after that horrifying moment of truth back at the house – but it really isn’t. The coin lands in Colorado, so she flips it again, and when it lands in Colorado a second time, she just nudges it back into New Mexico. She’s already decided that she’ll go back to Walt – even if it’s with her full emotional armor up now, to never again risk a backslide like the one they had in “Shotgun” – but if she can’t lie to herself about Walt anymore, she has to at least lie to herself that she tried to leave her decision to the fates.
(**) “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are linked because they were AMC’s first two series of this current wave, because they’re excellent, and because Bryan Cranston keeps beating Jon Hamm out for the Emmy, but it occurs to me that there’s an obvious thematic parallel as well. Both shows feature protagonists who began life with a cowardly, beaten-down identity and at a certain point assumed a new persona with a new name and a much bolder personality. Heisenberg is to Walt as Don Draper is to Dick Whitman. The difference is that most people still know Walt as Walt, so it’s a shock to them when Heisenberg peeks out, where on “Mad Men” the startling moments tend to be when somebody gets a quick look at Dick Whitman.
(***) For those of you who objected to my defense of Skyler a few weeks ago by saying she could just move in with Hank and Marie, may I remind you that Hank and Marie are drowning in medical bills from an injury that is entirely Walter White’s fault, and that the main reason she’s engaging in this whole charade about the car wash is to generate the money to pay for that?
Jesse has his own moment to doubt Walt’s suitability as a partner when the two argue outside of the laundromat. Their argument illustrates the wicked genius of Gus’s plan to use Mike to drive a wedge between the two. Jesse so needs a reason to feel good about himself that even if Walt figures out that the whole thing was a set-up – which Walt the genius almost instantly does – Jesse won’t want to believe it. And the more Walt tries to argue his case, the further he pushes Jesse away. Because Walt is so smart, he’s often right in arguments, but he has this gift for being right in the most abrasive way possible. As with the confrontation at Jesse’s house two weeks ago, Walt has lost all sense of which buttons he can and can’t push with his partner, and his insistence that this whole situation is all about him is, while almost certainly right, such an arrogant-sounding statement, and so dismissive of Jesse, that it can’t help but increase Jesse’s feelings of loyalty to Mike and Gus.
Outside of the scene in “One Minute” where Walt complimented Jesse’s meth – a circumstance where he essentially had no choice but to do it, and Jesse knew that – has Walt ever complimented Jesse in the way Gus so casually does when he tells him, “I like to think I see things in people”? And the funny part is that Gus seems to be getting a genuinely useful worker in Jesse. He does have value beyond being Walt’s lapdog. He’s obviously not as tough or efficient as Mike, but having someone on the payroll who speaks tweaker has value.
But Walt doesn’t see that, or any other big picture issues. He’s too much of a narcissist to put himself in other people’s heads, or to really think about the consequences his actions have on others. He pays the women from the laundromat to clean up the Super Lab (and the sequence of him sipping coffee from Gale’s percolator while they slave away was hilarious) just thinking it’s a different way to flip the bird at the surveillance camera. He never for a second imagines what Gus might do to any civilians who saw the inside of that place. (If anything, he should be relieved that all Tyrus apparently plans to do is put them on a bus.)
Nor does he see the position he keeps putting Skyler in with Walter Jr., or even the more practical issues that would come with buying him such a conspicuous, if sweet, ride. He briefly seems to recognize it when he tries to defend Skyler to Walter Jr., saying, “What is going on with me is not about some disease. It’s about choices. Choices I have made. Choices I stand by.” But even though he seems self-aware and chastened in that moment, his words are not dissimilar to the “I am the one who knocks!” speech. It’s Walt trying to make clear that he’s not a supporting player in his own life, but the central character whose choices drive all of the action.
Not long after Skyler flees the house with Holly in tow, Walt has to go to the car wash to take the keys from Bogdan, and Bogdan – who also thinks of Walt as the weak, pathetic man we met in the series premiere – sees fit to lecture him on what it takes to be a good boss, mainly as an exercise to humiliate Walt further. But as with Skyler, Bogdan doesn’t realize exactly with whom he’s dealing, and Walt manages to turn the whole “as is” business around on Bogdan, depriving him of the framed dollar bill in a clever – albeit extremely petty – power move. Walt doesn’t even want the damn thing, which is why he uses it to buy a soda as soon as Bogdan’s gone; he just wants to take something away from Bogdan the way Bogdan repeatedly took away his dignity.
And yet as I listened to that lecture about being a boss – and thought of a similar lesson Gus once gave to Walt over dinner – I couldn’t help but think that this is part of where we’re going over the rest of this season, and then the remaining 16 episodes of the series (however they’re distributed) that will come after that. This show is the story of how Mr. Chips becomes Scarface, and sooner or later Walt is going to have to stop being a disgruntled employee and get back to being the man in charge of his own fate. Being a boss means a different relationship with people than being their partner. So even if he’s too myopic, abrasive and plain arrogant to get along with Skyler and Jesse, that doesn’t mean he won’t make one hell of a crime lord the next time he has the chance to do it.
Some other thoughts:
• There’s been some debate the last few weeks over whether Jesse has actually been using since Gale’s murder or if he’s just been surrounding himself with meth users. The first scene at the diner with Mike makes it clear that he’s been getting high, and is now (with some difficulty) going cold turkey.
• Ever since someone joked in the comments a while back that Walter Jr. only ever appears to eat breakfast, I’ve had trouble not seeing that in his every appearance. (It was a huge stretch in “Shotgun” when he was at the dinner table with Hank and Marie!) But his role was notably expanded this week, with Walt bribing Jr. over to his side, and Jr. gleefully letting him. (“If you’re gonna buy me off, buy me off.”) Especially for a kid like Walter Jr., who has to work so much harder to get around on foot, I can see the appeal of a big, bad, fast sportscar.
• Back in season two, all the episodes whose titles made up the “737 Down Over ABQ” jigsaw puzzle opened with similar black-and-white footage of the White home in the aftermath of the plane crash. Some people have been speculating whether this season’s many weapon-themed titles will similarly add up to something, but there hasn’t been an obvious visual link between teasers until now, when this episode opened with the same shot of blue breath against the darkness of the trailer that we got two weeks ago in “Bullet Points.” Of course, that was primarily to set up how differently this ambush went from the last one, as Gus’s enemies in the Cartel learned their lesson from how easily Mike took the assassins out. Their knowledge of truck routes, and of what chicken containers do and don’t contain meth, have me wondering if the Cartel has an inside man. But we really only know five employees in this operation – Walt, Jesse, Gus, Mike and Tyrus – and other than Tyrus, none seem an obvious candidate to be ratting to the Cartel.
• This is the second episode directed by Michael Slovis (after last season’s “Kafkaesque”), with Nelson Cragg functioning as director of photography for the second episode in a row, and the two combined for some memorable shots, notable the POV of the shovel on Jesse’s shoulder as he went to dig up the tweakers’ front yard.
• Walt in the shower is the first time in a while we’ve gotten a look at his scar from the experimental cancer surgery. Could be foreshadowing (I don’t recall Walt’s cancer being mentioned significantly since the surgery at the end of season 2), or it could just be that once you take Cranston’s shirt off, you have to show the scar.
What did everybody else think?