‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Half Measures’: Compromising situation

A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as the groundhog sees its shadow…

“You are not a murderer. I am not, and you are not. It’s as simple as that.” -Walt

Of course, nothing is ever that simple in the life of Walter White. Taking the end users of their product out of the equation, as well as people like Combo and the airplane passengers who are dead because they came into Walt’s orbit, we know Walt killed Emilio and Krazy-8, was preparing to poison Tuco and both actively (by jostling her on the bed so she rolled onto her back) and passively (by not intervening once she began to vomit) caused Jane’s death. In his mind, Walt can justify the first three as self-defense, and can wrap Jane’s own complicity in her own death around the threat she posed to his lifestyle (if not his life) to make it seem okay. Hell, he can even rationalize the two murders he commits in the stunning end to “Half Measures” – one with the Aztek, one with a bullet to the head – as being in defense of Jesse.

But there comes a point at which all the blood on your hands starts to become your own damn fault. Walter White doesn’t think he’s a bad man. He is. He doesn’t think he’s a destroyer of lives. He is. He doesn’t think he’s a murderer.

He is.

And holy hell, has it been incredible to watch.

We saw from the beginning of the series that the cancer diagnosis and meth career that followed it had brought Walt back to life after a long period when he felt empty and emasculated. As Mr. White, chemistry teacher, he was an ineffectual joke. As Heisenberg, drug kingpin, he had power and daring.

Season three, though, has been largely about the taming of Heisenberg. We opened the season with Walt determined to retire after the airplane catastrophe gave him a clear message from the cosmos. He let Gus talk him into working out of the Walt-cave, but as an employee, not master of his own fate, and with the clear understanding that the Chicken Man is smarter and more powerful than Walt could possibly comprehend. He was unaware of the presence of the Cousins until after Hank killed one and crippled the other, only knew Mike had bugged his home because Saul played him the tape, and has become a piece on other people’s chessboard. Skyler’s attempt to insert herself into the business in exchange for a key and a few family dinners a week has only made him feel more emasculated, and Mike the fixer’s entrance into Walt’s home – and the revelation that Mike really works for Gus, not Saul – again seemed to terrify Walt with the knowledge of his own insignificance within Gus’s world.

So Walt ratted out Jesse in hopes of keeping everyone else alive, and Gus – who’s developed a mentor’s attachment to Walt that’s every bit as self-destructive as Walt’s paternal feelings towards Jesse – took the exact kind of half-measure that Mike warned Walt about. And the dealers, ordered to stop working with children, turned around and murdered Tomas, and when Walt heard about it on the news, he knew what this would mean for Jesse…

…and Mr. White stepped aside so that Heisenberg could kick a little ass.

That final, haunting shot from below (a classical Hollywood kind of shot connoting power and stature) of Walt looking at Jesse and telling him, simply, “Run,” signals another stage in Walt’s transformation from teacher to master criminal. I’m sure he’ll find a way, like always, to escape blame – the damage to the Aztek(*) may complicate things, but odds are he can peel out quickly, assume Gus will pin it on Jesse, and hope the kid can survive as a fugitive – or else simply think his way out of it (Gus does still need him, after all), but Walt has seized control of his destiny once again. He can tell himself he just did it to save Jesse – and, certainly, he cares about Jesse more than he’ll admit – but he’s been lost and miserable all season, and now he looks in command of his life for the first time since he met Gus Frings. When he killed Krazy-8, and when he let Jane die, he looked horrified at what he had done, and what he was becoming. There was a sadness at what he had lost (and at what his victims had lost). When he puts a bullet in the head of the dealer, all we see is anger that Jesse put him in position to do it. Early in the season, Walt told Saul, “I can’t be the bad guy.” Well, the days for that kind of self-deception are gone. Walt has accepted his villainy, and now it’s just a matter of surviving it.

(*) And remember that Walter Jr. is expecting to use that car for his driving test.

Yet even though our memory of the episode is going to be dominated by Walt’s actions at the end, “Half Measures” was very much Jesse’s hour.

Like Walt, Jesse has been lost all season. He came home ready to be “the bad guy,” but hustling his parents didn’t satisfy him, cooking meth on his own got him insulted by Walt and then savagely beaten by Hank, becoming an employee of Gus’s made him rich but frustrated, Badger and Skinny Pete were too stupid/innocent to play along with his AA scheme, and getting a look at Andrea’s kid shocked Jesse out of that plan, anyway. Getting slapped in the face with the knowledge of how Combo died, and the role that he and his employers play in the enslavement and corruption of kids like Tomas, finally seemed to jolt Jesse out of his dead-inside phase. He decides to make a move, even if it’s a dangerous and self-destructive one, and is let down repeatedly when surrogate dad Walt first refuses to back his play, then betrays him to Gus. Jesse has been hurt many times in this series (and, of course, has done plenty of things to hurt others), but Aaron Paul has never shown him looking as betrayed as he does in that moment in the chicken trailer when Walt says nothing to back him up in the argument about using kids.

And now where’s Jesse at? He has to fall off the wagon in order to get the nerve to shoot it out with the rival dealers, and while Walt saves his life and keeps Jesse’s hands clean, Gus and his people are going to be after him now for sure, and possibly after both him and Walt. As various events unfolded over this season, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Jesse wouldn’t survive the year. But I figured that his death would come about in part from learning the truth about Jane’s. The way things are going right now, he may not live long enough to find that out – and if he did, the look of betrayal on his face would blow awayhis expression in the trailer.

Some other thoughts on this riveting episode:

  • “Office Space” beat this show to the punch with its characters looking up “money laundering” in the dictionary, but I still had to laugh when we saw Skyler researching the subject on Wikipedia, which showed just how much of her tough talk to Saul and Walt was only that: talk.
  • Week after week, the show delivers a brilliant little short film or one-act play before the opening credits. Here, it’s a few pathetic days in the life of Wendy the hooker, scored to The Association’s 1967 hit “Windy.” I loved how all the scenes of her conducting business were sped up, to show how the prostitution is just something she tries to get through on her way to her sad, solitary existence using meth and living in that motel.
  • A very dark episode overall, but we had a great comic moment with Marie finally taking a, um, hands-on approach to getting Hank to leave the hospital. And Hank’s question about how Walt and Skyler are getting by without jobs (which Marie changed the subject on abruptly) was a reminder that, whether his legs work or not, his brain is still fully functional, and perhaps capable of putting some pieces together about Heisenberg during recuperation.
  • How good was Jonathan Banks delivering Mike’s monologue about the wife-beater he should have killed? Really, this season has been as full of memorable speeches as it has the usual gorgeous imagery (like the blurred prism view through the windshield after Jesse snorted the meth).
  • The scene in the trailer showed us a very different side of Gus, as opposed to the placid guy he is at Los Pollos Hermanos. Here, he was still calm but with a much sharper edge, making it clear you do not want to cross him. I do wonder about two things: 1)Why is he dealing within Albuquerque, when previous episodes strongly implied he deliberately shipped the blue meth out of town so it wouldn’t be traced back to him and/or Walt? 2)Would the dealers really risk crossing Gus by killing Tomas, or did Gus put on a show for Jesse and then improbably breach the peace by privately ordering them to kill the kid? Neither seems all that probable, though I suppose Tomas might not have responded well to being let go and put up enough of a fuss that the dealers had no choice.

Finale next week, and I’ll have a review and, hopefully, another long interview with Vince Gilligan set to go up Sunday night (and note that the episode is scheduled to run in an extra-long timeslot, until around 11:40, so plan accordingly). UPDATE: To clarify, the episode actually will run in close to the regular timeslot, since it’s only about 48 minutes long and will get limited commercial interruption. The long timeslot you’ll see in most channel guides is because AMC is following it with a sneak preview of the “Rubicon” pilot.

So close to the finish line, let me remind you again about the No Spoilers policy around here – and, specifically, about how talking about anything in the previews for next week’s episode is verboten. Got me? I’ll have seen the finale by the time this posts, so anything the least bit questionable will be deleted.

What did everybody else think?