August 7th, 2011
“Walter H. White – a man of hidden talents.”
When I reviewed the premiere a few weeks ago, I discussed whether or not the show’s flashback opening rendered the episode a “wee bit too writerly.” Obviously, considering that I used the phrase “wee bit,” I didn’t consider it a serious problem, but it is something that Breaking Bad can engage in on occasion.
“Bullet Points” is filled with writerly moments. It’s an episode in which the show’s characters literally script out their actions, and where elements of performance and theater are put front and center. There is nothing more writerly than meta-storytelling, and Moira Walley-Beckett’s script certainly doesn’t hide the fact that it’s gesturing back to previous seasons in a major way.
It’s also blisteringly funny, suspenseful without necessarily relying on major plot developments, and offers a great deal of insight into how these characters confront their demons: some of them bury them, some of them obsess over them, and all of them are in desperate need of someone to talk to.
When Breaking Bad does action, it often does so in little short films – Mike in the Los Pollos Hermanos truck, for example, is a scene that really isn’t necessary in the context of the big picture. Does Mike always travel in the trucks, or did Gus know that this shipment was going to be targeted? Those questions are there, and the “Previously On” segment suggests that the Cartel is dealing with larger problems than Walt, but that scene feels designed more to start the episode off with a bang. It’s beautifully shot, the piece of Mike’s ear falling off was thoroughly disgusting, and that image of Mike in a parka in the middle of the desert was just wonderful.
By comparison, when Breaking Bad does quieter scenes, it does so in little short plays. Now, this is the case with a lot of dramas, but the focus on rehearsal and script revisions in “Bullet Points” really drove home the sense of theatricality to the show’s storytelling. Of course, given that this was sort of the point, I don’t view this as a criticism. Walter and Skyler’s initial rehearsal was a stunning piece of writing, getting enormous laughs without ever turning the scene into a laughing matter. The disdain from Walter was funny, yes, but he wasn’t mocking the situation so much as he was allowing his pride to overwhelm the logic of the situation. He doesn’t think he needs a script, in part because he doesn’t think he has anything to atone for, but the truth is that his prideful nature makes the script all the more necessary.
Similarly, while Skyler has obsessed over the script to the point where she probably doesn’t need it, she needs to go through the process of writing it to feel like she has taken control of something that was once outside of her command. Now that she’s a partner, she’s not going to let herself be “the bitch Mom who wouldn’t cut you any slack.” Sure, she risks seeming too controlling by doing so, but she’s also got her own pride to protect. I feel like Skyler is being as thorough as she is in part to help understand Walt’s earlier deception – she wants to walk in his shoes to know what he was thinking when he placed their family in danger, and there’s something really nuanced about Anna Gunn’s performance in those scenes.
It is, of course, also hilarious. The episode does a tremendous job of wringing humor out of scenes that also serve a clear purpose. Walt’s reticence to discuss the lie with Skyler is hilarious, but it also shows that he’s still not entirely comfortable with Skyler’s involvement in this part of his life. He’s more comfortable talking to Saul, another conversation that says a lot about Walt while still featuring a number of great one-liners from Bob Odenkirk. Saul is a useless person to talk to, someone who has access to “solutions” but has nothing to offer in terms of advice. He’s not someone who’s going to win you a case through cunning legal skill: he’s going to just bury Hank with lawsuits should any investigation head in Jesse’s direction. Walt needs someone like Skyler who could rationalize with him, but he’s so convinced (as he tells Saul) that she is just a delicate flower who thinks that this is just a job and that he’ll retire one day and just move on with his life.
It’s possible that Skyler remains that naive, but to this point she has shown herself quite capable of adapting to the situation at hand. We don’t know how she’ll respond to the notion that Walt might be in grave danger, but she seems to be going out of her way to approach this situation rationally, and that is what Walt needs in his life. Both are completely obsessive, but Skyler is awake at 3am writing down notes for the script while Walt is letting everything boil up inside of him – they would make a great team if he’d be more willing to work with her, but Walt is too used to withholding those types of conversations from her.
What I really liked about the Skyler/Walter storylines is the way it allowed Walt and Skyler to confront things without everyone else realizing it. It reminded me a bit of the missed potential in the second season of Dexter, when the character was able to discuss his inner demons under the guise of a drug addiction. Eventually, the show turned Lyla into a crazy person, but I actually think they should have stuck with the lie to make it so Dexter could discuss things with someone other than the ghost of his dead father.* When Walt and Skyler concoct their story, Walt is expressing regret for something that didn’t happen, but he’s also expressing regret for being a man who put his pride ahead of his family’s safety by refusing to accept Gretchen and Elliot’s support and choosing to cook meth instead (which, just to be clear, he still doesn’t exactly regret). It’s a great way to pitch the scene, especially because he ends up being so preoccupied with Hank’s file during the scene in question that he doesn’t have time to really let it soak in.
*Of course, the show itself already went to this well with Jesse using NA as a market for his stolen meth last season, where his contributions to discussion blurred that line between truth and fiction. Still, I rarely turn down an opportunity to complain about how much goodwill the second season of Dexter squandered with that conclusion.
It’s a writerly device, but it’s one that makes a lot of sense, and it’s something that Skyler and Walt seem very aware of: they get that their lie is partly being drawn from the truth, and their attempts to “play” their roles brush up against their true feelings. It’s something that Jesse would be incapable of this season, as becomes clear when Walt confronts him about the information he receives about Gale. Jesse has been playing a role all season, surrounding himself with depravity in an effort to block out any sense of reality. Note, however, that he remains disconnected from the actual actions: I love the little beat when he returns home, picks up the girl on the stairs, and then sits down to play Sega All Stars Racing on his PS3. He’s not selling the meth he steals from the lab, nor is he using it: he just wants it to be there so that he has something to take his mind off the world around him. It’s an act he’s unwilling to give up: he nearly breaks down as Walt pushes him for details, but by the time Mike brings him the junkie who stole his money he’s more than ready to see through the theater of the moment (designed to wake him up and convince him to get his life together) while staying “in character.” While Walt obsesses about everything, Jesse has not a care in the world: he doesn’t care someone stole his money, and he certainly doesn’t care where Mike is driving him.
All of the actors had a strong episode, but Aaron Paul arguably has the biggest challenge. This is behavior that we’ve seen from Pinkman in the past, but he has to walk that fine line between when Jesse was actually care-free and when it’s simply a facade. He gets big moments like that shot where the camera zoomed in on his eyes and Walt asked him to relive every moment of the event that still haunts him (and that still haunts the show, with Dave Costible returning again, this time in Karaoke form, but there’s also just something about Jesse’s posture that seems different. That scene where the camera follows Jesse around the lab is expository on one level, setting off alarm bells for Walt, but just the way Jesse holds himself has a false arrogance to it. It reads like what we would expect of Jesse, but there really is something subtle going on there.
The same goes for Mike – Jonathan Banks rarely gets to say much of anything, but there’s something about the way he goes about his business that gives us tremendous insight into his character. The methodical way he reacts to that hail of gunfire is telling, but so is that sigh as he sits at Gus’ desk to tell him that Jesse Pinkman isn’t responding to the performance with the junkie in the way they would have liked. We don’t get a conversation with Mike and another character where we learn what makes him anxious or tired, in part because it seems like he doesn’t have someone like that in his life. Walt tried to open up to him two episodes ago, tried to discuss Gus in an open and honest fashion, and Mike wanted nothing to do with it. You wonder if Mike and Jesse aren’t more alike than we might realize, each developing a certain attitude towards life based on something within their past they don’t want to have to discuss. They both seem to value an uncomplicated life, and that seems infeasible given the complexity of the shit creek the show’s characters find themselves in.
I chose the quote about hidden talents because the season seems very invested in what remains hidden even as the world of the show becomes more open. Technically, Walt and Skyler are spending their time finding a way to keep from having to hide their wealth, and yet they’re having to hide so many other things in order to do it. It’s certainly necessary to create an elaborate story, but it requires more work than just outright lying about it, and you can see that wearing on Walt. On some level, it just brings out his paranoid side, but you also realize that what perhaps bothers him most is that he has to hide the one talent he’s proud of. When he’s going through Gale’s book with Hank, there’s a pang of jealousy there: jealousy that Gale gets to be Heisenberg in Hank’s eyes. He should be ecstatic: they’re going to think they found the man who cooks the blue meth, a sort of Jean Valjean situation wherein another man has been arrested for the crime he committed. However, Walt wants that “W. W.” to stand for Walter White, his pride fighting against the necessary smokescreen that keeps him from laying claim to his work.
“Bullet Points” does delve into some very meta-territory, but it’s reflective of the way the characters are constantly struggling to come to terms with their situation. When Walt asks Saul when this all stopped being about business, I felt like handing him the Season One DVDs and telling him it was all there. This has never just been a business, unless the business was disposing of dead bodies using acid, but Walt wants to imagine it was that way. While he and Skyler work together to create a believable story to prepare for the future, his mind weaves a story that romanticizes the past. More than any other show on television, Breaking Bad’s characters are never far removed from their situation. While there are occasionally moments where it seems like the show is forcing the issue, they are always paired with more moments where their obsession or suppression feels stark and ‘real.’
And, yes, occasionally hilarious.
- As much as I laughed at Gale’s karaoke of “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (which I intend on performing the next time I do karaoke, should it be available), I love how our laughter is the precise opposite of Walt’s response. It’s like a ghost is on the television screen, and the juxtaposition between our response and Walt’s was a great bit of staging (especially since we had no expectation that would come out of the file).
- For a moment, Jonathan Banks looked liked Santa Claus in that parka. It made me smile (well, as much as I could smile while his ear was on screen).
- Glad to finally see Hank and Marie interacting with Walt and Skyler, with even Walt Jr. getting in on the act – as much as the isolation allowed Hank and Marie’s struggles to rise to the surface, and as valuable as that was as a subtext to the group scenes, the larger interaction is an important step forward that felt like a long time coming (even though we’re just a few episodes into the season).
- The show has done a good job of maintaining Gus’ presence without having Gus be present: Mike and the new assistant are successfully placed as agents for the character, and I’ll be curious if he steps more into the limelight as the season continues.
- Love that we enter into the dinner on Walt staring down at the floor, except out of fear instead of remorse (as Skyler had suggested). Skipping the actual reveal was risky, but arriving on that moment was brilliant.
- In regards to Walt wanting to perform his talents, note his inability to contain himself when it came to Hank’s minerals: he needs to be the smartest person in the room, and if that can’t involve meth it might as well involve magnesium.