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Peekabo & Negro y Azul


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S2E6 Peekaboo

There’s somewhat of a constant in Breaking Bad that, while obvious, does not get commented on a whole lot: almost everything you need to know about a given episode is explained in the first 30 seconds. No, not just in the “flashback” sense that episodes like in “Grilled” where you see the vague sense of how a scene ends but just don’t know how it gets there quite yet. Take “Peekaboo” for example, which opens on a bug crawling along a streetcorner, right around Jesse’s sneakers. Jesse is looking at the little guy, has him crawl over his hand like any young boy would naturally be fascinated with bugs, but the second that Skinny Pete shows up, he immediately stomps on him.

While this by itself may not indicate all that much, the entirety of “Peekaboo” shows a compassionate side of Jesse that we’ve all sensed before, but just never in such broad a context. A great majority of the episode deals with his confronting of the burnouts who jacked Skinny Pete for his distribution stash, and Jesse really wants to show how well he can operate his men, taking charge if anyone tries to screw him over just like a real drug-slinging badass would do. There’s Jesse standing outside of Spooge’s squatted house, rehearsing his threatening “Give me my money bitch!” shouts a hundred times over, but it all disappears the instant when a postal worker gets to the porch, asking him to step aside so she can put some mail in the mailbox. She makes small talk with him about the weather. “Yeah, high 70s,” he says, trying to sound normal. It’s amazing how quickly his macho persona evaporates even in the presence of the weakest authority figure possible (a mail carrier). As hard-edged as Jesse wants to be, this was a line of work he wasn’t built for.

Yet while Spooge and his drug-addled gal-pal make for some of the worst captives in criminal history, ready to bicker like a married couple at the drop of the word “skank,” their kid, almost completely quiet for the whole episode, is the central emotional figure, because when you get right down to it, Jesse can’t stand to see a child be raised in this burned-out shithole. His game of “peekaboo” is their best form of communication, even during the episode’s final moments when calls the cops and has the kid keep his eyes shut so he can run him past his drug-hazed mom and dad who recently had his head crushed by an ATM (props to the Breaking Bad foley department for creating a sound affect for that moment that is pretty darn unforgettable).

As the series progresses, we will see Jesse’s heart simply break for Brock, for the kid that Todd shoots on a bike in Season Five, and so forth. There’s a paternal instinct in Jesse that can’t be ignored, and his nearly unwavering commitment to the welfare of children, while not a pose carried by most drug-slingers, show that Jesse is and always has been cut from a different moral cloth than his contemporaries. Again, his handling of the bug that anyone else would crush at the top of the episode (plus the tears welling in his eyes as he hold the gun to Gale’s face at the end of Season Three) show that Jesse has a value for life that goes beyond most any other character in the show, and serves a sharp, powerful contrast to Walt’s decreasing view on the lives others as Heisenberg rises in prominence.

The other story strand running through “Peekaboo” is Gretchen calling Skyler to check in how things are going, and Skyler thanking Gretchen and Elliot for their payment of Walt’s cancer treatment, which, of course, has never happened. Gretchen plays dumb until Walt gets home, and they have a sharp, short exchange, Walt still adjusting to being back on the first day of the job in a long long time. Walt eventually meets Gretchen for a meal (although no food is ever ordered) where he apologizes multiple times (and keeps count) for wrapping Gretchen into the lie he has told his family. When pressed for a reason as to why he would do this, Walt unleashes a pent up bitterness about being cut out of Gray Matter, but even Gretchen, offended as she is, can tell that that’s a cover. What really sets him off is when she says that she feels sorry for him. In a low, guttural growl, Walt issues a pointed “Fuck you” in response.

In truth, my initial viewing of this episode read that moment as a false one: while Walt certainly had his own set of values, twisted as they may be at this point, him saying “fuck you” to Gretchen didn’t quite line up with his character. He appeared morally bankrupt but nowhere near that far down the ladder of decency as of yet. However, subsequent viewings have shown that his talk about being cut out of Gray Matter was simply a distraction. In truth, Walt wasn’t happy about receiving anyone’s pity, much less from someone like Gretchen, insulated by enough cash to prevent her from knowing Walt’s true struggle. Thus, when Gretchen gives him that honest, pained pity, it’s not Walt who replies to her: it’s Heisenberg. Evan Sawdey


S2E7 Negro y Azul

Talking ‘bout some Heisenberg…
No one knows the man
Since they haven’t seen his face

“Negro y Azul (The Ballad of Heisenberg)”, the narcocorrido song from this episode’s cold open encapsulates much of Breaking Bad‘s signature style. The lyrics, fortunately translated for those of us to whom Spanish remains a mystery, are pregnant with an as yet unknown doom, but it’s so jaunty and fun that you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was something else entirely. Like the tortoise wearing Tortuga’s head, it seems funnily incongruous, until you look a little closer.

More pertinently for this episode is the song’s suggestion that blue sky has made it south of the border accompanied by a host of myths about its maker. In “Negro Y Azul”, we’re dealing with legends. It’s here that Walter and Jesse learn the value of doing things for show and of not correcting people who have the wrong idea about you, as long as that idea is to your benefit.

They know all about that on the border. Hank is cynical about the iconography of Jesus Malverde and the idea of the drug gangs venerating him as a patron saint. He’s the only one laughing though. The rest of the El Paso office, who have been around the block a few more times than the comparatively parochial Agent Schrader, know just how important myth is to the cartel. And to those hunting them. Take the tortoise bomb and the sheer effort that would have gone into it. If the plan was merely to kill, maim and dissuade DEA, a simple bomb would have done but, as Gomie will explain in “I See You”,  “these guys like to be ... creative.” The elaborateness increases fear and intimidation, implying as it does, that the cartel have no squeamishness whatsoever when it comes to wet work. It also mocked the intended iconography of the recently dispatched Tortuga. “Spanish for asshole?,” ponders Hank. It may as well be, now. 

Legends are important in Albuquerque too. Most significantly of all is Walt’s realization that Jesse’s reputation exceeds him. “You are a blowfish. Don’t you see?” he asks Jesse “It’s just all, all an illusion. It’s nothing but air. Now, who messes with the blowfish?’

Nobody, that’s who. Jesse the blowfish was inflated back in “Peekaboo”. “It’s all around town” that he killed Spooge by dropping an ATM machine on his head, a story so ridiculous that it even sounds like the result of Chinese Whispers, although we know it to be founded in truth.

Walt, the only one so far to have been immortalized in song, is also a blowfish. He comes to the crew meet as Heisenberg in shades and his soon-to-be-iconic hat, already casting off the dowdiness of Walter White. Again, it’s about submersing the reality beneath the legend. When the rumor about Jesse is revealed, he flashed a delicious flicker of pride and realization that this could be useful. He doesn’t correct the boys, but he doesn’t deny it either. Just let it simmer out there. No legend works if there’s too much actual information, either for or against. It disappears in light. Just look at the ease with which the story of the ATM is quashed as soon as Spooge’s partner confesses to the deed.

The reach of Heisenberg’s legend into Mexico and the unwanted attention it will bring from the cartel reflects one of the Second Season’s chief preoccupations, that of unintended consequences and the distant repercussions of Walter’s descent. The cartel is still relatively distant. A closer problem is the burgeoning relationships that are driven by Walter’s behavior.

For Skyler, the temptation offered by Ted Beneke is growing even if he is, according to Marie, “Old Grabby Hands.” Ted may be a poor businessman and have been a bad husband, but doesn’t Walter’s emotional neglect just make a wonderful set of blinkers. They’re blinkers for two. In just a few episodes time, Skyler will give birth to Holly, with Ted present while Walter is off delivering his first batch to Gus and returning, the least jealous husband in TV history.

This season, which was planned in detail from the beginning, is full of these little set ups and pay offs, more so than the other seasons, however great their attention to detail. They reward repeat viewing, while adding poignancy the second time around. We now know where his relationship with Skyler will lead Ted. And we know what happens to Jane.

The tragic end of their relationship is thrown into relief by the tenderness of its beginning Jesse, still a mess in the aftermath of the Spooge Incident, reaches out to her. She now knows that he’s not really called Jesse Jackson. She always knew of course, but a certain barrier has been removed. Their final scene is almost unbearably sweet, holding hands staring at the tuning TV set, and lit in black and blue. “Negro Y Azul”. Bruised. Michael Noble

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