August 14th, 2011
It was late this evening before I got to tonight’s Breaking Bad, as a result of filling in on Entourage at The A.V. Club, but when I finished watching “Shotgun” I found myself at a loss. Perhaps it was simply that I knew my review would be less than timely (especially with most critics still working with screeners), but it also seems like “Shotgun” pretty much lays its cards on the table.
It’s a rare instance where we see both the cause and the effect, and where character actions are contextualized in almost every instance. While the show doesn’t outright spell everything out for us, there are enough moments of clarity within an often impressionistic hour of television for us to be pretty confident in where things are headed from this point forward.
And while there’s something a bit strange about that, I can’t deny that it remained a satisfying stage in the season’s development.
More than any other episode this season, I left “Shotgun” with a very visceral response to Walt’s actions. In fact, I think that’s the consequence of an episode that is on some level too straightforward: we know everything that’s going on in Walt’s head in that scene at the dinner table, which means all of our attention is focused on how stupid and egotistical and selfish he is.
Cranston is fantastic at bringing out the worst in Walt’s personality, and even if it’s aided by the alcohol I think we can see the way in which the episode peels away at his resolve. Effectively, Walt is in a position where every logic of the business he’s in suggests that he should establish a level of normalcy for the sake of appearances, and yet he resists that normalcy on every level. To return to normal is to return to feeling like a sadsack chemistry teacher who can’t support his family – even if he is technically a “badass meth cook,” he’s still living the same life he lived when he was just a normal man, and Walt doesn’t want to be normal anymore. From the moment we met him, Walter White was a man who believed he was a genius and who knew that he had been cheated out of that role by his former partner. “Heisenberg” was a way of recapturing that glory, but now the symbols of that gain (the condo, the swagger, the independence) have been replaced by the same old life he used to lead.
By comparison, Jesse has no normal to return to, which is part of why Gus is keeping him busy as a dead drop hero. It’s all another mind game, a way of giving Jesse a sense of purpose that threatens Walt’s control over their operation. Gus is a manipulator, and it’s amazing how much of an impact Esposito can have with a character that has barely appeared this season. It almost seems silly to make him a series regular given his sparse appearances to this point, but the idea that he’s a series regular is more powerful than if he were to be made recurring. He’s there even when he’s not there, and that has grown increasingly frustrating for Walt: his efforts to hunt Gus down early in the episode prove to be complete failures, and every time he tries to get his attention he ends up with one of his assistants calling on the phone or showing up to run a fork lift.
I guess my big question, given that the episode is so straightforward otherwise, is what Gus’ end game is here. Obviously, he views Walt as a liability, and would have killed him had Gale been alive to take over the business (and might have also killed him had Viktor not gotten himself identified at the crime scene). However, Walt’s growing dissatisfaction with his situation leads him to threaten not only himself (by leading Hank away from the “Gale as Heisenberg” theory) but also the operation writ large. The more he plays with Walt’s head, the more he risks the entire gambit, which is the one thing that seems as though it is short-sighted. Is there a scenario in which the entire arrangement could be pinned on Walt, with his ego carrying him to such a position that he becomes a simple scapegoat?
It seems like that underestimates Walt’s cockroach-like survival skills: even if Jesse drifts further afield, and even if his home life continues to frustrate him, Walt’s stubbornness would be equally clear in his efforts to resist any move against him. The singular motivation with which he goes after Gus in the wake of Jesse’s disappearance at the beginning of the episode suggests a man who is driven; sure, the man who sends Hank back onto his trail in a drunken state at episode’s end is very different, but Walt has the capacity for both of these behaviors, and that’s something that adds a dimension to the plans afoot.
It’s also the one uncertainty at the heart of an episode that’s otherwise pretty straightforward. Perhaps sensing this, MacLaren adds a whole bunch of spectacle, including that great montage of Jesse and Mike as well as some point-of-view shots from both Walt’s Aztec and his gas mask. It wasn’t exactly subtle at times, and I worry about it becoming a bit too much of a gimmick, but the visual signature really stuck with me, and there was something meaningful in putting us in Walt’s shoes (almost having us be forced into Walt’s position). In fact, that sort of sums up the episode, in that we see almost all of the episode through Walt’s perspective, which is why we both entirely understand and yet entirely loathe his behavior at the end of the episode. The signs are all there, and all the show does is let them play out in the way that makes the most sense.
And, of course, in the way that makes Walt look like the egomaniac he is.
- Pleased to see a bit more of a storyline for Walt Jr., even if it remains largely in a limited capacity.
- I honestly hadn’t really noticed Marie’s purple house before, but someone mentioned it on Twitter before I saw the episode, and I couldn’t stop noticing it. It was the purple corkscrew that did me in, and then that final scene with the purple shopping bags and the purple purse and…just, everything.
- I think it was last week when I suggested on Twitter that the Gale/Walt scenario reminded me of Les Miserables and Valjean potentially letting an innocent man be arrested for his crimes, but I think we can say that Walt’s motivations are somewhat more selfish than Valjean’s in this instance.
- A lot of nice use of silence here, especially in that first dead drop pickup scene – while I was never convinced that Jesse was going to die, and thus didn’t necessarily feel any tension, the show let us feel Jesse’s tension, and that’s important to the success of the show when it’s not necessarily creating scenarios where we have no idea what’s coming next.
6 responses to “Breaking Bad – “Shotgun””
Nice write up, Myles. I agree with your thoughts for the most part. The straight forward-ness you talk about makes me think that people who have disliked Season 4 thus far enjoyed this episode quite a bit. No way that they can say “Shotgun” was “slow.” Even though it made complete sense, I was kind of frustrated that Hank “quit” the case and rejoined it by the end of the episode. Wish he would just make up his mind already (which it seems like he has), but it’s great to have him back. I sensed jealousy when Walt was interrogating Jesse about where he had been/why he was there. Learning he has a lesser role in the operation should be interesting– not sure if it’s going to turn them against one another or what. Some of the shots have me worried too… it felt like “here’s /another/ cool shot! and another! Hopefully it’s used in a better way in future episodes. Also, loved the slow pullback time lapse shot with Jesse waiting around Mike’s car.
“I guess my big question, given that the episode is so straightforward otherwise, is what Gus’ end game is here.”
Yes, this is the big question. I’ve read a number of reviews of this episode, and I’ve been surprised at how many people thought that Gus was merely trying to help Jesse out of his funk and bring him back into the fold. Gus despises Jesse as a “worthless junkie” and reluctantly took him on to secure Walt’s talents. Jesse has been responsible for the deaths of Gus’ two dealers, the scrape with Tuco’s cartel-connected uncle, Don Salamanca , and has now personally killed Gale, Gus’ handpicked, pet chemist. He followed this up by diving headfirst into self destructive, “please arrest me” party mode at his own home.
Gus is thinking several moves ahead here, and intends to put the newly motivated Jesse to some particular use. When he does, it’s going to be ugly.
Thanks for the fine review.
Props to the editor Skip MacDonald for excellent pacing and two of the best music over montage scenes (Jesse and Mike driving and Jesse waiting with the frame-rate sped up & Walt making the meth on his own)
I think you are right that they need to chill on the gimmicks here, it was fine this episode, but it could marr the tone of the show if they keep using such visual devices. I don’t think they will though, as they seem to be keenly aware of that sort of thing, more aware than other shows at least.
The game of distance-chess that Walt and Gus are playing is going to be very interesting, as Gus seems to always be a few moves in front of Walt. I cannot predict what Gilligan et al have in store for the rest of the season and going forward towards the end, but this has got to be the single best show on TV right now, it is head and shoulders above everything else.
You haven’t noticed that Marie has EVERYTHING purple in 3 and a quarter seasons of the show? She wears purple, her car is purple, and everything in her house is purple. IBreaking Bad is not subtle about certain things, and the use of colors is one of the least subtle things about the show. As Walt found more confidence, he’s started wearing more black (as opposed to something earth toned like that green shirt he was wearing in the pilot.)
Gilligan and company have mentioned the specific color schemes for the characters in at least one of the podcasts or commentaries. And Marie’s purple obsession says a lot in that it is both so over the top and yet not mentioned by the characters.
I wouldn’t worry too much of the visual flourishing becoming ‘too gimmicky’! I think it enriches BB’s stylistic idiosyncrasy even more. In fact, watching the last 4 episodes before “Shotgun,” it made me questioned: what happened to the Michael Slovis’ touch that we saw in Season 2+ 3? I thought this season is rather parsimonious when it comes to visual aesthetics. Except, yes “Shotgun.”
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