Breaking Bad – “Cornered”

“Cornered”

August 21st, 2011

Admittedly, I am once again delayed in getting to Breaking Bad by another commitment (this time covering The Glee Project finale over at The A.V. Club), but I also think it’s another episode where an extra-long treatise feels sort of unnecessary.

“Cornered” is another straightforward hour for the show, getting right to the point thematically and having the characters more or less follow suit. Walt, in particular, has been an open book in recent weeks, at least to an audience that has been watching the show all along. It’s not quite a cry for help, as Skyler diagnoses it early in the episode, but I do think that it’s an obvious sign that Walt’s worst neuroses are rising to the surface.

And that Walt and Jesse are as much alike as ever before.

Walt is an asshole, but he’s sort of right. As Skyler picks away at his pride by trying to sell him as a victim, Walt reclaims the victor’s narrative, touting his high salary and explaining that if anyone’s going to knock on someone’s door to kill them it’s going to be him doing the knocking instead of the dying. The way he says it drives Skyler to the border, contemplating fleeing to another state out of fear for her own life (and that of her daughter), but he’s technically correct. As he says to Walt Jr. at breakfast the next morning, he doesn’t have a sickness: he is a man who made choices, and he does not regret those choices at all.

The problem, of course, is that Walt being right only confirms the worst for Skyler, which is something that we’ve known all along. It’s been a long time since Walt’s choices have seemed truly heroic, and this season in particular has framed Walt’s choices as petty and prideful as opposed to acts of self-preservation. Jane’s death remains perhaps the greatest stain on his character, but even that moment was not premeditated and carries some level of guilt on Walt’s conscience (as we saw in “Fly”). This season, Walt is generally living comfortably: Jesse was the one who pulled the trigger on Gale (thus keeping Walt a degree away from the crime itself), his job is pretty secure, and his life doesn’t appear to be in immediate danger. However, while Walt might not be as threatened as he has in the past, he feels just as threatened, allowing his every paranoia to fester and poison his relationships with everyone around him.

Gus is obviously doing his best to facilitate this by taking Jesse out from under him, which Walt stumbles upon in his paranoid ramblings to Jesse. That’s sort of the worst thing about this whole situation: Walt is actually right about Gus’ plan, right that Jesse working with Mike is actually about Walt, but he’s too self-centered to explain that in any way that sounds well-reasoned. In truth, it isn’t all about Walt: it’s all about Gus. However, Walt has spent this season fighting against a sense of subservience, resisting efforts that make him feel like a cog in the machine. It happened when Skyler started taking over the car wash, and it happened when the security cameras were installed, and it happened when Jesse was elevated above him in the business (at least on some level – just wait until Walt hears that Jesse saw Gus in the flesh). And, of course, it happened most of all when Hank dares suggest that Gale was the genius, a claim that writes Walt out of the equation entirely (even if Hank had no way of knowing that).

Walt’s conversation with Bogdan is not particularly subtle, but I think the idea of Walt being a “boss” is an important one. Walt wants to be a boss: he wants to have Jesse as his underling, which is part of why Jesse’s loss so infuriates him. It’s also the show’s logic for Walt’s incredibly stupid decision to convince three of the laundry workers to come down into the lab to help him clean it following Jesse’s early departure, a bit of hubris that gets them sent back to Honduras and seems to indicate that Walt isn’t thinking clearly. The show uses the same logic for Walt buying Walt Jr. off with a fancy Dodge Challenger, a decision that violates every logic of their cover story. He thinks he has earned the right to solve his problems without getting his hands dirty, but he’s not able to react that way because everyone demands he play a different role, whether it’s father, employee, or protector. While Jesse’s way of dealing with a difficult situation was to try to remove himself from it entirely, Walt’s way of dealing with it is throwing himself into it, a strategy that could very easily put him in more danger than he realizes.

And yet, it’s the same thing that Jesse deals with while spending time with Mike. Part of what Gus has done in crafting Jesse a heroic self-image is give him the motivation to act: still suffering from withdrawal, Jesse is jittery and in need of something to keep himself occupied, but now instead of video games and bums fighting over cash it’s drawing out meth addicts with a good ol’-fashioned hole digging. It’s the kind of action that Walt isn’t getting in the lab, which sort of positions Walt’s condition as a form of withdrawal. It’s an addiction to the thrill of being in charge, and his growing marginalization with the business and emasculation in his marriage (at least in his eyes) are keeping him from feeding that addiction.

In truth, much of this is laid out too plainly in the episode, to the point where I wonder why I bothered writing about it outside of enjoying the sound of myself typing away. However, I like a few key decisions that the episode makes in order to foreground these issues. I mean, I could write about how Walt’s behavior threatens Skyler and puts her in a difficult position, but Skyler pretty much explained all of that at the end of the episode, and the Four Corners scene sold her struggle in a more artistic fashion.

There were, however, some decisions in the episode that worked for me. Specifically, I liked how we pulled away from Gus and Mike’s conversation about the ongoing cold war with a rival cartel as soon as they started talking about Jesse. The shift to Jesse standing outside waiting anxiously does a nice job of reminding us of the privileged information we carry, and the degree to which Jesse doesn’t know what’s happening here. He lashes back at Walter about how he’s a hero, and about how he’s proven himself an asset, but there’s doubt in his body language outside that diner, just as there’s doubt in his voice when he pushes Gus for more information. It’s a subtle choice, more subtle than the “Shovel Cam” or other overt devices, but it really highlights Jesse’s point-of-view and state of mind in this instance.

“Cornered” was perhaps over-highlighted, too quick to lay out the particulars of a character’s position through dialogue and other devices. The information we learn is logical, and the threat that it represents to Walt and those around him is very real, and the season continues a strong run thematically. On some level, nothing is more eventful on Breaking Bad than a moment where nothing much is happening, because that’s when Walt’s mind starts racing, and that’s where he can lash out at Skyler in a prideful rage, or lose his patience with Jesse’s absence, or risk revealing his wealth instead of letting his son believe that he is the bad guy for more than a few hours. In moments of calm, Walt begins to feel starkly normal, and it is then that he loses control of the delicate balance he’s created for himself – it is a balancing act that anchors the show, and that remains in great shape heading into the mid-point of the season.

Cultural Observations

  • Eventually it was Walt who took a measure of revenge on Bogdan by using his “As is” refrain against him by using the framed dollar bill to buy a Coke, but there was this great moment where Bogdan (right after Walt claimed the dollar bill) was standing by the air fresheners and I thought he was going to pull a Walt.
  • No Hank or Marie this week, but we got the most substantial R.J. Mitte sighting of the season, which was a nice extension of the cast.
  • The opening scene, with the rival cartel upping their game and figuring out how best to approach their hijacking, was a nice pairing with last week’s opener. I do wonder, though, how they know so much about the operation to be able to know the system by which they mark the buckets with drugs in them.
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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Breaking Bad – “Cornered”

  1. Wow, the only thing of substance in your whole critique was the very last sentence “I do wonder, though, how they know so much about the operation to be able to know the system by which they mark the buckets with drugs in them.”.

    Call a spade a spade. This week and last just simply sucked hard!! There was barely any movement of the plot.

    • Nicole

      I really liked this week and last week. Breaking Bad moves slowly and always has.

    • Sophie

      Um, are you even watching the same show as everybody else? Walt pretty much OUTED HIMSELF to Hank. Who wasn’t going to do any more investigating because he assumed Heisenberg was dead. Now he’s going to keep snooping. That’s not plot development??? Mike not seeing Jesse as quite the useless meth-head anymore isn’t plot development??? Skyler realising that Walt is in way over his head and that her family is in danger isn’t plot development??

      Just because nobody gets shot doesn’t mean nothing happened. I bet you hated ‘Fly’.

      • Scott Ellington

        Absolute agreement here. The thickening of the plot intensifies the transparency of motivations; soon, nobody will be left with a shred of extenuating circimstance or uncertainty to hide behind. Skyler won’t be able to mount any kind of effective Carmela Soprano defense. It’s all about bad (self-serving) choices, not bad breaks.

  2. You don’t need constant or focused plot movement to make a compelling show. While this season has been a bit more on the contemplative side so far, I can’t really complain about it thanks to how tight the show is thematically and how solid the character work continues to be — both things that are far more important to me than the plot. If you’re looking for frequent grand gestures and constant ‘thrilling’ plot development, maybe Breaking Bad isn’t the show for you, Peter. Maybe take a look at 24? For the rest of us Breaking Bad is, while capable of well-earned big moments, thankfully much more than them.

    Thanks for the review, Myles. I generally keep quiet until a season’s over, but I am enjoying your Breaking Bad thoughts as well.

  3. I don’t think Walt is right. On the contrary, as Skyler was telling him go to the police I was thinking “Here’s the moment he’s going to look back at and wish he’d acted differently. Here was his chance.”. He is in over his head, and there’s no way it goes well for him. If he were to go to the police and give them Gus, he might make it out of this okay. Instead he sticks with the people who would kill him if they could afford to, just because it makes him feel like a badass.

    • I kind of agree. Even though Walt is dangerous, he’s not as dangerous as he says he is to Skyler, and he’s certainly not THE danger. Skyler and Walt Jr. are not safe at all, and Walt can’t see it because of his ginormous ego obscuring the view.

    • Walter lost his chance to just go to the police a long time ago. Skyler built the fantasy that Walter is pretty much Gale, only we and him know that is not true. Walter might not be Mike but he is direct responsible for to many bad things to just go to the police and confess. I guess he could go to the police and offer them Gus, but (a) there’s no actual investigation on Gus who for the local police’s POV is truly just another businessman (b) Gus has made clear to Walter that he has connections. The only way the Walter goes up to confess route could possible work is if the Whites learn that the feds have launch an investigation on Gus, otherwise he is just a crazy bad man confessing to a pile of crimes and ending with “instead of throwing me in jail, I can give you guys much worse man that you had no idea existed and the only proof I can give is my word”.

  4. The whole reason I looked up an analysis on this episode was to understand what the idea was behind the digging of the hole and while you explained in detail what mostly was very visible to a comprehensive viewer, you failed to touch on that. At first I assumed it was the obvious; that they were digging to china or something. As if thats what meth heads think about for hours while stoned, but I wasn’t quite sure and it made me feel stupid not to know as the show illustrates a kind of arrogance in the depiction of the scene as if to say that I should know because its obvious. As if it were common knowledge what all meth heads are in about. Anyway if anyone can please explain what the digging was all about, please do.

    • Scott Ellington

      I think you’re asking an excellent question that led me to wonder about the point-of-view camera moment in which the shovel-perspective intrudes on the visual style of this show like a musical klinker. So now I want to go all the way back to the pilot episode to check for POV inserts and the uses of shovels as bludgeons, major distractions, tools for people to dig their own graves, and as literal, plausible plot devices.
      While it may not be the sharpest tool in the writers’ toolshed, the shovel’s presence in Mike’s trunk is clearly foreshadowed and absolutely natural at the crucial moment that Jesse impatiently decides to take the bull by the horns and flush out their addled, intoxicated quarry. So the shovel is used with Jesse’s esoteric expertise (regarding easily-fixated drug addicts) to move the story along, illustrate differences in Mike’s and Jesse’s views of “unpredictable” meth-heads, and dilineate Gus-envisioned changes in Jesse’s potential utility to the organization by redefining his (heroic) character with tasks and functions that transform him from a gaping liability into a useful participant (or a tool worth keeping [alive]).

      • You make a very good point about POV and tools, POV camerawork being a very intuitive point of this series. Gus trying to ‘use’ Jesse as much as possible does in fact make him a human tool while at the same time giving him a reason to keep going and a feeling of purpose. It may also be an attempt to get closer to Jesse than he is to Walt. I can foresee a scenario where Jesse will have to choose where his loyalties truly lie as Gus and Walt are both vying for Jesse’s usefulness. There’s even now a good deal of resentment against Walt building within Jesse. It’s what I like to call the Parenthood Affect. Many shows do the same thing where two characters become the virtual parents of a third character who needs guidance. Usually that childlike character will eventually have to choose between them as they come to some kind of divorce-esque situation. Thank you, you’ve made the symbolism of tools very apparent to me know and I’m sure that tonight’s episode will only expand on that

        • Scott Ellington

          Thank you, Connor! Lovely parental metaphor and prediction.
          This show stands up admirably to revisitation from the beginning, and while it’s exceptionally eminently-visual, I haven’t found particularly-informative references to shovels nor extensive subjective camerawork driving narrative (with only a few exquisite examples, in Fly and Jesse’s introduction to heroin).
          Oddly, I’ve found myself comparing and contrasting the central characters in Breaking Bad to my imperfect recollection of the principle players in Leave it to Beaver; Walty, Skyler as June, probably Mike as either Lumpy or that pesky, insinuating Haskell kid…but it’s really the sharply-contrasting, representative worldviews that these two alternate takes on Americana present that’s deeply intriguing (to me), as though the character of Jesse is absolutely key to the way this remarkable show shreds&smooshes seemingly-irreconcilable differences that usually separate commerce&art, doing&being, good&evil…compartmentalized binaries.

          • Well said. Thats unfortunate that your findings were unfruitful, but I think you’re on to something in terms of general symbolism. It looks as though my prediction was correct, did you enjoy the new episode, “Bug”? I thought Walt and Jesse’s fight was a long time coming.

        • Scott Ellington

          I’m not as unresponsive as it may appear; this thread ran out of reply-opportunities.

  5. Scott Ellington

    Subscribing via iTunes puts me about 48 hours behind folks with cable access; heightened anticipation. Even more than The Wire, I think Breaking Bad turns everyone’s house to glass. The White Solution is crystal clear to at least every American taxpayer; when faced with an insurmountable problem, shatter the law and pray for a second season…or the black West Side of Baltimore runs (almost literally) coast-to-coast.

  6. It’s imperavite that more people make this exact point.

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