May 30th, 2010
“She saw something new every time she painted it.”
It’s been three weeks since I last checked in with Breaking Bad, which is unfortunate but not that surprising: I was busy graduating two Sundays ago, and then last week anyone without screeners was out of luck if they were simultaneously a fan of both Breaking Bad and Lost. It’s particularly unfortunate since both “Kafkasque” and “Fly” were pretty fantastic. To briefly offer my perspective on each, I loved the parallel between Jesse and Walt each watching their confidantes spinning a web of lies in “Kafkaesque,” in particular Walt’s reaction to Skyler’s ability to pull off the gambling alibi with such precision. And as for “Fly,” I thought Rian Johnson did a fantastic job of taking a purposefully contained – for budgetary reasons – episode and and allow it to be defined by its sense of atmosphere. The show tiptoed dangerously close to Walt revealing the truth about Jane’s death, and by embracing that tension without exaggerating it the series created an episode which remained definitely “Breaking Bad” without the shoot-outs and chaos the show has used so effectively this season.
“Abiquiu” remains a fairly low-key affair, as characters plot out their next moves more than necessarily finding themselves in the middle of a firefight, but I say this in the best possible way. While the thrills of “One Minute” are part of the series’ identity, it is often better in those quiet moments where character are forced to live with their actions or where taking the next step means crossing a threshold they might not be able to cross. In many ways, we’ve seen these characters at this point before, but each time Breaking Bad brings us to a crossroads we see something new in these characters, whether it be confirmation of what we’ve always believed or a new facet of their personality emerging – and frankly, at this point, the show can paint that door as many times as it wants as far as I’m concerned.
People have said that Breaking Bad is a show that needs to know when to quit, meaning that it won’t be able to run for more than five seasons or so. I would agree with this, at least when it comes to the central gambit of Walter White: that character’s journey is something which needs to be resolved before it feels like he has more lives than your average feline. However, I don’t know if Jesse Pinkman’s story necessarily needs to end at the same time. When the season began, Jesse was committed to following the path of evil at all costs, accepting the fate which has befallen him. However, Jesse Pinkman is far less capable of evil than Walter White, simply unable to get himself as far “deep” as Walter is willing to go. Jesse wasn’t the one who pushed to expand into new territory (a decision which got Combo killed), nor was he the one who allowed Jane to choke on her own vomit and die. He is the greatest consequence of Walt’s actions, a kid who just wanted to cook some chili powder-laced meth and live in his Aunt’s house living life as he chose fit who got caught up in something that brought him greater pain than he could have ever realized.
In some ways, though, it’s made him a better person: while his attempts to be as badass as possible mean that he’s willing to sell to Andrea in theory (what Badger and Skinny Peter are unable to do, as a result of their sympathy for their fellow addicts), in practice he discovers that she has a kid, and all of those plans go out the window. When he was selling with Walt, he didn’t really have a choice in the matter: he ceded control to Walter because of his cancer, and his desire to provide for his children. Here, however, Jesse has complete control over his decision to steal from the yield from their cooking sessions and try to sell it to everyone else, and once you see Jesse in control you see someone who isn’t as reckless or as capable of evil as he thinks himself to be. The flashback to the moment where Jane’s lipstick-covered cigarette butt in the dash was placed there shows what we could considered Jesse’s inherent “sweetness,” a sweetness which extends into his time with Andrea and Young Brock. This isn’t some sort of long con: while it begins as an attempt to sell her some Crystal Meth, it continues as an opportunity to avoid making the same mistake again (which is Gus’ advice to Walt in a later scene); Andrea becomes a substitute for Jane, a chance to live clean like they were supposed to and to make something of himself.
Of course, because Jesse’s life is a greater tragedy than Walt’s by far, he discovers that his potential new life has already been corrupted by his old one, as Andrea’s brother Tomas was the one who killed Combo. It was something that I had spoiled for me by the “Previously On Breaking Bad” segment, in fact: once she started talking about Tomas earlier, I thought back to the presence of Combo’s death in that segment without any real context to current events. It doesn’t make it any less compelling to see Jesse dealing with the one part of his past experience he never dealt with sober (having gone off the wagon immediately thereafter, refusing to even go to Combo’s funeral), and it’s fulfilling to see a piece of the show’s past unearthed like this, but I do wish that we would have been able to recall the story on our own without the network-controlled flashback. When you think about it, the show took some shortcuts to get there: I’m willing to accept the contrivance of meeting this particular girl for the sake of the tragic element being so potent, but I think they rushed into the relationship a little bit too quickly. I understand that Krysten Ritter’s (very welcome) return in the cold open sort of offers him the ability to move on, but it still feels like the relationship gets to that point too quickly, rushing to get to the “real” story without entirely unpacking this one. Still the “real” story (as Jesse confronts Tomas and realizes that he has an opportunity to avenge Combo’s death and “undo” a past mistake) is a really interesting place to take this character and led to some fine work from Aaron Paul here.
The storyline more or less confirmed what we’ve known all along about Jesse’s inability to entirely follow through on his darkest impulses (his speech in “One Minute” is perhaps as close as he’s gotten), but it showed us a different side of Skyler. As I noted, I absolutely loved the way she took control of creating the story about Walt’s gambling addiction, as I’ve been a big fan of Anna Gunn’s work in terms of bringing Skyler “into the fold.” Now that she understand Walt’s business in greater detail, we’re starting to see her making some smart decisions: she doesn’t file the divorce papers because she doesn’t want to be forced to testify against him, and she contests Saul Goodman’s (amazing) plan to launder money through Laser Tag and suggests the Car Wash as a more viable alternative. When she eventually throws herself into the fold by offering to be Walt’s “Danny,” operating the Car Wash on a day-to-day basis in order to maintain Walt’s secret, it’s the trippy, drug culture equivalent to Luke’s “I’m in, I’m all in” speech to Lorelai on Gilmore Girls (and no, I don’t know why that’s the first thing that popped into my head, but I think it works).
I do think the show is still keeping Skyler’s motivations a little bit too close to the vest on this one, though. I understand why Skyler would think it advantageous to be involved, in that it allows her to control her own fate and resist remaining subservient to Walt in all capacities, but that quest for control doesn’t feel like it’s coming from anywhere in particular. I don’t want to claim that the show is being too subtle, as I love its ability to tell stories through small glances and the like, but what we have seen from Skyler this season (her affair with Ted, for example) doesn’t really feel like it was building to anything in particular, and the scattershot nature of her initial reaction to Walt’s occupation seems to have crystallized (sorry for the pun) more quickly than I would have imagined. Howver, in the end, I don’t particularly care so long as Anna Gunn’s work remains this good. She wasn’t given much to work with in the first two seasons, as Skyler was perhaps the series’ weakest element, but the transition from ignorant housewife to the drug trade’s very own Yoko Ono has been inspired, and I think Gunn stepped up to the plate in a big way.
The other ongoing story in the episode was just a few small glimpses of Hank struggling to get through his treatment. The character was marginalized by his accident, but Dean Norris acted the hell out of his story in this episode; I like the idea that Hank is unwilling to leave the hospital (where it’s okay to be injured) until he is completely healed, unwilling to accept that his normal life could ever be invaded by his current state (which explains his anger over the hospital bed in his bedroom). He doesn’t want anyone to see him like this, so he resent Walt Jr. and Skyler for being there to support him and to some degree even resents Marie for trying so hard to force him to confront the realities of his situation. It’s just a few scenes, but Norris continues some great work this season, and I’m curious to see where Hank ends up by the end of the season.
In terms of the episode as a whole, notice the importance of breaking bread together: Gus and Walt’s scene together doesn’t really fit into any ongoing storylines, as Gus’ offer of mentorship has always more or less been implied to some degree, but it creates an interesting glimpse into what eating means in our culture. Just as it seems to be an important step forward in their relationship, Skyler’s invitation to Walt to come over for dinner indicates her willingness to have him in their life, and Jesse eating out with Andrea and Brock seems a turning point in the early stages of their connection (and is the first act Jesse makes once he learns of Brock’s existence). And to perhaps force things a little, notice how Hank refuses to eat his hospital food, perhaps believing that to eat the Jell-O would be some sort of white flag indicating how long his road to recovery really is.
You can’t escape the past on this show, but perhaps you’re able to learn from past mistakes or use that past to your advantage: Walt’s four years of hell working at a car wash (more on that in the bullets) becomes an easy way for him to launder money, while Jesse’s experience with Jane contributes to his refusal to sell Crystal to Andrea. And yet there’s a danger with getting wrapped up in your own past, as it wakes up feelings that you never quite dealt with (like Combo’s death) or puts you in connection with people who you don’t want to necessarily bring into the fold (like Skyler). As Jason Mittell noted on Twitter, episodes like this one make this seem like a very small world, and yet that world is constantly in peril thanks to the volatility of Walt’s chosen occupation; a small world falls even faster than a large one, a fact which makes next week’s penultimate episode that much more important.
- Thanks to the wonders of Google, and certainly not the episode itself, I learned that Abiquiu was the location where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and the site of the museum that Jane and Jesse visit at the beginning of the episode.
- One nitpick: Walter’s job at the car wash seemed relatively new when the series began, as the high school kids seemed to be just catching on to the fact that he worked there. I liked the callback to the pilot, but I don’t know if that particular detail (oh god, the puns are just piling up) lines up with what we saw in those early episodes.
- Fantastic episode for Bob Odenkirk: he’s trapped as a comic actor on a show with some intense, dark dramatic turns, but he’s incredibly important to keeping the balance on the show, and I hope he’s in some way recognized for that (as an Emmy nomination is impossible considering Aaron Paul and Dean Norris’ existing presence in a ludicrously tight category). I could list off the hilarious lines (“Laser Tag!,” “Scientists love lasers!,” his Kevin Costner story, coining the Yoko term, etc.), but there’s just too many.
- Some of the usual production tricks this week, like the shots done through the water and the meth with Skyler and Jesse early on, but I liked one sound design decision in particular: when they cut to Walt in his yellow suit towards the end of the episode, the sound that the hose made sounded like classic thriller music, which completely threw me for a loop. It’s not a particularly meaningful detail, but I thought it was an effective one.
- “Pain is weakness leaving your body” indicates that Marie is one of the characters (along with Walt Jr.) who remains woefully ignorant to the darkness of the small world she’s living in.