Season Three of Breaking Bad ended with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) on opposite ends of different guns. Deemed expendable by his boss, meth kingpin Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), Walter had rigged an insurance policy: as he faced his apparent end, he had instructed Jesse to kill his replacement, the hapless Gale (David Costabile). Jesse pulled his trigger as the show cut to black.
Everyone in Breaking Bad is transformed. Walt’s own change from harried high school chemistry teacher to ruthless entrepreneur spurred a chain reaction, affecting friends and family. His embrace of his darkness begs the question whether he merely revealed who he always was — all repressed rage and aggression and dishonesty — or whether his desperation (initiated by his cancer diagnosis and lack of money) produced the criminal he keeps denying he is.
However he justifies himself — and Walt is an expert in self-justification — the impact of his choices on Jesse has been especially brutal, emotionally and physically, exemplified in the execution order on Gale. Season Four finds Walt at yet another crossroads: still deeply cynical yet hoping, perhaps, to care about someone other than himself. After the Gale incident, he’s briefly full of empathy when he asks Jesse, “How are you?… No, really. How are you?” But Walter has limits: when Jesse wants to “hang out,” he blows him off.
As Jesse reels, so too does Skyler (Anna Gunn), who can’t keep up with her husband’s changes even as she is also transformed. Initially eager to divorce Walter when she discovered the truth about him, she’s come around to using the drug money for a “good cause,” like her brother-in-law Hank’s (Dean Norris) physical therapy. It turns out she is quite capable of breaking bad, whether faking an asthma attack to convince a locksmith to let her into Walt’s condo, or buying a car wash in order to launder Walt’s earnings. Like Walt and Jesse, Skyler illustrates the show’s premise, that anyone is capable of anything.
After last season’s repeated standoffs, it’s sort of refreshing to see Walt and Skyler together again, even if only in a working relationship. They are rediscovering each other: he initially scoffs at her attempts to run the business, but quickly learns she’s more than up to the task. For her part, Skyler still has not fully grasped the depth of the new Walt: When he explains away a black eye with the half-truth that he was in a bar fight, she is incredulous: “You were in a bar fight?” she asks, as if this is less believable than the fact that he is mass producing millions of dollars worth of crystal every month.
On the other hand, the relationship between DEA agent Hank and his wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) has never been worse. As he endures the pain and humiliation of learning to walk again after being shot, she tends to his every need, from medication to bedpans (“Sure thing! Is it numero uno or numero dos?”). Once jovial, Hank is now mean-spirited, punishing his wife and driving her to look elsewhere for a way to live with her own expanding stress.
Hank’s impotence recalls Walt’s at the start of Season One. Hank feels weak and unable to provide for his family (and perhaps worst of all, forced to take charity from Walt, whom he long considered a wimp), just as Walt once felt abused and puny. Hank’s injury, like Walt’s cancer, is a catalyst to change, a means to recognize rage and feel motivated to act on it.
This seemingly paradoxical idea — perpetual change — allows Breaking Bad to be different and even surprising each season. Now, as Hank faces his own cataclysmic event, he’s in a tough spot. He’s no hero, not even by Walt’s perverse standards. By now, Walt’s decisions have so many terrible costs, and yet he can’t stop making them. With every action he takes to gain some measure of security for himself, he winds up in increasingly dangerous and untenable positions, and places other people in them as well.
Things can’t end well for Walt. One of Gus’ thugs (Jeremiah Bitsui) simplifies all of his chemistry class geek-speak in the season opener: “It all comes down to following a recipe. Simple, complicated, it doesn’t matter. The steps never change.” The same might be said of Breaking Bad: it’s a formula made of actions and reactions, choices and consequences.