3:55 pm Jul. 16, 20123
Each Monday, Starlee Kine will write about the previous night's episode of "Breaking Bad." This is the first installment.
After so many months gone, we return in the future.
Walter White is eating breakfast in a Denny’s, just like at the start of last season. Only then he had Jesse Pinkman with him, the two of them in their matching Kenny Rogers T-shirts, after having gambled their lives and won.
Now Walt is alone, and on his apparent birthday, too. He snaps the bacon on his plate in half as though he is breaking its neck and then arranges it into the number fifty two over his eggs and hash browns. It looks a little like an atomic bomb going off, which could signify many things; the short fuse that is Walt’s temper when his pride has been bruised; the cancer that may be again spreading through his lungs; the machine gun he’s about to exchange an envelope full of cash for.
Right before he does, though, he takes a moment to continue chatting with his waitress. She mentions a trip she once took back east, to a town outside Boston, Swampscott (“I want to say I liked it”) and Walt looks lost in his thoughts as he nods and says, “Great science museum.”
And with that line, we are reminded of the man we started out on this trip with, also on his birthday. That one was his fiftieth and since about a year passed between the series premiere and the season four finale, that means that either this Blade Runner Denny’s world is either happening another year after that … or Walt’s alias, Mr. Lambert, has a different birthday from his.
The gun dealer is played by character actor Jim Beaver who, judging from the way the internet freaked out over his cameo, I’m assuming is pretty beloved. I’ve never seen "Deadwood" or "Justified" so factor this into your reading of my critical assessment if you like; but judging from the way Walt tells the dealer that the gun is never leaving town, it seems he’s not feeling great about being alive at all and is intending to remedy that problem very soon.
Signing onto "Breaking Bad" can feel being on Adderall, both in the way it makes your heart feel like it’s going to burst out of your chest and also because it’s all about the extended release. If the show is, as Vince Gilligan has said from the beginning, the story of a Mr. Chips becoming a Scarface, Walt will be dead by the end of the show. The game is now figuring out how this will happen and whether his death will be a literal or moral one; the reference to the ambiguous final Sopranos diner scene at this Denny's, as he notices a man enter the restaurant out of the corner of his eye, did not feel accidental.
Scarface was shot in the back and even if he isn’t literally felled by Jesse, I anticipate some sort of final betrayal from Walt’s impressionable prodigy. I know that in the history of filmed entertainment there has never been an accidental cough and so all indications are that Walt’s cancer is back.
Walt’s cough and those pills, chugged in haste in the Denny's bathroom after the gun dealer leaves him there, seemed too overt for this show, at least this early on in the beginning of the end; but one thing is for sure, it won’t be Walt’s disease that brings him down.
Last season he told Walt Jr. about his father, who died of Huntington’s disease. His only memory of him is of the rattling sound his breath made: “There was nothing in it,” he tells his son. “I don’t want that to be the memory you have of me when I’m gone.”
He was referring to the weakened state he was in while under the influence of painkillers and booze, but he might as well have been talking about the cancer too. Walt Jr. tells him, “Remembering you that way wouldn’t be so bad. The bad way to remember you is the way you’ve been this whole last year. At least last night you were real.”
For Walt, though, the real, most true version of himself is Heisenberg. He’d rather have his son remember him as powerful kingpin, who backed down to no one and did what he had to, to provide for his family on his own terms. He’s clearly not happy to hear Walt Jr. go on, a bit later, about how his brother-in-law D.E.A. agent Hank is an even bigger hero now that Gus is dead, and Hank's theories vindicated. It’s the sort of remark that could wind up with Albuquerque burned to the ground.
Walt’s real self is represented less in the science museum line then in what he does as he leaves the diner. Under the plate he leaves behind, the food almost untouched, he slips a hundred-dollar bill, despite her having told him his breakfast was on the house. This seemed to me to be not an act of generosity but of bravado. Walter White has never been one to react maturely to the offer of a free anything. As far as I’m concerned, that waitress has a speck or two of blood on her hands for whatever happens next. It also raises the question of why he showed her his ID, proving it was his birthday, if he hadn't intended to accept the free meal. I think it was a combination of wanting a little morning fix of risk taking and, as always, wanting to be acknowledged and seen even when it’s not really him. Once again he’s in the position of not being able to come out and say who he is or take credit for all the things he’s done.
Then we are back where we last left off. Skyler is on the phone with Walt, looking terrified as Walt tells her, “I won.” Walt busies himself around the house disposing of evidence. This show is so good at addressing loose ends and Walt remembered the Lily of the Valley plant at the same instant I thought of it too (although the way Saul presented the ricin cigarette was a little too wrapping-up for me.) His cleaning up the kitchen harkened to the early days of the show, all those scenes with him and Jesse setting up their D.I.Y. lab. I never thought that bathtub acid scene would seem almost carefree in comparison to what he’s dealing with now. He only manages to take one gulp of his bourbon before he remembers another, bigger problem: That lab surveillance camera that he loathed, because of its telltale heart aspect—it always made him feel watched and judged, though it was also ultimately his only way of getting Gus’ attention.
The preview for the premiere showed the Mike-speeding-down-the-highway scene and pointing his gun at Jesse and Walt and I have to say, I wish I hadn’t seen the preview. Maybe then I wouldn’t have been let down by how quickly Mike became a part of the team. I, of course, enjoyed all his lines and jokes (we love him) and being the long play that this show is, there will be plenty more twists and turns along the way, but I don’t buy that he would’ve caved so easily. Walt wants to win and survive, Jesse wants a father figure who approves of him but Mike is about loyalty. He’s explicitly stated so. At the very least I wish they had at least come up with a better argument than “It’s a three-man job” because, was it really?
Walt started the show as a broken man, unable to even father or be a father to the son who came into this world without everything working. But now it’s everyone else who's falling apart. Mike’s ear still hasn’t healed and now he’s got that bullet wound in his gut. Hank’s using crutches just like Walt. Jr. There are pieces of Gus’s men all over the blown-up lab. Ted Beneke looks downright sci-fi.
The path of destruction that Walt has wrought is widening. He’s even able to inflict damage on a place that traffics in wreckage: The junkyard guy is wary of using his magnet because it’s a vital part of his livelihood. Walt pays him off and then promptly leaves the magnet at the crime scene.
Walt is feeling indestructible and all-knowing, very much in top supervillain form (Magneto was the first who came to mind).
“Because I say so,” he tells Mike.
It’s always Heisenberg who's pulling out the dad lines to the family he cares about most. Maybe he’s thinking his body is full of such a powerful energy that he will be able to blast away the cancer too, if he can just turn the dial on his brilliant mind high enough. But this kind of thinking makes you sloppy. Just as the body count numbers are rising, so are the number of living people who are getting involved. Walt appears to be assembling a motley sort of posse. At the junkyard, two workers bump fists when the laptop shatters. More men mean more muscle but it also means more potential for loose lips.
The moment that had the most impact on me last season was the episode that ended with Walt in his crawlspace, having temporarily lost his mind. He has just realized that all the horrible consequences of what he had set into motion—Jane and the plane crash and Gale and Hank—were for nothing: he was broke. The great, messy waste of it all was enough to make me want to cackle a little too. Walt still has no money but when he asks Jesse if he can have an advance, Jesse agrees immediately. It’s the perfecting summing up of their dynamic. If the tables had been turned, Walt would never have done the same, at least not so nonchalantly and power-struggle-free. Jesse keeps forgetting to actually play the chess game instead of acting like the pawn.
I had a theory last season that Walt was trying to get the audience’s attention as much as that of Gus. For the first half, none of the characters were listening to him and the camera itself seemed to be ignoring him too. He had fewer scenes while we learned more about Jesse and Hank and Gus and Mike. As he began to get his power back, the show’s camera afforded him more attention too. A similar trick seemed to happen with Jesse last night, as he lolled in his papasan chair (such a Jesse piece of furniture) and repeated his idea over and over again. He was blurry, blurry, blurry and then, as Walt finally acknowledged him, he became suddenly clear. It enhanced the supernatural aspect of Walt this episode; he has the power to render people invisible or seen. For Jesse to survive with his soul intact, he’s going to have to learn how to come into focus on his own.
Skyler goes to visit Ted in the hospital and Gilligan lets the camera linger on her face for awhile, long enough where you think he’s not going to show you what she’s seeing at all. The Ted plotline has always been a troublesome one, never quite working enough. I understand what the show is trying to do, show that in some fundamental ways Skyler is just like Walt. They are equally good and bad at the same things; both whizzes with facts and numbers but horrible at figuring out solutions that don’t lead to more problems. I wanted to love the “I forgive you” last beat but personally, I felt like it was supposed to feel more surprising and chilling than it did. He has convinced himself he just did what he needed to do to protect his family and that’s partly why he’s able to accept that Skyler paid off Ted, because she was trying to do that, too.
But as with everything when it comes to him, the bigger motivation is control. He thinks it’s up to him to decide who gets forgiven and who doesn’t, while at the same time giving himself a complete pass. If last season’s theme was surveillance, and about Walt’s all-consuming need to be seen and acknowledged, this season’s theme might be more about reflection. Walt looks at himself in the bathroom before going outside to retrieve his weapon. In his and Skyler’s bedroom, while his daughter coos in her crib, it will be his own reflection he raises his glass to in a toast. He’s no longer accountable to Gus or Tuco or even Skyler. He’s his own boss now. At least in the present day, he’s very much liking the man he’s seeing in the mirror.
Photos by Ursula Coyote/AMC unless otherwise noted.