‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Open House’: Makin’ it rain

Senior Television Writer
07.31.11 196 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as  I get a lifetime supply of french manicures and enzyme peels…

“The devil is in the details.” -Skyler

Last week found most our characters stuck in a state of stasis, with Walt’s plan to assassinate Gus not working out, Skyler appearing to blow her big move with Bogdan and the car wash, Hank still being a less-than-model patient, etc.

With “Open House,” we see some characters finally get moving a bit. Skyler finally figures out how to make Bogdan an offer he can’t refuse – and not in a Luca Brasi way, because “We do not do that.” And Hank – whether out of boredom with his new lifestyle or a desire to get out of the house and away from Marie’s problems – picks up Gale’s notebook and almost immediately sees the connection between this murder victim and Heisenberg.

Yet Skyler and Hank’s moves are really about setting things up for later episodes, when we’ll no doubt see her asserting herself at the car wash and him rediscovering his investigative mojo. What really fascinated me in “Open House” were the two characters(*) stuck in neutral: Marie and Jesse.

(*) And it’s a mark of this show’s evolution they can do an episode this good in which Walt isn’t the main character in any of the storylines. Way back in the show’s early days, I watched for Bryan Cranston and to see if Vince Gilligan and company could figure the rest of it out. Today, we can get an hour where Cranston’s only occasionally prominent, and it’s not a big deal, because every part of the series is so strong.

When I interviewed Betsy Brandt a few months ago, I asked her about the transformation of Marie from the strange kleptomaniac she was in the show’s early days into the character she became in seasons two and (especially) three. I hadn’t seen any of these episodes at that point, and had no idea that the show would be revisiting that old territory, but I’m glad that we have. TV characters change and grow to fit both the needs of the story and also the actors playing them, but the kleptomania was the most memorable thing about Marie in the first season, and it’s not something that should simply be forgotten. And if ever there were a time to give in to bad old patterns, it would be now, under so much emotional pressure from Hank and his situation.

We know and understand why Marie doesn’t want to be in that house, and now we see that she’s developed an elaborate coping mechanism where she goes to open houses, invents a series of elaborate, contradictory fantasy lives for herself – the individual details don’t matter, so long as each one isn’t the life she has now – and then takes a memento from each house to remember those brief moments where she wasn’t Marie Schrader, wife to bitter, paralyzed Hank.

It was a great showcase for Brandt, and yet my favorite scene of that story didn’t feature her on camera at all. Rather, it let Dean Norris do all the acting for both of them, with Hank’s manner changing abruptly from the indignant “Are you seriously doing this to me again?” to the more tender “Will you stop crying?” Norris’ face shows exactly what Hank heard in between to make him change that way. (Obviously, he says it, but you see it even before the words are out.)

As for Jesse, not only has he not made any progress in getting over Gale’s murder, he seems to be devolving – as is the party at his house, which has gone from bacchanal to an outer circle of Hell. He can numb himself briefly with go-kart racing, or by making the animals at the party go even more feral after he makes it rain with cash. But you can see in the desperate pleading in his eyes when he asks Walt to join him, or in the primal screams when he’s behind the wheel of the go-kart, just how delicate his grip on it all has become. The usual great work from Aaron Paul throughout.

And Skyler gets a victory over Bogdan because she happens to share her husband’s stubborn streak – and also can exploit his own when it suits her purposes. (Skyler getting Walt on board with the plan by talking about how Bogdan insulted him was beautiful.) But as impressive as her victory was, the most notable Skyler scenes involved her once again grappling with the reality of this business she’s becoming an accomplice to.

We’re so used to seeing Walt’s drug life through his eyes or Jesse’s that it’s not a big deal that he would still have a shiner courtesy of Mike’s beat-down last week. But to Skyler, this is an understandably terrifying thing, as is Saul’s casual suggestion of inflicting violence on Bogdan. Obviously, some of this is willful blindness – Skyler doesn’t know about the people Walt has killed, wouldn’t want to know, and is focusing on the money laundering rather on the end users of Heisenberg’s product – but for a few moments in this hour, we got what felt like a very different perspective on things we’ve come to take for granted.

As an audience, we haven’t been running in place – the show changes too much, too frequently, for that to happen – but perhaps some of our attitudes about Walt’s work have. We’ve accepted by now that this is the business that he has chosen, that these are the risks, etc. Skyler hasn’t been on this journey with us. It’s all new and raw to her. And seeing it through her eyes may just force us to be less complacent about how we view that part of this great series.

Some other thoughts:

• In case you missed the late update to last week’s review, I checked in with Vince Gilligan to clarify who called Walt when he was walking towards Gus’s house, since half the commenters were convinced it was Gus, and the other half that it was Mike. Instead, it turned out to be Tyrus, the new guy who replaced Victor, weighed the meth batch last week and this week was surveilling Jesse’s house.

• The show has assembled a terrific rotating group of regular directors, but every now and then we get a special guest director, usually from the world of indie film. Last season, it was Rian Johnson (“Brick”) handling the claustrophobia of “Fly,” and tonight our man behind the camera was David Slade, who did “30 Days of Night” (and, more famously, “Twilight: Eclipse”), and who also directed my favorite network pilot of the season, NBC’s “Awake.” In such a collaborative show – especially one with a great director of photography like Michael Slovis – it’s hard to ascribe any visual flourish to one man, but Slade and everyone else did especially strong work during the jump cuts of Jesse’s go-kart trip and later when he made it rain at his house.  

• Perhaps to make up for Walt being relatively inconspicuous for the rest of the hour, Bryan Cranston got to solo in the pre-credits sequence, where he delivers a hilariously clenched response to the surveillance cameras. While I understand Gus’s desire to keep tabs on his two valuable-but-mutinous employees, the idea of making recordings of the work in the Super Lab just reminds me of Stringer Bell asking Shamrock, “Is you taking notes on a criminal fuckin’ conspiracy?”

• The non-parents among you are probably tired of me harping on just how placid and well-behaved Holly is, but I have to laugh every time the show cuts to her for a reaction shot while Skyler’s busy conducting her latest scheme. A fussier baby would make this whole car wash plan much harder to pull off.

What did everybody else think?

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