There’s a darkness inside of Walter White. It’s the thing that has been allowed to flourish now that he’s taken his turn toward bad things, the thing that has driven him and pushed him and gotten him to the place where he’s making millions of dollars per year to produce meth for Gus. It has served him very well, indeed, and every time I hear star Bryan Cranston or series creator Vince Gilligan say that “Breaking Bad” is about a basically good guy who makes a series of bad choices, I wince. If Walt were a basically good guy, he would have been out of this long ago. There is a thing deep inside of him that is pushing him to be bigger and badder and darker and darker.
And yet, that thing cannot completely crowd out whatever parts of him are good. And those parts of him that are good are the parts that are finally going to get him killed. Walt can’t leave well enough alone. He can’t cut Jesse loose as he probably should. He can’t let his family go as he probably should. He can’t find his way to not making the same mistake twice (as Gus recommended in last week’s episode) because to be Walt is to be continually making the same mistakes over and over and over. His inability to completely give in to his sociopathic side holds him back almost as much as his inability to give in completely to his better angels. He’s an awkward blend of good and bad that seems unlikely to rise much farther in the Albuquerque underworld. The more times he finds improbable escapes from the tiny corners he boxes himself into, the less he seems to grasp that his time is marked, that the way to ensure he provides for his family is to either get out of the game entirely or give in and become Gus, Jr.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (June 6) “Breaking Bad” after the break…]
Let’s view the world as a chemist might see it. Or, better yet, let’s view the world as Gus must see it. Last week, I complained a bit about how the coincidences in this show have a tendency to pile up, a tendency to make it seem like there are about four people living in Albuquerque, and they just keep bumping into each other. I still maintain that the foundation the show built to send Jesse on his mission of revenge is weak, but I think everywhere they’ve gone from that place has been sensational so far. Jesse’s slow realization last week when Andrea told him about just what it was her brother did was well-played, and everything he does in this episode is just as terrific, a young man slowly trying to take control of a life that’s starting to live him.
But take a step back out again. The thing the writers most get out of having all of these characters connected in a myriad number of ways is an ability to make the Albuquerque of the show a closed system, something like an electrical circuit or, better yet, a chemical reaction. In this way, they can tug on one string to see how it makes that character react and watch the ways the dominoes fall all the way down the line. Jesse learning this bit of knowledge leads him to react this way, which leads Walt to react this way, which leads Gus to react this way, and so on and so on. If we look at this closed system like Gus does, we likely start to see that there are a number of stable, fairly predictable elements. And then there are two unstable elements. If you’re Gus, how much patience do you have for these elements, even if you essentially need one of them to keep your business operating smoothly?
“Half Measures” is basically a full episode of Walt trying to be Gus and failing, as he attempts to curtail Jesse from doing something very, very foolish. After a season when the relationship between the two has been horribly strained and then slowly rebuilt (largely over the course of “Fly,” which gives that diversion of an episode a “purpose” within the plot after all), “Half Measures” reminds us, just as last year’s similarly placed “Phoenix” did, that Walt will risk everything to save the life of his surrogate son, Jesse Pinkman. He really doesn’t owe Jesse anything. After Jesse helped him break into the world of drugs, Walt could have left him behind or abandoned him entirely. Instead, he keeps dragging him along, even as it’s clear at times that Jesse holds Walt back, that Jesse’s inability to shut off his deeper emotions and become an affectless sociopath like Gus is ultimately going to destroy him.
We’ve seen one pole of what Walt can become. We saw it in the pilot. He’s the guy who was beaten down by life and didn’t really see much purpose to continuing on as things were. After all, he had little control over basically anything in his life. This is, more or less, Walt giving in entirely to his “good” side, the side that lets everyone walk all over him because he believes that’s what a good person, more or less, does. Gus, then, represents the other pole of what Walt could become. I keep calling Gus a sociopath here, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. A better description of him would be “ruthless pragmatist.” He’s a man who knows what needs doing and doesn’t have many compunctions about getting it done. It’s gotten him a long way in life, but he also seems to have a big house that he lives in entirely alone (though, to be fair, he doesn’t seem so bothered by this).
For how big of a deal “Breaking Bad” makes out of Walt’s desire to provide for his family, Jesse is usually the line that keeps him tethered to Earth, that keeps him from floating off into that land of ruthless pragmatism. There’s a sterling scene midway through the episode where Mike comes to tell Walt just why Gus wouldn’t go for a plan Walt and Saul have concocted to get Jesse thrown in jail for a month or so to let his temper cool down, all the better to keep him from killing the two meth dealers who were responsible for Combo’s death (by ordering little Tomas to carry it out). Gus, Mike says, would see an incarcerated Jesse as a potentially troublesome loose end and would likely have that loose end eliminated. And then Mike tells a story.
Back when Mike was still working as a cop (and please give us a Mike origin story episode next season, “Breaking Bad”), he was frequently called out to the same house on domestic violence calls. Time after time, he would go, and time after time, he would think about stepping in beyond what was called for. At one point, he finally snapped when taking the husband back to be processed when the husband started singing “Danny Boy” in the back of the patrol car. He hauled the husband out into the desert, stuck a gun in his mouth, then made him promise never to hurt his wife again. And, of course, the husband did again, and the wife died, and everything might have been better had Mike just blown the husband’s brains out. No half measures, Mike says. If you’re going to do something, do it. That’s the lesson he’s learned. Be pragmatic, yes, but also be ruthless about that pragmatism, willing to do whatever it takes.
Walter really isn’t ready, at least not in regards to Jesse, who remains his biggest blind spot. Most of the season has been rather wrapped up in Walter’s two most important relationships (insofar as the show is concerned): his relationship with his wife and his relationship with his surrogate son. As the season has progressed, that intense focus on those two relationships has driven some fans to distraction, wondering when the next burst of drug-related violence was going to come, when we were going to start to see some story payoffs to what’s been building. “Half Measures” is that payoff, to a real degree, and I’d argue it wouldn’t be half as effective if it hadn’t had that build-up. If we don’t get to see every step that leads to Walter barreling across the deserted corner in his van and taking out the two thugs before they can take down Jesse, then shooting one in the head, it robs the moment of something of its power. And that makes Walter’s final line – “Run!” – followed by an exceptionally abrupt cut to black, all the more haunting. Given all that’s transpired, there’s no way either of them can back down now. Because of Walt’s concern for Jesse, he’s aligned himself with the boy, with the unstable element, against Gus. And that’s not a good position to be in.
I’m intrigued by Gus’ position in all of this. I realize that he doesn’t much like Jesse and, indeed, thinks that Walter would be better off with any partner other than the “junkie,” but I also don’t quite understand why he’s so loyal to two men who have to be pretty far down his distribution chain. Now, granted, he’s far more loyal to Walt in this scenario (since Walt is the one who keeps him from outright destroying Jesse), and I certainly understand just why he wouldn’t want his dealers dead. But outside of his concession to Jesse’s demands, in that he asks the dealers to stop using children to peddle, his actions are just a bit odd to me. Did he really have no idea that children were being used to peddle drugs? Or did he just not care? And how did he not know that the death of Tomas – a death that’s plastered all over the news, if Skyler is to be believed – would lead to a confrontation between the dealers and Jesse and take steps to prevent that confrontation?
I’m not really complaining about this. The inscrutability of Gus has been one of the best things about this season. “Breaking Bad” is a show that makes a show of inviting us into the headspace of almost every one of its characters (even giving us a better sense of what makes the sort of mysterious Mike tick in tonight’s episode). We spend private moments with all of these people, but we almost never spend private moments with Gus, unless we’re seeing him unleash a new wave of destruction on the cartel south of the border (as he did in “I See You”). The show has used this to its advantage, to be sure. In a season that’s felt structured like clockwork, Gus is the unstable element from the viewers’ perspective. Now that we have a rough idea of the ruthlessness he’s capable of, we know enough to fear when Jesse launches his ill-fated scheme to poison the dealers with a ricin recipe he found on the Internet. But we don’t exactly know how he’s going to react, if he’s going to listen to Walt or if he’s just going to rid himself of this problem once and for all. Walt and Jesse are unstable elements to Gus, but we’ve spent so much time with them, we can grasp more or less what they’re going to do in any given situation. It’s Gus who remains unknowable.
At its best, “Breaking Bad” moves with the blood-soaked tragedy of a Shakespearean play mixed with the dark comedy of a Coen Brothers movie. “Half Measures” perhaps skews a little more toward the tragic end of things, but there’s a grim sense of inevitability to it, of Walt’s tragic flaw catching up with him and ensnaring him once again. One of the best decisions “Breaking Bad” ever made was to not kill off Jesse at the end of season one (a decision which was facilitated by the writers strike). Since then, he’s become a living embodiment of everything that keeps Walt relatable and everything that keeps him from floating off into a life of utter desolation. That scene where Walt realizes that Tomas has died and that Jesse is going to do something about it, conveyed almost entirely through unsettling camera moves and an abrupt cut to Walt at the door, saying he has to go out, is a gut-churning one. Is there any of us in the audience who wouldn’t do what Walt does for Jesse? And is there any of us in the audience who wouldn’t realize that to do it is to bring hellfire down around our heads? “Half Measures” is “Breaking Bad” at its very best, which means the characters are about to endure the very worst.
Some other thoughts:
*** I wrote the bulk of this review (everything up until “Some other thoughts”) before seeing the finale. But, c’mon. I’m only human. I watched, readers, and it does not disappoint.
*** Blake’s Lot-a-Burger is one of my favorite New Mexican landmarks, and I’m glad to see it make an appearance here.
*** In contrast to all of the horror in the Walt and Jesse and Gus storyline, there’s a surprising sweetness to the Hank and Marie storyline. At first, it seems like we’re going to have another week of Hank complaining about his inability to walk, but Marie giving him a hand job as part of a bet to get him to leave the hospital is the very best kind of comic relief in an episode that needed comic
*** I’m still unsure on the whole “Skyler is going to be Walt’s bookkeeper” thing, but, man, do I admire her gusto.
*** I have loved the way that the show has been using its teasers this season, making them, for the most part, disconnected prologues that comment on the main action of the plot thematically as much as anything else. This week’s journey through the life of the local prostitute is a good example of the show using these moments to expand and fill out its grimy little world.
*** After Jesse said he had found his ricin recipe on the ‘net, I Googled to see whether such a thing was possible. I think Jesse would have been disappointed in the results.
This week’s discussion question: How, exactly, does Walt get out of this one?