Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season Three

by PopMatters Staff

13 August 2013


I.F.T., Green Light & Mas


S3E3 I.F.T.

Ranging from a plane blowing up and cascading stuffed animals in a pool to a re-creation of a certain John Woo masterpiece at the end of Season Four, Breaking Bad has no shortage of meticulously staged deaths. “I.F.T” opens with one such scene. In it, Tortuga (Danny Trejo) meets his demise at the hands of the perpetually stoic Salamanca Cousins, Leonel and Marco, who decide that Tortuga’s head didn’t have much of a need to stay attached to his body. Tortuga’s fate, all grisliness aside, was inevitable; being a snitch for the DEA makes a person persona non grata in drug-selling circles. Undoubtedly the biggest shame about his killing is that he never got to enjoy his new pet turtle, the creature that served as the source for his nickname.

From a broader perspective, however, his death is a shame because it wasn’t written for someone who deserved it much more. And that person is Ted Beneke.

Even though the Breaking Bad universe is replete with characters brushed—and in some cases dunked—in moral colors ranging from gray to inkwell black, no one on the show is as annoying, grating, or just overall bad as Ted—even though in terms of moral culpability his tax fraud is on the lower end of the moral continuum of the show. Ted, that Just for Men model of a human being, hasn’t hit the lowest of his low points yet on “I.F.T.” That moment comes toward the end of Season Four, when he tries to hold on to the massive amount of money Skyler gave him (after stealing it from Walt) despite it being resoundingly obvious that he could never keep that money without having the IRS blowing wide open his company’s already poorly-forged books. Actually, “I.F.T.” finds Ted at his highest point, for he finally gets to do what he’s always wanted to do most in the world: have sex with Skyler White. The three-letter acronym that forms this episode’s title is a safe-for-cable, punchy way of summarizing one of Skyler’s immortal lines: “I fucked Ted.”

That this line is delivered directly to Walt as he, in an attempt to invert his role in the domestic sphere to win back Skyler’s graces, makes the family a meal. (This image, though somewhat tragicomic, has nothing on Walt using a ladder to get the pizza that the threw on the roof in the episode prior.) Phrases like “bitch slap,” though not inaccurate, don’t quite suffice in describing just how devastating a blow Skyler has made. In saying those three words, she finds a way to reinforce the notion that the couple needs a divorce and, perhaps most importantly, rattles the cages of the invisible prison Walt has confined her in. Say what you will about Skyler White—Lord knows the sexists have taken to Facebook to let their ire out—but “I.F.T” is as harrowing a depiction there could be of the way Walt holds his family’s well-being hostage to his career as a prominent meth manufacturer.

One of the single most important scenes in all of Breaking Bad resides in the 47 minutes of “I.F.T.” Walt has entered back into his family’s home, which Skyler forbade him to do following her discovery of his meth manufacturing. “It’s my home, Skyler,” he tells her, beaten, as if he were kicked out without any warning or reason at all. Skyler’s attempts to bring divorce back on the table are completely ignored by Walt, whose chosen strategy in “I.F.T” is to sound bedraggled all throughout, in the hopes that he might arouse something like pity out of his wife. Understandably, she attempts to call the police, citing domestic disturbance, but what happens when they arrive is the bedrock upon which the prison Skyler is confined by is built upon.

Walt has her trapped at two ends. First, he is aware that she isn’t likely to tell the police about his illicit dealings for the trouble that would bring to the family and, as she tells her lawyer in “I.F.T,” the damage to Walt Jr.‘s psyche upon finding out his father is a criminal. Secondly, by not wanting to tell the police, she thereby has no grounds to expel him from the family home. Whether Walt planned out this out to a T in advance or not is irrelevant; at this point in time, it’s plain that Skyler’s knowledge of Walt’s doings puts her in a lose-lose situation, and Walt will milk it for all it’s worth until he, to borrow the parlance of Harrison Ford, “gets his family back.”

Watching Skyler try to sneak around her husband’s actual line of work as the officer interrogates her is both heartbreaking and terrifying. All of the reasons the offer cites as to why Walt is allowed to stay—“His name is on the house,” “He’s not being violent”—are all on-paper legitimate, but this of course only adds to the tragedy. That the law manages to work in Walt’s favor in preserving his ability to remain in the house is both an incredible irony and another row of bricks in the wall of Skyler’s prison.

The cult of hatred for Skyler, one that creator Vince Gilligan has not unjustly identified as having a misogynistic streak, often overlooks this. It’s not just that Walt has taken it upon himself to rest his family’s financial future on an illegal venture; it’s that at every turn he utilizes all of his surroundings—including the very law enforcement he is evading—to create an environment wherein he forces Skyler into a series of impossible choices. His evil genius is that he knows that if Skyler turns in him, in her mind some of Walt’s culpability will pass on to her. This was already seen two episodes prior in the Season Three premiere, when all of Walt Jr.‘s anger over Skyler forcing Walt out of the house rears its head as a proxy weapon of Walter’s, with the insidious purpose rewinding (and thereby negating) time, back to when the Whites were a “normal” family. Saying “I fucked Ted” isn’t just a nice bit of vituperation; it’s Skyler’s equivalent of a prison shiv, an unwavering statement of defiance and a tacit threat that, as long as she is going to stay locked up, she sure isn’t going to take it sitting down. They may both wear rings, there may be papers recognizing a legal union, but in Skyler’s eyes she and Walt are already done, despite his refusal of the divorce.

All of this aside, it’s an unchanging fact of Breaking Bad that no character is morally blemish-free. Hank takes out his frustrations stemming from his debilitating injury in Season Three out on his wife—and develops an unhealthy relationship with minerals. Marie has problems with shoplifting. Honorable a guy though Mike Ehrmantraut is, he also kills people for a living. Walt Jr. probably eats more breakfast than a human being ever should. When it comes to Skyler, there are a few concerns with some of the choices she makes, but unlike many of the characters, her choices are understandable. Walt’s spurring of Skyler’s divorce papers forces her into remaining married to him, and his toxic psychological warfare ensures that she not only lie to her family about Walt, but that she feels responsible for the tension caused by the web of lies she has to weave. Her affair, then, while perhaps not the purest of acts, is not a left-field action.

But if there’s one question that arises from Skyler’s decision to sleep with Ted, it’s this: WHY TED? There aren’t enough thesaurus entries in all known worlds under the word “milquetoast” to describe his personality, and with respects to smarts he’s an even worse criminal than Walt. Naturally, Ted’s utterly banal nature makes the sting of the affair all the worse, but still, the fact remains: TED. Ted. A lot of bad choices have been made in the Breaking Bad world, but few rank as high as Skyler’s sleeping with Ted. Even if it makes sense why she chose to do so. Brice Ezell


S3E4 Green Light

Depending on your viewpoint, “Green Light” is a nadir of sorts for Walt. He doesn’t have nearly enough money to justify the destruction he has wrought on himself and his family. His pitiable, but once honorable career is in ruins, partly thanks to that comically sexless and unsuccessful pass at the school’s principal. For all intents and purposes, his marriage is devoid of any shred of love or trust and is likely finished. As a byproduct, he has likely lost the trust of his son and his newborn daughter may grow up without ever even knowing him (check back at the end to see if that was actually a bad thing).

Walt has even lost influence over his beloved little business to overlord Gus Fring. More and more, Gus appears to be grooming Jesse as Walt’s successor, poised to overthrow Walt as soon as Gus gains full confidence that Los Pollos Hermanos: The Meth Division can run seamlessly in Walt’s absence. Oh yeah, and Walt is a cuckold who can’t muster enough strength to throw a pot through the window of Ted Beneke, the man shtupping Skyler. So there’s that too.

All Walt has left in his ever-shrinking world is his proprietary formula for the blue meth. He was once the creator, the impresario, the CEO, the visionary of The-Little-Blue-Meth-Company-That-Could. Because of his intimate knowledge of the product, he still got to manufacture it, oversee its quality and, when it suited him, he had the option to take his ball and go home. That remaining shred of control, the ability to hit the self-destruct button is all that remains, and it’s slipping through his fingers. What else could explain Walt’s rage when upstart Jesse shows up with a fresh batch of the blue, made free of Walt’s watchful eye? “That’s my product,” Walt growls.

In the civilized, law-abiding world, intellectual property is afforded numerous protections under the law. Copyright and trademark law offer the inventors, creators and dreamers of our society a set of safeguards to protect thieves from unjustly enriching themselves by stealing that intangible thing we call the “idea.’ On either side of the law, however, recipes are afforded no such protection. It’s why only a handful of people have ever really known the formula for Coca-Cola. It’s why secret family recipes are surreptitiously passed down by word of mouth or via crumbling ancient cookbooks. Trade secrets can confer immense economic advantage. For the owners of these secrets, only reverse engineering and the prospect of the corporate spy are the enemies. The successful keeping of a trade secret can mean life or death for a business dependent on its competitive advantage.

For the Southwestern American speed market, blue meth is better than Coca-Cola. The mere sight of it can leave a chubby gas station cashier in rural New Mexico all aflutter as it dangles and glistens in the hands of its pusher (although it’s entirely possible that Jesse Pinkman’s boyish stoner dude charm might have had a little to do with that as well ... yo). It’s identifiable on sight, outstanding in its quality, and impossible to replicate without detailed knowledge of the ingredients and intricate process involved in its production.

Of course, nothing can exist in a vacuum. In the absence of rules, chaos fills the void until the collective can settle on a code of conduct. Since Walt and Jesse operate almost exclusively outside of the societal boundaries of the law abiding nine-to-five world, they’ve had to learn a whole new rubric that isn’t voted on, codified or easily referenced.

In “Green Light”, Walt and Jesse discover that the thugs, pimps and drug dealers who have come before them have mused upon even the seemingly high-minded issue of intellectual property.

Who owns the blue meth? It is an existential question. And Walt’s existence rides on the answer.

It’s an amusing spectacle to see Walt kicking and screaming in Mike’s clutches, indignant over Saul’s bugging of his house and angry that Gus has so thoroughly co-opted his dream of becoming a meth kingpin. Control is ever-fleeting in the meth underworld of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gus has it, and by extension his henchmen (including Jesse) who dutifully act on his behalf have some too, as long as they keep successfully carrying out Gus’ orders. Those who operate outside the realm of Gus’ monopoly do so with varying degrees of impotence. It’s that impotence that makes Walt writhe on Saul’s floor like a spastic child.

Even Hank, who despite his failure to find the source of the drug epidemic overwhelming his region, cannot be the lawman he wants to be. El Paso is the Super Bowl for a DEA G-Man like Hank, and he’s apparently powerless to stop the forward momentum from the impending kick upstairs without leaving the blue meth beat. He needs to decide: keep chasing the purveyors of the blue on the lower rungs of the agency, or leave it all behind for a chance at effectuating real change in a place more significant to the overall mission statement of the DEA.

For the men of Breaking Bad, blue meth has become their locus, their north star, their beacon on the hill, and they can’t even claim a chemical dependence on the stuff. Stopping the enterprise with a mountain of cash is the best decision for Walter and the family for whom he claims to take all these risks. Going to El Paso is the best thing for Hank and Marie, a childless couple whose purpose flows through Hank’s success as a drug enforcement officer. Jesse would have always been better served finding another path for his young life.

The blue has a hold on these men not because of what it does to their bodies or for the chemical reaction it touches off within their brains. The blue meth scratches another much more primordial, personal itch.

As Jesse tries to forge ahead without Walt, he realizes that the cartel won’t let him. He’ll be paid for half of the batch that he personally cooked and so will Walt. It’s the money split that the powers that be have decided upon. Those are the rules of the game. They have no control over them.

Of course Jesse and Walt and Hank will all keep playing. The blue means freedom. It means success. It means power. It’s life affirming. That feeling holds sway over their entire lives. It doesn’t matter who has the formula, or who has the equipment, or who has intel. The blue meth belongs to the world now and the world will find a way to supply the demand. Walt, Jesse and Hank are compelled to keep coming back to this deadly do-si-do because they all implicitly know where it leads, ever closer to that end they’re searching for. Robert Downs Schultz


S3E5 Mas

Season Three’s excellent episode, “Mas,” is the fifth of the season and serves as a critical moment in Walt and Jesse’s relationship, as well as in Walt and Skyler’s marriage. The episode sets up a great deal that would go on to have lasting consequences throughout the series.

As it begins, we get a flashback of the moment when Walt gave Jesse all his money in order to buy an RV. In typical early Jesse fashion, he took the $7000, headed straight to a strip club with his friends, Combo and Skinny Pete, then proceeded to get wasted and spend almost the entire amount. As he and Combo stagger out of the strip club the following morning, Jesse realizes that he has no way to get an RV that day until Combo offers to take the money and steals his own mother’s RV for Jesse, although Jesse is unaware of this detail.

As the action switches to the present, the RV is center stage yet again. Hank and Gomez are staking out a trailer park, but hit a dead end quickly. Hank’s obsession with the RV is tied directly to vindicating himself after his promotion to El Paso resulted in disaster. His insecurities led to panic attacks, which then led to trauma, ensuring his return to Albuquerque. Then as Hank seems as unpredictable as he’s ever been, he learns that Gomez has gotten the promotion to El Paso and is leaving.

While events in El Paso triggered panic attacks for Hank, to this point, he has yet to confide in anyone. Instead, he acts aggressively and single-mindedly and puts all of his energy in apprehending Heisenberg. The RV is his only real lead and therefore, he refuses to give up, even when it seems as if he’s exhausted all his resources. What makes Hank such a fascinating character is how extreme his personality can go. Hank is usually overblown—he’s frequently offensive and oftentimes completely socially unaware of how insensitive he comes off—yet Hank is genuinely good at his job and wants to do the right thing. It’s clear that he’s suffering from PTSD (there’s a wonderful scene of a conversation between Hank and Marie as he takes a shower and it’s so clear that he’s on the verge of falling apart), but even compromised, his instincts are always good even if his methods aren’t always orthodox.

One of the more integral parts of this episode revolves around Walt and Skyler’s disintegrating marriage. At this point in the series, Skyler is in a full-blown affair with her boss, Ted, and aware of Walt’s involvement in making and dealing meth. She is disillusioned and angry, but she is still reticent to completely cut ties with Walt. She rationalizes that he’s the father of their children, but more than that she is also seduced by the money Walt brings in.

As she consults a lawyer—who unequivocally tells her to divorce him immediately or she runs the risk of being charged with criminal behavior right along with him—Skyler is still unable to make the break. She begins to realize the emptiness of her relationship with Ted (beautifully highlighted in her delight, then disgust, with his heated bathroom floor), but she is not prepared to forgive Walt and return to their former married life. As the episode ends, Walt has signed the divorce papers, but Skyler seems less sure that that’s what she wants. And by staying in the marriage, she theoretically gains more control over their finances, and in turn, gains a level of control she feels she’s lost through all of Walt’s deceit.

Walt’s relationship with Gus Fring, is in some ways a parallel to Skyler’s own indecision. Walt is angry at Gus, but more than that he is angry that Jesse was able to cook a batch of his formula that was good enough to sell. His pride has been damaged, and Walt’s pride has always been his biggest weakness. His first instinct is to sever ties with both Jesse and Gus, but Gus is able to appeal to Walt’s ego enough to pique his interest in his latest proposition and forgo an immediate decision. As Gus reveals the superlab he’s put together, Walt is instantly vindicated and back on board. However, Jesse’s betrayal is not so easily forgotten. In fact, he is so angry that he enlists Saul in his plan to oust Jesse from their original agreement, and Saul, being completely self-serving, is quick to side with the more lucrative partner.

Although by the point in the series, Walt has proven himself in the drug game, he is still often reacting more than instigating. He is not a professional, no matter how much he would like to believe otherwise. Again, Walt’s pride and ego often leads him to view himself in an unrealistic light. There’s a scene in which he’s hidden away in Holly’s closet, trying to deal with the financial side of his business. The makeshift office is complete with Walt sitting in a toddler-sized chair that he has trouble getting up from. It’s a perfect metaphor for Walt’s role in the drug trade. He thinks he’s a big shot, but really, he’s more like a child, learning his way and stubbornly refusing help.

In another show, an episode like “Mas” would simply be used to set up the rest of the season, but because this is Breaking Bad, it is so much more. The series never wastes a moment and scenes that seem insignificant or unnecessary always pay off in the end. Details like the heated bathroom floor or Walt placing the signed divorce papers in Holly’s crib, all speak to larger themes and character attributes. This episode also puts into motion circumstances that would lead to a great deal of suffering for Jesse (Gale will be hired to work with Walt and that relationship only leads to tragedy), as well as Skyler’s greater involvement in the drug business” finances. J.M. Suarez

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