This review contains spoilers.
4.3. Open House
I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I was a huge fan of Fly, the incredibly divisive bottle episode from the last season of Breaking Bad that took place entirely within the confines of the lab. It was the one that superficially was concerned exclusively with Walt and Jesse’s attempts to deal with a housefly that had inexplicably found its way through the Walt’s airtight contamination restrictions.
People either loved it or hated it. There were complaints at the lack of action, and supposed lack of plot development. Some viewers were annoyed, even offended, that at a crucial stage of the season, the writers would seeming take their foot off the accelerator and spend a whole hour (with ad breaks) goofing off with a premise not far removed from a Wile E Coyote cartoon.
For others (I’m in this camp) it was one of the best episodes of the entire series, due to every conversation being overladen with dread, and driven by over three series of intricate character work.
The moment in Fly when Walt, high on sleeping pills nearly confesses his role in Jane’s death to Jesse, who is perched atop a rickety ladder, is one of the series’ most thrilling moments, up there with Hank’s showdown with the cousins and ‘Run!’.
Anyone who’s seen any kind of thriller knows that the reason those ‘big’ action moments work so well is because of their careful build-up. For me, at least, Jesse shooting Gale at the end of the last season wouldn’t have had anywhere near the impact without Fly,and the ladder scen in particular.
The reason I’ve been talking about Fly is because, after only two (!) episodes, I’ve seen some discussion around the web decrying the ‘slow pace’ of Breaking Bad’s season opening. And judging by the similarly light-on-action, character-focused Open House, there’ll be some similar comments.
Opinions are opinions, so I’ll just say the following and move on.
1) You all do remember what happened to Victor in the first episode, right? Was that not exciting enough for you?
2) Breaking Bad has always worked this way: it’s quiet-loud, quiet-loud, build and release, like a Pixies song. This is nothing new.
3) If you’re nitpicking over episodes this good, then maybe TV’s not for you.
Now that’s addressed, let’s talk about Open House.
Open House focused heavily on two of the most prevalent themes of the entire series. Namely that, if you’re suffocated by your everyday life, do you need to break the rules, or break bad, to truly feel alive? And once you’ve done that, how badly can you behave, before you run out of ways to justify it?
As we’ve seen throughout Breaking Bad, Walt’s internal moral barometer is irrepreably damaged. After the carnage he’s caused up until this point, there’s virtually nothing left so heinous that he wouldn’t be able to somehow justify to himself.
While Walt genuinely undertook this life as a means to provide for his family, it became clear pretty quickly that some of his more overtly criminal flourishes (and the whole persona of ‘Heisenburg’) were a result of a sustained period of emasculation. He’s fueled by hubris and machismo now, more than he would care to admit, and as we can see, when he’s not in total control, he starts behaving childishly and erratically.
There was a telling moment early in the episode when he tells Skylar the only reason he didn’t hit Mike back in their ‘bar fight’ is because “he’s a much older man”. Nothing to do with the fact that’s he’s an ex-cop, the head muscle for a drug kingpin, and generally much, much tougher than Walt, of course.
Another indicator of where Walt’s head is at comes when, after reacting incredulously to Jesse’s invitation to come go-karting with him (a moment that, thanks to the typically awesome performances of Bryan Cranston and Aaaron Paul, was both hilarious and almost unbearably pathetic), Jesse turns the tables on him. She asks about his black eye, and noting that while getting beaten up all the time is bad at first, ‘you get used to it.’
That’s when a horrible realization dawns on Walt – he’s the new Jesse.
He’s so used to being the general of the operation, or the quarterback, that now that he lives under a cloud of uncertainty and intimidation (from the unseen Gus), he can’t take it, as demonstrated by his furious flipping off of the newly installed security cameras in the opening scene.
Skyler seems to have noticed Walt’s increasingly weak points, namely his male pride, and his ego, and brilliantly uses them to get her way in regards to the car wash, their potential front business for the drug money. Both Walt and Saul (a nice big scene for Bob Odenkirk in this episode, which is always good to see) are against it, because of the difficulty in getting the owner to sell, so Skyler casually mentions that the owner had insulted his masculinity, saying that he needed a woman to do his dirty work. Within seconds, Walt has flipped and is gunning for the car lot alongside Skyler.
Also, Skyler appears to have noticed that Walt’s current insecurity is potentially making him sloppy. She admonishes him for buying a $300 bottle of champagne, comparing his apathy to minor details of the attitude that brought Nixon down. She may be right. Walt is certainly on the ropes at the moment, and needs that calming presence.
But is Skyler doing this solely for Walt’s benefit? Her scene ‘coaching’ one of Saul’s accomplices in persuading the car wash owner he would have to shut down would suggest not. She even adds a smart-alecky, tough guy tag on the end of the big law-quoting speech. And she doesn’t stop once she’s persuaded him to sell, either: she drives the price down in front of a disbelieving Walt, clearly getting off on the power she has begun to wield. Don’t forget, Skyler played the role of the oblivious wife for a long time. Now she’s getting a chance to play hardball of her own, and she’s finding it a more comfortable fit than you might think.
Marie, however, is struggling. Hank’s behavior at home is smothering her, and in order to regain some sort of release and excitement, she too turns to crime, albeit of a slightly less significant nature than meth dealing: stealing ornaments from model homes, and making up new personalites for herself that she uses to tell elaborate lies to real estate agents eager to lap them up.
When she gets caught, Hank is forced to call in a few favours to bail her out, which leads to the agent who helped him paying him what could turn out to be a highly significant visit, seeing as he drops off a exercise book filled with notes on a certain blue meth…
The disintegration of Hank’s marriage has been disheartening to see, and it’s another case of a character doing the wrong thing in order to escape from the reality of their situation. In this case, Hank’s bullying of Marie purely because she’s the only one around to bully and hey, she’s not the one in the wheelchair.
The only person who seems to realize the futility of this behaviour is Jesse, yet he’s doing his best to blot out the carnage of the past few months by indulging himself totally in hedonism.
This includes undertaking what looks like the single grimmest session of go-karting in recorded history, and playing paper toss using rolled up dollar bills and a fat half-naked man’s mouth. Oh, and his meth parties have kicked up a notch. They’re now less House Party and House Party 2, and more Requiem For A Dream. And seeing as Skyler’s getting antsy about casual displays of wealth, Jesse throwing a stack of bils in the air for a gaggle of crazed methheads to fight for, like some perverse version of The Crystal Maze, may not bde well for the future.
Episodes like Open House are more fun to discuss and write about than the more action-focused ones, as they rely more on you having to unpack them, rather than just exclaiming ‘OMGWTFBBQ’ at the plot twists/insane violence.
It’s still brilliant, tense, nuanced stuff – and there’s still so much more to come.
Read our review of the last episode, Thirty-Eight Snub, here.