8:35 am Aug. 28, 20123
Each week, Starlee Kine writes about the latest episode of "Breaking Bad." Earlier: Look who's coming to dinner.
The premise of "Breaking Bad" is Mr. Chips' transformation into Scarface. We’ve known this from nearly the beginning. But there is another storyline happening alongside that one: our own transformation as viewers.
After Walt stole the methylamine a friend wrote to me: “Last night I realized that this is the point that I've finally become wholeheartedly in favor of Walter getting caught …. I just hate him so much finally.”
It took this long in a season’s worth of his acting reprehensible for her to get there. I imagine it is the same for a lot of people. I’m not even sure I’m there yet, although for reasons that don’t have much to do with the man anymore. It’s the nature of narrative. I want Walt to live, even to win if he must, because I don’t want the story to end.
So the task "Breaking Bad" has set for itself is to straddle this line. It has to keep making Walter worse and worse, until every last one of us wants him dead while continuing to (presumably) keep him alive for another nine episodes in a way that feels solid and true to the plot and not in any way artificial. Because the minute we sense that they’re sparing his life for just the sake of the timeline, this delicate puzzle we’ve been assembling will collapse.
In a season full of big-action train heists and magnet maneuvers, Hank’s promotion to ASAC has flown under the radar. It’s an elegant plot move, the way his ascent to boss both parallels and contrasts with that of his brother-in-law. Both men have obsessive tendencies when it comes to their careers, which render them deaf to the advice of their peers. And both of them have accepted positions of authority they are ill-suited for and which prevent them from doing what they’re best at. Walt falls into a trance in the lab. It’s the only time he’s able to “shut the f**k up” (asterisks courtesy of AMC.) He wants to be No. 1 on principle, because it’s what’s owed to him, not because he has any affinity for it. Gus was different from him in this respect, while being similar in many others. It’s why they complemented each other so well.
Hank tells his supervisor that he made an error in judgment in serving the search warrant to Mike personally (the way that his fellow cops keep repeating those words over and over again—“Search warrant. Search warrant.”—makes it clear which side we’re supposed to be finding cool in that scene). We know, though, that those are the moments that make Hank love his job. He only accepted the promotion because, like Walt, he’d screwed up his last opportunity for professional advancement. The foolishness he felt was more than he could handle. It’s what drove him to keep searching for Heisenberg’s Winnebago, that need to prove to his colleagues, his wife, and himself that he wasn’t merely being driven by fear. And now that he’s won that battle, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Walt demands that his new crew say his name but with Hank, it was never a higher title that he was after. Now he’s is the guy making cold calls to donors who want to promote themselves. “The gold and platinum levels really get your name out there on the banners and T-shirts.”
Unlike Walt, no one is telling Hank there is honor in bowing out. He is as good at detective work as Walt is at chemistry and the more they both excel, the closer they come to bringing on their own destruction. Either Hank’s diligence will eventually lead him to his brother-in-law or Walt will act first. Either way, same outcome: the downfall of the family.
Hank says he’d “rather have a brick to the head” than make another Fun Run call. Later he cocks and fires an imaginary gun at himself. Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, which Mike watches in his now darkened living room days before his ultimate blacking out, speaks of a single contact wound to the temple. Walt tells Todd that’s he’s not expecting him to be Antoine Lavoisier, the “father of modern chemistry” who was beheaded during the Reign of Terror. Several times this season, we’ve watched shots of Walt, particularly when he’s speaking with Skyler, shot from the chest down, a “brain trust” without a head. These throwaway lines, when lined up together, are starting to seem like a lighted path toward the end times. Even those cake pops could be part of the impending army. Notice how none of them had any hair.
If an alien landed on Earth tomorrow, you know, to pay condolences to Neil Armstrong’s family, all it would have to do was watch the scene between Walt and Jesse to learn how to mimic the entire spectrum of human emotion. Walt tossed out every mind game he could, watching to see which one stuck, taking his cue to switch to the next one based on the reaction on Jesse’s face. His list of all the people that they killed began with “Gale” who was murdered by Jesse and ended with “the rest.”
Twice last night Walt felt compelled to remind his partners that of everyone in the gang, it is he who is the family man. He’s successfully thwarted any attempts by Jesse to build a family of his own and he’s always regarded Mike too much as Gus’ errand boy to inquire about his personal life, not that Mike would’ve told him about it anyway. So in keeping with this delusion, Walt puts on the good husband act at home. I love when Bryan Cranston unfurls an old Walt move, like the face he made after tasting the first bite of his frozen dinner or the way he threw down his hands after telling Todd they only had a few more steps to do before finishing that day’s cook. With Skyler, Walt’s motives are not just about small-talking his way through another tense night. He wants to tell her about his day. Now that Jesse has quit and Gus and Gale are dead, he has found himself without a peer group. Sure he still has Todd and Lydia but it’s not the same thing, mostly because they’re not different enough from him.
In fact the only way he’s able to air out his problems is through the tears he sheds in front of Hank. Some people had a problem with this scene, thought the timing of Gomey’s report to Hank was too convenient, but I didn’t mind it. I liked that the crying was phony but the words were not. “It’s like I don’t even exist to her” is, after all, an accurate description of his home life at this point, just with all the context left out.
I’ve mentioned the film Heat here before, about how its influence can be felt on this show, and about the alternate ending to it that doesn’t exist but that I wish did. In my version, Robert De Niro wouldn’t be killed by Al Pacino’s hand but would instead get away, only without being able to take along or say goodbye to the woman he loves. That would be the price he paid. It seemed like that was the exact fate that awaited Mike last night, as the cops pulled up to the playground. There’s an argument to be made that Mike acted selfishly, leaving his granddaughter unsupervised and maybe even ultimately thinking she’d been abandoned completely, but I think he didn’t want her to see him getting carted away. (He also could’ve sent word once he arrived whereever he was going, right? I mean, it’s not like he was entering witness protection.) If he didn’t want to miss witnessing the rest of her childhood, he could’ve turned himself in later, when she wasn’t indulging in an act of unfiltered innocence, but the image of her seeing her grandfather behind bars probably wasn’t one he was thrilled with either.
I’m trying to point out Mike’s flaws because none of us wanted him to die this week. Our desire to bear witness to Jonathan Banks' every sigh for the rest of our lives puts us in danger of losing perspective. In season four, Jesse asks Mike what Gus sees in him and Mike answers, “In a word: loyalty.” The same word would fit into a crossword puzzle if the question was, “Mike Ehrmantraut. Go!” Jesse tells Saul that Mike would never flip and Walt grudgingly agrees. It’s not quite the case that Mike wouldn’t give up his team even when his very life was at stake, since he didn’t know Walt had his gun, but it’s hard to imagine he would’ve acted any differently if he had.
So we love Mike and hate Walt. This is the trajectory we’ve been on for awhile but it really wasn’t that long ago that it was Mike who was pointing the gun. Back then we didn’t know Mike all that well and so it wasn’t like we hoped for his death. Instead we wished for Walt’s continued life, even if it meant the loss of sweet (although plenty self-serving) Gale. In this episode, Mike tells Walt, “All of this falling apart like this is on you …. You could’ve shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed. It was perfect. But no, you just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego. You just had to be the man.”
It was satisfying to watch because for the second time in the evening, a character was saying things to Walt that we, the viewers, have been thinking all season. But was it correct?
If you think back to season 3, most of Walt’s actions were still done on behalf of his family or, more often, Jesse. Jesse was intent on destroying Hank (after Hank beat him up, following Walt’s phone-call lie about Marie being in the hospital) until Walt stepped in and made Gus hire Jesse at the lab. As much as he loved working with Gale, Walt sacrificed that relationship for the good of his family. Then Jesse started stealing meth from the lab and selling it on the street. Walt intervened, protected him. Jesse then decided to kill those drug dealers after Gus forbade it. Walt ran them down with his car, which led to Mike pointing that gun.
Season 4 was Walt largely in defensive mode, plotting to take Gus down because of, yes, his pride and ego, but also because he knew he was no longer an indispensable member of the team. Even right before he killed Gus, he was still not acting entirely in his own interests. In the desert, Gus allowed him to live but let on that he would be going after Hank. If Walt tipped Hank off, Gus would redirect his sights back onto Walt. Which then led to the boom.
So as much as Walt has screwed everything up and acted horribly so many times along the way and is completely, totally an irredeemable monster now, when Mike says, “If you’d done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now,” that’s not really true. Mike would’ve been fine. Gus too. And depending on which month we’re talking about, either Jesse or Walt, but never both. Given the fact that Mike allowed Walt, a man he neither trusted nor liked and who had a track record of making impulsive, bad decisions, to be the person who delivered him his freedom, means that Mike was protecting Jesse. Just like Walt did all those other times.
When Jesse shot Gale, the camera was facing the barrel of the gun. Jesse moved his hand slightly to the right before firing which set off a flurry of viewer comments wondering if Gale had been spared. It turns out that Vince Gilligan wasn’t playing tricks with us. He was surprised by viewers’ confusion. He hadn’t intended to leave any doubts in our minds as to Gale’s fate. Jesse had simply aimed his gun so as to shoot Gale through the left eye.
Last night brought another ambiguous scene involving a gun. I’m hoping the confusion isn’t just felt by me but I don’t really understand why Mike didn’t shoot Walt. Every reason I come up with is more rooted in poetry than reason. One is that Mike, ever one for the simpler pleasures in life, wanted his final moment to be one of peace, not violence. I know. I’ve bought dresses from Forever 21 that hold up in the wash better than that. I’ve watched the scene several times and I’m about 30 to 50 percent convinced that he shot himself in the stomach so he wouldn’t enter the afterlife feeling like a chump (his gun was facing inward) but that doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t have wanted to take Walt down before he went. Or at least, tried to.
Walt’s all Mr. Rationality in that final scene: “This whole thing could’ve been avoided if ….” But what’s the sense in shooting a man who you’re trying to get to talk? It’s interesting to think about at which exact point Walt knew he would go after Mike. By now we know the number of steps ahead Walt is able to think when his ego is feeling bruised. Were the little scheming wheels of his mind turning already in the police station? Was his warning call to Mike part of the game? Or was it not until they were in Saul’s office and he saw the speed at which is former protégé volunteered to risk his skin to save Mike, in the same way he used to do for Walt, although never as quickly or as direct from the heart?
Walt’s rush forward with the gun reminded me of Fargo, when Steve Buscemi is walking to his car with his bleeding cheek all sticky with tissue, after delivering honest but poorly timed words to his lunatic partner who then comes after him with an ax. The death scene in general reminded me of Thief, not in specific reference but in pure nostalgic recall, since that was the first movie I watched and realized that criminals in movies don’t get to just pull off one last heist.
References feel important because last night’s episode was counting on our knowing what was going to go down. Inevitability was the plot. Now, though, moving forward, I’m expecting a shift. It was Jesse’s last heist, for instance, too, and I don’t see him ending up by the side of the river. Last night was filled with rotating formations of three and standoffs between two. Walt in the backseat with Jesse and Mike in the front, then the reverse in the desert once Heisenberg showed up. Gomey standing with his men in the doorway. Saul flanked by his clients around the desk. The three skipping stones in Mike’s hand, two of which he tosses out to the current so that, in the end, there is only just the one.