July 24th, 2011
“It’s like nothing but good days ahead.”
Walt remarks near the end of “Thirty-Eight Snub” that it’s been a hell of a last couple of weeks, which is certainly true: in fact, the sheer dramatic weight of the entire third season hangs in the air throughout this episode, the first one where the show feels stops to take a breath.
That breath doesn’t contain a great deal of surprise, much as last week’s resolution to the season three cliffhanger went about as one might expect. Based on what we saw at the end of last week’s episode, Jesse and Walt respond about as one would expect to their attempts at returning to something of a normal life, but just like last week’s episode the predictable remains compelling. There is so much baggage within these characters and within this show as a whole that the pathos is enough to carry even storylines that call attention to their true purpose. That line above is way too on-the-nose in laying out the theme of Jesse’s portion of the episode, for example, but it only serves to reinforce instead of undoing the work that was done.
Free from the “suspense” of last week’s outing, “Thirty-Eight Snub” instead just throws the show’s fantastic actors into tense situations and asks them to play out life as they would know it. It’s striking, it’s evocative, and it’s a whole lot of momentum for an episode that actively evades any major showdowns.
Walter White is a paranoid man: always has been, always will be. Heck, in many ways the reason he let Jane die right in front of him was because he was paranoid regarding what kind of threat she might pose to his business. However, his actions at the end of last season were more than paranoia: they were, as he describes them to Mike, measures taken in order to save his partner and in order to survive. While Walt could argue that both Jane’s death and Gale’s death were measures of self-defense (although I’d prefer the less heroic-sounding self-preservation if we’re being realistic), there was an immediacy to the threat against his life in the case of Gale that made the decision seem much more understandable even if having Jesse do his dirty work was an unfortunate situation on any number of levels.
Now, however, he is just plain paranoid in a situation where has has no reason to be. Yes, he should fear Gus, but Gus poses no immediate threat. When Walt stands there purchasing an illegal handgun, he is given every chance to do the right thing and go register for a handgun that would be legal. To buy one from Jim Beaver’s gun salesman (who was referred to Walt by Saul) is to admit that this is not a weapon of self-defense but rather a weapon of self-preservation. Walt has decided that it is a “Kill or be Killed” world, a decision built around a paranoia that in many ways isn’t justified by the situation. As soon as Walt drives to Gus’ house and puts on his Heisenberg hat, you realize just how much the moment has consumed him, how much that image of Gus cutting Victor’s throat has stuck in his mind.
Walt is a man of action who often finds himself incapable of acting. In a moment of absolute necessity, as we saw at the end of last season, Walt can act with the best of them. However, in a moment of uncertainty where necessity is up in the air Walt is frozen by anxiety, struggling to conceal a gun that he was never going to be perceptive enough to properly conceal. I love that moment where he puts on the Heisenberg hat in the Aztec, because it’s like he thinks it has super powers. In truth, the hat is just a hat, a form of self-confidence that can only overcome so much of the reality before him.
If Walt is paralyzed by the weight of reality, Jesse Pinkman is determined to ignore it. Jesse’s storyline reminds me a bit of his work early last season after Jane’s death, as he spent an entire episode just calling her answering machine to hear her voice. It was Jesse holding on to something that he had lost, afraid of facing the reality of her death without that connection. Here, he uses some cocaine and a new stereo system to kickstart a three-day party designed purely as a distraction.
It’s interesting to note that Jesse never seems too far gone, nor does he miss work the next morning. In fact, we never see Jesse actually take a bump, although we do see some evidence that he is using in some capacity (as he does seem kind of groggy). However, he still gets up to go to work, and he still does his job without a hitch. The difference is that he doesn’t return to an empty house where he’ll be left alone to think about everything that’s happened, instead returning to a party that he hopes will never end. It’s a theme that’s apparent from the moment he tells them to keep the party going, and that becomes even more apparent when Badger says the pullquote above and lays it all out on the table. He wants life to feel normal again, and his only perception of normal is a drug-fueled party.
It’s a sort of numbing normal for Jesse, at least until Andrea shows up to remind him of what has gone down in recent weeks. The scene shows Jesse handling the situation quite well: he knows that no one will come after the money (he earned it), he knows the people responsible for her brother’s death won’t come after her (since they’re dead, and their killer is now protected based on Gus’ actions last week), and so he just tells her to use the money to save herself (while acknowledging that she might use it on meth). Her escape, at least in his mind, is permanent: he can still buy her freedom. By comparison, money can only buy Jesse an escape, a sanctuary in which he’s too distracted to think about the man he killed and the constant threat that he might meet the same fate at any moment. That final shot, as he sits in front of the subwoofer and tries to numb himself with the vibration as he finally cracks is just a tremendous piece of acting from Aaron Paul, another instance of a storyline where Paul doesn’t get big monologues but manages to bring the character to life arguably better than Cranston.
As for Marie and Skyler, they’re the two characters who are just trying to go on with their lives. In Skyler’s case, she’s starting to adjust to the “new normal” presented to her by Walt’s profession and is doing market research and making her own play at purchasing the car wash. It fails, of course, for the same reason that her actions anger Walt: Skyler, very simply, knows less than she thinks she knows. She has no idea how close Walt was to dying, sure, but she also wasn’t entirely aware of what bad blood Walt might have had with the man. The latter is somewhat insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it complicates that business deal, and Skyler finds herself considered “Walt’s woman” in a way that she had not intended. In her mind she is being independent and taking things into her own hands, but that’s not how it’s being interpreted, and that’s not what Skyler expected.
Marie, meanwhile, is trying to remain the supportive wife to a husband that wants nothing to do with her. I love the scene where we open on Hank in bed with his rocks and we wonder if Marie is in bed with him right up until she starts slowly rising into a sitting position using the bed controls. It’s hilarious on some level, but it also indicates the degree to which the character is insisting on playing the role of wife even as her husband has no interest in reciprocating. That scene after the successful therapy session is heartbreaking, as Hank is perfectly willing to put on a show of strength and determination for his therapist (someone who doesn’t see his weakest moments, and who can thus believe Hank as a man with fight left in him) but then entirely rejects any real support from Marie once he departs. She just wants to make the best of a bad situation, and Hank wants to ignore that situation except when absolutely necessary, treating her as he would treat a nurse because treating her like a wife would mean grappling with the emotional component of his struggle.
The episode resists any real plot development. Walt meets with Mike to come to terms with what went down, something that even Mike seems to be sort of weighing carefully, but we get a quick punch/kick combo from Mike instead of a definitive answer. In many ways, though, that is the answer: they’re not going to become friends, and they’re certainly not going to become co-conspirators, but Mike feels betrayed (by Gus, and by Walt) more than he might be willing to show. He is in a situation similar to Walt’s, just following orders, and we’re once again getting another view into Mike as an agent in his own right (which we saw more of as last season came to a close). He’s an extension of the fallout, a new point-of-view that creates a new dimension beyond the two leads and that only compounds the episode’s impact.
While not as fast-paced as last week’s episode, and equally predictable on some level, “Thirty-Eight Snub” played its cards so well that complaining about either of those issues seems counter-intuitive – some fine work, and some impressive momentum for a relatively “slow” episode.
- Michelle MacLaren, who directed the stunning “One Minute” among other episodes last season, created some very fantastic shots here. I’ve seen some discussion on twitter about how the episode was a bit directorly (fitting given I claimed last week’s was writerly), but I think an episode so interested in psychology and perspective is improved by shots that call attention to themselves. Perhaps the Roomba shot was gimmicky, but I have a soft spot for Roombas, and some of the other shots (especially that overhead shot of Walt after getting warned away from Gus’ house) were truly fantastic.
- Small detail, but I love how dirty Andrea’s back windshield was as MacLaren shot Jesse waving goodbye from Brock’s perspective.
- Speaking of that scene, I thought it was so interesting to hear Andrea refer to her and Jesse as “grownups”: like I said last week, there is something so very child-like about Jesse when he’s in those oversized t-shirts, and so to see him singled out as a “grownup” felt odd (likely by design).
- I didn’t even think of this, but Donna Bowman (at The A.V. Club) is totally right that the “Pizza that you cut yourself” is a total retcon in light of the most epic pizza-related sequence in television history.
- I don’t know what the cross-section of Breaking Bad fans and video game fans is, precisely, but I had a lot of fun following Badger and Skinny Pete’s zombie video game discussion.