“Caballo Sin Nombre”
March 28th, 2010
“It’s not about taking sides.”
When parents separate, the divisions which emerge are complicated and often resistant to black and white definitions. While one partner may believe that the separation is in fact definitive, the other likely believes it is temporary or just a bump in the road. Children may want to take sides in order to try to bring the conflict to a close, but then they are told that it isn’t about taking sides but rather about being supportive and basically riding it out.
But in the world of Breaking Bad, it’s all about taking sides: the people who succeed in this world, the people who are holding the keys to their future, are those who accept that things can be black and white, and that they are the ones who choose one side or the other. It is those who attempt to sit in between, to act one way but try to live as if they are the other, who end up choking to death, or end up so throwing a pizza onto a roof. By trying to keep one foot in each world, by trying to prove that grey areas are the way to go, these people only hurt the people they love while failing to impress the people that could kill them.
“Caballo Sin Nombre” is a mediation of sorts on this idea, and it continues to establish that the certainty of human agency is integral to the future of Walter White and his black or white life.
I won’t go into spoilers, but the sixth season of Lost is effectively making the argument that “good and evil” are two very slippery terms; while the show has created a dichotomy between the two, personified by two characters, it has resisted notions of good and evil and instead presented complex ethical questions which force the characters to consider not which side is superior but rather how their own personality engages with those sides. In other words, good and evil are terms which are designed to force characters to investigate their own lives, and decide independent of those terms what their goals may be. Good and Evil do not exist as guidelines, directions that the characters should take, but rather forces which encourage them to examine who they want to be in the future.
By comparison, Breaking Bad argues that good and evil exist in order to give purpose to your life, and that deciding whether you are a good guy or a bad guy allows you to make decisions and “get things done.” Walt wants to believe that his decision to resist becoming the “bad guy,” trying desperately to convince Skyler to take him back, means that he outside of the pool with his net, cleaning out band-aids and keeping things safe for everyone else. However, that sort of omniscience is impossible once you’re already in the water, and so he is the one who is drowning, trying to keep his head above water. We don’t judge him for this: he was living a dead-end life, as Hank points out, and so his cancer would logically send him into a spiral. However, Walt has made his bed to the point where he can’t pretend that he isn’t in that pool struggling for his life, and his delusion is only causing the people in his life further pain as he forcefully moves back into the house through a crawl space in a pathetic display, all while Tuco’s cousins comes seconds away from murdering him until a text (from the real pool cleaner, Gus) sends them out for fried chicken and Walt keeps his head above water for at least one more day.
The problem is that while Walt wants to appear as the good guy, he is doing so in order to erase or override his previous behaviour, behaviour he is unable and in some cases unwilling to forget. As I presumed last week, the windshield isn’t just left broken to provide an ominous reminder of the crash for us viewers, especially now that the ribbons are serving that purpose in a much more effective fashion that is truly getting inside Walt’s brain. Rather, Walt feels that fixing the windshield would somehow feel like he is trying to fix what he did, and he knows there is now way he can do that. And the unfortunate thing is that he knows he can’t fix what Skyler knows about him, or do-over the damage he caused, and yet he clings to the position of “good guy” because the other alternative means he will never have his family again, and he will have to live a life where he can accept that he was responsible for those people dying in the air above Albuquerque.
While Walt continues to lie to himself, the other characters on the show are being considerably more decisive. Jesse, sober but no longer trying to keep his life on some sort of moral track, completely severs ties with his parents by using Saul Goodman in order to blackmail his parents into unknowingly selling him back his Aunt’s house at a 50% discount. It’s not clear if we’re supposed to be rooting for Jesse at this point: was there any chance that Jesse, had his parents responded to his sober demeanor and clean appearance by inviting him to dinner, would have made some other sort of arrangement as opposed to swindling them out of spite? Or was this always intended to be a bit of revenge for what was, at least from my point of view, a justifiable decision in terms of trying to deal with their son’s illegal activity? I don’t intend with the above to say that the show is actually black and white, so this remains a substantial grey area: the important thing to note is that Jesse, in this decision, has no sense of indecision, acting ruthlessly and forcefully to get what he wants and what he believes he deserves.
And while Walt is delusional, Skyler continues to be fairly open-minded about it all. Part of the problem with last season’s tidbit about the financial scandals at Beneke was that it was entirely meant for the viewer: we knew that it was preparing Skyler for what would eventually happen with Walt, but she didn’t know that, and it made it seem too cute and convenient. By comparison, the story works this season because Skyler is actively trying to figure out the connections and using them to try to inform her own decisions; yes, we’ve already done this legwork, but Skyler has a lot of catchup to do and the story is doing a decent job at it. And while Walt Jr.’s part in the episode is ultimately small, as he remains ignorant to it all, note how his own sort of half-way duality of nomenclature becomes black and white: out of solidarity, his name is now Walter Jr., his own way of taking a stand amidst this conflict in an effort to bring it to a resolution.
Breaking Bad, while black and white in many ways, is not simple: the cousins are in bed with Gus, Saul Goodman has his hands in every cookie jar imaginable, and Walt is discovering just how complex being wrapped up in it all can be. However, characters like Gus and Saul know who they are, have none of these anxieties about what they’ve done or what they have made happen. Walt, however, has a broken windshield and a tiny eyeball which reminds him of the past, and reminds him that if he loses his family he has nothing to live for but the life which led to that plane crash. He wants to avoid that at all costs, to strive for the white in order to avoid the black, and while other characters are sticking to their guns and taking control of their lives, Walt – now finally in control of his life now that the cancer is gone – finds himself just trying to keep his head above water, closing his eyes and trying to tell himself that it’s all a dream, and in reality he’s outside the pool looking in.
- We needs to discuss the pizza toss: apparently, via Sepinwall, Cranston nailed that on the first try, which is just so ridiculous that I don’t even know how to explain it. I feel as if it’s actually a cheat, in that Walt is a chemistry teacher as opposed to a physics teacher, and only someone with an intense understanding of physics could have possible managed to throw the box and have the pizza fly out at that angle. If not for the show’s super-low budget, I’d presume it was a CGI pizza.
- The ribbons are really a stroke of brilliance, and the humorous opening scene (that’s also sad and unfortunate, but pepper spray always gets a laugh) was a great way of introducing them. I didn’t take note, though, whether Walt was ever wearing one – I don’t think he was, which is really intriguing. Also: loved how Walt Jr. reads his late arrival to work and his red eyes were a sign of intense sadness rather than a police altercation.
- I like the idea of Jesse returning to where it all began, but I wonder if the house will be the same without the acid-soaked hallway floor and the brand new appliances.
- Nice to have Tuco’s uncle return: he and his bell were a highlight last season, and it was a nice reminder (and confirmation) that these are Tuco’s cousins, a fact that other critics who had seen this episode in advance more or less revealed last week.