Breaking Bad season 4 episode 9 review: Bug

As Breaking Bad reaches episode 9, Paul wonders, is this the greatest television series since The Sopranos? Here’s his review of Bug...

This review contains spoilers. Please note, too, that there are also some mild Sopranos spoilers here.

4.9 Bug

While debate seems to be currently raging across the Internet about whether Breaking Bad has usurped or potentially can usurp The Wire as the Greatest TV Show Of All Time, I’ve always thought that, purely in narrative terms, it always was much more indebted to The Sopranos, another contender for the GOAT award.

Bug, more than most episodes of Breaking Bad, was very reminiscent of The Sopranos in some of its more intense moments – the first noticeable one came in Jesse’s slo-mo reaction shot to a fellow lackey of Gus’ having his brains shot out a few feet away from him, which was very similar to a scene in a later Sopranos ep, where Silvio carries on talking for a few seconds after blood has just sprayed him in the face.

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The slo-mo horror feels like a good representation of what it actually would feel like to be shocked with that kind of violence. It’s another good example of the ‘apocalyptic realism’ (someone else came up with this term on another forum, and I can’t think of a better way of describing the Breaking Bad aesthetic than that) which has always informed the show’s violent moments and given them such power.

A scene of Gus walking out into a wave of bullets, arms cruciform, staring down the Cartel sniper with a demented look in his eyes, immediately followed that effective little shock. I have to say, I’m not a huge fan of these more self-consciously badass moments – another one came in series three, where the twin assassins did the unflinching walk away from an exploding truck. On the one hand, Breaking Bad does such an incredible job of establishing plausibility and grounding its high concept in reality, that you feel it should earn the occasional foray into the fantastic.

By the same token, it does such a great job of establishing plausibility and grounding its high concept in reality, why spoil it? It’s not like there aren’t a surfeit of incredibly tense, powerful and exhilarating moments in the show, and this episode added another all-time great scene to an already overstuffed pantheon.

The final scene between Walt and Jesse was unflinchingly brutal, and again strongly reminiscent of The Sopranos, both in its emotional intensity (the impassioned arguing between the two men bringing to mind Carmela and Tony’s almighty contretemps late in the series – and let’s face it, Walt and Jesse is more of a traditional marriage at this point than Walt and Skyler), and physical intensity (Tony and Ralphie – nuff said).

 We’ve been building towards this scene all season, and in many ways, we’ve been building towards it all series. Walt and Jesse’s relationship has always been dysfunctional to put it mildly, but it has disintegrated to the point where giving each other a savage beating was probably the best possible outcome for both men. Jesse (or Poor Jesse, as he should always be referred to) has always been unfailingly loyal to Mr White, even though taking a step back and assessing his situation for just a few seconds will tell you that Walt has been nothing but a poisonous influence on his life – a cancer, even. When they met, Poor Jesse was a harmless hop-head whose biggest concern was some dude coming home and catching him in bed with his wife.

A year later, thanks to Walt’s influence, he’s been forced to assassinate the world’s most docile man; has seen shootings, throat-slittings, men being beaten to death, bodies dissolved in acid, decapitations, and enough horror and carnage to populate a minor land-war, and now he’s about to be sent to work for a Mexican cartel, which even Jesse knows isn’t the most stable employment in the world.

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He doesn’t even know that Walt purposefully let his girlfriend die, watching her as she did so. Even Walt’s one apparently heroic act (saving Jesse from being murdered by the street dealers) has to be viewed in the context of his later behaviour – perhaps it was motivated mainly as a power play aimed at Gus, or out of guilt over Jane, rather than being a genuinely altruistic act. If anyone in history ever deserved a total hiding from someone else, it’s Walt from Poor Jesse.

Because, despite all this, Poor Jesse has remained totally loyal to Walt, despite being marginalised and ridiculed constantly by him. Jesse may act and speak like an idiot (although he’s mainly stopped tagging his sentences with “Bitch!” now), but he’s sensitive, thoughtful, and surprisingly perceptive. When it looks as though Gus is insinuating Walt will be killed, he immediately stands up for his ‘mentor’.

The scene between Gus and Poor Jesse was interesting in the way Poor Jesse was made uncomfortable by Gus’ politeness– he’s so used to the high-pitched bickering between him and Walt, that he struggles to deal with Gus’ calm formality, and is suitably chastened when Gus asks if they can “Talk like men”.

Poor Jesse got his chance to bicker later, though – did he ever. He pours his heart out to Walt, looking for advice on the bombshell that he will be shipped off to Mexico, and Walt just sits there, oblivious, stewing over his discovery (via the titular bug) that Jesse has been at Gus’ house and, once again, failed to kill him.

The bug proves to be the final straw for Poor Jesse, and the two came to blows in an authentically painful looking fight scene. Walt’s finally managed to jettison his most powerful ally with his own insanely powerful hubris, which leaves him with… who, Saul? Loyalty isn’t an adjective you’d normally choose to apply to him.

That leaves Skyler, who is embroiled in problems of her own – Ted, her silver fox of a boss, showed up unexpectedly to inform her that her name is all over a rotten pair of books currently under investigation by the IRS. There was a great visual gag where Skyler told Ted to sell his BMW to pay off the debts, only to watch Ted seconds later climb into a grotty hatchback and drive off.

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What first seemed like an unnecessary reintroduction of a superfluous supporting character actually revealed itself to be a brilliant way of tightening the noose around Walt’s neck. Ted could lead the agents to Skyler’s precarious money-laundering operation at the garage, or Skyler could use the drug money to pay off Ted’s debts. Would she steal it? Would Walt refuse to give it, and order Ted be dealt with in a different way? Either way, Ted fans, I’m willing to bet his life is about to become a lot worse than just driving around in a hatchback.

I didn’t make the Sopranos comparison lightly at the beginning of this review – there are few programmes, or anything, which has blown my mind quite like that first series did before or since. Admittedly, I was 14 at the time. That Breaking Bad has come close to replicating that feeling of excitement, discovery, and mlnd-altering addiction over a decade later, now that I’m couched in nothing but Internet-honed cynicism and bitterness, is some sort of minor miracle.

Read our review of the last episode, Hermanos, here.

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