April 4th, 2010
Breaking Bad is a show more or less governed by self-destructive behaviour. We’ve been watching Walter White fall further and further into choices that threaten to destroy his family for over two seasons, and more importantly we’ve been watching everyone around him fall into similar patterns. If we really break it down, Walter’s self-destructive path has led directly to the struggles facing Skyler, Jesse, and Hank, and so “I.F.T.” becomes a sort of test of how Walt, and those he put on a similar path through his actions, are dealing with their self-destructive tendencies.
The result is one character who refuses to accept the consequences of his actions, and three characters who embrace self-destruction in an attempt to take control of their fate, although some more reluctantly than others.
While you can say a lot about Bryan Cranston’s performance on this show, this was decidedly not a Walter episode. Sure, there was some fine acting as Walter tried to re-enter the domestic space by force and sheer helpfulness (I’ll get to Cranston’s big scene in a minute), but it was an entirely unlikable turn for the character. Walt spent the episode acting like a petulant child, refusing to believe or accept that Skyler has some sort of a problem with his illegal activities. While we may sympathize with Walt more than we would other people in his position as a result of the unique circumstances involved, that he would be so willing to force Skyler into this sort of domestic arrangement is ill-planned and short-sighted.
And yet Walt, to his credit, does lay everything (including the bag of money) on the table with Skyler in the episode, explaining quite clearly why he did it for his family, and why his life would be over if Skyler were to avoid taking him back. However, negotiating positions are always important when you’ve having those sorts of conversations, and whatever sympathy Walt might have won by that speech was entirely erased by the circumstances under which he chose to gave it. While he may not be breaking any laws to be in the house the way he is, he’s violating Skyler’s space in a way that she’s not going to take kindly to, and in a way that forces Skyler to respond.
Jesse and Hank, let’s remember, are not entirely aware of how Walt had a hand in their own self-destruction. For Jesse, Walt was the one who rescued him from his own demise and took him to rehab; he doesn’t know that Walt was the one who let Jane choke on her own vomit and die for what were largely his own selfish reasons, and while he might technically be better off with Jane gone (in that he was able to get clean) he doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Jesse spends the episode haunted by her memory in the form of her voicemail, the last trace of her memory that he has left to hold onto. Aaron Paul may not have Cranston’s big scenes or even Gunn’s showy emotional pleas, but he absolutely nailed the heartbreak in those sequences. It was a quiet sort of self-destruction defined by choice rather than action, as we see him in his apron, putting on his gas mask, preparing to cook some meth because it’s the only thing he has left to do. While Jesse has decided he is the bad guy, decided that he wants to head down this road, in some way Jane’s memory was holding him back, and it was only after it was disconnected that he was able to get on with things; even then, though, I think he’s far less of a “bad guy” then he has self-determined, and we’ll see how that unfolds as the season progresses.
As for Hank, it was Walt’s disappearing act that sent Hank out to that house in the desert and got him labeled a hero for killing Tuco, which got him promoted to the gig in El Paso, which got him a front row seat to Danny Trejo’s exploding head on a tortoise. He doesn’t quite put this together, of course, as he doesn’t know that Walt was at that house and still believes that Walt’s disappearing act was a legitimate episode rather than a drug deal gone bad. For Hank, though, he’s evading the consequences of those events, the PTSD that has crippled him with anxiety and “episodes” since late last season. So as soon as he hears word that he has been asked to return to El Paso, which is again viewed as a promotion or as something to celebrate, he finds the closest dive bar, puts his gun and badge under his seat, and then loses it on a couple of drug thugs for no apparent reason. We, of course, know the reason precisely: Hank doesn’t want to return to El Paso, but rather than saying that he is struggling or admitting that he has anxiety issues relating to those events, he chooses to label himself as a “loose cannon,” reasserting his masculine aggression and likely getting “demoted” back to his old job. It’s self-destruction out of desperation, and Dean Norris did a great job of selling it.
There’s a wonderful irony in the fact that self-destruction is often about gaining control; Walt started cooking meth because it gave him hope for the future, Jesse returns to cooking meth because it keeps him from falling back off the wagon, and Hank commits a violent outburtst to avoid seeming broken or in any way weak. With Skyler, who is desperate for control but unwilling (as Saul expected) to expose her son and daughter to the truth about Walt’s self-destruction, she realizes that she needs to own this divorce. And so, she sleeps with (or, at least kisses and then exaggerates things) Ted Beneke – the title, I presume, refers to “I Fucked Ted” – in order to get Walt angry, in order to force him to see the consequences that he’s created. Anna Gunn has never been better than displaying Skyler’s search for agency within this situation, and the character is finally caught up in the show’s most interesting questions.
The interesting question it raises, though, is whether Skyler’s self-destruction is any different from Walt’s. She’s committing infidelity in order to hurt him, as opposed to Walt’s good-intentioned efforts to help his family. The issue, however, is that they have different definitions of that family, just as Walt and Jesse have different definitions of justice or “moving on.” Skyler believes getting rid of Walt while hiding his secret is the best remedy to her current situation, while Walt believes that his family needs to be together; neither is wrong, per se, but both are going about it in ways that will only cause more damage in the long run, for both themselves and others. “I.F.T.” was a nice rumination on all of that, and it’s placed every character in a really nice point moving forward into the rest of the season.
- It didn’t really fit into the above narrative, but I loved the scene with Gus meeting with “the boss” and the cousins regarding Walt’s position. It’s still all setup for something more, but we learn that Gus is still interested in Walt despite his reluctance, which now makes two separate people (Saul and Gus, who based on the Cleaner’s conversation with Gus’ men have no connection to one another beyond mutual acquaintances) who are trying to get Heisenberg back into business. I also really enjoyed how the vegetable tray was placed in the exact middle of two tables, making it completely out of reach for both sides, there as a simply offering and not serving any practical purpose. Just a really great scene, even if we don’t get any payoff.
- I’m curious if we’ll be returning to Donald at any point this season: my presumption is that the character will return in some capacity, at least to try to find some closure with Jesse, but there’s no sign of this at present.
- The flashback to Danny Trejo’s death made me think for a moment that his death had been faked, but a bit of retconning to include the Cousins in the show’s past is never a bad thing, and it even helps tie together Walt and Hank’s stories should they intersect at some point in the future.
- I’m not sure which “sink urinator” I should use to name Walt’s decision to relieve himself in the kitchen sink: I think Big Love’s Frank Harlow did it most recently, but my mind went to Friday Night Lights’ Billy Riggins first.
- I presume the symmetry of Walt using doctor/patient confidentiality in order to speed up his exit from the hospital and Skyler using Attorney/Client Privilege to try to work through her issues with Walt was intentional.