‘Breaking Bad’ recap: Back in the corner again
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How long has it felt like “Breaking Bad” was building to a giant confrontation between Walt and Jesse? Sure, the seeds for the fight they have at the end of tonight’s episode were planted mostly this season, but the route they’ve traveled to get here extends all the way back to the very first episode. Walt has always viewed Jesse as a surrogate son, sure, but that includes some bad along with the good. Fathers often have to learn to let their sons go, to let them go off and have their own lives. Walter can’t do that with Jesse, because letting Jesse do that equals a situation where Walter can’t control absolutely every single element of his life, a situation he believes makes it that much more likely he’ll end up in jail. His small choice to start cooking meth has reverberated so far beyond him that it seemingly encompasses all of New Mexico now. He always thought Jesse would be an element he could control, and now that he can’t, he’s even more paranoid and frightened.
To be fair, he’s got reason to feel paranoid. If you had just nearly been killed because someone else had learned to cook your formula and your partner, who’s been somewhat estranged from you over the last few weeks, came in asking you how to cook that formula, wouldn’t you suspect he’d been turned, had cut some sort of deal to ensure his own safety? Of course you would. What’s great about this episode is that nearly everything Walter does in it is justified, from his point of view, even as we know that he’s being foolhardy. Jesse really does need to learn the formula, because he might very well end up in the hands of the cartel, teaching their chemists how to cook the blue meth. And since he’s not a highly trained chemist, that would almost certainly mean his death. But to Walter, telling Jesse the formula could also mean death. So, instead, he confronts Jesse with the knowledge that he knows Jesse was at Gus’ house the past night (and, sidebar, just where was Walter tracking Jesse from; it almost looked like a hotel room). And the meeting devolves into all-out war.
“Bug” is an episode filled with characters placed in impossible situations and then figuring out ways out of them that we in the audience know will swiftly fall apart. In the early going of “Breaking Bad,” it was easy to have Walter make his way out of a corner he’d been boxed into and assume that his troubles would be over for a while. But the show has cannily taught us over the course of its run that there are no good solutions to these problems. Every solution Walter comes up with will just box him in even tighter, as he’s been this season. One of the reasons Season 4 has focused less on Walter than some of the other characters is simply because he’s got so little room to maneuver. His decisions at the end of Season 3 left him permanently trapped in a job that was supposed to liberate him and has, instead, imprisoned him. When Skyler suggests he start thinking of an exit strategy, both he and we know such a thing is impossible.
Skyler’s just as trapped. At the worst possible moment, Ted comes back into her life to reveal he’s being audited. And guess whose signature is all over his books? Skyler contrives of a method to keep the IRS at bay for a little while, inspired by Ted’s patronizing mention that she’s just a “car wash cashier.” She wanders into Ted’s meeting with the auditor, both hair and chest pushed way, way up, and plays dumb, acting as though the books don’t line up because she was that big of an idiot and Ted had that big of a crush on her. She buys him time, but she can’t get him off the hook entirely. He needs to pay off his debts, and there’s nothing left to sell; even his car is now an old beater, rather than the BMW. That means that Skyler goes below the house and digs out a vacuum sealed bag with the money that will deliver Ted and, presumably, her. But at the same time, that’s only going to make Ted wonder where the money came from. That “gambling” story can’t hold up forever.
And yet even Gus, the man making Walter’s life terrible, is hemmed in. The cartel wants the blue meth formula, and it wants half of Gus’ operation. And because Hank is sniffing around Gus’ facilities and will surely soon discover that, hey, a bunch of Los Pollos Hermanos trucks have ended up riddled with bullets and isn’t that suspicious, Gus is running out of options, other than to acquiesce to the cartel’s demands. When the cartel shows up at his distribution facility and shoots one of his men in the head (a man Walter wrongly assumes Gus shot, showing just how fundamentally he misreads the scope of the situation he’s trapped in), Gus strides out into the hail of gunfire, arms outstretched, like the ultimate action movie hero. No bullet hits him, and the firing finally stops. But Mike knows the score. Gus isn’t the ultimate action movie hero. Like Walter, he just knows he can’t die, and he uses that to make the occasional bold gesture of dominance, even as he knows someone else is pulling his strings. These two guys are more alike than different.
When the season began, I compared this fourth season to the fourth season of “The Sopranos,” and after this episode, that comparison strikes me as even more apt. Like this episode, the ninth episode of “The Sopranos’” fourth season climaxed with a terrifying fight sequence, one shot brutally and realistically to emphasize just how much this fight was hurting both men. But in that season, the fight was there to show us just how Tony Soprano was reasserting his dominance, getting back control from an unstable element within his organization. (Well, it was about a great many other things as well, but that was its most surface reading.) This fight, however, is here to show just how little control Walter really has. And at the same time, no one around him is the master of their own destiny. There’s always another, bigger bad guy around the corner, whether that’s an apparently all-powerful cartel or the federal government wanting to take a look at the books. Being your own man is all but impossible, even when you think you’ve figured out how to do it. And that leaves nothing else but to lash out.
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-- Todd VanDerWerff