‘Breaking Bad’ recap: Trapped by the eye

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In the first season of “Breaking Bad,” Marie Schraeder was one of the show’s worst elements, as it went through the process of finding itself.

Back in those days, the show seemed careful to remind us that everybody does some bad things, and the more you try to disguise this from yourself, the less honest you are with yourself. And, yes, that’s true. But it sometimes came uncomfortably close to arguing that what Walt was doing could be justified on some level, that the show actually bought his idea that he was doing something good for his family, instead of introducing a terribly destructive element into his community and tearing it apart. That idea disappeared so quickly – it was mostly gone by the end of the short first season – that it’s easy to forget it was present. But for the first half of that season, there it was. And even though Marie hasn’t stolen anything since, it’s still a loose end that nags.


Until tonight. “Open House” is one of the best episodes this show has ever done, a deeply claustrophobic episode that mostly moves its ostensible main character off to the side but invites us to become trapped in such claustrophobic environs as the slow crumble of a marriage (that just might be saved indirectly by Walt) or the negotiations of a woman trying to buy a business from a man who just won’t sell. The first images we see in the episode involve Walt discovering there’s a camera now installed in the lab, always able to keep its eye on him. But the rest of the episode is about people similarly pinned down beneath the microscope, trapped by bad choices and dire situations and others whose angry gaze never leaves them. Marie can’t escape her husband’s fury at what happened to him. Yet her sister contrives a way around the hurdles Bogdan tosses in her path.

Hollywood Backlot: Photos from the set of ‘Breaking Bad’

Let’s start with Marie, who’s apparently having something of a breakdown. She’s attending open houses for homes on the market, pitching herself as a different person every time – here a divorcee, there a wife of an astronaut; here with kids, there without – and Betsy Brandt lets us into Marie’s increasingly frazzled psyche and her desire to escape the situation she’s trapped in. And as she leaves every one of these open houses, she takes a small item. A spoon here. A picture frame there. She’s trying to get rid of all of her bad feelings about how poorly Hank treats her, returning to a version of herself that needed something like this to feel a little less trapped.

But Albuquerque’s not a very big city. And of course she runs into the same real estate agent at two different open houses. And of course that agent noticed the missing spoon at the last and wondered if the strange woman who’s now spinning an entirely different story at this open house isn’t responsible. And she pursues Marie out into the street and manages to reveal that she’s taken a picture frame. Cue Marie being sent to jail. Cue Hank having to get her out. Cue Hank’s friend sitting next to her as her lip trembles at the thought of going home. And cue Hank getting Gale’s folder of meth recipes from his pal.

This is another example of “Breaking Bad’s” wonderfully circuitous plotting, where everything can be traced back to Walt’s choice in the pilot. Hank wouldn’t be confined to his bed if Walt hadn’t made that choice, but he also wouldn’t have the notes that are clearly going to be what gets him back to work and back to his full strengths (at least mentally and emotionally) again. “Breaking Bad” lives in a very moral universe – there’s not a God, per se, but there is some force that punishes and rewards – and here’s a chance for Hank to find redemption, to get back on the trail of Heisenberg. And I’m willing to bet just about anything that this will both save his marriage and get him to call in the one man he knows who can understand what these notes say: Walter White.

Marie’s sister, meanwhile, gets the other main thrust of the episode, figuring out a way to buy the car wash. I loved the scene where Saul and Skyler haggle over what’s an acceptable way to scare Bogdan into selling the business. Skyler’s unwillingness to do anything impractical or illegal clearly runs up against everything Saul stands for, and it’s a very funny scene in the midst of an episode that could be rather dark. But I also liked the scenes where she realized that the threat of environmental fines could be just the thing to trick Bogdan as she watches soap run down the drain. The scene where she coaches the stooge through what he needs to say to Bogdan about his bad chemical levels is wonderfully edited to show just how on top of this she is, and I love the tension while she waits for Bogdan to call back with another offer (as well as her fear about how Walt paid for that bottle of champagne).

And finally, there’s the character who’s most trapped of all: Jesse Pinkman, who’s so desperate for someone to hang out with that he asks Walt if he wants to go race go-karts. (That sounds like a very Walt thing to do, no?) Instead, he goes to the track alone, his guilt and anguish over what he did to Gale overwhelming him, then heads home to a house that has become, for all intents and purposes, a drug den, a place where he never has to be alone, even if he’s surrounded by burnouts and dangerous deadbeats. None of this means anything to him. He’s pinned down by the job and his actions, and when he tosses money out to the drug addicts crowding his home, it’s hard not to see it as an attempt to feel something, even if it’s a brief fear of losing all that money.

And so we return to that camera, that all-seeing eye keeping watch over everything that happens. Walt flips it off, but Jesse labors under it, not sure how he’ll escape. And if we expand that outward, we find Hank discovering his path forward, rewarded for his diligence, indirectly giving Marie an escape for hers. And we find Skyler sinking even further into what she agrees to be acceptable, even as she keeps drawing lines that get blurrier and blurrier.

That eye is watching everyone. And all they have to do is wait for someone to notice what they’ve done for the fallout (or the rewards) to come.


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-- Todd VanDerWerff