March 21st, 2010
“That’s what human beings do – we survive.”
I wrote a fair deal about my reaction to the first two seasons of Breaking Bad on Thursday, about questions of agency and questions of tragedy amidst the show’s complex and fascinating character study. But I knew going into my catchup period with the show that I was, in some ways, watching it “wrong”: this is a highly contemplative show, so I knew I was missing part of the true experience by rushing through Season Two in a four-day period. While the mystery of the pink teddy bear was a long and drawn-out process for some, it was a four day journey for me, and while the show purposefully tries to play with the pressures of time and the challenges that one faces when his or her worst fears are compounded by the temporality of it all I nonetheless felt like I was cheating in some ways.
“No Mas” picks up where “ABQ” left off in terms of displaying the passage of time through the struggle and torment that it creates for these characters. It turns out that the questions that viewers have been mulling since May (or, in my case, since Thursday) were weighing on Walt, Jesse, Skylar and “Flynn” as well, questions that after only a week have started to eat through their attempts to survive this trauma. However, while Walt makes the argument that what human beings do is survive, Walter White’s struggle is that he wants to do more than survive. He wants to live, and he wants to have everything he believed he was fighting for when he cooked his first batch of meth in that RV, and he is forced to decide what he needs to do in order to be able to live with the man he is, even when he seems unsure of just what kind of man he believes himself to be.
In short, Breaking Bad remains an enormously compelling character study, a stunning visual spectacle, and the kind of show that anyone with a love of dramatic television should be watching.
At length, meanwhile, check out some more detailed thoughts after the jump…
Breaking Bad is a show that tends to get pretty philosophical, and “No Mas” has a lot of scenes where people start saying things that apply to situations beyond their own. When Jesse and his support group sit outside in the light of the fire, and the leader tells the story of how his drug abuse led him to run over his daughter, I wanted so much for it to be Walt sitting around that fire. Walt may not have started taking drugs, but he is just as trapped by his involvement in that world, and he is suffering just as much in the wake of the plane crash. While Jesse confronts his sense of guilt regarding those 167 deaths in the privacy of a rehab clinic, Walt finds himself using an auditorium of high school students as his sounding board, trying out his self-justification on them to see how it plays. Separated from his family, the reason he got himself into this mess in the first place, Walt has nothing to do but sit around thinking about how he is going to live with himself now, and he spits it all out to the high school kids. They get to hear his “bright” side: no one on the ground was killed, there have been 53 air disasters just as bad that nobody remembers, and “we’ll survive.”
The problem is that this has been Walt’s strategy all along, just pretending that survival is enough and that the collateral damage is not as bad as things could have been. His whole expansion efforts in Season 2 were about cost/benefit analysis, and at a certain point an occasional death (like the dealer gunned down on the street by a kid) was necessary to achieve the desired success. But at what point, “No Mas” asks, does that no longer qualify as a proper justification? Is 167 deaths, 168 if we count Jane, enough to make Walt take a step back and really consider his situation? Or is it just another hurdle in his march towards becoming a drug kingpin?
Jesse’s first therapy session made a distinction between self improvement and self acceptance, arguing that people in rehab should be shooting for the latter rather than the former. However, the problem with Walt is that he’s trying to do both at the same time, trying to prove to Skyler that he is capable of doing better (or that he never did anything wrong in the first place) while struggling to convince himself that the truth (which isn’t what Skyler receives, at least at first) is something he can live with. He’s been living a double life, family man and drug kingpin, and if he’s going to accept his “self” he needs to figure out what that represents. Guilt, as Jesse’s counsellor points out, is a barrier to true change, but the question becomes what true change represents for Walt: does it mean returning to the man he used to be before the cancer, the man who sat in his dead end job and struggled to support his pregnant wife and his crippled son, or does it mean accepting the man that he’s become, the drug kingpin who is achieving all of the success and acclaim that he was supposed to have in his youth?
“No Mas” is full of baby steps for Walt, moments where you can see bits and pieces of decisiveness amidst a cloud of indecision. He starts to burn the money at the opening of the episode out of disgust for what he was able to piece together, information nicely put together in the opening news montage, but he stops when he realizes that he needs that money, or perhaps that he earned that money. He tells Hank about the money in the bag, knowing that he won’t believe him but willing to take the risk that he might. And later, to his credit, he tells Skyler the truth about the Meth, and turns down a three-month gig from Gus because he doesn’t believe that he is truly a criminal. However, the problem with Walt is that the facts disagree: while he can claim that he wasn’t meant to be a criminal, and he can claim that he isn’t going to be a criminal anymore, he was for a period of time a criminal, and that period of time will not simply be forgotten by those he hurt (Skyler) or those he worked with (Gus) or those he angered (the crawling, clothes stealing, skull-boot wearing Twins crossing the border in search of Heisenberg). Walt believes that accepting that he is a good man is enough to make that period an aberration, but the whole point of this show is that all decisions have consequences, and even as Walt starts on the right track he is no closer to restoring his family and a lot closer to getting gunned down on the streets of Albuquerque.
As always, Bryan Cranston (pulling double duty here, directing the episode as well) is bloody fantastic in the role, especially during that assembly. It was painful to watch, the sort of public performance that will get passed off as a cancer survivor struggling to deal with senseless tragedy but which means so much more to us as viewers. There is a desperation to Walt here, which is evident in all of the characters’ decisions (getting a cheap apartment despite being rich, not getting the windshield fixed immediately after the accident, etc.), and Cranston manages to sell it without making it seem too desperate. Walt is still trying to keep the high ground, even when he barely has a leg to stand on, and Cranston makes that so much more believable than it should be in a lot of ways.
Meanwhile, Jesse Pinkman is the one who gets to hear about self-improvement and self-acceptance, and about how guilt stands in the way of true change. When we met Jesse, he was crashing in his Aunt’s old house and cooking meth, but he still maintained ties to his past life: he still had parents he could return to, and he still had some semblance of a former life that he could use to keep himself grounded. However, as his relationship with Walt has progressed, that safety net disappeared, and he lost his house, his family, and over time his innocence. Walt dragged him further than he had intended to go, and in the process drove him further into drugs, which drove Jane back into drugs, which would eventually shatter everything that Jesse believed could be good in the world. Jane reminded him of the artist he had wanted to be, was with him during the period where he got to feel the rush of being a drug kingpin without the nasty consequences. But when those consequences hit Jesse like a ton of bricks, and when rehab taught him how to confront and take in those consequences, Jesse came to a decision more quickly than Walt ever has: he knows that he is the bad guy.
At this point, we want Walt to feel nothing but guilt, as Jesse only went down that path with his help. Jesse said at the end of last season that he “deserved” what happened to him, that it was punishment for his actions, and now he has chosen to accept that he has become rather than attempting to claim (as Walt is) that he is just a good guy gone wrong. Walt, as his former teacher, should have done something to help Jesse, should have remembered that he didn’t have a family to support, and that one man’s desperate attempt to provide after his death is not necessarily shared by a man still trying to find his place in the world. Yes, Jesse was already cooking meth, but Walt stopped thinking of Jesse as someone who had a chance to do something else with his live at some point in the second season, and so Jesse’s acceptance of being “the bad guy” is the sort of tragedy that he could have stopped had he stepped back long before a plane crash where 167 people died. Although he believes that this is how he will get over his guilt, how he will achieve self-acceptance, I can’t help but feel that Jesse is not the bad guy, that he remains a tragic figure.
Some of this is the rest of Aaron Paul’s performance, which gets less attention than Cranston but which I’m hoping emerges this year as a major contender at the Emmys. The Jesse we see in “No Mas” is different from the one we’ve seen before, clean-shaven and blank in a way that we’re not quite used to. And yet, when he does speak, it remains recognizable as the man who went through the ordeal at the end of last season, who has had nothing but time in which to witness the media hash out how his actions killed 167 people. While Walt tries to convince them that this was all a “wakeup call,” Jesse suggests that it was something even more definitive, and Paul sells the idea that Jesse isn’t running anymore: while Walt remains, ultimately, as indecisive as ever and continues to deny that part of him which loved being a drug kingpin, Jesse has given up on the kid he used to be and has chosen to accept the cards he has been dealt.
That question of acceptance has always been interesting on the show, from the moment that Walt got Cancer and he was forced to accept the diagnosis; Walt, of course, would eventually fight against that diagnosis and break through, so there is the sense that fighting against the inevitable (Jesse as the bad guy, Walt as the criminal) is necessary. However, Skyler and Flynn are not part of that world, two characters that know only so much about the situation at hand and yet have to decide how much of it they are willing to accept. Skyler is afraid of knowledge, scared that she couldn’t accept the events of the past number of months if she knew every detail. Flynn, meanwhile, has no knowledge whatsoever thanks to his mother’s fear that it would destroy him, and so he’s left to wonder why his parents are separated and is asked to accept it without any details. I thought both Anna Gunn and RJ Mitte really sold the sense that the family is walking on eggshells at the moment, and this is perhaps the most I’ve empathized with Skyler since the show began. The character is finally an agent in her own right, rather than simply a symbol of the consequences of Walt’s actions, and her decisions to withhold information or apply for divorce feel much more real than her decision not to rat out Ted for his bookkeeping irregularities. It was all relevant before, perhaps, but it has never felt quite so meaningful as it does now, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it in the future.
The other big events of the episode, of course, are the movements of “The Twins,” two Cartel thugs who don’t speak a single word but leave one mighty large impression. The scenes in Mexico were aesthetically stunning, but I just loved the methodical nature of their actions: the crawling was meant to disarm us, just as the image of Heisenberg is supposed to clear things up in terms of just how these men relate to the story at hand, but Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston really sold the mystery of these characters in the scene where they steal some new clothes from a family in the middle of the desert. Just the way they reveal their guns, and the way the family is stricken by fear, and the way they leave the keys to their Mercedes on the goat, demonstrates the sort of balls-to-the-wall intensity that the show has never quite had to deal with (Tuco, let’s remember, was crazy in an unhinged way, not nearly as purposeful). After the end of the second season really shifted the consequences to the psychological, demonstrating how Walt’s actions destroyed the people around him rather than drawing the ire of those outside his realm, here things are getting bigger just as Walt wants to settle down, just as Walt wants time to iron out his relationships and “retire.”
Breaking Bad is a show that, as the name captures, is in the present tense: it isn’t a show about someone who has broken bad, or someone who will break bad, but someone who is in the process of breaking bad. That process has not come to an end, nor will it come to an end before the series itself comes to an end: instead, it will continue to evolve, and “No Mas” is the latest step in that journey. What the show is so great at capturing is the sense of moving onto new actions even in the wake of past consequences, of never losing track of what came before even when everyone is focused on the future. While the show’s characters may be looking in a particular direction, either to a prosperous and better future or into a dark and problematic past, the show itself resists such one-sided momentum. It will always be a show about moments where the past and the future collide, about the tenuous nature of one’s present position and the ramifications of decisions within a morally corrupt universe ideal for investigating these enormously compelling characters, and “No Mas” captures it perfectly by remembering the past and promising an even more complicated (and thus engaging) future.
- I enjoy that I watch a show where the discovery of a plastic eyeball and a man cutting the crusts of a sandwich are “fist pump” moments.
- Marie and Hank were largely used for comic relief, with no glimpse into how work at the DEA is going outside of a quip from Hank and no sense of Marie’s mental state beyond her (justified) nosiness surrounding Skyler’s decision to kick Walt out of the house, so I’m curious to see how they factor into things.
- Loved the little moment of Skyler and Flynn sitting at the kitchen table awkwardly and then the answering machine kicking in with Walt’s name still listed.
- Note that Walt calls himself a manufacturer, a claim that we know he won’t be able to back up in any way: he makes it sound like a business in an effort to legitimize it, but there is too much blood on his hands beyond the use of his drug that he wouldn’t be able to justify in the same way.
- Gus is sticking around for a while this season, I believe, so I’ll be curious to see whether he takes direct action to try to force Walt into continuing his work, or whether Walt is driven back to him by a lack of direction. Either way, it’s clear that Walt isn’t really getting out, and I think Walt’s future very much depends on the circumstances of that return.
- AMC Canada is on notice for their timing: the episode ran over just enough that the final scene was cut off: I’m told that the wall of fire that my recording ended with was essentially the end of the episode, but it was cutting it way too close, and hopefully that gets evened out (or reflected on the recording) in the future.