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.

 

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

S4E1 Box Cutter

“Box Cutter” marked three transitory moments in Breaking Bad history. Two deal with the actual narrative while the other marks a turning point for viewers. Those three things?

1) While the show can be perceived as nothing more than a platform to dissect how severe and/or drastic a person’s evolution can appear, Season Four’s first episode is the first time Walt begins to allow his ego to climb toward inevitably obnoxious heights (the peak of that trek, for those keeping score, comes about five or six episodes into Season Five). “What did you expect me to do?” he defiantly asks Gus seconds before Victor falls victim to one of the most affecting tableaus cable television has seen. “Roll over and allow you to murder us?”

Yes, we’ve seen him act outlandishly and sure, we’ve heard him utter petulant demands at his friends, family and coworkers prior to this moment, but with hindsight now an available tool, it becomes evident that this was the first time he used that tone. That intangible, insufferable, egomaniacal and delusional tone that ultimately makes good-ol’ Walter White become detestable by the time Hank takes his legendary (read: game-changing) shit during the last two minutes of the Fifth Season’s eighth episode. 

At the moment, Mr. White’s repugnant nature could have been dismissed as mere desperation (to be fair, it did sort of look like Gus was going to, at the very least, cause some fairly gnarly paper cuts in strategically placed areas of the chemistry teacher’s body). However, as we would find in subsequent episodes, that abhorrent mindset has only increased in breadth. Walt eventually becomes a brat, a benchwarmer who can’t understand why coach won’t put him in the game, despite his best efforts in practice. As the rest of the series would continue, however — and as the examination of his transformation becomes more complex — this would ultimately be a flashpoint in the enabling of Walter White: The Punk. 

2) Jesse has now officially come of age. Besting his cooking buddy’s observational skills, Pinkman almost instantly understood what Gus was trying to say to the two as they witnessed a killing so cold, it made even Mike The Cleaner cringe. The episode’s best moment comes when Walt and Jesse share a Denny’s breakfast (and some slightly humorous Kenny Rodgers T-Shirts, of course), and the student winds up enlightening the teacher. 

His revelations are refreshing, a sign that he now accepts what his life has become. Killing Gale was just one in a series of What-Has-My-Life-Come-To moments, though because of its enormity, his free-wheeling presence at the restaurant either meant that he simply doesn’t care about how dysfunctional his life has become, or that he now feels genuinely aged (and wiser for it) because of all the absurdity that surrounds his mere existence. Gone is the pouty, guilt-ridden young adult and present is a mature, weathered man whose awareness has come full-circle. 

All told, the acquiescent, “What now?” Jesse is a lot more fun than the tender, “What have I done?” Jesse. His return to enlightened ignorance made for a stronger, more sincere approach to his character development. When he mouthed off in Season One, it simply sounded like a pot-head teenager who never had interest in authority or conformity, though when the same happens in Season Four, he actually comes across as more level and logical than his cooking partner. It’s Jesse functioning at his highest level. It’s Jesse at his best. 

And 3) From a consumer’s viewpoint, the notion that Walt will never die becomes concrete after seeing how this particular episode’s crux plays out, which in turn, would prove to be the most predictable, yet bothersome, flaw of the entire series. OK, we get it: you can’t kill the main character. Without Bryan Cranston and without Walter White, you have no Breaking Bad. You have no story. 

But there are different ways to advance the plot without constantly having its protagonist cheat death. “Box Cutter”, while a hauntingly great piece of television, would mark the moment that defined Breaking Bad‘s repetitiveness. For as intelligent and talented as creator Vince Gilligan is, the thing that stops the series between good and great is its constant return to some faraway possibility that Walter White might actually work his way into a situation of which he won’t be able to get out.

The way the show built up the Gus and Mike characters was utterly and completely pitch-perfect. Portrayed as emotionless, expressionless tough guys, these were people introduced with the explicit caveat that they were people not to be fucked with. These were people who turned the intimidation knob to 11, people who had no problem offing someone they felt needed to be offed. So … what took them so long with Walter White? Even Jesse noted at Denny’s that this was a “golden opportunity” for Gus to kill them. Mike would eventually end up pointing a gun at Walt’s head, supposedly counting down the seconds until he pulled the trigger, no less than three times in Season Five. 

Are we to believe that with what we already know about these two bad-guy characters, they wouldn’t just immediately put an end to the problems Walt and Jesse have caused, no questions asked? I mean, these are the same guys who went down to Mexico and poisoned about five billion people, not to mention the time they sneaked into a hospital to kill a guy with no legs. And yet, both Gus and Mike allow Walt to hang around so long, he kills one in a an old-folks home and the other by a lake with his own gun? 

All things considered, it cheapens the deceased characters and their legacy. Maybe more importantly, it cheapens any drama the series could organically create, moving forward. Granted, there isn’t much of it left to cheapen, but even so, it sure does force the viewer to reconsider a lot of the story’s past under the same, formulaic microscope. It just seems lazy, which is odd for a series so intent on examining the finer points of a story. 

That said … boy that scene with Gus slowly walking downstairs, killing Victor, and then uttering “Well, get back to work” sure was great, wasn’t it?! Casting Giancarlo Esposito for that role was a stroke of genius, a moment of pure perfection. His presence is so powerful, so commanding, and the nuances he brought to Gustavo Fring milked every inch out of everything that character could ever be. 

Still, the sequence in question all but sealed Gus’ fate. “If I [Gus] can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead,” Jesse explains to Walt at breakfast when pondering what it all meant. Too bad the drug kingpin hardly lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of that message. Colin McGuire

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

Bullet Points & Shotgun

 

S4E4 Bullet Points

Still reeling from Victor’s death and the uncertainty that lay ahead for him and the rest of Gus’ operation, Mike sits in a refrigerated Los Pollos Hermanos truck to personally oversee the transportation of another batch of meth. But when the truck suddenly comes to a halt, he knows that something has gone awry, and moments later, the truck driver is shot dead.

Mike prepares for the worst and drags boxes in front of him to form a barrier. Just as he suspected, machine gun bullets rapidly begin to flood the truck, allowing the midday sun to pour through the bullet holes. Only after the inside of the truck is a complete, holey, batter-spilled mess do the two assailants enter the truck. Their mission is quickly aborted, as a resourceful Mike immediately shoots them dead in what is another display of his signature badass nature. But Mike is quickly reminded of his own mortality when he realizes that a bullet took part of his right ear — indicating that Mike may not be as lucky or resourceful as he seems after all.

At the White residence, Skyler, now fully intent on purchasing the car wash, tosses and turns in bed at 3:00 in the morning. She briefly stops, turns on her lamp, and writes something down on a notepad next to her, trying again to go to sleep afterwards. She is visibly and painstakingly attempting to craft the perfect cover story for her and Walt, anxious yet thrilled about her newfound role as an accomplice. For her, everything must be right and orderly, and there is no room for error.

We see just how assiduous Skyler is and ambivalent Walt is when the two map out their plan to inform Hank and Marie about Walt’s fake gambling addiction one afternoon. The two first practice counting cards, with Skyler doing the brunt of the actual work and Walt just groaning. They then attend a Gambling Anonymous meeting together, which reaps similar results. As Skyler intently listens to recovering addicts speak about their painful past experiences, Walt nods off next to her. Skyler’s behavior is reminiscent of Walt’s when he first started cooking three seasons ago, as she is focused and committed without getting too carried away. Conversely, Walt has mastered deception so well that he sees all of this obsessive research as just sweating the small stuff.

Walt changes his tune, however, when Skyler insults him by framing him as a troublesome problem child in her draft of the speech. She is, of course, correct, but a proud Walt cannot stand to hear it. He is increasingly intolerant of Skyler’s assertiveness, saying, “don’t ‘chop chop’ me” when she tries to speed up his thought process.

The two then enter a rather heated exchange over how to spin the story, prompting Skyler to continually alter her speech that is composed of, appropriately enough, bullet points; with each bullet point, it is apparent that the two are driving themselves more deeply in danger.

The calculative, constructed nature of their relationship as conveyed through their discussion is simply bone chilling. Skyler sounds less like a wife and more like a film director when she matter-of-factly suggests to Walt, “Hit the cancer. Really touch on fear and despair. It’s good to remind them so you can get their sympathy right off the bat. We want them to understand why you could do something so stupid.” Walt is not amused, and shoots her a dirty glance that captures his frustration with her inability to acknowledge how much money he has actually made for the family, which he is always quick to boast about. Ironically, Walter has “hit the cancer” for Skyler and the rest of his family many times before, but he is not about to recycle his old bits.

Walt grows especially irate when Skyler suggests that he say, “I am terribly, terribly ashamed of my actions,” commenting, “Two terriblys? Why am I so ashamed? I am providing for our family.” It is obvious by now that Walt feels that he is doing nothing wrong in his life, and it pains him to be the “bad guy,” especially when the idea of the “bad guy” is perceived so negatively. He unabashedly quips, “How do you look bad exactly? Where is the “I slept with my boss” bullet point?”

Skyler’s response not only seems to be aimed at Walt, but also to Walt Jr., who has witnessed what he believes to be her baseless resentment towards Walt, as well as Breaking Bad fans who for seasons have continually deemed Skyler a, for lack of better word, bitch: “I am just the bitch mom that wouldn’t cut you any slack.”

With this, Walt’s expression softens — perhaps he is finally remorseful for the way he has constantly thrown Skyler under the bus. “I am sorry that I put you through all of this,” he says softly. But he quickly shatters any hopes of reconciliation, following his statement with “Hmm? How does that sound?” referring to their script. Their relationship is beyond the point of repair, and it is simply just another cover-up device for Walt’s grand scheme.

After hours of devising, the moment has arrived for Skyler and Walt as they approach Hank and Marie’s front door. They at execute their happy family act perfectly, until Marie and Skyler go off to the kitchen while Hank shows Walt and Walt Jr. his mineral collection. As the men gather in Hank and Marie’s dimly lit bedroom, Hank decides to show Walt and Walt Jr. an entertaining video from an investigation with which he is involved: Gale’s murder. Walt squirms as he sits on the end of the bed, watching a delightfully cheesy video of Gale singing “Major Tom” in a Thai karaoke bar. “That, my friend, is Albuquerque’s public enemy number one,” Hank laughs.

The next scene shows a stiff and guilt-ridden Walt from below while Skyler discusses his gambling problem through a veil of convincing cries, proving that they have both completely followed through with their plan. The next shot shows the entire family gathered around the dinner table, sporting expressions that range from shock to admiration. In one of his classic right-under-the-nose moments, Hank says, “Walter H. White, the man of hidden talents,” with a mix of shock and hilarity. Walt Jr. is amazed at his father, calling him a “stud,” and inquires about his winnings. Walt robotically says the one line he refused to say earlier: “I am terribly, terribly ashamed of my actions.” Preoccupied with and deeply disturbed by the deceased Gale’s lively and innocent video, Walt is either genuinely expressing his guilt about Gale’s death or is so nervous that Hank is close to sniffing his trail that he blindly follows Skyler’s script as he conjures up his next plan.

Fortunately for Walt, his real nervousness is just what the skit called for. He abruptly excuses himself from the dinner table, running to Hank’s room to thumb through Gale’s file. After uncomfortably glancing at images of Gale’s body at the crime scene, Walt looks through his intricate lab notebook that is basically a scrapbook of Gale’s life, peppered with quirky musings.

Hank calls out for Walt and runs into him in the hallway. He offers his heartfelt support to Walt, saying, “You can always bend my ear if you ever need to talk or just blow off some steam. I’m here. Not going anywhere.” That is, if it is in Walt’s best interest.

Seizing the opportunity to get information out of Hank, Walt responds, “Same goes for me, you know, if you ever want to bounce anything off of me…casework, you know…”

The two then wind up in Hank and Marie’s bedroom, discussing Gale’s case. “This guy was a real character,” Hank laughs. He then reads the dedication page out loud: “To W.W., my star, my perfect silence.” The greatest Walt-Hank exchange of the season follows: in his usually goofy manner, Hank begins to speculate who W.W. is, rattling off a list of names before jokingly saying “Walter White.” Playing it completely cool, Walt holds up his hands, simply declaring, “you got me.” He relies on his braininess to pretend that he had just seen the page in Gale’s notebook dedicated to Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” the poem that he and Gale bonded so strongly over, to inform Hank that Gale’s W.W. was indeed Walt Whitman.

“So you think this Gale person is your Heisenberg?” Walt asks, trying to confirm that Hank is going down a divergent path. Hank confirms, adding that he wishes that he was the one to “slap the handcuffs on him.” Little does he know that he still has a chance to slap handcuffs on the real Heisenberg.

Walt then asks Hank if he knows who killed Gale. Hank mentions that there was an eyewitness, but he does not know much apart from that. Should Jesse be caught, so will Walt.

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Walt rushes over to Jesse’s home, which he angrily finds completely trashed and ridden with passed out junkies. He calls for Jesse, who is standing in the staircase shaving a partygoer’s head. He is only fazed by Walt’s presence when Walt unplugs Jesse’s massive stereo and pulls him into the hallway, grilling him about the murder. Given the bleak state of his home, it is evident that Jesse is still grappling with his guilt over murdering Gale, but must unfortunately relive the painful moment with Walt to ensure his survival. He suddenly becomes paranoid and anxious when he realizes that he did not remove any of the bullet casings from Gale’s home. But instead of probing further into the night’s events, Jesse pays his friends $100 to kick Walt to the curb, once again shutting out what he has done.

At his wits end, Walt seeks advice from Saul. The scene opens with a shot of the inflatable Statue of Liberty billowing atop Saul’s office, emphasizing the fallaciousness of his enterprise. “When did this stop being a business? Why am I the only person capable of behaving in a professional manner?” Walt asks, adding, “Any way you slice it, everyone is in danger.” As always, Walt is primarily concerned with his own wellbeing, which happens to rely on the wellbeing of every single person with whom he is in business. He continues to vent to Saul about all of his frustrations, never once taking into consideration Saul’s own fears.

Saul offers up a catch-22 solution: “You know, FYI, you can buy a paddle. This is a last resort, back pocket kind of thing, but if you really want to protect yourself, disappear. Poof.” It is a viable solution, but also a risky one, as Walt and his family must completely assume new identities. There would be no reasonable way to convey that to Hank and Marie, and the egomaniac Walt would not ever want to surrender the power and authority that he currently has.

From the next scene, we become aware of how Jesse’s haze is threatening his relationship with Gus. First, he gets out of bed, revealing a naked woman beside him. As he walks down the stairs, he turns up his stereo to wake up all of his sleeping, strung out houseguests, and gives one of them multiple hundred dollar bills that he retrieved from a duffel bag in his room to order pizzas. At work, Gus’ security camera obsessively tracks each and every one of Jesse’s moves, and Walt quickly realizes that it can only be a bad sign.

When Jesse gets home, he resumes his robotic carelessness. He throws money in the air, letting his guests fight over it. When he gets up to his room, he notices that his duffle of cash is completely gone. Instead of panicking, as he normally does, Jesse seems to resign to whatever his fate may be at the hands of Gus, and proceeds to play MarioKart with a girl that he plucked from his stairwell.

The next morning, however, Jesse wakes up next to an unexpected houseguest: Mike. Jesse does not question Mike’s presence, and glumly follows him into his living room. Only one houseguest, who has been bound, gagged, and bloodied by Mike and Tyrus, remains. Mike informs Jesse that he is the man that stole his money, but Jesse just grabs his duffle and thanks Mike. “You wanna know what’s next for little miss pissed his pants?” Mike asks.

Jesse nonchalantly replies that Mike will kill him, adding “this is the part where I am supposed to beg you not to do it.” Just as Walt and Skyler are attune to the constructs of their own relationship earlier in the episode, Jesse is completely aware of Mike’s strategies, and knows when to call him on his bluff. But Mike is unyielding. “You are on thin ice, you little shithead. You know that?” He asks, once again trying to get a rise out of Jesse.

Jesse stands his ground, asserting that Mike will not kill the man because he “went through the trouble of putting a blindfold on him.” With that, Jesse goes straight back to bed, leaving a stunned Mike staring up Jesse’s staircase.

Because his first tactic was completely unsuccessful, Mike consults with Gus about how to handle Jesse. He intently stares at the box cutter that Gus used to kill Victor, still unsure about what the future may hold for him. As long as he remains loyal to Gus, he figures, he will be safe. He informs Gus that Jesse is a “liability” and that “something’s gotta be done.” Heightening the suspense, Gus simply stares back at Mike.

That afternoon, Walt is making meth by himself, obsessively checking his watch. After waiting long enough, he takes off his gear and rushes straight to Jesse’s house, simultaneously and unsuccessfully calling his cell phone. He finally slips in to an open window, and, assuming that Jesse simply overslept, he walks in to Jesse’s bedroom, which is completely empty. When he tries Jesse’s cell phone once more, he finds the phone vibrating on Jesse’s nightstand, and he quickly comes to the realization that Jesse has been abducted.

Walt returns to Gus’ lab, confronting the security camera. “Where is he?” he growls.

The next scene shows a car driving along a highway in the intense desert sun. Mike is driving the car, while Jesse, still resigned and completely quiet, looks out the passenger side window. The journey that he is about to embark on is an unforgettable lesson on loyalty. Karina Parikh

 

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

S4E5 Shotgun

“Shotgun” opens where “Bullet Points” ended, with Jesse and Mike in a car headed for the desert as Walter loses all control, assuming his partner’s about to be executed. Walter’s continued loss of all sense of control or reason continues to be a theme here, as the power-play between “Heisenberg” and Fring plays out with Fring emerging as the all-around better competitor.

Consider Fring’s plan in light of Mike’s announcement in the prior episode that Pinkman’s becoming a problem. Fring wants to bring Jesse closer while further isolating Walter, much in the way he did the opposite in order to bring Walter into the fold back in the early moments of Season Three. Mike plays along of course, even as he fails to quite understand what Fring’s plan is, allowing Jesse to ride along while he does the desert pickups, even allowing him to become a hero in the pre-planned attempted robbery. Fring’s play is brilliant — give Jesse a sense of purpose and you pull him away from Walter, making it more likely he’ll still be a useable cog in the machine even if Walter must be taken out in the future.

Walt, meanwhile, seems to be more the loose cannon than ever, storming into Los Pollos Hermanos demanding to see Fring and even giving the frazzled woman at the counter his real name. “Tell him it’s Walter White. He’ll know who I am.” The scene where he barrels his way into the back room, Fring’s control center, is telling. If Walter is willing to throw this much caution to the wind, how much longer is he going to survive up against Fring, who values caution far more than the few percent higher quality yield that Walter’s blue meth delivers?

Mike’s an interesting study here, as he grows increasingly more frustrated by Jesse’s prattle during the desert drive. When Jesse slips up and refers to himself as “the guy,” Mike’s clearly had enough. “You are not the guy. You are not capable of being the guy. I had a guy but now I don’t. You are not the guy.” When Jesse asks what the hell he is, then, Mike responds that it’s not his call, but in the interim Jesse is to do what he’s told: sit there, shut the hell up and let them finish the pickups. Mike of course knows that by the end of the day Jesse is to be Mr. Hero, having saved the stash from being stolen, perhaps even having saved Mike’s life, even as the man knows it’s all staged. No matter — Jesse doesn’t know that, and it all plays perfectly into Fring’s plan. And Mike, unlike Walter, knows his place and is willing to do as ordered, even when he doesn’t know how the endgame will play out.

Walter, back in the lab, can’t even operate the forklift on his own, and a lame attempt at a strike fails miserably as Fring’s new “guy” nonchalantly walks in, moves the barrel of methylamine, and walks off. What little bit of power Walter has in that arena is slipping away, so he compensates by revealing far too much in other aspects of his life. At the dinner held at Hank’s to celebrate the purchase of Walt and Skyler’s very own car wash, Walter becomes increasingly frustrated — and drunk — as Hank describes the mastermind behind the famous Albuquerque blue meth. Describing Gale as a meth chef, “five stars, white tablecloth, a genius plain and simple.” When Hank elaborates, implying that had Gale used that giant brain of his to do something good, the sky would have been the limit, Walt’s clearly had enough. As Skyler becomes increasingly incredulous in the background, Walter monologues:

“Hank, not to tell you how to do your job, but I’m not sure I agree. You showed me that notebook and from what I saw — and this is just my humble opinion — from what I saw on those pages, genius? Not so much. There was no reasoning, no deduction, in those pages. So to my eye all his ‘brilliance’ looks like is simple rote copying, probably of someone else’s work. Believe me, I’ve been around enough students to know. This genius of yours … maybe he’s still out there.”

In the process, Walt has no way to know he’s proven to be the catalyst needed to get Hank to put an end to his post-shooting pity parade, diving headfirst back into the meth investigation. It is, however, what Walt seems to want deep down. Like any psychopath proud of his work, Walt wants nothing more than to be able to take credit for his own genius, even if it means destroying everything and everyone around him. That’s something Skyler can’t quite understand yet, but as she comes to grips with Walter’s descent into power madness, she soon will, which makes her own battle for control of her family’s destiny even more compelling even as we’re frustrated by her inability to ever succeed.

The final moments of the episode are telling, as Hank makes the discovery of the Pollos Hermanos flyer among Gale’s possessions. “Everything he buys and eats is organic, fair trade, vegan,” he tells Marie while deep in thought. “Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?” In that vein he’s one step closer to making the Fring connection, which puts him one step closer to exposing Walt as Heisenberg. Knowing as we do just how doggedly Hank is willing to pursue his prey, when properly motivated, this is only one more step in the path toward bringing this show to its inevitable conclusion.

In that vein Breaking Bad continues to be a masterclass in Power, with a minor in Control. In “Shotgun” the power balance continues to shift, as every character battles for a share of control in the eventual outcome. In a world where Fring and Heisenberg exist in the same plane, only one of them can come out with all the power, and the other can’t remain alive in that scenario. Though at this early point in the season Walter seems to be losing his edge, there’s one thing we know to be true about Vince Gilligan’s vision — there’s always something more up our main character’s sleeve, and there’s always a steeper slope he can slide down in his manic craving for respect he’ll never achieve.

The only remaining question is just how far can Walter fall before he finally hits rock bottom? Jonathan Sanders

Cornered & Problem Dog

 

Photo: Still from Breaking Bad Locations

S4E6 Cornered

Of all the characters on Breaking Bad, none is more maligned and misunderstood than Skyler.

She has been onto Walt from the very beginning, always dubious about the cascading lies that comprehensively seized control of her entire life and sense of self. Skyler’s detractors call her a bore, a nag, an annoyance, a pointless drain on a steam-engine of a plot. It’s a shame, really. Anna Gunn’s performance has always been the most underrated and sneakily complex. She isn’t filling some mammoth void of inferiority with danger. She isn’t trying to prove to her worth to her family or to her friends through money or career achievement. She doesn’t have a need to chase down the bad guys to give herself a purpose. She merely loved her children and her husband and valued them above all else. She used to be very normal person, living a very normal life, completely fulfilled by the very mundanity that apparently sapped Walt.

Now, she’s just trying to keep her family alive.

Skyler has intuited hints about just how dangerous the world that Walt lives in actually is. Unschooled in the dark arts of meth manufacturing, massive drug distribution, and their attending duties and obligations, she has been forced to piece together tidbits about Walt’s daily transactions and use her imagination about the terrible things she sees on the local news to fill in the blanks. That quivering, frantic message that Walt left on her phone sounds different to her upon repeated listens. She now realizes that Walt was trying to say goodbye to her and furthermore, that Gale’s death is somehow directly resultant from the things Walt has done.

In “Cornered”, we’re reminded that it isn’t just Walt who feels his world caving in all around. For as intimate as Walt is with danger, his association with great peril is a volitional one. Skyler’s original fear about Walt’s proximity to death and destruction looks almost quaint in consideration of the harsh truth: that Walt himself is the source of the all of the awful things that she once feared for him. This is only partially true.

As much as Walt fancies himself a drug lord, he sits somewhere below the very top echelon of the pyramid. Despite the designs Walt had for himself and Jesse to go into the meth business for themselves, they have very much become hired hands of Gus Fring. Walt might enjoy the feeling derived from buying his son a new Dodge Challenger or 86ing Bogdan from the carwash where he once toiled during weeknights and weekends to make ends meet, but Walt is still convincing himself of his gangster bona fides as much as he is anyone else.

From the beginning, Walt has tried to exert as much control over the circumstances he has chosen for himself and that control is ever-fleeting. That proprietary blend of chemicals and processes that produces the purest meth the southwestern United States has ever seen is complex to be sure, but his bosses and Jesse alike know that it is not impossible to learn. Even the wizard in the Wizard of Oz is replaceable eventually. The “Mike Meetings” that Jesse now finds himself routinely apart of take place conspicuously absent of Walt and he knows the reasoning Jesse’s heightened involvement.

“It’s all about me,” Walt grumbles. It’s a predictably narcissistic conclusion, and only partially accurate. The fate of Jesse and Walt has always been inextricably linked. Their fates in the drug world have never existed independently.

After one of these meetings (see drug/money pickups) gone awry results in a particularly brave performance by Jesse, Gus lauds him for his courage in the line of fire. It’s clear now that the chess game between Walt and Gus has affixed its purpose on the fate of Jesse, always the pawn.

Like Skyler, Jesse’s life has been forever altered because of his relationship with Walt. However, unlike Skyler, Jesse still believes he can operate in the meth underworld with free will. He knows that Gus and Walt are fighting to control him, but he somehow believes in the end he pulls the strings, that he will be picking his own puppet master.

In Breaking Bad, these characters pick their own delusion. For Walt, it’s that nerdy ogre construct in the funny hat named Heisenberg. For Jesse, it’s the notion that Walt is not the monster he suspects him to be and the hope that he can someday have a relatively normal life with family that actually loves him. Hank loves playing the cowboy in the white hat at the expense of having a real family that would require the commitment he would rather spend chasing bad guys.

Only Skyler has properly assessed the cold calculus of her situation. She knows that any control she might now possess over her life is but a mere illusion. She has only three people to worry about, herself and her two children and that each decision she makes that furthers Walt’s cause, she makes not to keep him out of jail, but to spare herself and her children the shame and the danger of what might happen if Walt really does screw this whole meth empire thing up.

Walt, Jesse and Hank like to play the role of guardian when it suits them. But when Skyler says that “someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” she shows she’s the one who actually means it. Robert Downs Schultz

 

Photo: Ben Leuner/AMC

S4E7 Problem Dog

He should be dead. He wasn’t meant to last beyond “A No-Rough-Stuff Type Deal” but he was just too good to let go. Any lingering doubt that retaining Jesse beyond the First Season was the right idea was comprehensively ground up and scattered in the desert by his appearance at the group therapy session in “Problem Dog”. Still tormented by his killing of Gale, Jesse is desperate to be punished; to be denied the acceptance that the softly spoken counselor insists is possible. He pushes the soft-spoken counselor and his fellow addicts, transposing Gale onto the titular dog and unloading his guilt. He fails. He killed Gale but the sky didn’t fall in. He hasn’t been dragged to Hell. He killed him and … nothing.

“If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s the point?” he asks, his eyes floating in tears, “What’s it all mean?’

What indeed. Aaron Paul is firing on all cylinders, giving a pained performance that is shot through with the nihilism that has punctuated the Breaking Bad since Walter’s diagnosis. The whole thing began with the postponed finality of cancer and doom has hung over the show ever since. Thousands of words have been written on the topic of Walter’s malign epiphany as a release of decades of frustration, but much of it is connected to his belief that he would have left the party by the time of the next Olympics. The recklessness of his pursuit was enabled by his belief that nothing really mattered — for him personally at least — because he was, like an Albuquerquean Samurai, already dead. But then, of course, he did get better. Life, that accursed thing, came back. The nihilism remained. And now, with Gus gunning for him, death has returned to haunt his horizon. So what’s the point?

The first victim is the Challenger. As a symbol of youth, life and exuberance (the 16-year-old Hank would have “given his left nut for 15 minutes with it”) it doesn’t fit the narrative. Skyler, correctly, points out that it’s a liability. It has to go back, even if it’ll cost them eight hundred bucks. What’s the point? Might as well tear it up and blow the thing sky high. All that money and his only indulgence is to destroy something. In for a penny, in for a pound. Or, in for $800, in for $52,000. Who’s counting? Certainly not Walter. In “Seven Thirty-Seven” he was able to mentally calculate the precise sum he’d need to make for his family before he would be free to die. Now, he doesn’t even bother counting the money he’s actually making. It’s only money after all, and what’s the point?

$52,000 really isn’t a great deal of money, not when you’re bringing in $7.5 million a year, and especially not when accounting for it is so much trouble. Skyler, now at least partly on board with the nature of their activities balks at the scale of it. No carwash in the world makes that kind of money. It would be easier for them to make less money (and certainly to bring it in in smaller denominations) but on they go at Walter’s express insistence. And the point? The point escapes him.

But there is a point to something. Hank, who has started to emerge from his post traumatic stress chrysalis, and as such, is further along the road than Jesse, has really got his mojo back. His tracing of the Gale/Gus connection is an outstanding piece of detective work…

It reveals that Hank has a natural mistrust of people that allows him to see through a façade. Gus’ public persona of hardworking businessman, philanthropist and DEA booster fools everyone except for Hank (and Walter, who took his time working it out). Joining the dots that connected Gale with Gus and Los Pollos Hermanos with Madrigal Elektromotive GMBh (making their first solid appearance) took determination and the feeling that there was a point. Hank, unlike Walter, has an endgame in sight. He wants Heisenberg in cuffs, and he wants blue sky off the streets. There is a point to this work. He has a destination that he wants to work towards. Walter and Jesse have nothing. They do what they do through reflex. There is no point.

“Problem Dog” is a key episode for one of Breaking Bad‘s specific themes, that of response to trauma. Hank, Jesse, Gus and above all, Walter, have all been brought to the edge by some kind of terrible event, and have to earn their way back. Gus has his revenge mission on Don Eladio, Walter, his cancer diagnosis, Jesse, the killing of Gale, and Hank, his shooting by the Cousins. Walter is the only one of the quartet whose epiphany came from something other than the drug trade, which is ironic, given all the trouble that he has caused others in the pursuit of it.

They respond at their own pace. Jesse may be hitting bottom but Hank is swimming rapidly towards the surface. His investigation of the Gus angle is masterful. Smart, intelligent detective work. What’s more, he demonstrates the determinism that seems set to dominate the final eight. And the rocks, sorry, minerals? Who cares about them anymore, he’s doing real work now and as for anything else, well, what’s the point? Michael Noble

Hermanos & Bug

 

S4E8 Hermanos

At last we come to the episode of Breaking Bad which showcases that, contrary to what Gustavo Fring might want to believe, at his roots he and Walter White are not as different as they may seem.

The episode begins with a potent flashback to third-season standout episode “I See You”, which had ended with Fring’s intense confrontation with Walt in the hospital’s lobby, followed by the cold-blooded execution of the surviving cousin by Mike Ehrmantraut. In this extended look, we find Hector Salamanca watching the news of his nephews’ demise from the discomfort of his nursing home. Clearly he’s distraught, but becomes even more-so when the television is abruptly shut off by none other than Gustavo Fring, who drags a chair in front of Hector, stares him down and delivers what has to be the most brutal bitch-slapping of a monologue the show’s ever provided:

“I can give you the highlights,” he says, coldly. “Your nephews grew impatient. They continue to press me for my permission to kill Walter White. When I wouldn’t give it, they settled instead for DEA Agent Schrader. But a phone call was placed to Agent Schrader moments before the attack, thus giving him the upper hand. Mario was shot in the face and died instantly. Lionel lingered for several hours. The warning call to the DEA Agent — Juan Bolsa may have some insight into who placed it. But yesterday the Federales were at his hacienda and in the confusion Juan was shot dead. An accident perhaps, a mistake made by his own men. Well, we may never know. At any rate, I thought you should hear it from me.”

Throughout this speech, made solely for the impact it would make on Salamanca, who has no power to respond, we see the man become noticeably upset, then progressing to pure, unadulterated rage. Fring continues.

“This is what comes of blood for blood, Hector,” he says. “Sangre por sangre.

Talk about brutal foreshadowing (something Gilligan and his writers continue to become more adept at layering into these episodes). This is the most we’ve ever heard Fring monologue on his own accord, and it was meant as straightforward revenge narrative. What we don’t know until the end of the episode, however, is that it is more than just a power-play by Fring to take over the cartel’s North American meth dealings. This is personal, poetic in its raw furious intent.

Fring can’t possibly know that he’s sowed the seeds here for Walter to successfully plot his demise. Perhaps, however, you can suggest that those seeds were planted 30 years earlier when Fring and his hermano Max Arciñega had their fateful meeting with Don Eladio and his men. In those days Fring was as impulsive and reckless as he’s accused Walter of being, knowing only that he’s got a foot in the world of methamphetamine production and he wants to take it to the next level.

By forcing a meeting with the kingpin in his own backyard, he sets in motion the destruction of perhaps the only man he’s ever cared about (at least the only one we’ve been privy to meeting). And it inspires the more careful nature he’s cultivated over the ensuring decades in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, while plotting to avenge the cold-blooded murder in the present day.

Blood for blood.

That fateful sit-down is among the sharpest-directed scenes in the entire history of the show. This younger version of Fring sees himself as taking the initiative, bringing a new drug to the attention of Don Eladio by giving “samples” to Eladio’s men who he knows will then return the news to their boss. Eladio feels his hand has been forced, that by disrespecting him, Fring needs to be put in his place. Thus he’s put in motion the murder of his chemist, Max Arciñega, who he’s groomed for the role all the way from the streets of Santiago. They are the chicken brothers, Los Pollos Hermanos.

There’s no more powerful scene in all of Breaking Bad than that close-up of Hector forcing Fring, sobbing openly, to watch his friend bleed to death while intoning: “Look at him. You did this to him.”

The implications of Fring’s hidden past, meanwhile, permeate this episode. As we become aware, Hank now suspects Fring is tied in with Gale, our murder victim who Hank believes is the long-hunted Heisenberg. Though Fring sells every other DEA agent and police detective on his story that Gale was nothing more than a scientist he’d provided with a college scholarship, a man he respected who simply couldn’t help but take shortcuts, Hank isn’t buying it. He also makes it clear that he’s looking deeper into Fring’s past than anyone else has dared.

“Is Gustavo Fring your real name?” he asks. “I know you’re a Chilean national, but there are no records of your ever living there.”

Fring backpedals, looking absolutely stunned for a moment before he gains his composure. Record-keeping under the Pinochet regime was notoriously lax, he says. “I’m sure if you keep digging you’ll find me.”

Moments later we see Gus, in the elevator, his fingers twitching uncontrollably.

No one else would ever notice, but this is clearly what he looks like when he fears he’s trapped in someone’s crosshairs, much in the way we see him a few moments prior, glaring at the police sketch of Victor, gleaned from the moments he was seen in Gale’s apartment. Later he asks Mike if there’s any way he can be traced back to those days in Chile. Mike’s cool response: “If I can’t find any trace of you before ’89, I seriously doubt Schrader can.”

There is, howvever, a history there, one hinted strongly at by Don Eladio as he sneers into Gus’ ear as the man watches his friend die. “The only reason you’re alive and he is not is because I know who you are,” Eladio says. “But understand. You are not in Chile anymore.”

Indeed. And Hank Schrader could yet prove to be a more dangerous adversary than either Fring or Walter would ever expect. He’s got terrific gut instincts as an officer of the law, and when he’s got his nose onto something, he won’t relent. Even when it means, however, that he makes some absolutely terrible decisions. Walter finds himself suckered into one of these situations when he agrees to drive Hank to a gem and mineral expo, only to discover that Hank’s real intention is to get Walter to place a tracking device on Fring’s car in front of the restaurant. Walter tries to hedge, says he doesn’t feel good about this, that it is a mistake. Hank becomes agitated.

“I need you to help me out, okay?” he almost cries. “This is really important to me. You gonna make me beg you? Just stick it in there!”

Walt reluctantly agrees to do it, and appears to follow Hank’s instructions, pretending he’s got to tie a shoe, only to place the device as he does so. We think Walt’s done it, then he goes into the restaurant and finds Fring at the counter. The exchange is tense and revealing.

“May I help you?” Fring asks, his face looking typically blank.

“I …. I …” Walter stammers.

“Sir?” Fring repeats coolly. “May I help you?”

“I didn’t do it,” Walter blurts, showing his hand, which contains the tracking device he has not placed on Fring’s car. The two men lock eyes, and Fring quietly responds.

“Do it.”

There’s an awkward pause, and then Fring clenches his teeth, repeating intensely.

Do. It. May I take your order?”

Walt obviously then goes out and does it. The device placed, he’s left desperate to get back to the lab, where he can stand firm and make his case to Fring that he’s not tainted, that his hand was forced only by a deceitful Hank.

“I swear to God,” Walt makes clear. “I thought I was driving the man to a gem and mineral show. And all of a sudden he has me pulling up to your restaurant and … and … and telling me that he’s investigating you!”

As he delivers the monologue we see and hear Walter becoming more and more unhinged, a scene which later is repeated as Max Arciñega defends his friend Gus, begging for Don Eladio to be merciful.

“Look, you and I we’ve had our differences, but I would never … my brother-in-law, evidence-wise, has nothing. He’s operating on pure conjecture. No one, not one person that he works with, thinks that you are anything other than the owner of a fast food chain. But if anything was to happen to Hank, then that would only draw their attention to you and therefore to me as well. We have a mutual interest in resolving this without violence. I will make sure that he discovers nothing.”

Of course Walter, as always, is playing both sides of everything. He insists on then storming into Jesse’s home, confronting him about whether he’s managed to get a meeting during which the ricin can be used to poison Fring. Walt tells Jesse to be aware, Hank is on to Fring, and “if Hank catches Gus, Gus catches us.” Here we see Hank and Walt juxtaposed against each other personality-wise: Hank is relentless, while Walt is impulsive, reckless and (more dangerous) desperate. Jesse tells Walt that Hank has nothing on Fring, that’s all he can say.

“Otherwise Hank would be dead,” Jesse argues logically. Walt’s not buying. He tells Jesse to tell Mike that he’s worried about Hank’s investigation, that Hank knows who Jesse is (obviously) and that since Jesse did kill Gale, “there’s that.” All of which would be fodder for Jesse to request a sit-down with Fring so he can discuss what to say if Hank and the DEA come calling.

“You need to be properly coached!” Walt says. “And when you get near him, you put this [the pack of tainted cigarettes] to use.”

Jesse knows Mike’s just going to tell him to shut his mouth if he gets busted. No way he’ll set up a meeting.

Insist on it then!” Walt all but screams. “Gus’ ass is on the line, and trust me, he will meet with you if he thinks you’re a liability.”

Jesse responds coldly. “No. He will waste me if he thinks I’m a liability.”

Right-o. And right now, no one’s looking more like a liability-in-waiting than Walter. Jesse goes to the bathroom and Walt notices Jesse’s phone vibrating. The text reads: “Meeting is off. Something came up. Boss is busy.”

Flush. Jesse returns, and Walt tells him it sounds like he got a phone call.

“Anything important?” he asks, sarcastically, before leaving, now suspecting he can no longer even trust Jesse to toe his line. If only Jesse knew just how cold-blooded Walter can be when he feels backed into a corner.

The heart of this episode is impulsivity. Fring’s impulsive need to push himself into Don Eladio’s business gets Max killed, setting up thirty years of revenge planning. Blood for blood on a grand scale. Meanwhile, Hank’s impulsive decision to draw Walter into his investigation simply shows how much of a blind spot he has for his brother-in-law, the one man who has the ability to ensure he’ll forever be off track in his search for the elusive Heisenberg. And Walter, backed into a corner by his lack of any ability to simply (as Mike put it a few episodes prior) “take yes for an answer,” feels he has to assert himself as the man in control, even as all that control seems to be melting away.

For an episode so full of back-story and foreshadowing, “Hermanos” proves to be the lynchpin of the Fourth Season, an episode which heralds potential downfalls for nearly every key character, even as it hints at what the ultimate endgame will be for the season’s final face-off. And though it’s the only tantalizing flash we may ever have into the history of Gustavo Fring, what a flash it was. Few episodes of television ever have this much raw power, or this many fully-drawn characters, all fighting at cross-purposes. The message of Season Four is that there’s only room in Albuquerque for one kingpin. Gustavo Fring and Walter White may believe they are now polar opposites, but they instead are so alike it’s clear only one can come out of the season alive.

Deje que el flujo de sangre. Let the blood flow. Jonathan Sanders

 

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

S4E9 Bug

When I saw the title for this episode before watching it for the first time, I was certain that we were in store for another limited character (Jesse/Walt) bottle episode like the one we were treated to in Season Three’s “Fly”. While I was wrong about the bottle episode aspect (short of Saul, we pretty much run the gambit on checking in with various characters, locations, and ramping up plot points), the relationship between Walter and Jesse at the end of this episode pretty much represents the polar opposite of where we left them at the end of “Fly”. In that episode, Walter is dealing with his guilt, which while not ending in a drug-induced confession of his sins against Jesse, does lead to a rather fond exchange of feelings. The resulting kinship at the end that episode leads to the quid pro quo relationship in the final episodes of Season Three, wherein Walt saves Jesse, and then Jesse saves Walt. I’m not sure either of those events would have worked all that well had we not had an episode like “Fly” creating the necessary connective bonds.

Now consider that bloodied brawl that ensues after Walt yells: “Go to Mexico and screw up like I know you will, and end up in a barrel somewhere.” Jesse draws the first literal blood here (specifically, he throws the bug at Walter’s head knocking his glasses off and putting a gash above his right eye), but it is Walter who has irreparably (seemingly) damaged their relationship. Walter has always been an egotist. Sure he started his meth cooking venture from a desire to leave something behind for his family, but in his mind, he has always been the lynch pin that everything else depended upon.

Ever since Walter crossed Gus at the end of Season Three, his previously growing power and influence has pretty much stymied. One of his attempts to fortify some sort of power or bartering maneuverability has been out of a desire to bring the distant “post-Gale Boetticher” Jesse back into the fold. Jesse has been understandably resistant to this the entire season, though he does reach out once or twice (go-carts anyone?). So when Jesse finally calls Walter over to confide all the new overburdening developments in his life, he genuinely needs that partner/father figure that was there for him at the end of Season Three. But the Walter Jesse needs isn’t the one who shows up at his house at the end of “Bug”. Instead we have a Walter that’s seeing solipsistic red, blinded to the fact that he finally has Jesse confiding in him — we have Heisenberg.

We get to see Walt do some soul searching (a rarity for him) in the next episode “Salud”. It’s probably worth noting that his alcohol and medicine-induced candidness in those upcoming scenes with Junior seem to have been what he needed with Jesse at the end of “Bug” (that same candidness at the end of “Fly” is also due in part to Jesse slipping an unreasonable Walter a few sleeping pills). There’s probably an on set joke about how the world might be a better place if Walter just self-medicate a bit more.

But I digress. Looking at this episode in light of the remaining episodes of Season Four, we known that the Jesse/Walt relationship ends in a state of reconciliation (via mutual goal), but it’s done-so at a considerable risk to Walter’s life (Jesse’s gun to his head) and, more importantly to Walter’s continuing development, at a considerable cost to his “soul” (poisoning Brock, which is a telling callback to “Full Measure”, when Gus, incensed at Walter’s insinuation, asks Walter, “are you asking me if I ordered the murder of a child?”).

Again, there are a lot of things happening in this episode beside the bombshell Jesse/Walt fallout. Skyler’s re-encounter with Ted Beneke stands out as the most isolated of the bunch, not to mention lending itself as one of the funnier moments of the season in a particularly serious episode. It probably makes sense that it stands alone from the other plot threads hurtling toward the season’s end. After all, it does have its narrative roots from a time when Walter and Skyler were unofficially divorced. So why shouldn’t the re-emergence of the thread stand equally apart?

As an aside, Ted’s return is one of those seemingly dropped narrative threads that unexpectedly make its return. This is perhaps as good a place as any to compliment the show on its ability to really use everything in its established narrative cannon. Something else could have been done here that caused funds to come up short in “Crawlspace” a few episodes later. Instead, bringing back Ted’s IRS issues, and growing Skyler’s independence in the money laundering business is just a really tightly woven plot development. If I had to guess, I’d say that Skyler’s Season Three involvement in helping to “cook” (nice wordplay by the writers there) Ted’s books was introduced to develop Skyler’s Breaking Bad parallel to Walter. But you wouldn’t know it from how logically the thread comes back so late in Season Four. We get to see the efforts of this cleanup in the episodes to come, culminating of course in the extremely unsettling conclusion to “Crawlspace”, wherein Skyler’s and Walter’s separate narrative arcs collide spectacularly.

Gus is still between a rock and a hard place with the cartel and Hank’s private investigation. You see it with his men’s scramble to cleanup in anticipation of a possible DEA sweep, but you wouldn’t know it from Gus himself who really begins to cement, as Jesse terms it, “that Terminator shit,” walking head on to sniper fire. It is interesting for the growing mythology of Gus’ super villain-esque power, especially when comparing it to Walter’s lack thereof. I’ve heard some people discuss how much more they like Gus than late-series Walter. I wonder if this isn’t just because of all that we don’t know about Gus, and how much we do know about Walter. After all, people working for Gus seem to be in as much danger as anyone Walter comes in contact with. See Mike’s redshirt henchman who loses his life to sniper fire at the other end of the cargo ramp Jesse is helping carry.

This brings us to another character development moment for Jesse. Yes, the ending between Walter and Jesse is a huge moment for those characters and the show, but there’s something else happening for Jesse that first appears when he’s talking to Mike during the cleanup at the distribution center. Walter has been spewing paranoid rhetorical logic in Jesse’s ear all season, so it’s interesting to see Jesse try to do his best Mr. White impression in a brief conversation with Mike in regards to Hank, and whether or not it’s “illogical for [Gus] to off the dude.”

This itself isn’t all there is to the scene, but it says a few things about Jesse. It shows us that despite his distance and annoyance with Walter’s persistent paranoid nagging, he has actually been listening. The rhetoric is also astonishingly like what Walter has been saying to him all season, albeit a transparent emulation of Walter (a superbly nice performance here by Aaron Paul). Taking that into account, this scene makes the final one with Walter all the more heartbreaking. The other, equally important character development note here — and I think the first actual foreshadowing of Jesse’s future role to play in Gus’ organization that goes beyond Walt’s theory of creating a wedge between them — comes when Mike asks, “if something were to happen to [Hank], would you have a problem with that?” Jesse’s reply — “who really cares what I think?” — is itself answered by Mike in the asking of the question.

Mike isn’t exactly a small-talk kind of guy, so when he asks if Jesse would have a problem with them offing Hank, it says that Mike and Gus do in fact care what Jesse thinks. It’s a moment that plays so discreetly before a large action beat, that most viewers probably miss it on the first viewing. Cut to the end the final scene of the episode where Walt attempts to reinforce the idea that no one cares what Jesse is thinking. This is also the episode where Jesse is invited to Gus’ house, wherein he is not only asked by Gus for help, but afforded a large amount of import; it is no wonder the end of “Bug” is a mercurial one for the Walt/Jesse relationship. Brian Steinbach

Salud & Crawl Space

 

S4E10 Salud

You really have to admire the way that Gustavo Fring can fold his jacket.

Look at his style: sleek, professional, obtaining minimal folds and wrinkles. He calmly leaves it on the counter in Don Eladio’s mansion bathroom, before promptly putting a towel on the floor in front of the toilet so he can proceed to purge the contents of his own stomach, having willingly ingested poison-tainted tequila not long before. Why do this? Simple: because Gustavo Fring has just completed one of the most brutal acts of revenge ever seen, slowly plotting his moves years after his other half of “Los Pollos Hermanos” died at Eladio’s hands, in front of this very swimming pool, no less.

Yet as elaborate as Gus’ epic plot for revenge is, this episode reveals a lot of personal moments, and nothing is more private that Walt trying to conceal his pain, both physical and emotional, following the friendship-ending fight he had with Jesse one episode prior in “Bug”. His glasses having popped a lens, the blood from his headwound spreading through his bedsheets, Walt can barely fathom what just happened outside of the fact that it was the biggest mistake he has ever made in his life. All the while, Skyler has to deal with unveiling Walt Jr.’s big birthday present all by herself: a P.T. Cruiser. Few things sting worse than her big plan to go out riding with him afterwards only to have Walt Jr. indicate that he’s “really starving” and could go for those pancakes she started making right about now. Although Walt Jr. has been the subject of a long-standing emotional back-and-forth between Walt and Skyler, there really is nothing that would make Walt Jr. happier than to just see them back together again.

Hence, that’s why his first journey with the P.T. Cruiser is over to Walt’s apartment, refusing to accept his lack of response to door rings and phone calls as a reason to ignore him. Walt reluctantly lets his son in to see him half-naked, brutally bruised and injured. Although Walt chalks it up a fight that happened after he fell back into gambling, his emotional scars are something he just can’t hide, soon breaking down and crying in front of Walt Jr., as vulnerable a moment as we’ve ever seen from Walt, who immediately tries to course-correct it the next day, saying that he knows what it’s like, his own father having been died when he was six years old. Walt describes how he was actually terrified of his aging, ill dad, but people over the years have painted a picture of him that is very vivid, an ideal memory. When he asks Walt Jr. to not remember him like that, Walt Jr. counters immediately, saying that this was actually the most “real” he had ever seen his dad act in some time.

Everything we need to know, however, comes after Walt’s emotional breakdown when Walt Jr. gets his dad back into bed, and while drifting off to sleep, Walt asks his son what he thought of his birthday gift, to which Walt Jr. lies in response, leading a half-asleep Walt to accidentally call him Jesse. Walt Jr. seems unsure of how to process the comment, but it only goes to show that even now, even with his family as the chief motivator for his initial journey down this dark road, there’s only one relationship that Walt truly, truly cares about, and that’s with his prodigal son, Jesse.

Speaking of, Jesse is at first uneasy when he’s brought across the border to show the cartel’s labs how to cook his patented blue meth. The amount of blowback he gets from their on-hand chemist (played with zeal by Carlo Rota), scoffing at Jesse’s appearance and lack of knowledge about basic chemical mixing, creates a real moment for Jesse to step up, tossing every word back at the doctor’s face, demanding a clean facility (all those years with Walt have taught him well), and finally giving Jesse a chance to prove he could do this all by himself, even as dozens of on-lookers with gas masks stare from the warehouse walkways above. Jesse achieves an astonishing purity (96.2%), but had he not been completely abandoned by Walt when he needed advice most in “Bug”, Jesse may not have been forced to step up in the way that he did here. His solo outing now completely justified, the emotional gap between Jesse and Walt will only be that much harder to bridge.

There’s another moment in this episode that is worth noting as well: after the violent bloodshed and pool deck filled with corpses following Gus’ gift of poisoned tequila, Mike tells Jesse to “make yourself useful” and grab a gun, Jesse helping Mike awkwardly carry Gus’ poisoned-but-alive body to any car to get away. Mike gets shot by one of the few men that are still alive under Don Eladio’s command, but what we should note is just how quick and impulsive Jesse swings around, emptying his clip at the faceless muscle without flinching. While Jesse’s moral compass will prevent him from ever killing without regret, it’s obvious now that following his dispatching of Gale, Jesse is not entirely unaccustomed to the art now. That look of pain in his eyes as he fires (bless you, Aaron Paul) tells us all we need to know, and just as when he kept seeing flashes of Gale’s face while playing the video game Rage, he will forever be haunted by that painful regret he holds inside, miles removed from the remorseless dispatching of life that has become Gus, Mike, and now Walt’s near-daily trade.

Gus has done some coldly calculated things in his day, but “Salud” goes to show that he will always get his revenge, even if he has to play it cool for years on end to achieve it. Despite being near death, the stage is now set for a final confrontation between Walt & Gus, and even with the two being a whole country apart at this moment, first-time viewers of the series can only expect the bolts to tighten from here. Drink up, everybody: sometimes the poison remains at the bottom of the glass. Evan Sawdey

 

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

S4E11 Crawl Space

When that final image of Walter White finally presents itself to a first-time viewer, there’s little-change that it will be anywhere near as indelible than that of the howling, hysterical maniac desperately scraping the dirt beneath his house for his hidden rainy day fund. “Crawl Space” is absolutely not the end of Walter White; it’s not the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning or the end of the end or any other Churchillian construction. As the camera slowly peels away from Walt, lying prone and no longer crazily laughing at God-knows-what, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something has indeed ended.

By any reasonable metric, Walt’s foray into drug dealing has been an unmitigated success. Despite his recurring dalliances with mayhem and death, Walt is very much alive, having paid off his astronomical medical bills by manufacturing methamphetamine by the ton. He innovated the New Mexican meth game and the surrounding region with a speedy blue sensation that has created a windfall for him and his associates that would make even the creators of Beanie Babies blush.

For the better part of the last two seasons however, the walls have been closing in. Once a valued member of the Los Pollos Hermanos: “Makers of Meth and Death” Team, Walt has long since fallen out of favor with drug overlord/fried chicken mastermind Gus Fring. Walt has tried to outfox and outwit Gus to no end and despite Jesse’s protestations that seem to be all that stands in the way of Walt and a bullet to the head, it really is only a matter of time before Gus gets his way. As Jesse learned, the value add proposition as it related to Walt has diminished proportionally. Now it’s a mere sentiment that Jesse holds that keeps Gus from leaving Walt in a ditch in the desert.

Walter has simply screwed up too many times. He is blamed for tipping off Hank about the laundry where Gus and Walt teamed up to transform meth cookery into an industrial art. In reality, he only tagged along to gather intel regarding Hank’s knowledge about their operation and his spur-of-the-moment decision to veer into oncoming traffic, rather than pull into the laundry, did at least temporarily throw his brother-in-law off the scent and allow Walt to keep his cover. But the fried chicken cum meth gang is a demanding bunch. Too many betrayals, too many screw-ups to forgive. Walt is a dead man, it’s only a matter of time.

Now Walt is left with only one viable option: escape.

A more sensible man would have deployed his parachute long ago. The bloodshed already visited upon Hank and the potential for even worse violence that may be coming for Skyler and his children would have scared most men in Walt’s position into running for safety. But Walt is very far from normal.

What started as an uncanny penchant for stomaching threats of bodily harm, long-term incarceration, or worse, became a pathological obsession with testing his limits. Walt has never backed down, always overpromised, and somehow always managed to over-perform. So it comes as something of a surprise to see him frantically interrupt Saul in his strip-mall-chic law office to get the phone number of the “cleaner” who will find the Whites new identities and lives far away from the danger rapidly enveloping them in Albuquerque.

Unfortunately for Walt, Skyler has handled L’affaire de Ted Beneke with considerably less precision than the other nefarious dealings he’s become accustomed to. Skyler can cook a mean book, so conversely she can uncover the machinations of the bush league accounting scam that Beneke is running with relative ease. Her disaffection from Walt might have driven her into Ted’s arms, but now she finds herself in league with another, more thoughtless kind of criminal who is all too happy to go down with the sinking ship, iron-clad lease to his new Mercedes in hand. Ted doesn’t want to merely pay off the IRS, he wants to keep the whole train rolling, fraudulent business practices and all. He smells the desperation on Skyler and attempts to fatten the purse she kindly extends to save him. Convincing of a more primal sort is in order.

Better call Saul!

Whether Skyler acts out of self-preservation or spite, Saul’s henchmen Kuby and Huell all too efficiently carry out their task. Ted signs the check and accepts the $617,000 that will keep him and Skyler out of the IRS’ crosshairs. The ignominious header that Ted suffers notwithstanding, things go according to plan, shooting Walter’s plan B to smithereens in the process. Now, the body of Ted Beneke is clogging the escape hatch and there’s no way out.

Escape has always been discussed as an option for Walter. Sure he and the family would have to leave Hank and Marie behind, but aside from that relationship, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot binding the Whites to Albuquerque. It was always a conceivable option and, on this day, the only one that will ensure their survival.

But Skyler is Walt’s blind spot. He has consistently eschewed any concern for the health of his marriage at every turn, lying, cajoling, and aw-shucksing his way to that toxic place where Walt and Skyler find themselves, sharing a roof and sometimes a bed, but almost nothing else. Walt knew she was getting the milkman treatment from Ted behind his back and he even feigned outrage (remember that weak hammer-style potted plant throw at Ted’s office window?). However, he never bore the scars of a man wounded by his wife’s infidelity. While she was off getting carnal knowledge of Ted, Walt could go play “cops and robbers” (or “meth dealers and DEA agents” if you like). He always thought that trading Skyler’s affection for the time required to run his meth business was what allowed him to continue his criminal dealings. Instead it’s the thing that, in this moment, appears to sow the very seeds of his demise.

The conclusion of “Crawl Space” spells the end of any chance of escape. Walt won’t be able to run from Gus. He’ll be forced to either accept his fate or to fight back. It’s a no-brainer what Walt’s course of action will be, he’s the nerdy fighter with balls as big as the Sonoran desert; but as always, there was another way. Robert Downs Schultz

End Times & Face Off

 

S4E12 End Times

This is Walter’s emotional bottle episode.

Typically a bottle episode would have a cast performing in a very limited setting, often for the sake of production costs. Though they often come about due to cutbacks that can be pretty transparent at times, they also allow for actors to really push their chemistry with each other. We saw it used to great effect in Season Three’s episode “Fly”. “End Times”, however, is not a bottle episode in the traditional sense. The cold open has black SUVs marshaling up to the White residence to cart off Skyler and Holly to Hank and Marie’s house (the bottle).

The result, as the SUVs pull away from the White household with Walter standing alone, is the bottling of his entire family. For the rest of the episode, Walter is free from any explicit emotional obligations, and can thus proceed to plan out what is perhaps the most complicated, and convoluted, game of chess ever devised on the show so far. Though this episode is all about Walter’s preemptive strike on Gus, Walter’s plan involves winning over ex-partner and estranged pseudo-son Jesse. Since Walter has bottled up the rest of his emotional ties, some might say that the Heisenberg persona has evicted the Walter persona for the final two episodes of the season. With all other emotional ties tied up, Jesse’s relationship with Walter needs to be re-examined.

We saw Jesse and Walter’s relationship melt down just a few episodes earlier. And during “Salud” we saw the fallout of this encounter in the form of Walter’s emotional break. As Junior so keenly noted, it was one of the first “real” moments of emotion that we’ve seen from Walter in quite a while. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing prior episodes, but Walter’s drug and alcohol induced state following the loss of Jesse is a starkly different Walter than we have interacting with Jesse in “End Times”.

If Walter’s accidental murmuring of Jesse’s name as Junior leaves his bedroom in “Salud” tells us anything, it’s that deep down, Walter sees Jesse as a son. But remember, Walter has had all his emotional ties bottled up back at the Schrader house. There is no room for emotions in the game Walter is playing just now, and Jesse is no exception. For now, let’s turn to the man who should be emotionally freed up to enact all the calculated moves necessary to bring down the “superhuman” Gus Fring, but for some reason doesn’t have whatever catalyst is necessary to make it all happen.

Walter has always had this cold, pragmatic way about him. Even if you identify Season Four unequivocally as Walt’s “gone to the dark side” season, you can see his logical decision making process throughout the series. It’s Walt’s fundamental flaw. Consider the cold open of the season 1 episode “And the Bag’s in the River”, wherein we see young Walter listing all of the known chemical parts of the human body with fellow grad student — and former flame — Gretchen, but they are “0.111985%” off. “Seems like something’s missing, doesn’t it? There has to be more to a human being than that” younger Walter says to Gretchen. Her response — “What about the soul?” — is met with a flirtatious double entendre from Walt: “There’s nothing but chemistry here.” Despite the quick flirtatious wit of his response, it’s an episode like “End Times” that really shows how little consideration Walt has given to the incalculable human equation.

Walter’s frustrating impotence (frustrating for Walt and some viewers as well) throughout Season Four, is designed to make this flaw transparent. So when we see the scene in Walt’s kitchen with the makeshift bomb trigger, and after a number of ineffective clicks that eventually result in a pretty feeble puff of smoke, it doesn’t exactly garner a large degree of confidence in Walter’s plan. And sure enough, the episode ends with Walt’s failed remote bombing of Gus.

Many viewers left this episode exasperated, focusing on how Gus could have known, or how he could have intuited that something was amiss. It is a high-tension moment that left a lot of people scratching their heads in both wonder and incredulity. Earlier in the episode, Walter tells Jesse that Gus has been “ten steps ahead” at every turn. And that’s how Walter sees the world. It’s all some weird combination of high stakes poker and chess. Seeing his elaborate trap fail at the end of the episode is an elevating scene for the mythology of Gus Fring as a “super human criminal mastermind.” But it is perhaps even more telling about Walt’s fundamental flaw.

Walter is a schemer. He’s constantly contemplating moves, weighing the odds, and manipulating others around him. But the one thing he rarely accounts for — and it seems to undermine him at every turn this season — is that the human condition doesn’t have a 100% calculable formula. Gus Fring didn’t decide not to get into his car because he’s superhumanly sensed Walter’s presence, or from catching a glint of sunlight reflecting off of Walt’s binoculars. And in truth, I would argue that there’s no need to account for it (or at least in the story show runner Vince Gilligan is interested in telling), and Walter just doesn’t understand when he repeats, “Why did you stop?” to himself on the adjacent rooftop. That other unpredictable/unknown human “0.111985%” he didn’t account for is ultimately why his plan fails. Though Walter’s plans have tended to work out in the long haul, nearly all of his moves are completed due to some kind of incalculable action or emotion on someone else’s part.

As further evidence for Walter’s calculation error, juxtaposing this scene with Gus’ equally methodical (and successful) mass murder of the cartel helps distinguish the difference between Gus’ success and Walt’s failures. Walt is acting on a reasoned need for self-preservation (some might even say self-fulfilling), whereas Gus is operating on an unadulterated need for revenge. So where Walter has reasoned that he needs to kill Gus (because that reasoning says that the logical — and thus inevitable in Walt’s mind — thing for Gus to do is to kill him), Gus just “needs” to rage kill. In re-examining the conclusion to “End Times”, it’s clear that the focus is not so much on Gus’ superhuman senses, but instead just another reminder of Walter’s inability to adjust for the human factor that the show has been subtly hinting at ever since Season One. Ultimately, it is emotion that successfully allows Walter’s bomb to be triggered in the season finale, but it’s Gus’ hatred that gets him into the room, and it’s Tio Salamanca with his finger on the trigger, not Walt.

Returning to Jesse, it’s important to note that it’s also the human factor that saved Walt when Jesse had a gun to his head. I think we can safely read it as a moment where Walter thinks his carefully crafted plan has led Jesse to logically agree, even though Jesse pretty much nailed Walter’s scheme on the head. But it seems to be Walter’s evocation of the death of Andrea’s brother at the hands of Gus’ street dealers that finally sways Jesse. I say “seems” because like Gus’ decision to abandon his car, it’s an un-spelled out decision. I know that there is an irony in citing the incalculable human condition as concrete evidence for the motive for Jesse’s decision to not pull the trigger. But after a season of thinly veiled monologues designed to manipulate and win over Jesse (and Jesse has certainly demonstrated that he has been aware of this heavy handed rhetoric for some time), the outcome of this scene may be as simple as Jesse’s inability to pull the trigger on Walter because of their past relationship.

Even after his fallout with Walter in “Bug”, we have seen Jesse repeatedly stick his neck out to keep Gus from offing Walter now that he is no longer needed for Gus to continue his operation. But we ultimately don’t know. It’s an unexplained conclusion that requires a leap on our part. Unlike Walter, Jesse doesn’t stop to chart out his decisions like elements on a chalkboard. The difficulty in pinning down Jesse or Gus’ explicit line of thought in these instances is what distinguishes them from Walter’s “There’s nothing but chemistry here” attitude. Brian Steinbach

 

Image: Steve Ellis, from the All Bad Things webcomic

S4E13 Face Off

Breaking Bad has always had excellent episode titles but the Fourth Season ends with a real peach. “Face Off”. At first glance it looks like a simple action cliché, face off, face down, showdown. But this is a show that demands deeper readings, and even this apparently simple title offers a kaleidoscope of meanings.

The most straightforward of them is the showdown between Walter and Gus. They’ve been circling one another like hungry hyenas for a season and a half, but now it’s time for resolution. New Mexico isn’t big enough for the both of them and one way or another, it’s time for one of them to check out. They don’t share a single scene in this episode, but each is present in the other. Until the end.

The richer meaning of the title is in the sense of removal of face or, more properly, of a façade. Gus is finally exposed to the world, vindicating Hank in the process, who is himself revealed to be the capable and effective detective that we, the audience, knew all along. Walter, who is has been at the center of everything since day one, is revealed to be possessed of a greater ruthlessness than that for which we’d previously given him credit.

Walter White is an exercise in examining the capacity for evil or plain old wrongdoing that lies beneath our polite, public persona. He is, however far from the sole example here. It appears in several characters, of whom Gus has been the most successful, hiding his true nature and occupation beneath a veneer so complete that he is only exposed in death, and particularly in the incriminating manner of that death. He has been this way from the first time we saw him, way back towards the end of the Second Season. He hovered in the background, hidden in plain sight until Walt forced him to show himself and drop the Happy to Help You act. Since then, he’s maintained that façade with incredible skill and determination, driving a Volvo “because of its safety record” in public while in secret he can calmly walk through sniper fire, or willfully consume poison with the intention of vomiting it out later on.

Giancarlo Esposito has delivered a masterclass in carrying two characters in one. Here, in Face Off, he has a final opportunity to demonstrate his methods, taking the time to change out of his Pollos Hermanos duds and into his favorite drug baron suit before heading off for his date with destiny. His trademark Zen-like calm remains in place until he sees the bomb and lets out a scream, the first time we’ve seen him do so, possibly the only time he’s done so since he watched his beloved Max die. Hector, that smug snake, was present on both occasions.

We can forgive him both lapses. He is only human, as the impromptu anatomy lesson confirmed. That Gus loses half his face is no accident. It is in the moment of death that his true nature is revealed; in life he may have been a pillar of the community, but in death he will be known as Gus Fring the secret drug baron. The mask he wore had to be removed, even if it was his own face.

Gus’ death was the center of a circle of revelations. In this season finale, a little something has to be revealed about everyone.

Firstly, Hank. Brash, oafish, sexist, racist gone-to-seed jock Hank. The kind of guy who wears a white Stetson on his wedding day and loves it. We all knew he was onto the right track, even if the rest of the DEA didn’t. He is, whatever his loud exterior may tell you, a dedicated, determined and intelligent cop. He got Gus’ before anyone else and finally, his dogged pursuit of the connection has proved fruitful and he is rightly vindicated by it.

And Walter? People differ in the extent of their sympathies to Walter, but very few can remain with him after this. The clever reveal at the end, showing the Lily of the Valley in his garden and implying that he was responsible for Brock’s poisoning, shows just how far he has come. The scene outside his house, in which he manipulates his neighbor Becky into flushing out Gus’ goons is another case in point. Walter is prepared to use anyone, in any way, to achieve his ends. It doesn’t matter if he’s known them for years (the Whites are close enough to their neighbors that Becky has a key to their house), or if they’re just some innocent kid. Walter White will do whatever it takes and screw anybody who gets hurt. Just take a moment to ponder what that means for the promised Hank vs Heisenberg theme of the final eight episodes.

For now, it still surprises those who supposedly know him well. “You brought a bomb … into a hospital?” asks an exasperated Jesse. Yes, of course he did. He’s Badass Numero Uno. And later on he’ll bring one into a nursing home with the intention of actually using it.

And of using Hector, who is at least a willing patsy. He too, has been wearing a mask. The doddery old incontinent nursing home grouch, so apparently harmless that his nurse has no context with which to recognize the letters DEA when he Ouija boards them for her? Even those who know exactly of what he was once capable now consider him absent of threat. When Gus sends Tyrus to scope out Hector’s room, he’s looking for bugs, for cameras, maybe Gomie hiding under the bed. What he doesn’t think to do is check Hector’s wheelchair for improvised ordnance. Why bother? He’s just some paralyzed old fool, incapable of going to the bathroom himself. What possible threat could he be? But then, what possible threat could a schoolteacher be? A fast food entrepreneur? Agent White Stetson? Look at the man, not the mask.

It was satisfying for Hector to be the agent of Gus’ demise, and not only because it was only after Gus had let his guard down. He may have been a cruel, vicious scumbag, but after all Hector had been through, it was rather sweet for him to have the last laugh, and poignant that they at least could die together.

It’s also possible to derive some satisfaction from Walter’s exit from the season. At the time of production, it was believed that this would be the final episode, not merely of the season, but of Breaking Bad as a whole. There is a sense of an ending throughout the final moments, from the destruction of the superlab to the reassurance that Brock is going to make it; from the reconciliation between the two leads, and their handshake on the roof to the neat and nasty twist that Walter had been the poisoner all along. Furthermore, there’s the final words of the episode, from Walter to Skyler; “I won.” A victory. What better ending than that?

Can it really be so neat? Perhaps not. Fortunately, the show was renewed for a Fifth Season and Walter’s path to Hell was extended just a little further. The Gus Fring plot strand will rightly come to be regarded as one of the key story arcs of the entire show. But it’s not the story arc and to close on this moment would have been a distraction. There’s still one more mask to remove. We’re not done with Walter yet. Michael Noble

PopMatters