4:22 pm Sep. 4, 20121
Each week, Starlee Kine writes about the latest episode of "Breaking Bad." Earlier: Twos and threes.
We’ve seen lots of power struggles on this show before, but the original one was between Walt and Hank.
One is the brain, the other the brawn. Walt takes cream in his coffee, ice in his whiskey. Hank drinks his black and straight up. Walt walked into his surprise birthday party, on the heels of being told he had cancer, only to have the spotlight taken from him by Hank’s latest local news-making drug bust. It’s what gives Walt the idea to start making meth in the first place, displaying a lack of respect for family from the very start. While everyone else is cheering a loved one’s achievement, Walter White is plotting how to use it to his advantage.
Walt and Jesse can’t understand why they held onto “the world’s shittiest R.V.” for so long. “Inertia?” posits science man Walt. According to Issac Newton (who then told Wikipedia who then whispered it to me) inertia “is a power of resisting by which every body…endeavors to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly forward in a straight line….Thus an object will continue moving at its current velocity until some force causes its speed or direction to change.” Hank was just another D.E.A. agent, happy doing his job, making his small-time busts, brewing his beer until Walt became Heisenberg and brought Tuco into their lives. Hank killed Tuco and his bosses took notice, causing his career to shift directions toward more explosive pastures. Hank freaks out at the sight of his whole team getting blown up and returns home, humiliated. He resumes his hunt for Heisenberg, this time with a vengeance, making him the force that finally causes Walt and Jesse to destroy the R.V. If Walt is responsible for every bad change of course in Hank’s life for the past year and a half, he is also the man behind every good one.
As a viewer, it’s hard not to get caught up in the inertia too, especially because we’ve always known which straight line we were moving forward on. Hank and Walt might not have questioned why they kept the R.V. but neither did we. This show loves its misdirects. Last week, I received emails about how in the scene between Walt and Hank at the D.E.A. office, there was a sudden shot from up above that seemed to be coming from a surveillance camera. This had to be on purpose, a way of attempting to throw us off.
I didn’t pay much attention to it because I knew the show would never pull a fast one on us when it came to Hank figuring out about Walt. When that moment came, we’d be there to see it. I’m curious what net effect these misdirects have on our ability to pick up the actual clues that are sprinkled throughout. When Walt pulled his hat trick and then verbalized his murderous plan directly to his would-be victim, I missed it entirely even though it was the second ricin-palming sleight of hand we’ve been shown so far. Same goes with his copy of Leaves of Grass, although I disregarded that one for a different reason that I will get to in a bit. My ears were on full alert however, stiff in the air like a dog’s, when I heard the sound of metal-scraping off camera at Jesse’s house, before he let his former boss in.
After keeping everyone alive for so long, many of our favorite characters are now gone. Mike. Gale. Gus. Jesse too, at least from the business (I found it interesting that Walt couldn’t actually lie to him about Mike when Jesse asked what happened to him but instead word-played his way around the truth). Walt seems to miss them as much as we do. He shows up at Jesse’s house to reminisce about what are now the salad years. He’s become “king of all wild things” but now he’s feeling lonely and homesick for his own bedroom and a hot homemade supper made with love instead of nuked into existence in the same amount of time it takes for him to commit mass murder. When I first saw the swastika on the knuckle of Todd’s uncle, I wondered what "Breaking Bad" was going to do with that scene. Would it try to make us feel a tug of fondness for a neo-Nazi, the way it always has before? Instead it played out in an understated way, with the baddies almost devoid of personality lest Gilligan should feel tempted to give them something either endearing or idiosyncratic for us to hold onto. It demonstrated how far Walt had fallen and how wide the bridge between him and a man like Mike was, whose character-vetting process would’ve been over as soon as he learned of those tattoos.
I loved the prison-shivving montage, or at least in as much as it’s possible to love something you don’t enjoy the actual experience of watching. It brought to mind the Goodfellas montage, where Robert De Niro’s character, all strung out on paranoia, systematically takes out nearly every member of his team. In many ways this episode felt rushed to me, because of how much forward movement needed to be accomplished; but at the same time, that scene took place over the course of two whole minutes, keeping in real time with the ticking of Jesse’s birthday watch. Likewise, two and half minutes were spent on Walt simply staring, Norman Bates-like, at a fly. It was all in keeping with this show's unique rhythm, switching between states of rest and swift, purposeful action.
I was less crazy about the second montage of the evening, the one that curled its way through an entire three months. I’m pretty sure that’s the biggest span of time the show had to account for at once and I understand that that’s not easy. Hank talks about his summer job marking certain trees for destruction. His takeaway is that he should’ve appreciated that task more, in light of the one he is now confronted with, which is every bit as repetitious but much more soul-deadening.
Walt can relate, as he zips in and out of his lab suit, patiently mentoring the remorseless, child-killing nephew of a white-power subscriber. Walt’s finally found an intellectual equal in Lydia, but she doesn’t have the sweetness of Gale or the on-the-spectrum mystique of Gus. Plus she’s a girl, who is no longer mismatching her stiletto heels, and that’s just plain scary.
We can relate too. In the same way that blood money doesn’t come without a cost, part of watching this show now is feeling like this current darkness is the price we viewers must pay for taking pleasure in such dastardly deeds in the first place. What did we expect would happen? Did we just think we’d get to enjoy Jesse and Saul’s jokes forever?
Walt has amassed so much wealth in such a short time that he could’ve continued to pay off the men in prison, which would’ve possibly allowed Mike to return home to his granddaughter. He got so caught up in beating Gus, beating his ex, beating Hank that he’s lost sight of his goal. He’s sprinted so far past the finish line that he’s once again stranded in the desert.
In the motel room with Todd’s uncle and crew, Walt stares at a cracked painting of a man out to sea while his family waves from the shore.
“Where do you suppose these come from?” he asks. “I’ve seen this one before.” He muses that maybe they’re all kept in a warehouse somewhere (maybe in the same sort of storage facility as the one we’ll later see him and Sky in). It’s the second of three times in this episode that he disappears so thoroughly into his own thoughts that he is no longer listening to what is being said. He doesn’t need to hear other people anymore, the straight line he is moving on has been established, inertia has taken over. Even while Skyler stands there explaining how she’s given up trying to count all his money, the only question he has for her is how much he's earned. She counters with, “How much is enough?” It’s like the oldest pick-up line answer in the book: “What’s your name?” “What do you want it to be?”
Only this time, it’s between a man and woman bound together by their shared ability to hide their guilt, from others but also their own consciences, as convincingly as they squirrel away their money. Skyler tells Walt that she sprays the bills so that the silverfish won't eat away at them, not realizing that sometimes a pest control solution can be a much bigger problem than the original infestation.
The White and Shraeder families sit by the pool, as we saw them do earlier this season. That time it was night but now the sun is out. It’s so bright suddenly at the White household that Skyler has to tell her son to apply some more sunscreen to the baby so she won’t burn. Walt has his kids back but his son still has a new name. Everyone’s dropping science, sort of. The sisters are discussing prenatal vitamins and lemon juice and the way they result in either shinier or stiffer hair. Hank’s homemade beer brewing is being called chemistry. Whereas in the past, Walt would’ve scoffed at this idea, now he is the one offering it up.
A lot of the dialogue is being said off-mic, so that depending on which character you’re focusing on you can hear more or less of their conversation. It’s a lot like how the show has approached its storytelling in general. In the beginning we thought we knew who our protagonist was, who we were rooting for, but gradually our alliances shifted. It also gives us the illusion of control, like we have a say in this fight, when really, in just the next scene, a force is about the cause the show’s whole direction to change.
For the first time all season, Walt is acting like the guy we started out with. I’m not sure I buy it in a practical sense but in pure entertainment terms, it was a nice break from the sociopath we’ve had to live with all season. He tells Skyler that he’s out, which raises all sorts of questions. How is this sitting with Lydia, Todd and the meth heads of the Czech republic? When I was watching, I assumed that he left Todd to run the labs, but that doesn’t track at all with the egomaniac that we know. If there’s one thing Walt has never given up ownership of, it's his formula. But he couldn’t have just shut the whole thing down or cunning little Lydia would’ve devised a way to blackmail him into staying. It’s way too major of a loose end and I have no doubt it will be addressed next season, although hopefully for not too long, because I’m looking forward to as much Walt-versus-Hank time as possible.
It makes sense to me that Walt would’ve held onto the book. For one, he’s proud of the way Gale looked up to him. All season long he’s tried to shift the burden of Gale’s murder onto Jesse’s shoulders, so maybe he’s been able to convince himself internally of this as well. And like Jesse’s watch, which he also wears out in the open, it was a gift, the only other object of beauty to come out of his double life. Plus, he might now be calling Hank a chemist and all, but it’s not like he’s ever given him credit as a peer when it came to his actual professional life. He just fake cried his way through Hank’s office in order to plant a bug.
"Breaking Bad" begins with Walt, sans pants, confessing into a video camera about his crimes. He’d only killed one man by that point, although the seeds of the mass murder in him were planted even then, since he’d attempted to kill two. He thinks the sirens he hears are for him but it’s a false alarm.
Now, four seasons in, with only eight more installments to go, the authorities are finally onto him, in the form of another trouserless man.
Oh and yes, the cancer is back.