July 31st, 2011
“Anything we should talk about?”
There was a lot of internet chatter last week about how “Thirty-Eight Snub” was a ‘slow’ episode of Breaking Bad, a complaint that I don’t entirely understand. No, last week’s episode wasn’t as exciting as the premiere, but that was sort of the point: as Walt and Jesse face the post-”Box Cutter” era in their own ways, the gravity of their situation begins to wear them down. For Walt it drives him to purchase a gun and confront Mike, while for Jesse it drives him to make life one giant party so he never has to be alone to let the guilt over Gale’s death wash over him. However ‘slow’ the episode might be, that break was necessary to focus on how these characters are going about their normal lives after what they went through.
Now, I’m more open to arguments that “Open House” is a slow episode, although I would still contend this isn’t a huge problem. It does suffer, though, by uncomfortably extending the themes of last week’s episode another week, expanding the agency of both Marie and Skyler within the ongoing storylines. Some of this ends up feeling a bit same-y, especially with Jesse, but it wasn’t necessarily unnecessary. As an exploration of the show’s female characters, “Open House” continued to build on key ideas that run throughout the series, getting through some important procedure necessary for the show to move on to the next stage of its seasonal development.
Which might, yes, be a little less slow.
The return of Marie’s kleptomania is her method of coping: while Hank collects rocks (sorry, minerals), Walt buys a gun, and Jesse throws a 24-hour rager that renders his home a slum, Marie turns to the art of thievery. Betsy Brandt was fantastic in those sequences, especially when it came to playing the different personalities she created. I loved seeing how each had some element of truth to them: the divorcee seemed to play off Skyler, her lack of children seemed at least broadly self-reflexive, while caring for a sick child was a sort of spin on Hank’s condition. The personalities were well thought-out, filled with details and unfazed by questions that might have brought her credibility into question. Meanwhile, what she stole was never truly of much value, and more importantly it was never something that wouldn’t be missed. The absence of those items would be noticed, in part because Marie steals to get noticed as much as she steals to get away with it.
This is not a complicated storyline, even if I enjoyed the way it was played. Marie faces a great deal of stress taking care of Hank, and it drives her to act out in a way that is consistent with previous behavior. I think the show is smart, though, to extend the season’s themes to its female characters, characters that can too often be marginalized based on their lack of connection to the ‘fast’ side of the show. While Skyler has been more directly involved this season, and will obviously continue to be more directly involved, the same can’t be said of Marie and so I think spending more time contextualizing her mental state following Hank’s injury is time well spent.
For Skyler, meanwhile, we need to ask a different set of questions. She has, if anything, been empowered by recent events in Walt’s life. She is the driving force behind the purchase of the car wash, even coming up with the (highly intelligent) scheme to convince Walt’s former boss to sell to them despite his frustrations. The scene with Walt and Skyler waiting for the phone calls wasn’t subtle, the inevitably phone calls arriving just as we would have expected (and as though they were choreographed), but her command over that entire scenario shows the value that she could bring to the table.
It also showed, however, the threat she represents. I have no real beef with Skyler, unlike some fans of the show, but what struck me here was that Skyler asks too many questions. Walt and Jesse have a brief moment in the lab where the pullquote above becomes a sort of rhetorical question: Walt asks Jesse if he wants to talk, but Jesse just smiles and turns the question around on Walt. They are not people who ‘talk about’ things, which means that everything festers below the surface. By comparison, Skyler wants to talk about everything: she wants to know what happened with Walt’s eye, and she wants to know every detail about what led to that moment. After spending so long in the dark, Skyler has decided that she is going to be an integral part of this operation, and that means learning details that Walt knows will jeopardize everything they’re trying to achieve.
What you realize is that Skyler knows far less than she realizes. Walt tiptoes around the nature of his injury, and the danger that it somewhat represents, but in truth Skyler knows very little about what Walt and Jesse have been through. She doesn’t know about Gale’s death, or Jane’s death, or any of the other weights that Walt bears. She knows that what he does is illegal, and she knows that he has endangered his family simply be being involved, but she has no sense of how close she was to finding her husband’s blood in her shower after he was murdered by Tuco’s cousins. While Skyler’s plan with the car wash and her strategies for ensuring their actions won’t seem suspicious are generally commendable, they’re possible because she doesn’t truly have any weight on her regarding her actions. She worries about getting caught, but she doesn’t worry about getting killed, which leads to a very different attitude that will likely quite often clash with Walt’s own.
I worry that this will only stir the pot in regards to the Anti-Skyler movement, given what we see at the end of the episode. There was a point where Skyler was one of those wives whose sole purpose was to stand in the way of her husband, a convenient roadblock the writers could use in order to place pressure on their protagonist. There’s elements of that in her final scene, as she explains to Walt the dangers of purchasing expensive champagne when you’re supposed to be poor; we could read this as the writers finding another way to cramp Walt’s style, positioning her as a character who knows enough to be involved but too little to be actually helpful where it matters most.
The difference, I would argue, is that Skyler is one-hundred-percent correct. Now, mind you, I have questions about how buying a car wash will fit into Skyler’s “You’re a poor unemployed teacher” narrative, but there is a need to be concerned with appearances. I also think that Skyler has a new sense of agency within the storyline, her actions with the fake water test a good example of her willingness to take control of the situation. While her concern for Walt may be reminiscent of what we saw in the past, it is different in the context of partnership as opposed to domestic distraction. As Walt’s two worlds begin to merge. She might still present herself as a buzzkill, but I think it’s consistent with the character while simultaneously adapting for the purposes of illegal activities. The caution is vintage Skyler, evident also when she uncovered the fraud while working part time last season, but that little “We need to drink the evidence” had an edge to it that I quite enjoyed. Anna Gunn remains a pivotal part of this show’s success, and I’m glad for an increased role and for the time “Open House” spends elaborating on it.
Admittedly, the episode is fairly light on Walt and Jesse, mostly playing Walt off Skyler and letting Jesse stumble that little bit further into a dark, dark place. Watching Jesse try to remain stimulated has a certain visceral thrill, whether it’s his angry go-kart ride or his “Make it rain!” moment where he just sits back and watches depraved souls fight over money on his living room floor. There’s also that growing sense that we’re seeing the house transformed into the meth den Walt rescued him from at the end of the second season. Jesse, of course, isn’t really part of it: while the rest are stealing, having sex, or seemingly high out of their minds, Jesse seems alert and focused. We actually haven’t seen Jesse do any drugs since the 24-hour parties started (he grabs just a cigarette when he walks into the house), which means he’s resisting the numbness even as he hopes it keeps him distracted. It’s fascinating to watch, even if this only reinforced what we already saw last week.
There was a lot of reinforcement going on here, although there were some new developments. They were just the kind of new developments that hint towards something to come in the weeks ahead: it will probably be a few weeks before Hank having the lab report (as I think most of us expected would happen eventually) will become a major issue, and we have no idea who it was that is stalking Jesse’s house. These storylines will probably move slowly, but why would they move quickly? Investigations take time, surveillance is the first step in what is probably a larger plan, so patience seems only natural given where we are in the season.
“Open House” isn’t quite as visually interesting as last week’s episode, nor does it focus as much on the two main characters. However, as an extension of the season’s ongoing themes into the supporting cast it finds a good sense of purpose, setting up a compelling set of scenarios that the show can carry into the remainder of the season.
- Where is Walt Jr., precisely? I understand that he is now perhaps the least connected character to any one storyline, but the character’s complete and total absence nonetheless seems a bit strange (especially when Skyler and Walt spend time at the old house). While Hank’s injury has brought Marie into a “main” storyline, the same can’t be said for RJ Mitte’s character, and I’d like to see that change.
- Speaking of Marie and Hank, it seems odd that Skyler hasn’t been to visit, and that the two families haven’t interacted at all. I understand both are busy, but I think more could be done to show those two families interacting (outside of Marie dropping by to give Skyler their medical bills).
- Gale’s memory continues to linger in the coffee machine – a nice little moment, I thought, with Walt in the cold open.
- The surveillance camera doesn’t play a role here, but I’m curious how the show uses it in the future.
- I’m glad they haven’t substantially beefed up Saul’s role, as it makes Bob Odenkirk’s scenes feel that much more special. However, I do wonder about that little hanging reference to passports in the premiere, and whether we’ll ever see what he was up to between those two episodes.