Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season Three

by PopMatters Staff

13 August 2013


Kafkaesque & I See You


S3E8 I See You

I See You. A neat play on words for an episode that largely takes place in an intensive care unit but is also concerned with the tendency of certain characters to hide in plain sight. It occurs throughout the show, but in this episode, the levels of sheer brazenness are ratcheted up to unprecedented levels. With half the personnel of Hank’s DEA office decamped to the ICU (is it half? Two-thirds? Whatever the fraction, there’s a lot of them there) the obvious thing for the self-respecting meth kingpin to do is to avoid the place.

The gap between the Walter he is and the Heisenberg he is becoming is wider in this episode than it has been at any point since the First Season. It’s partly Gale’s doing. Walter finally has a kindred spirit, a man with whom he can discuss chemistry and be understood without having to explain himself. It’s tempting to suspect that had Walter known Gale for longer, none of this would have happened. He would have had the outlet for his intelligence that he lacked at home and work and he would have had someone who admired his skill as a scientist from a point of respect, rather than condescension. A friendship with Gale would have been therapeutic for the fortysomething Walter, but it’s too late for that now and Gale has to go.

Heisenberg decides that Gale’s time is up, but it’s Walter who dismisses him. All the characteristics are in place; the Latinate vocabulary, the unfinished sentences, the clumsy metaphors (Walter’s classical, Gale is jazz. “But there’s nothing wrong with jazz, oh no.”), and the unspoken apology when Gale realizes that his replacement is an inarticulate man-child who has probably just fallen down some stairs or something. Anyone who has lost his or her job to a younger, possibly stupider, candidate can sympathize with Gale. He’s genuinely hurt by it. More poignantly, it’s his first meeting with the man who will kill him.

In the ICU, Walter has to contend with the presence of the three groups from whom he has something to hide; his family, the cartel, and the DEA. That the Terminator-like cousin is interested in him is beyond the comprehension of Gomie and his colleagues. The terrifyingly determined villain’s expression may say “I see you,” but no one else does. He carries on phone calls with a desperately bored Jesse while surrounded by them and resorts constantly to pantomime.

“Oh hi, Reverend” he says, by way of misdirection, but there’s really no point. Nobody is listening anyway. Walter’s continued insistence on holding fake half-conversations is wearing thin. His pathetic pantomime of asking Skyler if she wants to know who was on the phone earns a well-deserved withering glare. Like a husband who has been caught cheating already, the perpetuation of the lie is what hurts. He may have to keep up appearances for the rest of his family, but Skyler already knows and for him to pretend otherwise is an insult too far.

Gus, a far more practiced illusionist, doesn’t even bother with the pretense. He’s more brazen, nobody would have doubted his booster credentials had he not laid on the chicken feast, but he wants to demonstrate something to Walter. His mission here is threefold: he wants to check the condition of the remaining cousin, he wants to intimidate Walter and, most importantly of all, he wants to teach Walter something. For Gus, Walter is both asset and liability. His cooking skills are worth serious money and give him an advantage over the cartel. Walter is also a loose cannon. Not only does he have a DEA agent in his family, but his ham-fisted efforts at concealment risk exposure at every turn. Gus is there to show Walter how it’s done. “I see you,” is the message. “And if I can see you, who else can see you too?”

Gus needs Walter to become a little more Fring-esque, and to learn to hide it better. Their conversation in the lobby is performed amid a swarm of agents without any silly pantomimes of fictitious ministers (Reverend? Really? When have we ever seen the Whites or the Schraders at service?) Gus simply gives himself a plausible reason to be in the building and walks in. At the end of the conversation he simply tells Walter to thank him and shake his hand. As Walter has tutored Jesse, so Gus tutors Walter. Thank him and shake his hand, Walter. He’s just taught you something and you should be grateful.

He should also thank Gus for the removal of a certain problem. That too, is conducted with the language of gentle half-truth and implication. “I am told the assassin that survived is gravely injured,” says Gus, as dispassionately as a news report. “It’s doubtful he’ll live.” It certainly is, especially with Mike around, operating as Gus’ guys always do, in plain sight. It’s a neat reveal, almost a practice run for the Lily of the Valley shot at the end of Face Off, performed wordlessly and leaving the viewer to make the connection without being served too explicitly. Michael Noble


S3E9 Kafkaesque

“Kafkaesque” probably takes second place standing for most evident literary allusion (Walt Whitman of course being the undisputed, and frequently returning champ). Like Whitman, Kafka is directly cited in the show’s dialogue. The writers aren’t exactly trying to hide the allusion, but unlike some of the subtler Whitman references, “Kafkaesque” lays it on pretty thick. The references work pretty well most of the time, and hit a number of characters in addition to Jesse (our Joseph K. stand-in), but I want to start with the biggest “wink wink” reference to Kafka’s The Trial: Jesse’s meet up with Saul at the nail salon.

If you’ve read Kafka’s The Trial, it’s nearly impossible not to catch the adapted reference. Jesse is dealing with a very unsettling observation that the way in which the world works is largely absurd and society’s systems are often nonsensical, which is clarified in a word—Kafkaesque—by his support group leader. With this literary allusion set in place, the scene we get wherein Saul tries to sell Jesse on the nail salon as a front for his money laundering leads into a conversation about why he needs to jump through all these systematic hoops to do something illegal. In short, if Jesse wants to continue to break the law, he needs to follow these rules for law-breaking success. The back and forth here is pretty much a twenty-first century version of a conversation between Joseph K. and the lawyer Huld (the inactive bedridden lawyer in The Trial), wherein the absurdity of society’s systems and the powerlessness it brings to its players becomes painfully evident. Ruminate for a second on the exchange that follows Saul’s question over what the IRS will think of Jesse when they find out he has more money than he’s been reporting:

Saul: You’re out on the town. You’re partying hardy. You’re knocking boots with the chicky babes. And ahh! Who’s this? It’s the Tax Man, and he’s looking at you. Now what does he see? He sees a young fella with a big fancy house unlimited cash supply and no job. Now what is the conclusion the Tax Man makes?

Jesse: I’m a drug dealer.

Saul: [buzzer sound] Wrong! Million times worse. You’re a tax cheat.

Jesse sums up the absurdity for the viewer in case anyone missed it: “So you want me to buy this nail salon so I can pay taxes? I’m a criminal, yo.” And yet, as an increasingly impatient Saul points out, if Jesse wants to continue being a criminal and not a convict, he needs to grow up and learn the rules. Like Kafka’s The Trial, this whole scene makes the absurdities stand out, compelling the protagonist (Jesse here) to strive for change in a system that is futilely unchangeable. If there were any chance of Jesse leaving this conversation in acceptance of his circumstances, it is flushed when Saul informs him that he takes seventeen percent of Jesse’s earnings whereas his equal partner, Walter, only pays in five percent.

Issues of powerlessness stemming from an unchangeably absurd system don’t only affect Jesse in this episode. Hank’s conversation with Steve Gomez gives us a little more insight into how Hank, who previously kept his post-traumatic stress pretty well hidden, is reflecting on the parking lot assassination attempt. “You were the only one who saw it coming,” Steve says in a kind of conciliatory “at-a-boy.” But Hank—asking aloud, “how is that supposed to make me feel better”—knows that even though he may have been onto something big, no one took him seriously. He was put on suspension, had his gun taken away, and even though he prevailed in the attack (not without injury), he only survived because of a last minute warning from an unknown source (our Kafkaesque unreachable government/godlike figure—Gus). Hank laments, saying that he was “a day late and a dollar short as usual,” but this episode’s theme suggests that it’s the system that has really failed him here. It’s a justice system that’s all convoluted function with no accountable reasoning or authority figures. This may not be entirely true for the viewer, as we are privy to some limited access to Gus.

I say “limited” access to Gus in order to acknowledge him as a potent figure who is pulling all the strings, but one whose power is also largely behind the scenes. His conversations with Walter last episode and in this episode really go to show his control of information in his careful dispensation of information. Walter does almost all of the talking. And even though Walter reasons out nearly everything Gus has had to do with Hank’s attack/salvation, and perhaps much of his impetus for Gus’ needing to do-so, Gus reveals almost nothing himself. He just offers Walter an option for an extended deal that ultimately keeps the system’s wheels turning. It’s one of the small nuances of his character that will over time add to mythology of Gus Fring as a kind of super villain. Whether he is right or wrong, Walter pragmatically explicates everything to excess, whereas Gus sits back, observes, and, rather than “putting all their cards on the table” as Walter suggests, Gus only shows what he needs to.

In addition to a broken justice system, Gus’ business (both Pollos Hermanos and the meth) plays a role in giving “Kafkaesque” its name. The cold open of the episode shows an advertisement for the chicken business that presents the integrity of homegrown achievement and self-respect in its product, only to transition into his mass production of methamphetamine, complete with assembly line workers and industrial sized kitchen and distribution center. The opening sequence ends with a backlit Gus (man in the shadows pulling the string), facing away from the camera as truck after truck leaves the facility. Later in the episode, Jesse recognizes the system that continually reasserts his lack of worth, and decides to try and break free (kind of). Like the box he was so proud of making in high school, he wants to reclaim something of the pride in product that is espoused in the cold open advertisement at the beginning of the episode.

But Jesse’s plan to break away from the system has its flaws. He’s still stealing from larger production system, and he’s preying on his own support group in a pretty capitalistically soulless fashion. Even the camera work during Jesse’s three support group scenes in this episode seem to follow Jesse’s transformation. In the first (when Jesse is given the term “Kafkaesque”) and third (when Jesse has re-entered the system with a scheme to sell to his peers) scenes, the circle is filmed from inside the support group circle. But during the second meeting, after the nail salon discussion with Saul, Jesse is in reflective mode, largely outside looking in at the world, and the entire scene is filmed from outside the circle to reflect Jesse’s displacement. It’s a nice touch in a series full of them, and really goes to show just how well the production team is communicating with one another just what’s supposed to be conveyed in each given episode.

Outside of the major nod to Kafka this week, there are some narrative and thematic elements that are important in the grand scheme of things to point out. This is one of the earliest instances of Skyler taking an active, and accepting, role in Walter’s business. Not to mention, it is one of her first major lying moments, of which she’s exceedingly good at (see also “Bug”, her Season Four parlay with the Ted and the IRS). I should note that it’s not just a role in the family business; it’s a commanding role. She comes up with the gambling lie without consulting Walter, much to his exasperation, though he quickly hops on board. Walter’s unusual compliance to a backseat role in this instance works in part because he finds the allegorical gambling story somehow flattering. It also allows him to say to his family, with a hint of pride, that he has earned “into seven figures.”

Additionally, for anyone who hasn’t given him his full due yet, Hank is exceedingly good at his job. As I said before, Steve recognizes him for being right about the blue meth coming back, and though Hank doesn’t see this as a kind of affirmation to his efforts (who could blame him in light of recent events?), it does feel like one of those moments wherein the audience can begin to gain a little sympathy for Hank. Because Hank is frequently portrayed as having a bit of a low-brow, even offensive sense of humor at work and with his family (especially in earlier seasons), it can be difficult to think of him as not only someone who is actually quite good at his job, but also someone who is worth rooting for. I think his rehabilitation (which spans the majority of Season Four) really nicely parallels the increasing moral decay of Walter in those future episodes. That is not to say that Walter hasn’t been in some state of moral decay since the show began, but Season Four is really where a lot of viewers notably seem to become more hesitant in cheering on Walter’s efforts. At some point, Hank becomes one of our “good” guys, always just one step behind catching his Heisenberg.

It is true that aside from being conversationally unpleasant, Hank has had some pretty bad moments—beating Jesse nearly to death after the fake hospitalization of Marie, and his upcoming attitude towards Marie after returning home from the hospital come to mind. His poor responses in these situations are emotional ones that we as viewers can reprimand the character for. We don’t (or at least it is rare if we do) get an emotional impetus for Walter’s more horrendous actions. He’s always calculating, and rarely expresses feeling in that action. It’s an important distinction between the two. Just before the scene where Skyler presents the gambling lie, we get a very short, unsettling shot of Walter (alone) standing in darkness over Hank (who is well lit) as he sleeps in the hospital bed. In consideration of the cliffhanger at the end of Season Five’s “Gliding All Over”, it’s especially clear that we are going to want to pay attention to the subtly laid distinctions between these two characters throughout the series as we prepare to see Hank and Walter contending more directly in the final eight episodes of the series. Brian Steinbach

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