April 18th, 2010
You may have noticed this, but Breaking Bad’s third season is effectively a long string of meetings.
This isn’t entirely new for the series, but there isn’t the same level of action and reaction that the show is used to: while previous seasons seemed to build in altercations, or create circumstances where Walt and Jesse need to clean up a mess or solve a particular problem, this season is focused almost solely on characters having isolated and personal moments of reflections which come into play when they meet with another character on the show. These aren’t all formal meetings, but whether it’s Skyler and Ted meeting up in the bathroom post-coitus, the White family meeting for dinner, or Gus and Walter sitting down to discuss their future together, there is this sense that things are playing out in slow-motion. While the first season was about how quickly things can escalate, and the second season demonstrated the challenges which faced any sort of expansion, the third season is about choices, and so escalation is replaced by contemplation.
“Mas,” like “Green Light” last week, demonstrates how challenging it can be to make difficult choices, and how particular choices will create consequences that you may not be able to understand. Watching these characters come to grips with where they’ve come to, some more slowly than others, is proving just as compelling as anything else the series has done, languishing just long enough within each character’s struggle in order to give us a sense of what perspective they bring to the next meeting.
Which, considering the trajectory of these characters, may not be a pleasant one.
I was pretty harsh on Anna Gunn when I wrote about the first two seasons: left entirely outside of Walt’s world, Skyler just wasn’t “relevant” to the most important themes on the show, left to largely sleepwalk through stories which we understood as thematically relevant but which she thought were simply part of her normal life. Freed from that ignorance, the character has new life, and Gunn has proven up to the task. Skyler is coming unhinged at this point in the season, suddenly aware that she was never willing to actually abandon her family (or at least the image of family which the dinner table symbolizes), and suddenly aware that perhaps there would be benefits to the financial stability Walt can provide. The scenes in on Ted’s heated bathroom floor are telling in two ways: her use of the towel in the second scene indicates that she wants to avoid becoming comfortable, avoid using his amenities out of guilt for effectively leading him on, but her high opinion of the floor initially gets her thinking about similar extravagance. She stares at Walt’s duffel bag full of money and wonders if she could have it all, and wonders if she read this situation all wrong.
At the same time, of course, Walt is similarly contending with redefinitions of what family means. For Walt, family meant co-habitation, which is why he broke into his house in order to effectively squat in his daughter’s bedroom, but Gus begins to change his mind. Gus basically tells him that family is something which doesn’t need to fit into clean, dinner table stereotypes, and that blood connection alone will always make him father to his children. It’s an argument which compels Walt to get back in the game, logical considering that it’s what got him into the game in the first place: while Gus intelligently plays to Walt’s pride (or, if you accept Walt’s term for it, his “respect for the chemistry”) in order to get him to his new underground lab, he realizes that creating a binary between pride and family is what has taken Walt out of the game. By suggesting that pride is separate from habitation, and that family is separate from marital bliss, Gus makes a compelling argument against the nuclear family which allows Walt to move past notions of guilt or irresponsibility and focus on “providing.” Gus successfully restores Walt’s dignity, something he’s been losing ever since he was standing on a desert road in his underpants in the pilot, and something that he believed was gone as soon as Skyler announced her intentions to leave him.
The episode did a fantastic job of using various meetings in order to bring these stories to the forefront: Skyler used her lawyer as a therapist, Walt got seduced by a bright red lab with fancy equipment and a rather clever cover story, and eventually Walt and Jesse meet with Saul Goodman to settle their affairs. In all cases, the characters want something out of the meetings, some piece of advice or some element of closure to be able to move on. Skyler wants permission to spend Walt’s money, Walt wants Gus to leave him alone, and Jesse wants his money back. But in reality they want something more than that, some way to take justify those desires or, in the case of Walt, to resist those desires in favour of something he may not be allowing himself to desire. If Gus’ strategy for forcing Walt to meet with him was unquestionably transparent, then why did Walt go to the meeting if not to hear what he had to say? If these people were completely set on these courses of action, they wouldn’t be meeting about them: Jesse would be showing up at Walt’s door to get his money back, Walt wouldn’t have gotten in that car with Gus, and Skyler would have bought herself a heated bathroom floor instead of asking her lawyer of all people about it. These people have doubts, and the show is currently allowing them to work through them rather than throwing them directly back into the chaos that surrounds them.
That is the fate which Hank is trying to avoid by resisting the call of El Paso and following his single lead on the blue meth which seemed to have disappeared from town. Dean Norris is doing some spectacular work right now, showing a man who would rather meet with half-naked trailer-dwellers than face the truth about his actions. He avoids conversations with his wife not because he doesn’t trust her, but because he knows that he would open up to her and is terrified of what the result would be. The same sense of dignity which drives Walt to return to cooking meth forces Hank to put on a show for everyone around him, and you can see the breaks in the charade: as he says goodbye to his former partner, heading to El Paso in his place, Norris captures both the sense of shame and the sense of fear, knowing that he shouldn’t be going in his place but knowing that everyone judges him for choosing not to. While the search for Jesse and his RV is only prolonging the torturous process, it nonetheless keeps him busy, and now that he has a legitimate lead (after learning, as we learned in the cold open, that Combo took $1400 from Jesse for his family’s RV) it will only push him further away from dealing with his problems.
“Mas” is effectively the launching pad for the rest of the season: Walt chooses to leave Skyler and define family on his own terms which allow both his respect for the chemistry and his self-conscience co-exist, Skyler chooses (effectively) to keep Walt around only to see him choose otherwise without her own input, Walt is getting closer and closer to discover Jesse’s identity, and Jesse finds himself being pushed out of the drug trade by Gus and Walt’s three-month contract. You can see where everything is headed at this stage: just as Walt is protected from the outside world, Jesse has reason to push himself further into the dangers of the drug trade at the very time when he is more likely to be caught, leaving Walt in the awkward position of what Jesse knows about his life, and how that information (even without proper evidence and with Gus’ support) could threaten his attempts to support his family. While I like the dynamic of Jesse and Walt as a team, the potential for Jesse and Walt as effectively rivals is substantial, and seeing that battle play out has the potential to take the season beyond meetings towards something approaching action and reaction.
This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the slow buildup to things, but I think that the time for meetings may be coming to an end for at least a little while.
- Loved the music during the introduction of Walter’s Lab: the bright red colour and the sort of quirky tone to the music gave the scene a sort of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory vibe which really fit with the show’s sort of morbid sense of humour.
- Enjoyed the flashback opening – while I think they took Jesse’s disrespect of Walter a tiny bit too far, especially since the sort of mutual connection between them was a key role of those early Season One episodes, I think that it was designed to indicate how different Jesse is now compared to them, a comparison which remained fairly subtle due to Jesse’s lack of the sort of personal introspection scenes that he got with Jane’s phone two episodes ago and which were largely given to Skyler and Hank this week.
- I’m a little disappointed with how tangential Walter Jr. feels this season – he is now pretty much the only character (other than perhaps Marie) who doesn’t feel like they’re intricately caught up in the central conflicts of the series, and he’s been sort of an accessory to Walt and Skyler’s situation even more than before. I’m hopeful this may change with time, but there’s been no indication of it happening anytime soon.
- I was wondering why Walt’s breakdown last week, especially his creepy attempt to make out with Carmen, was paced so quickly, but this episode indicated why: sure, Cranston sold it anyways, but it was sped up so that he could be able to take the job from Gus when it was offered, as opposed to having to balance it with his teaching job. I’m not suggesting that Walt wouldn’t have eventually gotten to this point, but there wasn’t enough time to make a connection between the plane crash and that particular series of events, which seemed necessary to really convince me it would happen that quickly.