A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I watch a documentary about simulated caviar…
“Jesse, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.” -Walt
After a couple of episodes in a row where team “Breaking Bad” was in absolute command of its instrument, “Buyout” feels a bit more muddled. There are incredible individual components – the pre-credits sequence, Walt’s improvised blowtorch, even another awkward meal at the White house – but they didn’t entirely work together.
Where I had previously expressed concern about the season’s pacing in the context of discussing episodes I had otherwise liked, “Buyout” is the first one that really feels like it’s fallen victim to this 8-episode structure. The separate pieces were all excellent, but arguably shouldn’t have all been part of the same episode, and likely wouldn’t have been in a 13-episode batch.
Specifically, it felt like we moved much too quickly from the utter despair of the corpse disposal sequence to Mike and Jesse’s decision to cash out and retire, and then from there to the comedy of discomfort as Jesse tried to make small talk in the middle of the cold war between Walt and Skyler. The stories flowed from each other – Mike and Jesse’s decision, for instance, comes directly from the realization that they no longer want to be in a business where things like Drew Sharp’s murder happen – but everything happened in such rapid order that none of the emotions really had time to breathe after that incredible opening scene.(*)
(*) What made it so great – beyond the performances by Cranston, Banks, Plemons and Paul, beyond the wise decision to drop out all ambient noise and accompany it entirely by the musical score – was how it built on work the show had done previously. We’ve seen Walt and Jesse get rid of enough bodies this way that it can now be used as a joke (Jesse’s first line in “Box Cutter”) or here to prepare us for absolute heartbreak. Because we know how this process works, we watch them break down the dirtbike, piece by piece, and we know exactly why they’re doing it – just as we know what’s going to come next (and with a boy so small they won’t even need to break him down into his component parts to fit him into a plastic drum). Devastating.
You could argue that we’ve already seen the show play the “Jesse goes into a multi-episode funk over a relative innocent’s death” card so often that it would have been repetitive to do it again. And yet because we know how Jesse Pinkman ticks, it didn’t feel right to have him back to being relatively well-adjusted (if still seeking retirement) midway through the episode, and even playing the role of Eddie Haskell (“You have a lovely home”) in his second-ever encounter with Mrs. White. I laughed during the uncomfortable dinner, but I found myself wishing that I wasn’t – and not just because Aaron Paul excels whenever Jesse is drowning in guilt. (Case in point: the shot of him staring at the TV set after he sees the news report about the search for Drew.)
The best moments of “Buyout” were the ones that built on how well we know these characters and how they operate: not just the opener, but Walt going into much more detail about what he sacrificed when he walked away from Gretchen and Elliott, or Mike sitting on the park bench feeling the weight of his life while his granddaughter played in a tree, or Skyler trying very hard not to laugh or yell when she realized what Walt had told Marie about Beneke.
All of that clicked because the show had previously taken a whole lot of time to get us there. And even though each individual scene of “Buyout” didn’t feel especially fast-paced outside the scene where Walt MacGyver’ed the power cord into an improvised blowtorch – literally burning himself to avoid Mike figuratively burning him and his shot at an empire – the episode as a whole seemed like a race to get from Point A (the guys grieve the murder of Drew Sharp) to Point B (Walt steals the methylamine out from under Mike, promising some insane but profitable new plan) as quickly as possible so that we can have proper time for the endgame of season 5.0. And that’s not me worrying about what’s to come; that’s me not loving what I actually just watched.
Some other thoughts:
* We’ve talked before about how AMC will occasionally give Gilligan special dispensation to let Walt or someone else use the F-word (most famously in the season 2 scene with Gretchen), provided the audio drops out. Apparently, that arrangement extends to written words as well, as Mike is allowed to write “fuck you” in the note to Gomez, so long as the u and c are pixellated.
* Declan, Mike’s Arizona connection, is played by character actor Louis Ferreira, whom I knew better under his prior stage name of Justin Louis.
* Good to see Saul back, even briefly. It’s been a few weeks.
One final note: AMC has decided not to make the last two episodes available to critics in advance to keep spoilers from getting out. This means we are, unfortunately, back on the “Mad Men” plan from the spring. I’ll try to stay up late to write those reviews, but I can’t promise that my energy level will last, and given that the finale airs over Labor Day weekend, God knows what might happen that night, the next day, etc. I can only do what I can do.
But as for “Buyout,” what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com