Breaking Bad – “Half Measures”

“Half Measures”

June 6th, 2010

“You are not a murderer – you’re not, and I’m not. It’s as simple as that.”

If I had been drinking something when Walt said the above line, I’m pretty sure I would have done a spit take.

This reaction comes for two different reasons. The first is the idea that Walt is not a murderer, which seems patently false when you consider the numerous people he’s killed (whether it’s not saving Jane or the two men who he killed as a result of the meth lab explosion in the pilot). However, that’s part of Walt’s character, his ability to convince himself that it doesn’t make you a murderer if you kill them for the right reasons, just as it doesn’t make you a criminal if you’re doing it for your family. And so I can understand that this is part of Walt’s self-delusion, and so my spit take is perhaps unwarranted.

However, even if we accept that Walt believes that his past actions do not define him as a murderer, his argument that it is “as simple as that” is laughable to the point of a solid guffaw. Breaking Bad is many things, but simple is not one of them, and while Walt has his delusions he should know by now that things are never quite that simple. It’s one thing to try to justify your behaviour through rationalization, and it is quite another to try to convince yourself that your world of meth cooking, money laundering, revenge seeking and turf wars is in any way simple, or that anyone is capable of maintaining a simple life when you’re caught up in that world.

And yet, in some ways I think “Half Measures” proved my guffaws to be misguided: while Walt’s first claim may remain laughable, his latter claim may not be so farfetched, his desire for simplicity ultimately futile and yet the only way he can think to respond to the complexity of his current situation. The result is a blunt, even simple, action with enormously complex consequences for Walt, Jesse, and the series’ narrative, the exact kind of bold move which has elevated the show to the upper echelon of television drama.

I like the image of Skyler using Wikipedia to learn more about money laundering quite a bit: so much of Walt’s journey has been defined by the transformation from chemistry teacher to drug manufacturer, and sometimes we forget how easy that seemed to have been. Walt has faced a lot of adversity from the moment he got himself caught up in this whole mess, and yet he’s always known how to handle it: he didn’t have to go on Wikipedia to learn how to cook meth, nor did he need to do any research to know what kind of plastic tubs should be used for disposing of bodies. Walt has always seemed like a natural, someone who fits into this world better than he’s entirely willing to admit to himself. While it may have kept him alive, it doesn’t say something positive about Walt’s inherent humanity that Gus sees something of himself in our favourite meth manufacturer, and is willing to mentor him along this road. There’s no more telling moment in the episode than when Jesse is brought to the chicken farm for the summit meeting, and Walt is sitting on the same side of the table as Gus and not Jesse. He is one of them now, and he does not in any way, shape, or form look entirely comfortable with the idea.

There’s a small scene early on when the show beautifully calls back to Walt’s attempts to help Walt Jr. with his driving, and his son’s insistence on using two feet (as it is easier considering his struggles with movement and coordination), and Walt says something really fascinating there: “As long as it gets you from Point A to Point B, who am I to argue?” On the one hand, we can read this as Walt becoming less tense about parenting and sort of going with the flow a bit (perhaps finally becoming comfortable in his own skin), but then you realize that Walt doesn’t have a Point B. Walt’s entire journey began because his Point B went from a quiet death of old age to an imminent death from lung cancer, leading him to throw away all ethical quandries about how he got to the newly defined Point B of “getting enough money to support my family after my death.” However, once he was given a new lease on life, he lost any sense of a Point B: all he has is a contract of indeterminate length with someone who at one point was willing to let him die after three months, which doesn’t precisely lead towards a clean exit into the real world and which is anything but simple.

And if there’s anything Walter White enjoys, it’s simple things: while Skyler wants there to be numerous conditions surrounding the time they spend in order to give the appearance of an attempt at reconciliation, Walt wants to move back in and return to their bed. When Walt gives a speech to Jesse about compromising later in the episode, it’s the pot calling the kettle black, as earlier Walt had been a petulant child in his attempts to force his way back into Skyler life. I still remember the pizza-throwing incident from earlier this season, and his absolutely psychotic willingness to break into the house through the floorboards in order to stake his claim. Walt is no better at compromise than Jesse, as his definition of simple is not the path of least resistance so much as the solution which would most satisfy his innermost desires. Those are, in some ways, all that Walt has left: his desire to protect his family, which includes Jesse, is all that he has left to hang his hat on, and it’s something that he feels slipping away from him when it’s sitting on the other side of that table forcing Jesse to shake hands with the men who murdered his friend (which, let’s not forget, is technically blood on Walt’s hands considering his focus on expanding their territory in order to get more money faster).

The turning point in the episode, albeit the turning point in a direction that Jonathan Banks’ Mike had not intended, is when the gruff private investigator tells his story about his time as a beat cop. This is a show that loves to tell stories (like Jesse and his tale of the Opossum in “Fly”), to simply let a character monologue on a thematic level for a bit, but this was undoubtedly one of its finest. The moral of the story is that Mike chose a half measure when he should have gone all the way, which is a bit complex in terms of how it applies to Walt as a whole: it’s clear in this situation that Mike is insinuating that Walt needs to solve Jesse’s behavioural issues rather than simply letting them cool off for thirty days (and in the process risking the entire operation getting blown with Jesse in some form of prison), but can we really say that Walt only ever takes half measures? Walt has committed to this lifestyle far more than halfway, and while he’s not yet (at the time of that speech) willing to go all the way I do think you would probably argue that Walt is closer to that position than to some sort of half in, half our scenario. He remains a very cautious man, as seen in his unwillingness to embrace Skyler’s plan to truly bring her into his criminal activity, but at the same time he’s so far into this scenario that he can’t claim it to be a half-measured circumstance.

Of course, eventually Mike’s speech wakes up something in Walt that Mike perhaps didn’t know existed, the part of Walt which is able to run down two of Gus’ employees in order to keep Jesse from murdering them himself. In that moment we think back to the deaths at Walt’s hand that we’ve seen in the past, and we remember how long it took him to come to terms with the necessity of killing the survivor of the RV gas attack, or the moment of terror as he realizes what he’s about to let himself do as Jane chokes on her own vomit. And so when Walt gets out of the car and grabs the gun from the ground, I’m expecting him to have a moment of shock about what he’s done, to suddenly panic or hesitate in some fashion having neutralized the immediate threat to their lives. Instead, of course, Walt White takes the gun and nonchalantly shoots the guy in the head, shattering any image of a man struggling to go through with what “must be done.” He’s willing to go all the way, it just isn’t in the direction that Gus or Mike may want him to go: it’s simple only in that he knows exactly why he’s doing it, both because he doesn’t want to see Jesse get himself killed and because he is unwilling to allow a business arrangement to justify the murder of an innocent child.

Walt suggests that he and Jesse are both unable to commit murder, and yet in the end he chooses to protect Jesse’s innocence while himself unquestionably committing the act in question. And while this is by no means Walt’s redemption, it’s the first thing he’s done in a long time which entirely fits with how I see this universe. Jesse started this season trying to convince himself that he was a villain, that he was an evil person who was simply destined to do evil things. He left rehab with the idea that all he could do was embrace this potential fate, and yet we saw the ways in which Jane’s death still haunt him, and in his actions (including his inability to sell meth to Andrea) we saw Walt’s greatest consequence. Jesse was not on a particular great life path when Walt swooped in, this is very true, but now Jesse finds himself caught up in a world that he would have likely never seen were it not for Walt’s ambition. And in this episode, for once, I feel like Walt recognized this: he was trying to stop Jesse from following through on his plan by putting him in jail, but once Tomas is murdered he realized that all he can really do to solve the situation is to do the deed himself, and there’s a murderous nobility in that which kind of blows me away.

Jesse is not a murderer: he only knows about the poison in question because of Walt’s plan to murder Tuco, and you can tell that he wouldn’t be able to go through with it were it not for the fact that it would be Wendy who delivered the deadly hamburgers to the men in question. For Walt, it’s not murder so long as he’s doing it for the right reasons, which shows a willingness to complete the act in question but for a good reason (which is why he rejects the comparison to Tuco, remember). For Jesse, it’s not murder so long as he’s a mile away when it happens, and so long as no one finds out about it. Jesse is fearful of the world discovering the truth, of actually pulling the trigger when push comes to “two guys with guns pointed at you.” Jesse needs to be high in order to face off against Gus’ dealers, while Walter needs to have an entirely clear mind (provided by his fear of what Jesse might do), which indicates that for one murder is something unnatural and for the other murder is something that has become part of their world.

I don’t know where we go from here, which has been a pretty common state of mind since the end of the show’s second season, really. The show has become predictably unpredictable, and Walt’s final words indicate that Jesse needs to get the hell out of Albuquerque before Gus learns of what happened at that street corner. It’s not clear, though, whether we read this as Walt sacrificing his own humanity to save Jesse’s, or whether he simply embraced his impulses and will go back to panicking at the start of next week’s finale. In some ways this feels like too dangerous a situation for Walt to be in, too much of an endgame for us to plausibly believe that Walt will be able to squirm his way out of this one in such a way as to allow the show to move forward at something of a normal pace.

But perhaps the show is not unlike Hank’s current situation: Hank refuses to re-enter the real world until he’s entirely healed, afraid of trying to adapt to reality while still confined to a wheelchair, but Marie forces him to leave because he can’t stay cooped up in a hospital bed forever. I feel like Vince Gilligan is devoted to the same principle for the show as a hole, entirely willing to put Walt in a proverbial hospital bed and just as willing to throw him back into reality without cleaning everything up. The show is still dealing with the fallout from everything going back to Tuco’s shooting, and those layers of continuity are never elided within any individual story, and certainly not in an episode like this one. And rather than trying to solve anything, and rather than putting a button on one storyline to move onto another, Breaking Bad just keeps adding layers onto layers, and you can’t sit in a hospital bed and wait for that to go away. You need to step up and run over two drug dealers with your Pontiac Aztec, just as much as Jesse (who isn’t prepared just yet to face the reality of his situation) needs to run away left he be swallowed up by it all.

Jesse may not be ready for the world that has been wrought, but Walt is, and based on how natural such a shocking turn of events feels within this universe indicates that Vince Gilligan and company are just as prepared. “Half Measures” goes in a direction we would have never anticipated and yet which entirely fits with what we’ve seen thus far, surprising without abandoning the three years of character development to this point. It’s a feat that shouldn’t be overlooked, and a penultimate episode which rivals the series’ very best.

Cultural Observations

  • It all started, of course, with the brilliant cold open watching a day in the life of Wendy, our favourite meth head prostitute – set to The Association’s “Windy,” it was one of those distinctive sequences that the show does so very well, reintroducing the character in a blatantly stylistic fashion that shouldn’t feel so natural but just does.
  • I thought that last week’s episode had pretty clearly choreographed what was coming next, but unless I’m wrong we were given no indication last week that the men who ordered the hit on Combo were currently selling Walt and Jesse’s product; that was a neat twist that undercut my expectations nicely.
  • Not much for Hank and Marie here, but Marie does get that nice little scene forcing the groundhog to see its shadow, and we do see Marie struggling to handle her knowledge of Skyler’s fake story regarding Walter’s wealth as she wonders whether Walt Jr. has been playing cards with his father. That isn’t quite a ticking time bomb, but Marie is not the most stable character on the show, and there’s a chance it could slip out at any minute.
  • My one nitpick with this whole scenario is that it still seems too convenient for Jesse to have shacked up with Andrea so conveniently – the show’s “small world” ultimately works in terms of forcing characters to shine a light on their own lives and face their demons, but I think the show could have introduced Andrea earlier (even as someone that Jesse potentially met in rehab and who happened to come back into his meeting later on) which would make it feel more like fate than convenience (which are two different things).


Filed under Breaking Bad

10 responses to “Breaking Bad – “Half Measures”

  1. jon

    Very well written article. Can’t wait for the next episode!

  2. Just to extend your excellent write-up with two points (in lieu of writing up my own post):

    – There’s a nice parallel between Hank & Walt that’s been brewing this season, and this episode made more explicit connections as Walt kills two drug criminals via the dual tools of gun and car, just as Hank did in “One Minute.” The ways that each man processes & rationalizes his actions is truly rich, and will be all the more enjoyable on rewatching.

    – It’s true that the small world of BB can strain believability, but it’s also one of its most impressive innovations on serialization. The Wire preached “It’s All Connected,” but that was in the macro-level of institutions. On BB, no action or event is ever forgotten in the past, as the past murders and decisions are always ready to pop back into relevance. On what other show would the seemingly irrelevant murder of a disposable hanger-on like Combo come back a year later to serve as catalyst for a plot transformation? One thing I love about BB is that even as the characters are becoming more and more monstrous, their past deeds and losses still seem present in their minds, making it arguably the most psychologically serialized program I’ve ever seen.

  3. I definitely agree about Andrea and have said as much. I also think the actress is pretty weak, which allows the brain time to think about how it’s a little implausible that Jesse would just meet her like that. Normally, when BB is pushing the coincidences, you don’t notice because everything is done so skillfully, but this is one case where they might have done a better job of casting.

  4. Flashman

    Walt actually says “As long as it gets you safely from point A to point B”, and I took that more to emphasize how much he’s checked out emotionally from his family. As you put it he’s lost his point B in terms of guiding his actions, but he’s also lost his family on an emotional level in that he’s used them to rationalize so much awful behaviour. That’s why “possession” of his family is so important over really having an emotional connection. His real life is his criminal activity, and his real family is Jesse, and Walt Jr. has become almost an object to him – since there is no active crisis in Walt Jr’s life, how he drives is irrelevant. Hugely different from the engaged and concerned father of the first season (remember that one of his first assertive actions is to attack the people making fun of Walt Jr. in the store). He needs the family to be his in order to justify his actions and to maintain a form of cover. He doesn’t know he’s changed to viewing them this way, and I’m interested to see if the ending of this episode will cause him to realize this by forcing him to drop all the rationalizations. I’m not sure there’s anyone more skilled at playing a profound internal realization via subtle facial expressions than Cranston, so I look forward to whatever they do.

    Breaking Bad has been neck and neck with Mad Men as the best show on TV, but I don’t think there’s anything the upcoming season of Mad Men can do to keep up with how amazing Breaking Bad has become.

  5. Abe

    An excellent analysis of a truly intense episode. I’m not sure what else I have to add – save for the fact that Walt probably thinks that Gus likes him enough to spare him the same fate that might otherwise befall Jesse. Whether that will be true or not is a different matter, but that’s probably what rushed through Walt’s head in the fleeting moment before he decided to run them over. It reminds me of Nancy on this past season of “Weeds,” safe from execution because of her connection to Esteban. Not quite the same thing, but the same idea.

  6. Scott Ellington

    This is a truly absorbing, continuing analysis of a uniquely fascinating show. I noticed, however, a slight incongruity in the final scene of this evening’s episode.
    Walt’s Aztek apparently slipped into stealth-mode to take out Gus’ (deaf) employees at the streetcorner showdown…the very kind of improbably-convenient detail that reminds me of Hancock.
    I don’t mean to suggest that this isn’t incredibly riveting television that trades on a wealth of shining and wonderful moments; only that the line between fable and gritty reality is slightly tarnished by anticipatory skepticism (for the season finale), upon reflection.

    • Delmont

      I completely understand your gripe Scott, however, with 4 or so viewings (of the scene in question) under my belt I feel confident in saying that the scenario plays believably. On a dark street corner late at night with a armed man (Jesse) approaching, a Pontiac in their peripheral vision is unlikely to divert the object of their attention. Walt wouldn’t need to put the pedal to the medal until the last second, maybe 10-15 yards before impact. With the volume turned up, a viewer can hear the rev of the Aztec as it’s approaching, with Jesse and the dealers reacting a split second before chaos hits.

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