May 2nd, 2010
On AMC Canada, Breaking Bad tends to run about thirty seconds long, and due to some scheduling conflicts I have to record the encore rather than the original airing – as a result (yes, there’s a reason I’m explaining this), my recording always begins with the last thirty seconds of the episode I’m about to watch. Usually I’m pretty quick at catching this particular problem, but other times I’m not so lucky; sometimes I get quick glances of what’s to come, which are often pretty innocuous and easily forgotten or ignored as the episode begins.
At this point in the review, anyone who has seen “One Minute” is hoping that this was one of those times where that didn’t happen, where I was intelligent enough to remember the potential spoilers and immediately close my eyes and fast-forward until it was safe to open them again. Unfortunately, I did see a brief moment from the stunning final sequence of this week’s episode, but in a testament to the ludicrous quality of this hour of television I didn’t even remember it by the time we came to the scene in question. “One Minute” has no complicated narrative nor does it rely exclusively on the sort of jaw-dropping scenes with which it concludes: rather, it tells the story of two men who face important decisions, in the process delivering the greatest Emmy duel since Michael Emerson and Terry O’Quinn.
The opening scene sets up what I guess you could call the episode’s central theme: Family is everything. It’s what drives our favourite psychotic siblings to avenge their cousin’s murder, and it’s what ultimately drives Walt to sacrifice half of his drug money. However, what’s important here is that family is not necessarily about blood relation, or even about familial relation. Walt tries to make the argument to Skyler that he has no obligation to Hank because he is now no longer his brother-in-law, but he ultimately realizes this isn’t true; for better or for worse, the man is “family,” just as Jesse is something more than just a kid who can hurt him.
It seems easy to write off Walt’s sacrifice as selfish: he did it so that Jesse wouldn’t cook meth and place him in jeopardy, and so there wouldn’t be a huge investigation that could potentially bring evidence to light. However, I think it was about more than that: while Walt has made decisions in the past where he has, in a panic, reacted in ways which hurt those around them (See: Jane) because they served his needs, I truly believe that this is the opposite response. I believe that Walt is doing this because he doesn’t want to see Jesse get himself killed trying to sell drugs himself, and because he knows that it will keep Hank from losing everything over something which technically (although he can’t really know this) tracks back to him. It’s not as if this actually absolves the character: after all, Hank is lying in a pool of his own blood at episode’s end because of Walt, and Walt can’t entirely rewrite the things he’s done in the past to place his “family” in danger.
And yet, we still want him to be able to do it. As noted, I got sucked into the idea that Hank was going to be saved, that Walt was truly Hank’s angel, despite the fact that I knew Hank was going to end up covered in his own blood. However, even with the over-the-top gun salesman and the vest purchase, I had forgotten about the cousins. I don’t “like” Walt, nor do I think that his actions here in any way justify his past behaviour, but we want to believe that it’s possible for everything to go back to normal, for one decision to keep Jesse from getting himself killed, to keep Hank from losing everything, and to keep Walt’s life from falling apart. But the episode immediately shatters those expectations with the Cousins, a wild card element that can’t be so predictably disposed of.
There’s been some discussion this year about whether the Cousins are too broadly played, a bit too stylistic within what is effectively a realistic world. However, I think the show used them to perfection here: they are something that doesn’t quite fit in this environment, which is what makes them so difficult to account for. By giving more insight into their upbringing, showing us what made them this way in their flashback with their Uncle, the show tells us that their problem isn’t that they’re unpredictable but rather that their motivation is very simple. They are out to protect their family, and their methods lack any sort of selfish motivation. While Walt hums and haws about balancing family with his own selfish pride, the Cousins are resolute, a position which makes them dangerously uncomplicated in a complicated world. Walt knows how to handle a threat like Hank, using his love for his wife against him to get him out of the way in last week’s episode – however, what can you do to take the cousins out of the way? Gus tried to appeal to their boss, but in the end he was forced to divert their rage rather than dilute it in any fashion. This was inevitable, but we didn’t want it to be; we wanted Walt’s decision to fix everything, but then we realized that Hank was in a parking lot, alone, without his gun, being hunted by two men who have no off switch.
It leads to that ridiculous final sequence that I’m still wrapping my head around. It’s such a wonderfully constructed action sequence, the sort which big-budget action films should probably pay attention to. The scene very clearly lays out a series of events which places everything into action: one Cousin is taken out in such a way that makes his vest worthless, but we know the other one is wearing a vest. Plus, we know that he has an extra bullet in his pocket, and we even know that the extra bullet is particularly damaging. This is all set up long beforehand, and it’s not like I spent the entire episode wondering about it: however, once the scene kicked in (as Hank’s panic returns as the clock strikes 3:08), everything came rushing back, and the show switched into an adrenaline ride which comes to its bloody and explosive conclusion. One Cousin is dead, the other is very much wounded, and Hank lies on the pavement with (I believe) four non-fatal gunshot wounds – throw in a dead guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you have one of the most shocking sequences I’ve seen in a long time.
However, it was an episode that features some really fantastic dramatic acting from Dean Norris and Aaron Paul, who at this point are in a duel over who most deserves the Supporting Actor Emmy. In the case of Paul, the character only had two big scenes in the episode, but they were absolutely bloody fantastic ones – while Jesse doesn’t have a substantial narrative in the episode, we get two very different responses to his current situation as a result of Hank’s episode-opening decision to beat the living crap out of him. The first is pure anger and defiance, believing that Hank deserves to pay for what he’s done and that this only strengthens his resolve to keep cooking and to prove himself. However, the second scene (as Walt returns later to cut him into his gig with Gus) is a very different Jesse: he is still angry, but he is angry about his state in life, angry that ever since he started this journey he has lost everything that has mattered to him (his family, his friends, Jane, etc.). The Jesse we’ve seen to this point in the season has been cold and detached, sober but also resisting any sort of human connection: this is, I believe, what he thought it meant to be the bad guy, how he was supposed to succeed in his chosen (or determined, if you accept his argument) way of life. But in that second scene he is a damaged twenty-something left treading water as all remnants of his past life float face down, and Paul absolutely nails all of those intense emotions boiling to the surface. They’re two of the best scenes he’s done on the show, and are certainly Emmy worthy.
At the end of the day, though, I think I’m officially on “Team Dean” in this particular horse race. While I kept switching back and forth between the two actors as the hour went on, I’m still shocked at how what seemed like an unnecessary character in the first season has developed into someone both more sympathetic and more tragic than Walt has ever been. Norris wasn’t asked to do much early on, but in the wake of the chaos in El Paso he has absolutely been up to the task of fleshing out Hank as a man whose life was turned upside down by an event he still doesn’t entirely understand. Just as the episode sets up that everything is going right for Hank before we realize he’s about to be attacked by the Cousins, Tuco’s shooting tricked Hank into believing that life was about to get better before he realized that it was all a lie. Norris is not a flashy actor, but his pure anger in the opening scenes is so wonderfully contrasted with his breakdown in the elevator, or with the steely resolve he shows as he accepts his actions, finally admitting to Marie that he has been gripped by panic attacks since El Paso. His life has been unraveling, all the result of Walt pulling a thread out of the sweater that was his life, and Norris has been remarkable at drawing us into this character’s head when we thought it was empty when the series began.
As for how the Emmy voters would decide if they saw “One Minute,” I remain unsure: while Norris has the more compelling narrative and more screen time, the Supporting categories are cut down to just their scenes, which means that Paul would be submitting some absolutely stunning work that hits fast and hard. However, the point remains that we’re reaching the stage where I’m predicting the show grabbing four acting nominations, and “One Minute” is yet another indication of just how gosh darn stellar the show is this year.
- Skyler’s single scene in the episode was really just there to extend the family theme, but it was nice seeing her again – the character is now no longer “family,” but she’s still a really intriguing player in this whole game, and I expect she’ll be even more important now that she’s an “independent” in the situation.
- I’m disappointed to see Walt get rid of Gale so easily, as I like Dave Costible, but I thought it rang true that Walt would turn on him like that – there’s a wonderful irony in that it is similar to how he turned on Jesse once it was clear that there were bigger and better things available to him, although in this case being used to restore Jesse to his position as lab assistant and financial partner.
- I do have to wonder whether or not Gus would actually allow Jesse to be part of the project considering that he is under investigation for cooking meth, but I’ll accept that particular play so long as the show eventually has Gus show his true colours upon the completion of the contract.
- My favourite element of the opening scene: that our favourite wheelchair-bound, bell-ringing Uncle was sitting in a chair with wagon wheel legs.