August 21st, 2011
Admittedly, I am once again delayed in getting to Breaking Bad by another commitment (this time covering The Glee Project finale over at The A.V. Club), but I also think it’s another episode where an extra-long treatise feels sort of unnecessary.
“Cornered” is another straightforward hour for the show, getting right to the point thematically and having the characters more or less follow suit. Walt, in particular, has been an open book in recent weeks, at least to an audience that has been watching the show all along. It’s not quite a cry for help, as Skyler diagnoses it early in the episode, but I do think that it’s an obvious sign that Walt’s worst neuroses are rising to the surface.
And that Walt and Jesse are as much alike as ever before.
Walt is an asshole, but he’s sort of right. As Skyler picks away at his pride by trying to sell him as a victim, Walt reclaims the victor’s narrative, touting his high salary and explaining that if anyone’s going to knock on someone’s door to kill them it’s going to be him doing the knocking instead of the dying. The way he says it drives Skyler to the border, contemplating fleeing to another state out of fear for her own life (and that of her daughter), but he’s technically correct. As he says to Walt Jr. at breakfast the next morning, he doesn’t have a sickness: he is a man who made choices, and he does not regret those choices at all.
The problem, of course, is that Walt being right only confirms the worst for Skyler, which is something that we’ve known all along. It’s been a long time since Walt’s choices have seemed truly heroic, and this season in particular has framed Walt’s choices as petty and prideful as opposed to acts of self-preservation. Jane’s death remains perhaps the greatest stain on his character, but even that moment was not premeditated and carries some level of guilt on Walt’s conscience (as we saw in “Fly”). This season, Walt is generally living comfortably: Jesse was the one who pulled the trigger on Gale (thus keeping Walt a degree away from the crime itself), his job is pretty secure, and his life doesn’t appear to be in immediate danger. However, while Walt might not be as threatened as he has in the past, he feels just as threatened, allowing his every paranoia to fester and poison his relationships with everyone around him.
Gus is obviously doing his best to facilitate this by taking Jesse out from under him, which Walt stumbles upon in his paranoid ramblings to Jesse. That’s sort of the worst thing about this whole situation: Walt is actually right about Gus’ plan, right that Jesse working with Mike is actually about Walt, but he’s too self-centered to explain that in any way that sounds well-reasoned. In truth, it isn’t all about Walt: it’s all about Gus. However, Walt has spent this season fighting against a sense of subservience, resisting efforts that make him feel like a cog in the machine. It happened when Skyler started taking over the car wash, and it happened when the security cameras were installed, and it happened when Jesse was elevated above him in the business (at least on some level – just wait until Walt hears that Jesse saw Gus in the flesh). And, of course, it happened most of all when Hank dares suggest that Gale was the genius, a claim that writes Walt out of the equation entirely (even if Hank had no way of knowing that).
Walt’s conversation with Bogdan is not particularly subtle, but I think the idea of Walt being a “boss” is an important one. Walt wants to be a boss: he wants to have Jesse as his underling, which is part of why Jesse’s loss so infuriates him. It’s also the show’s logic for Walt’s incredibly stupid decision to convince three of the laundry workers to come down into the lab to help him clean it following Jesse’s early departure, a bit of hubris that gets them sent back to Honduras and seems to indicate that Walt isn’t thinking clearly. The show uses the same logic for Walt buying Walt Jr. off with a fancy Dodge Challenger, a decision that violates every logic of their cover story. He thinks he has earned the right to solve his problems without getting his hands dirty, but he’s not able to react that way because everyone demands he play a different role, whether it’s father, employee, or protector. While Jesse’s way of dealing with a difficult situation was to try to remove himself from it entirely, Walt’s way of dealing with it is throwing himself into it, a strategy that could very easily put him in more danger than he realizes.
And yet, it’s the same thing that Jesse deals with while spending time with Mike. Part of what Gus has done in crafting Jesse a heroic self-image is give him the motivation to act: still suffering from withdrawal, Jesse is jittery and in need of something to keep himself occupied, but now instead of video games and bums fighting over cash it’s drawing out meth addicts with a good ol’-fashioned hole digging. It’s the kind of action that Walt isn’t getting in the lab, which sort of positions Walt’s condition as a form of withdrawal. It’s an addiction to the thrill of being in charge, and his growing marginalization with the business and emasculation in his marriage (at least in his eyes) are keeping him from feeding that addiction.
In truth, much of this is laid out too plainly in the episode, to the point where I wonder why I bothered writing about it outside of enjoying the sound of myself typing away. However, I like a few key decisions that the episode makes in order to foreground these issues. I mean, I could write about how Walt’s behavior threatens Skyler and puts her in a difficult position, but Skyler pretty much explained all of that at the end of the episode, and the Four Corners scene sold her struggle in a more artistic fashion.
There were, however, some decisions in the episode that worked for me. Specifically, I liked how we pulled away from Gus and Mike’s conversation about the ongoing cold war with a rival cartel as soon as they started talking about Jesse. The shift to Jesse standing outside waiting anxiously does a nice job of reminding us of the privileged information we carry, and the degree to which Jesse doesn’t know what’s happening here. He lashes back at Walter about how he’s a hero, and about how he’s proven himself an asset, but there’s doubt in his body language outside that diner, just as there’s doubt in his voice when he pushes Gus for more information. It’s a subtle choice, more subtle than the “Shovel Cam” or other overt devices, but it really highlights Jesse’s point-of-view and state of mind in this instance.
“Cornered” was perhaps over-highlighted, too quick to lay out the particulars of a character’s position through dialogue and other devices. The information we learn is logical, and the threat that it represents to Walt and those around him is very real, and the season continues a strong run thematically. On some level, nothing is more eventful on Breaking Bad than a moment where nothing much is happening, because that’s when Walt’s mind starts racing, and that’s where he can lash out at Skyler in a prideful rage, or lose his patience with Jesse’s absence, or risk revealing his wealth instead of letting his son believe that he is the bad guy for more than a few hours. In moments of calm, Walt begins to feel starkly normal, and it is then that he loses control of the delicate balance he’s created for himself – it is a balancing act that anchors the show, and that remains in great shape heading into the mid-point of the season.
- Eventually it was Walt who took a measure of revenge on Bogdan by using his “As is” refrain against him by using the framed dollar bill to buy a Coke, but there was this great moment where Bogdan (right after Walt claimed the dollar bill) was standing by the air fresheners and I thought he was going to pull a Walt.
- No Hank or Marie this week, but we got the most substantial R.J. Mitte sighting of the season, which was a nice extension of the cast.
- The opening scene, with the rival cartel upping their game and figuring out how best to approach their hijacking, was a nice pairing with last week’s opener. I do wonder, though, how they know so much about the operation to be able to know the system by which they mark the buckets with drugs in them.