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Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame: Season Four

Breaking Bad's Fourth Season may also be considered by some to be the slowest, but that's largely because after an explosive opening, things slowly burn and simmer until the stunning reveal of "Crawl Space" and the terror that follows it.

Thirty-Eight Snub & Open House


Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

S4E2 Thirty-Eight Snub

"Simply follow through and trust your little finger/Just a single little finger/Can change the world." So sing Charlie Guiteau, John Wilkes Booth, and Leon Czolgosz in "The Gun Song", the central song in Stephen Sondheim's presidential assassin revue Assassins. Their darkly comic tribute to the power of a six-shooter in the hand of a person with a dream lists amongst its objects of affection a .38. Despite committing the classic mistake of conflating the caliber of the bullet with the make of the gun, the song likely references a revolver, a gun with an iconic status in cinema and television. It's a gun that gets a shining tribute in the second episode of Breaking Bad, fittingly titled "Thirty-Eight Snub". The episode's opening scene ranks among the best not just of the program's episodes but of all television in the past decade. Calm and calculated, yet imbued with meaning, these beginning minutes of frame the violence that will become a regular part of Walt's life (as if it weren't normalized enough already) as well as the recurring motif in "Thirty-Eight Snub" of channeling one's problems through inanimate objects.

The first of these is the aforementioned revolver. "Thirty-Eight Snub" opens on Walt staring into the faded mirror of a seedy hotel room. Behind him sits Lawson (ace-in-the-hole guest actor Jim Beaver), a gun dealer. Gus Fring's box cutter demonstration in the bluntly titled Season Four opener "Box Cutter" clearly made an impression on Walt, and rather than opt for his neighborhood gun shop (as Lawson notes, "New Mexico is not a retreat jurisdiction"), he goes straight for the black market. Lawson, like any good arms dealer, peddles in defaced weaponry -- guns without serial numbers. Carrying a weapon of this type can lead to a Felony 2 charge, which Lawson tells Walt. But as Walt has descended deeper into the jaws of Gus Fring's empire, paranoia has become a defining characteristic of his mind. All it took was a drug-induced accidental truth at the end of Season Two for Walt to reveal to Skyler his secret life; doing things out in the open, to him, is always too steep a risk.

The pivotal question in this scene is one Lawson almost ventures not to ask. Anyone selling illegal weapons is always better off not asking the business of their clients; "If you ask no questions, you hear no lies." But Lawson can't help himself: "Are we strictly talking defense here?" Walt's response is one part answer, two parts self-rationalization: "Yes, of course defense ... defense ..." He whispers the word "defense" to himself multiple times, as if he needs to be reminded of the true purpose of the pistol. Lawson is supportive of the notion of self-defense: "Some call it a moral right, and I do include myself within that class," he says in a brilliantly executed hard-boiled drawl.

Self-defense, or self-preservation, has been Walt's MO throughout the entire series; cooking meth was to preserve his family, having Jesse kill Gale at the end of Season Three was to save his own life ... the list goes on. But with "Thirty-Eight Snub", Walt is taking proactive measures unlike before. The gun, though potentially useful as a self-defense weapon, is the first step of Walt's taking arms; later in the season, bombs and a sneaky wheelchair are added to his repertoire. Being under Gus' thumb means that Walt's ability to build an offensive is slippery at best. The solution to this problem is to take in an item that will function as a constant, no matter the situation: the gun.

That compact little revolver almost gets a moment to shine in this episode, but, unsurprisingly, Walt's skills as a killer are still as rusty as they were when he pulled his wild card double homicide in Season Three's "Half Measure". After unsuccessfully trying to get Mike to act as a middleman to get a meeting with Gus, whom Mike has assured him "he will never see again," Walt decides to take a stop by Gus' house. He sports his famous Heisenberg cap, and with a nice swish of the brim just the way Delon did it, he makes his way to Gus' house. Before he can even cross the street, however, Gus calls him and gives him a terse, "Go home, Walter." With just one little finger a gun can indeed change the world, but that time has not yet come for Walter White.

The second important object of "Thirty-Eight Snub" is a funny little thing. Whereas Walt took Gus' blood-geyser of a display in "Box Cutter" to be a reason to stock up on munitions, Jesse accepts the fatalism of that violent act and decides there's only one thing left to do: party. His house, now tricked out with a brand new stereo system, Jesse begins a consecutive three-day bacchanal, with drugs, drinks, pizza, and Flavor Flav abound. These parties, shot with a tastefully delirious and jerky series of camera angles, are notable not for the fun everyone seems to be having, but for the shots of Jesse staring dead-faced at the ceiling, wondering what the hell it is he's doing with his life. It's an ideal complement to the music of The Weeknd, who spends most of his time examining the post-party condition.

The mornings following these parties are, unsurprisingly, lined with bodies passed out from nights of overindulgence. Amidst their betwixt limbs moves a Roomba, one of those creepy, self-operating, disc-shaped vacuum cleaners that moves about one's floor without any required operation, which picks up the strewn remnants of the night prior. As the people begin to wake up, they aren't exactly sure what to make of the thing. One particularly bleary-eyed guy picks the thing up and examines it as if it were extra-terrestrial life. Jesse looks at and ignores it. These are subtle interactions, but when examined more closely it becomes plain the role the Roomba serves.

Consequences are one of the consistently overlooked facts of life by characters of Breaking Bad, and for Jesse it's no exception. He tries to keep his house party going on day and night, but despite his insistence there will always need to be the need for the Rooma to swing back through in the morning, sucking up the excrements of the party. The emptiness of his life as a meth cook, trapped by the doings of Gus, is to him no emptier than the party and the after-party. One poison is traded for another.

The third and final object is not only one of Breaking Bad's weirder subplots, but also the source of one of the program's most reliable memes. Following his incident with the Salamanca Cousins in Season Three, Hank faces a major uphill battle in getting his old physical strength back. Physical therapy, for whatever help it can give him, only makes him feel more powerless, especially as Marie cheers him on. One of Hank's darker sides, similar to Walter's pride, emerges in his rehabilitative process: he feels emasculated. Instead of letting his wife help him on the road to recovery, he treats his physical therapist like a sports buddy and maligns Marie, who is just trying to help.

In tandem with his neglect of Marie comes an obsession that is not given much explanation. Hank, who is under medical orders to rest until his legs are at their former strength, suddenly becomes fascinated with minerals. He orders them in shipments of 30 or more boxes. He stays up late at night and examines them closely. Unfortunately, much to his chagrin, his wife repeatedly refers to them as "rocks," which leads to the birth of Hank's classic line: "Jesus Christ, Marie, it's a mineral."

There is some connection that could be made to his newfound fascination with geodes and quartz to his unstoppable hunt for Heisenberg's blue crystal; beyond this, though, there's little to help explain why Hank suddenly gravitates to these objects with no prior context for such an interest; there's still no explicit reason beyond being bored and tied to the bed. For now, the best explanation comes in the form of Hank's wounded masculinity: left out of the drug-fighting world he saps his energy from, he retreats to the confines of a new world that he has total control over. Being able to list off the facts of each mineral with considerable depth, Hank finally has something that he's really good at again. It doesn't hurt that some of the shiny crystals he toys with give him a little reminder that somewhere out there lies Heisenberg, just waiting to be captured.

The harsh environs of "Thirty-Eight Snub" are indicative of how, in trying situations, people often use objects around them as a substitute for the human interactions they should be having. Hank fixates on minerals when he should look to his wife for comfort. Jesse invites people into his home without inviting them into his life. And then there's Walt, who foolishly thinks he can buy security by buying a gun. It is true that sometimes all it takes to change the world is one little finger wrapped around a .38, but the men of "Thirty-Eight Snub" are far from being able to change anything. Brice Ezell


Image: Tim

S4E3 Open House

If there is one theme that Breaking Bad deploys a little too heavy-handedly, it is the emphasis placed on Walter's devotion to his family. Not even five minutes into the show's pilot episode, Walter speaks directly into a handheld camera, informing Skyler, and in particular Walter Jr., that he "only had [them] in his heart" when he decided to attempt to strike it rich in the meth business. This refrain, even during the show's most compelling moments, becomes tedious as the Fourth Season unfolds. That tedium results not so much from its rather traditional conception of masculinity -- the paternal figure is responsible for the stability of his home -- but rather from its blunt repetition. In simple terms, it is a violation of the old fashioned rule that writing should show not tell.

The strength of "Open House" is that it jettisons rather canned domestic dialogue to allow room for vivid depictions of the interior spaces that the core characters inhabit. Each character's house is open here. Jesse's home has become little more than a flophouse for local miscreants, some of whom shamelessly steal his appliances. Walter's condominium is exposed when Skyler, in a way, forces the door down to discuss how to scheme Bogdan out of his car wash. And Hank and Marie's home, in particular, is laid bare. Shrouded in the same purple hues used to commemorate wounded soldiers, the Schrader's home has virtually been telescoped down to the couple's bedroom, where Hank, post-cartel shooting, is confined to his bed.

Deviously, this episode recalls one of Walter's best lines. In "4 Days Out", as he is fighting to convince Jesse to escape to the wilderness for a marathon cooking session, Mr. White ridicules Jesse's excuse that he cannot work because he has plans: "Smoking marijuana, eating Cheetos, and masturbating do not constitute plans in my book." When Marie and Hank first share screen time in this episode, Marie is making an effort to cheer up her husband, bringing him a six-pack of beer and a fantasy football magazine. She also brings him a bag of Cheetos, interrupting his concentration on a porn video when she does so. Hank, startled, is also annoyed that Marie misunderstood his request for Fritos, not Cheetos. For Hank, masturbating and eating snack food are the only plans that he can make.

This is what has become of the show's core characters in one short, frenetic year. Walter and Skyler have separated, the former depressingly not even stocking frozen peas or ice in his freezer. Jesse, entirely undone by the multiple murders in which he has been involved, finds solace among strangers who muse about the consistency of human flesh as it is pushed through a chain link fence. Finally, Hank and Marie's collective happiness depends on the fine distinctions between various kinds of Frito-Lay snacks. Not exactly the stuff of an episode of House Hunters.

But, then again, "Open House" is itself kind of an episode of House Hunters. The episode's main plotline follows Marie as she attends three home viewings (notably, the same number of viewings as on an actual episode of House Hunters). As she tours each property, she spins impressive yarns about herself, her fictitious husband, and the fake children her and her husband sometimes, but sometimes do not, have. While regaling the on-site realtors about her husband's work at NASA and her daughter's endocarditis, Marie's kleptomania resurfaces, and she secretly pockets various trinkets from each of the homes. Eventually, she is caught and is detained by Detective Roberts, an associate of Hank's.

The obvious overarching metaphor in this episode is the house: that space of accumulation which serves as an external representation of internal health. Home, after all, is where the heart is. Marie, for very good reason, is distraught about Hank's seeming paralysis. Moreover, she is repeatedly brutalized by her husband's modest emotional abuse: "The draft's not for two months, so this is useless," Hank responds when Marie tosses him the fantasy football magazine. Therefore, her thievery functions not only as an expression of aggressive control, which is an obvious attempt to compensate for the lack of control that she has in her own household, but also as a very specific reaction to the ideology of capitalism -- an ideology that imbues objects, like granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and spoon collections, with a cultural significance that far outweighs their actual value. Marie, by stealing from others, attempts to appropriate for herself the happiness and stability that has, supposedly, cohered in the pilfered objects over time. Notably, the first stolen object that she places next to her porn watching, corn chip eating husband is a tiny ceramic pig.

This subtle criticism of capitalism is at least latent in the bulk of Breaking Bad's plotlines. Arguably, addicts are defined by their endless search for all-consuming satisfaction in the most mundane of objects -- tobacco, blackjack chips, paper money, mineral collections. Viewed in this light, Jesse becomes the show's most insightful cultural critic. As he stands in the middle of his graffiti-ridden living room, attempting to toss crumpled bills into the mouth of a passed-out partier, he reveals the futility of the pursuit of financial happiness. Though enormously wealthy -- and by strict capitalist standards, hugely successful -- Jesse is miserable, alone, and unhealthy. Money has no value to him because, as he knows, it does not necessarily guarantee happiness, safety, or fulfillment. If anything, money has only brought him into a world where he has been forced, time and time again, to take that thing of ultimate value from others: life. Jesse's only recourse is to rid himself of his cash by tossing it at the denizens in his den and to watch them fight each other on the floor for it -- like pigs.

For her part, Marie is forced to spend more time with the brooding, brutish Hank. When Detective Roberts is ready to release her, he asks Marie if she wants to go home. In response, she does not tell the detective anything. She says nothing. Instead, she cries. Joseph Fisher

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