This review contains spoilers.
It’s interesting how fans of crime stories react as their onscreen heroes behave in increasingly terrible ways. No matter how many people Tony Montana, Michael Corleone, or Tony Soprano kill, hurt or maim, there’s going to be a large subset of the people who watch them who are going to cheer on their every move.
If I was really going to put on my media studies textual analysis hat on, I’d point out that there might even be an intended link between the self-justification by TV viewers when watching charismatic criminals, and the increasingly deranged self-justification that Walter employs for his own awful actions.
It certainly seems like Vince Gilligan is attempting to go down a similar route that the later series of The Sopranos also travelled – how far are you willing to support this scumbag?
Tony, in those last few series, became genuinely repulsive and amoral, enabled by his therapy sessions to get away with worse and worse behaviour. Well, Walt isn’t the callous murderer that Tony is just yet, and he doesn’t have the therapist – but what he does have is an ego the size of asteroid, and will likely prove to be equally as destructive.
What makes Walt’s journey in Breaking Bad so different from the ones seen in other crime stories is that his vanity, his insecurity and his need to be recognised are ultimately his defining character traits. The end of the last season saw the peak of Heisenburg, Walt’s criminal alter ego, when he had a couple of genuinely impressive, badass moments – his hit-and-run rescue of Jesse from the gangbangers, and his clever manoeuvring around Gus in the finale. This episode saw Walt attempting to take care of business and re-assert himself as a force to be reckoned with – but even his triumphant moments are pathetic, and tinged with weakness and failure.
For example, Walt got a big speech this week, which was genuinely spine-tingling, and good enough to rank alongside any other chest-beating gangster monologue you’d care to name, with one brilliantly memorable line. It’s the one when Skylar worries that Walt will one day receive a knock at the door from a hitman, and Walt chastises her for her naivety and seethes, “I’m the one who knocks!”
But as impressively macho as this speech is, it isn’t delivered to Gus, Mike, or even Jesse: it’s to his frightened wife, who is beginning to genuinely fear for her and her children’s safety. This begins the theme of Walt picking on the people he perceives as ‘weak’ throughout the episode. He ensnares a group of Honduran immigrants from the adjacent laundry to come and clean up the meth lab purely because a) he thinks having to do the job himself is beneath him and b) he wants to annoy Gus.
While the scene of Walt negotiating with them in cod-Spanish was hilarious, the implications were horrifying – we know how definitive Gus is about loose ends, and so does Walt, so is he really endangering the lives of three innocent women just so he can give his boss the middle finger?
Later, when Gus’s latest stooge informs him that the three women are being deported back to Honduras, Walt seems genuinely upset, but the fact is that that was the best that could have happened to them after Walt’s insanely thoughtless prank. It’s a good indicator of the cavernous depths of his self-delusion.
Then there’s the car wash manager, who had the nerve to question whether Walt was tough enough to be a boss, and even cited Skyler as perhaps a better choice to run the business.
Walt’s response is to demand he leave the framed first dollar he ever earned behind with the keys, which, in an unbelievably petty move, he then smashes and uses to buy a Coke. In his head, this is him reasserting his authority, but the car wash manager is correct – it was the tenacity of Skyler that made the car wash deal happen, where Walt was arguably more of a hindrance than anything else.
And we see for sure later on that Walt is utterly hopeless in terms of man-management. At one point, he looks like he may have actually had an impressive moment of perception when he correctly identifies the ‘robbery’ that supposedly so impressed Mike as a carefully orchestrated set-up. He then blows this completely by berating Jesse, branding him weak, then exclaiming with a total lack of self-awareness, “My god…it’s all about me…”
We see here how much Walt depends on Jesse as a punching bag – someone who he can knock about, call names, and feel intellectually superior to. There has definitely been some affection there too in the past, but you get the feeling it would be rapidly sacrificed if it got in the way of Walt’s own self-interest. This could be a problem, especially seeing as Jesse seems to be genuinely demonstrating himself to be a ballsy and canny operator to Mike. Especially when infiltrating a house occupied by two badly tweaking meth-heads.
So Walt is beginning to run out of allies. It seemed that Skyler was coming around, but Walt’s rant has dispelled any kind of firewall she was trying to erect to protect herself from the true horror of what Walt has become. Walt’s purchase of a bright red sports car for Walt Jnr (and seriously, when did a teenager acquiring a red sports car signify anything other than bad news?) was at once both thoughtless and a calculated FU to Skyler, something that, as she rightly points out, directly contradicts their carefully constructed cover story.
While she spent much of the episode contemplating fleeing to another state with Holly, eventually Skyler returned to the family home, determined to assume the role of “the person who protects this family from the man who protects this family.” It’s a watershed moment of realisation for her – when Walt bellows “I am the danger!” at her in the middle of his big speech, he may think he’s referring to drug dealers, gangsters, and hitmen, cowering in fear of Heisenburg.
Cornered and the rest of this early season makes it clear that they’re not really threatened by him, however. Walt’s right, though: he is the danger. But the only people he is endangering are his family, his colleagues, and most of all, himself.
Read our review of the last episode, Shotgun, here.