This review contains spoilers.
It had to happen sooner or later. Yes, this was the first episode of Breaking Bad this season that I’d be forced to class as anything less than stellar, being as it was instead merely incredibly good. Stop all the clocks, prevent the dog from barking, and so on.
The Breaking Bad creative team pulled a classic bait-and-switch this week that has become characteristic of the show’s writing. Last week either Jesse or Mike looked nailed on to meet an end, as we last saw them driving off into the desert after Mike appealed to Gud that ‘something had to be done’ about Jesse and his increasingly erratic behaviour.
Trying to predict or second-guess the direction the show is going to go in is almost futile at this point however. There have been so many left turns and shocks at this point that ironically, the fact that what we expected to happen didn’t shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Rather than abducting Jesse with the intention of murdering him, Mike took him on a run, collecting drug money from hidden locations all across the state, with Jesse ‘guarding’ the money as Mike fetched the latest piece of loot.
Usually Breaking Bad is fantastic at subverting out expectations whilst maintaining believability and avoiding a sense of anti-climax. I have to say, for the first time in a while, this particular bait-and-switch erred closer to a feeling of anti-climax than the show usually does. Maybe that’s a reflection of how the tension established in this first half of the season is beginning to get to me.
In spite of this there was a funny time-lapse sequence detailing Jesse’s intense boredom as he was shepherded around Alberqueue by the stony-faced Mike. Jesse’s fidgety gabbling and Mike’s hard-edged indifference were reminiscent of Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi’s journeys together in Fargo, a film which is an acknowledged and pervasive influence on the show.
Eventually, and improbably, Jesse got a chance to shine and prove his worth, saving Mike from a hijack attempt by a couple of mysterious attackers by running one down and chasing the other one off. Later, however, it becomes clear that this supposed act of heroism was actually a piece of theatre carefully engineered by Gus. It seems that he did this in order to give Jesse a sense of self-worth, and to quell the nihilistic impulses he’s been showing lately.
Or was it a test, to see if he was still willing to fight for his life when the chips were down? Or was an attempt to further unsettle and alienate Walt?
It’s similar to Gus’ sudden murder of Victor in the premiere, in that while they are both acts that are initially inexplicable, there are a number of possible motives that could Gus could have for them. They could all be true, or none of them could be true.
What’s so clever about the writing here is that we are in the same boat as the characters. We’re in the dark as to Gus’s true motives, in the same way that the characters are around him. Even the unflappable Mike seems baffled and uneasy. You’re never going to catch Gus ‘monologuing’ – it’s a cliché, but he genuinely seems to be playing a chess game, operating three, four, five moves ahead at all times, while everybody else scrabbles around, living in the short term.
It’s the contrast between Walt and Gus that’s providing the main narrative thrust this season, and nowhere was it greater than in this episode. We opened with one of the show’s less subtle visual metaphors, as we saw a panicked Walt swerving all over the road, on his way to confront Gus over the disappearance of Jesse.
Of course, Gus anticipated this, and Walt was denied the big showdown he was clearly craving. The surveillance cameras in La Pollos Locos were telling. Walt can’t escape Gus’s clutches. He is being controlled, rather than being in control.
As has been demonstrated both subtly and clearly in the preceding episodes, Walt’s ego is not reacting well to this sudden withdrawal of power. After years of being a hen-pecked husband and a nobody elementary school teacher, he has had a taste of true power, albeit one that has been borne out of almost total immorality, and now he appears to be slowly reverting back to his old life.
He and Skyler are back together, and she appears to be wearing the proverbial trousers. She moves him back into the house pretty much without his consent, and has obviously taken the lead in regards to the acquisition of the car wash. His bargaining chip, Jesse, now seems conversely easily replaceable and more valued to Gus’ business than he is. Not a lot makes sense.
This culminates in a sensational scene at Hank’s dinner table, where Hank attempts to give the ‘Heisenberg’ case some closure, after guessing that the buck stopped with Gail. Drunk, Walt listens to Hank’s description of Gail as a ‘bona fide genius’, and snaps, suggesting to Hank that Gail’s notes looked like the work of a copycat, rather than that of this so-called genius.
Walt’s hubris is so monstrous at this point he willingly places himself back on the hook after potentially getting away scot-free, in front of a disbelieving Skyler and a disbelieving TV audience.
Cranston’s performance is absolutely spectacular in this scene. It’s hard to do good drunk acting well, let alone combining it with the vast amount of information he needs to convey to make this complex scene work. We’re reminded here for the first time in a while that Walt is still a dying man. It may be stretching it somewhat to say that he has a death wish, but it’s his willingness to play fast and loose with the rules and to risk his life in away that a man with something to live for wouldn’t that has got him into his current predicament.
While superficially his whole experience of ‘breaking bad’ was in order to provide for his family, it turned pretty quickly into a reaction against his perceived weakness. He’s achieved something great, albeit monstrous, and he’s determined to be recognised for his achievements before he dies, even if it means placing his family in danger.
Who am I kidding? Shotgun was another fantastic episode. And as closing lines go, this one takes some beating: “Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?”