‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Kafkaesque’: Just a little off the top

Senior Television Writer
05.16.10 109 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I have a license to bitch and moan…

“What’s the point in being an outlaw when you got responsibilities?” -Jesse

“Breaking Bad,” like “The Wire,” has always had a very cold, clear view on the idea that while selling drugs is a crime, it’s also a business, and has told some of its richest stories around Walt and Jesse learning how that business works.

This late in season three, they’re old hands at it, even if their circumstances have changed repeatedly, but there are still lessons for them – and us – to learn, and “Kafkaesque” is all about that. We open up with a glimpse of how Gus’s distribution network operates. Jesse crunches the numbers and realizes how much more Gus is making than they are from their hard work, and Walt later uses that info, and the revelation of Hank getting the warning call about the Cousins, to try to negotiate a raise from the Chicken Man. Saul gives Jesse a colorful lesson in money laundering with the help of some nail salon supplies, then tries to charge him a higher rate than Walt. And Skyler uses Walt’s meth-cooking adventures as the spine of an elaborate but palatable lie about card-counting that she uses to make Walt pay for Hank’s expensive physical therapies. And Jesse realizes how to skim some meth out of their production without being noticed, and then that he has the perfect new market in his 12-step group.

Not every lesson and negotiation goes perfectly. Walt doesn’t get an appreciably bigger cut of Gus’s profits; he just extends the deal with a small bump in the overall rate. Jesse walks away from Saul. And while Skyler secures the money for Hank – in a monologue that seems as if she’s bought into every one of Walt’s rationalizations for his drug career – she makes it clear to Walt later that she’s still disgusted by him, and even more now that she assumes he had something to do with the attack on Hank.

The crucial scene in the episode comes early on, when Jesse confronts Walt with the dollar figures. Walt points out how much they’re making and asks, incredulous, “What world do you live in?”

“One where the dudes who are actually doing all the work ain’t getting fisted,” Jesse replies – which, like his conversation with Saul about paying taxes, misses the whole point.

In the real business world, the ones who actually do the work are compensated far, far less than their bosses most of the time. And in this particular case, Walt and Jesse have gone from small business owners (supplying all the labor, money and materials while assuming all the risk) to employees of Gus’s large meth company. Gus paid for the Walt-cave, supplies the distribution, pays off his dealers, etc., etc., etc., and if a cop should ever happen to look in one of those Los Pollos Hermanos buckets, it’s Gus who goes down for it. But Jesse doesn’t want to view this as a business. He wants to be a criminal: all risk and no responsibility.

In a later scene, the 12-step group leader asks Jesse to talk about what he might want to do with his life if money weren’t an issue, and Jesse tells the story of a box he made in high school wood shop class (in yet another spellbinding moment from Aaron Paul). He found enough sense of self-worth to keep messing with that box until it was perfect… and then he traded it for some weed. These 12-step meetings have a way of making Jesse accept that he’s given over his entire life to drugs – whether using or selling – and so he does one of the most evil(*) things anyone’s attempted on the show, in bringing Badger and Skinny Pete into the group so they can start tempting people with talk of the blue meth.

(*) There was an episode of “Reaper” where the Devil posed as moderator of an AA-meeting and challenged all the participants to go to a bar and order their favorite drinks to prove their willpower levels. At the moment, that seemed like something so evil that only Satan would try it. Guess not.

Jesse wants to be an outlaw, and Walt wants to be a businessman, but there’s a self-destructive streak in them both. Jesse seems to realize this won’t end well for him, but he doesn’t care because he wants to be able to go out on his own and just sling like the good ol’ days before Mr. White came back into his life. And Walt confronts Gus – and barely controls his fear of this placid-looking but incredibly dangerous man – and gets some more money out of him, but then on the drive home plays chicken with oncoming traffic before running himself off the road at the last minute. Earlier in the series, there was a clear sense that cooking meth was making Walt feel alive for the first time in years, but as he’s (temporarily) beaten cancer and started amassing a fortune that his family can live off of long after he’s gone, he’s starting to recognize and fear the danger of it all. Depending on how things go with Gus and Jesse and his family in the coming months, there may one day be a time where he doesn’t turn the wheel, perhaps deciding that suicide-by-18-wheeler is a better end for him and his family than waiting around for the Cousins’ replacements or for the DEA to catch him, or some other awful fate.

Like last week’s “I See You,” “Kafkaesque” was a fairly quiet hour, but by no means a dull one. Now that Walt has his eyes open about who he works for (and Gus in turn realizes just how smart Walter White is, even in matters unrelated to chemistry), and now that Jesse (whom Walt talked Gus into hiring) has decided to steal from the Chicken Man and put the whole operation at risk, more big, bad things are surely coming in the season’s final episodes. There’s a price to be paid for what’s happening, and it’s going to go beyond whatever Walt has to spend on Hank’s care.

Some other thoughts:

  • After being largely off the radar the last few weeks, Skyler came back in a big way here, having an ugly break-up with Ted Beneke, and then wrapping Walt around her finger, forcing him to pay for Hank’s treatment and briefly giving him hope that she had forgiven him – only to twist the knife at the end. Some really nice work from Anna Gunn.
  • Michael Slovis, the show’s brilliant director of photography, here got to be the episode’s main director. He got the usual superb performances (Jesse and Skyler’s monologues, Walt facing down Gus) while still maintaining the show’s gorgeous visual palette.
  • I’m assuming Hank will regain the ability to walk, but it sounds like the process will take so long that I may need to revisit my assumption that the series is heading towards Hank being the man to unmask the mighty Heisenberg. Then again, there could be a huge time-jump in between seasons 3 and 4, so I’ll withhold judgment. Right now, though, he has as little interest in the blue meth as Marie does.
  • Kudos to whoever made the fake Los Pollos Hermanos commercial, because they made me pretty ravenous for some good fried chicken.
  • Skyler may need Walt’s money for more than just Hank’s treatment, if I read Beneke’s face correctly at the end of that awkward scene at the house. He’s been so generous and flexible with her hours because he was getting something out of it. Now that Skyler’s done with him as a lover, how valuable will he find her accounting skills?

What did everybody else think?

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