Half Measure & Full Measure
S3E12 / 13 Half Measures / Full Measure
Season Three’s concluding episodes, “Half Measures” and “Full Measure”, reveal some of Breaking Bad‘s most meta moments.
From roughly this point through the first third (or so) of Season Four, the series becomes one of continuous double talk, where large chunks of the dialogue are simultaneously about the show’s narrative action and about the composition of the show itself. Shortly after “Half Measures” begins, Walter and Skyler stand in their driveway debating the decision to purchase Bogdan’s car wash so that they can launder their drug money. Walter refuses to pursue this possibility because he believes that it is best if Skyler knows as little as possible about his work as a meth cook. “Plausible deniability” is what Walter wants his wife to maintain.
Skyler, as we should all remember, is a fiction writer, and she knows how to spin a tale better than her husband: “You took the seed money you won gambling. You invested it in the car wash that you helped run for four years. You hired your wife as a bookkeeper because—guess what?—she’s actually a bookkeeper. Now that is a story an auditor can believe.” Furthermore, she drives her point home with mathematical precision. Walter, when he was employed as a chemistry teacher only made $43,000 a year. The two of them could barely pay their bills when he was working. How can they explain their newfound wealth now that Walter is an unemployed chemistry teacher? The scientist cannot deny the validity of that question.
Skyler’s use of the word story is no accident, no colloquial convenience in this scene. Rather, what she and Walter reveal through their banter about the details of the lie they are fabricating—Walter’s motivation for providing his estranged wife with so much money, whether or not it would be more believable if Walter were once again living with his family—is the construction of subjectivity. Just as bodies are comprised of molecules, so are lives comprised of language—of narratives. As Walter and Skyler iron out the essential components of their plot, they not only coyly toy with the circumstances of their separation but also with the genre of the show itself.
In response to Walter’s suggestion that he move back into the house, for purposes of verisimilitude, Skyler smartly responds, “Wow ... it’s suddenly a fantasy story.” Her comment, though obviously directed at her husband, is also directed toward the show’s audience. Depending on the audience’s identifications with the characters, and particularly depending on which twists and turns the show takes, Breaking Bad shifts—changes, to use Walter’s term—its genre. Part western, part family drama, part crime drama, and, in the most literal sense, part science fiction, Breaking Bad is also part fantasy, a show that often imagines the ecstasy of criminality. Early on, Walter and Skyler fuck furiously in the backseat of their Aztec, just after Walter briefed his high school’s parents about the stolen laboratory gear. In a moment of post-coital rapture, Skyler asks Walt: “Where did that come from, and why was it so damn good?” Walter’s response: “Because it was illegal.”
This fantasy element gets what is arguably its most stunning treatment at the start of “Full Measure.” Opening in the empty space of the Whites’ future home, the episode flashes back to a young Walter and a very pregnant Skyler as they are house shopping. When the two enter the house, the relator makes a few corny jokes about Walter’s job, imagining that, because he is a scientist, he must of course be working on fantastical giant space lasers. “Honestly, what I do would bore you senseless,” Walt quips. The young couple then tours the property, fantasizing about the future they see for themselves. Walter makes it clear that he wants to have three children and that he thinks him and his wife should be looking at larger, more elaborate houses. They need, as he says, to “set their sights higher.” “We’ve got nowhere to go but up,” he concludes.
What makes this scene so arresting is not so much the dramatic irony that adorns it—as the audience knows, Walter’s story is one of decent, not ascent—but is rather its careful dissection of the American Dream. In an American context, home ownership represents personal, professional, and economic achievement—a narrative of personal prosperity, in other words. The implication latent in the term “starter home,” which is exactly what Walter and Skyler are touring in this episode, is that home ownership is perpetually aspirational, one house leading to the next in a series of familial and architectural expansions (Walter requires “five bedrooms” in his house).
The ideology of upward mobility is obviously what drives American dreaming—that act of envisioning a future that is always more grand than the present. Clearly, this form of mobility is fueled by financial gain, the kind of financial gain that Walter, the enterprising graduate student, saw in the creation of Gray Matter (but that never materialized), or the financial gain that he hoped to find in a stable job as a teacher (but that never materialized), or the financial gain he believed to be inevitable in the profession of meth cooking (but that only comes with costs that far outweigh any profits). The opening segment of “Full Measure” builds Walter’s future failures into the framework of his house: despite all of his legal and illegal work, Walter is still trapped in a starter home. His life is static. He has not made any forward progress. Though he is an atypical man, he has very typical dreams; he desires a house, a family, and financial stability. However, as Breaking Bad repeatedly emphasizes, his dreams are not, and probably never will be, his reality. His life, as Skyler states, is a fantasy story. Walter never seems to be able to recover from the trauma of that realization—from the trauma, that is, of failure.
The notion of recovery is one of Breaking Bad‘s central themes, and it receives explicit attention in the episodes “Half Measures” and “Full Measures.” Ostensibly, these episode titles are drawn from the long story that Mike tells Walter in his living room. Discussing the end of his career as a police officer, Mike relates what was in all likelihood his final case: a response to a domestic dispute. Mike tells Walter that the unnamed male abuser in this case repeatedly assaulted his wife, but that she would never press charges against him. At one point, Mike threatened to kill the abuser when he was being brought to the police station. The abuser promised to repent, so Mike let him go. A week later, the abuser killed his wife. Mike, heartbreakingly, considers his decision not to kill the abuser a “half measure.” The point of Mike’s story is to establish a parallel between his autobiography and the one that Walter is writing for himself. At the time, Walter is attempting to stop Jesse from killing the two drug dealers who murdered his friend Combo. Walter believes that coordinating Jesse’s arrest could keep him off the streets long enough for him to think better of his plan. Mike takes a different perspective: he thinks Walter’s idea is “moronic.” Also, as Mike’s story is meant to imply, Walter’s idea is a half measure, an incomplete attempt to solve a larger longstanding problem with Jesse’s erratic behavior. Jesse, at this point in the show, is in the midst of a shaky recovery from a hard drug habit, and Mike and Gus make it evident that they consider Jesse a “junkie.” Walter, Mike wants to make clear, needs to relinquish his loyalty to Jesse—fully relinquish it, that is—for the betterment of Gus’ entire business. Though these episodes’ titular connections to Mike’s narrative are fairly obvious, what is less obvious—but yet is no less significant—is the connection that these episode titles have to Alcoholics Anonymous. Specifically, these episodes allude to chapter five of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the central text for that recovery program, as well as for many of its sister programs. Chapter five is titled “How It Works,” and it is the chapter that enumerates the program’s famous twelve steps. In the context of “Half Measures” and “Full Measure,” the following are the key lines from “How It Works”: “Half Measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.” The juncture of “Half Measures” and “Full Measure” is a literal turning point—a city intersection where Walter runs over the two drug dealers Jesse is about to (attempt to) shoot, now in revenge for Combo’s murder and for the killing of the 11-year-old Tomas, the brother of Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea. This moment is the first time that Walter planned a murder and successfully carried it out; as such, it also represents a metaphorical turning point for him. The fallout of these murders is wide-reaching and highly destructive, and Walter’s life is never the same after them. Most immediately, this action entirely turns Gus against his cook, permanently marring their professional relationship. The eventual and ultimate result of Gus’ distrust of Walter is that the meek Mr. White must transform entirely into Heisenberg. An added consequence of Walter’s decision is that it balances out the power dynamics between him and Jesse. Since these murders really leave Gus with no other choice but to murder Walter, the chemist, in turn, must plot to kill his replacement, Gale Boetticher. Given that Walter is kept under consistent surveillance by Gus, he must turn to Jesse to help him. As he lays out his plan to his student, Walter begs Jesse for his assistance: “You are the only edge that I’ve got. I saved your life, Jesse. Are you going to save mine?” Finally, when Mike and Victor apprehend Walter and make it clear that they are going to kill him, Mr. White makes one last call to his student. Walter begins the call calmly, covertly telling Jesse that he, Walter, is no longer able to kill Gale. Then, more frantically, he slyly commands Jesse to commit the murder himself: “It’s going to have to be you. Do it, Jesse!” As Walter stands in captivity at the end of “Full Measure”, the import of Alcoholics Anonymous becomes clear. Walter and Jesse have discovered that their half measures—murdering Gus’ drug dealers—have availed them nothing. One of them is hiding out in an empty arcade; the other is seconds away from death. Their only recourse is to heed Mike’s oblique advice: “No more half measures.” For Walt and Jesse, their full measure is the combination of their respective killings. As those actions interlock, each man asking the other for “protection and care with complete abandon,” the two regain—recover—the control over the futures that Gus has been working so hard to eliminate. With the conclusion of “Full Measure”, Breaking Bad‘s Third Season comes to a decidedly dismal end. However, this season does at least promise a future, no matter how short-lived it might be, for Walter and Jesse. That futurity, in a way, is as much backward looking as it is forward looking. When the young Walter White reveals that he hopes to have three children, the implications of his decision to save Jesse’s life—a decision that interrupts a family dinner with Skyler and Walter Jr. (baby Holly is surely somewhere in the house, too)—take on an added significance. Walter sees Jesse as part of his family. Similarly, when Jesse tries to convince Walter that it is necessary for them to kill Gus’ two drug dealers, he emphasizes that young Tomas, the boy they employ to help them deal, is only 11 years old. The child’s age is intriguing, the two numbers exact replicas of each other. Is it possible that in Tomás, or in any of the other young boys in the show—Jake Pinkman, the young dirt bike rider who Todd mercilessly kills—Jesse sees his younger self, the person he was before he became Cap’n Cook? Maybe. Maybe it is also possible that these twin episodes suggest that, for Walter and Jesse, recovering a stable future requires that they not only right the past but also rewrite it. Joseph Fisher
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.