8:55 am Jul. 31, 2012
Each week, Starlee Kine writes about the latest episode of "Breaking Bad." This is the third installment. Earlier: The Wizard of ABQ.
Crosswords are about surveying the whole page, giving as much weight to what you don’t know as to what you do. Just because a lawyer wears headphones to block out a conversation, doesn’t mean he’s unaware there are things being said. He sees all those blank squares that need to be filled back in and feels tired and rests his eyes.
To figure out how much of the puzzle is left to complete, we need to first understand the goal. Just what is it that will make everyone whole?
Mike’s motivations are the most straightforward. He’s in it for his freedom and also the money, although mostly that money will be used to secure his freedom. He is a complicated man who appreciates the simple pleasures of life: lunch at his favorite diner, board games with the granddaughter, catching an old movie on TV while reclining in a comfortable chair. His habits have a comforting tug. He does his daily puzzles in ink, vetting his answers the same way he vets his men. A word doesn’t get written down unless he knows for sure it’s right. “Your family will be made whole,” he tells his guy whose serving time for working in the Laundromat, “You have my word. You need more?”
What drives Jesse is much foggier because he has never stopped to define it to himself. It’s not the money. He seems to feel like he has plenty. In fact, this episode he went so far to say out loud that he didn’t care about it at all. A sense of purpose is probably the closest we’ll get.
The meth business has in many ways destroyed his life but he’s also stuck with it long enough to experience the heady pleasure of getting past an initial learning curve and showing real improvement. It’s something he never did in Mr. White’s class when he was a student. He likes the problem-solving aspect of it and now that he doesn’t have to clock such long hours, office-drone style, he seems to enjoy doing the work itself.
Gone are the disinterested asides and the hours spent spinning in circles on a lab chair. Gone is the lack of focus and the speakers cranked up so high so he doesn’t have to think. Now he’s into thinking. He’s discovered his mind is agile enough to encompass a future instead of just a past. He’s still Jesse, grabbing hot tortillas when the grown-ups aren't looking, but that’s where the Three Stooges comparison ends this week. It wasn’t so long ago that his pants would’ve then fallen down too.
For two seasons, the question of Walt’s usefulness hung in the air. Just what could he do that someone else couldn’t? Instead of acquiring new skills, increasing his value, like any good career counselor would’ve advised him to do, he eliminated the competition. Which is part of the reason he’s so resoundingly back to exactly where he started.
He thought that with Gus gone, it would all be so easy. But even though no one is overtly questioning his authority, he’s beginning to sense his own irrelevancy all by himself. Just as Jesse is growing up, Walt is moving backward. He’s watching gangster movies. He seems bored at the prospect of learning how to run a serious business. And he’s exchanging smirky looks with Jesse when Mike tells Landry from "Friday Night Lights" that they’re his boss.
“You’re looking at it wrong,” says Jesse the first time the new gang is dividing its spoils. “We maybe cleared less money but we got a bigger piece of the pie.” The problem is that that smirk is what makes Walter whole. If he could’ve lived in that moment forever, never seeing his family again or spending a dime of his money, he would have. Walt never felt more small-time to me than in that scene. It sent flashes of this one passive-aggressive bookstore manager I worked for when I was in college through my mind.
Since Walt has no real power, he must now strip his loved ones of theirs. How else will they keep believing he’s in charge?
On the couch, after their first day in their newest mobile lab, Walt starts up on the mind games right away. He asks Jesse if he’d ever tell his girlfriend, Andrea, the truth about what he’s done. “Meaning what, like, everything?” asks Jesse and as I wondered which specific deeds he was referring to, I realized how thoroughly he’s been absolved in my eyes.
This is part of the built-in trickiness of this show, the way it makes you feel such fondness for criminals. But still it was hard to recall what he had to feel guilty about while he was sitting next to Walt, whose past year is a timeline of direct culpability. The junkie dude whom Jesse was sent by Walt to dispose of ended up getting crushed under an ATM that was pushed over by his strung-out wife. The body in the bathtub in the first season was already dead, killed by Walt. Jesse was asleep when Jane died, although he did aid and abet her return to dope. His plan to take out those Gus Fring street guys before Walt intervened with his car was only because they’d killed Andrea’s little brother. His vengeance against Hank came after he was beat to a pulp while Walt proceeded to walk away from their stunt with his reputation and face intact.
When Jesse breaks bad, it’s reactive, motivated by either a sense of justice or skin-of-the-teeth survival. And rarely is it he who is doing the surviving. If anything, he has spent the majority of the show believing himself unworthy of that. So when he said, “Like Gale?” I realized I’d forgotten, just like Jesse has been trying to do.
Before shattering Jesse’s spirit, Walt first has to make him feel whole. He points out the way Andrea looked at him. “Really?” asks Jesse, “I mean instant family, what more could you ask?” He’s craved the domestic life for so long, always getting just a taste of it before being denied any of it in a real, long-term way. His one big expense in the entire course of this show has been on a home. By the end of the episode, Jesse will have ended it with Andrea, giving up the thing he truly wants for this blurry future that doesn’t seem like it can possibly end well. And once Jesse has done this, Walt can’t listen to him talk about it for even a minute before interrupting with a new method of keeping Jesse in his place: by comparing him to Victor. “Trying to cook that batch on his own, taking liberties that weren’t his to take. Maybe he flew too close to the sun and got his throat cut.”
A nice touch of this season is the way that every time Walt says “Gus,” Mike counters with “Gustavo Fring.” It’s just the faintest dig, a pressure point intended to keep reminding Walt that he is nothing compared to the man whose life he took. But, like so many details, it fails to capture Walt’s interest and will probably do so until it is too late.
Another one of those details is Brock. After hurriedly gathering up the papers that he and Jesse were drafting their blueprints on (in the same way that he would’ve once done with student homework or Jesse with the superheroes he used to draw) he comes face to face with the little boy he almost killed.
It was hard to tell in this scene exactly what was going on. My editor, Tom, here at Capital, thought that Brock recognized Walt, which is possible. I went back and forth, watching the scene a few times, trying to tell. Ultimately I think Brock had never seen Walt before and that Walt was acting so weird both because he was confronted, without warning, by a reminder of one of his most despicable acts and also because he suddenly understood there was a living loose end that could lead to his undoing. How did Brock get the lily of the valley poisoning? We still don’t know. I don’t think it was Walt personally delivering it, but that only leaves Saul or Huell, which is just as incriminating. Maybe he thinks nudging Jesse toward loneliness is the kinder of the options. The alternative is that that ricin cigarette taped behind the light plate ends up in Brock’s midst for real this time.
Walt is no longer capable of acting normal unless there’s an agenda behind it. He can’t simply enjoy a beer after a hard day’s work. “Secrets create barriers between people,” he tells Jesse, without adding, “Believe me, there are a few between us that are doozies.”
Skyler and Jesse are opposites in that she is very much aware of how Walter’s terrifying true nature, which makes how he talks to her even crazier. He sounds like his old self around Jesse even though it’s all in the service of the lie, while around his wife, who knows a lot of the truth, he’s acting faker than ever. With her, he does this sort of caricature of the cheerful husband trying to roll with the hormonal currents of an emotional wife.
When she came into the room while he and Walt Jr. were watching the movie (which, by the way, yes, I do think that movie and that scene was a way for the show to tell us that the "Breaking Bad" body-count is going to be high in the end) he might as well have cocked a thumb at her while shrugging at the studio audience and saying something like, “Women! Whatcha gon’ do?”
He also doesn’t hesitate to hang his wife out to dry if it will protect himself for a little longer. When Marie expresses concern over Skyler’s behavior, after her breakdown at the car wash, he spills the goods on her affair with Ted Beneke, making it seem like Ted's "accident" has upset her.
Before it was Walt who had to look bad in order to keep the family whole. When he had to repeat it, he spat out the gambling cover story as if each word were a razor blade. That’s the thing about Walter White’s word. It catches in his lungs, just like the cancer.
Photos by Ursula Coyote/AMC except where otherwise indicated.