Spoilers. Kevin McFarland reviews the third of Breaking Bad's final eight episodes, in which consequences loom ever-closer over W.W. and his empire.
Breaking Bad s05e11 review
I think a lot about why I go along with all the narrative jumps on Breaking Bad. It’s a trick that the writers have used more frequently as the show moves into crunch time, and those moments stick out to me as times when someone who doesn’t agree with the near-universal praise could point directly to where Breaking Bad falters, stepping over the line from plausible heightened drama into being unbelievable. The situation manifests itself in much the same way each time—an actor required to convey a revelation with very few connecting details, a knowing facial expression, usually of horror and shock. But I believe the big leaps, because the show grounds those jumps in characters so well defined and rounded that they feel lived in.
Hank made the leap from the note in Walt’s Leaves Of Grass, clicking the “W.W” into place because even though he’s been promoted and the DEA wants everything wrapped up after Gus Fring’s death, he’s still obsessing about that loose end, the mysterious cook. That obsession bleeds into everything in his life. It combines with Walt’s hubris in leaving that book out (and Hank feeling comfortable enough in the White home to use the master bathroom), and leads to the big reveal that presaged a season based around silent revelations.
Walt makes the connection between the missing book and the tracking device under his car because deep down, he’s still looking over his shoulder for the other shoe to drop. And because I think Walt wants to get caught--at least in a way that doesn’t annihilate his family, just so somebody else marvels in horror at his accomplishments. The nagging sense that at any moment the whole façade could go sideways forces the leap from missing book to tracker on the car.
Jesse’s realization--not only did Walt poison Brock, but he involved Saul and Huell in the plot to trick Jesse into going along with Walt’s plan to kill Gus Fring--falls right in line with the other two. And just like those moments, I felt the nudge of the writers’ room a bit more than usual. But Aaron Paul’s performance is so engrossingly sympathetic, so committed, that he pulls it off. Jesse Pinkman has morphed from a doofus with delusions of grandeur into a smart, tortured cog in the Heisenberg empire. His solution to the Fring laptop problem—-“Yeah bitch! Magnets!”—-proves how far he’s come, along with his meetings with Walt to design the Vamanos Pest mobile laboratory.
And because of that intelligence, it stands to reason that Jesse would eventually reach this point.
Jesse always knew something was up, from the moment Brock’s results came back with Lily Of The Valley instead of ricin. And that seed of doubt has festered and picked away at Jesse’s psyche until he unraveled into his own fugue state.
That seed has grown to the point where Jesse can finally verbalize to Walt that he can see right through all the bullshit. This is a moment I’ve been waiting for at least for the past two years, when Jesse not only physically overpowers Walt and keeps his guard up at all times, but breaks down Walt’s pompous Heisenberg image, the doting father act that’s been going on since Walt dragged Jesse back into the game after Jane’s death. Jesse’s pained, panicked monologue out in the desert that brushes off Walt’s pseudo-paternal option of using Saul’s guy to disappear. Walt believes he’s a smooth operator, and that his yearlong rise to kingpin emeritus has come from his ability to coerce the people he cares about into doing what he wants and actually believing they came up with the idea. Jesse can smell that glib, patronizing tone a mile away now. It’s telling that neither Saul nor Walt says anything when Jesse again accuses Walt of killing Mike.
When Jesse stands at that street corner, the location choice is perfect: it’s not a four-way crossroads. It’s a T-intersection, meaning that Jesse’s cut off from some option, metaphorically backed against a wall, stressed to an extreme degree. In that state, raw and open to Walt’s emotional manipulation, he accurately connects the dots back to the missing cigarette, and infers that since Walt was capable of letting a child die after the train robbery, that truly no one would get in the way of his frantic survival, that Brock was just another move to bring Jesse under his thumb.
In my haste to dig into Jesse’s revelation and subsequent explosive meltdown, I've kind of buried the lede about the biggest gasp-inducing moment of this episode: Walt records a confession video that he gives to Hank and Marie after a terse and delightfully awkward dinner, where he lays the blame for everything involving his meth cooking at Hank’s feet.
It’s a diabolical monologue, weaving a conniving web through past events, from that first ride-along with Hank, to the cousins’ assassination attempt, to Hector Salamanca and the bomb at the nursing home. It’s all circumstantial and hopefully impossible to prove, but like Hank’s correct hunch and tidbits of evidence, it’s a way of reading the case that locks the Whites and the Schraders in a stalemate of mutually assured destruction. The key to that is the paper trail of financial assistance, a fiendish emotional tax on what was once a morally questionable underpinning to necessary aid.
Walt and Skyler paid Hank’s medical bills with money they claimed was from gambling--and Marie took it without Hank’s knowledge, connecting the family in benefitting from the meth money in such a way that Hank looks glaringly foolish at best and knowingly corrupt at worst. And Breaking Bad does a great job showing exactly how large this burden looms over everyone involved. Walt snaps back to the car wash as though he’s able to wipe everything from his mind, but Skyler and Hank can’t go about their quotidian duties--looking over budgets or manning a register--without the storm cloud of Walt’s actions (and his accomplices) casting gloom.
What’s the worst thing Walter White has done in his life? I ask myself this question constantly when Walt manipulates another person, takes advantage of an emotionally vulnerable situation, or has a hand in an act of violence. The most personally damaging was probably selling the stake in Grey Matter, the moment he regrets every week as he checks the stock price. He lies to everyone around him, emotionally abuses and manipulates his wife, his son, his brother- and sister-in-law, and is responsible for scores of deaths. Not to mention the characters he’s personally killed, like Krazy 8 and Mike, indirectly murdered like Gus or Gale, or allowed to die, like Jane.
Tonight, Walt blackmailed Hank and Marie with a confession video that puts big, strong Hank on shakier ground if he reveals more to the DEA. He exploited his son’s emotions by revealing his cancer has returned to keep Flynn in the house and away from Marie. He gave Jesse yet another unwanted hug instead of coming out and asking for a damn favor, and prepared for a potentially violent confrontation with Jesse.
Meanwhile, as Walt tries to engineer damage control and mete out his remaining time with as little interference as possible, outside events, loose lips, and a shaky business model all threaten to attack. It’s on the back burner for now, but no matter how carefully Walt constructs a web to protect himself—-he’s not trying to provide for his family or protect their future as much as his own terrifying accomplishments anymore—-there are too many uncontrollable loose ends that threaten to parachute in from just out of view.
So that idea about Hank and Jesse potentially teaming up? That was completely off, and in retrospect too simple, diffused rather quickly. But now it’s complicated in far more interesting ways. Jesse continues to react rashly, not thinking his gasoline dump through at all, and now Hank has even more reason to be cautious now that Walt’s trump card of a “confession” is on the table. But an eyes-wide-open Jesse, determined to punish Walt by attacking the symbol of his deceptively tranquil family life, throws a wrench into an already tenuous cold war within the family. Jesse doesn’t care about personal consequence anymore, he’s not as concerned as Walt (or Saul, the ultimate pragmatist in the series) with survival at all costs. Now that he’s allowed himself to confirm the truth about Walt and what he’s capable of, he immediately seeks to violently force retribution.
Hank is someone Walt could stay ahead of because he was hiding in plain sight, unsuspected because of his initial meekness. But Walt can’t control Jesse anymore because he knows Walt’s game, and that portends a much more difficult dilemma. Jesse supposed two options when talking with Walt out in the desert: leave and make things easier for Walt with Hank’s investigation, or die like Mike. Now that the first option is off the table, whether Walt succumbs to violence again (with the thawing Chekhov gun) is the next great moment of suspense.
Read episode recaps for all episodes in this season in Boing Boing's Breaking Bad archives. Breaking Boing.
• Todd can’t keep from running his mouth to his uncle and his buddy, who now take over production of the meth with the stolen methylamine and drive it back from Arizona into New Mexico. That looks to become a stronger push for Walt to re-enter the business.
• Trent the waiter really wants to sell you on the tableside guacamole.
• Walt’s confession tape harkens back to the first lines of the series, as Walt stands in his underwear and rasps into a handheld camera his stunted confession when he thinks the police are closing in on him.
• On "Talking Bad," AMC's accompanying post-episode talk show hosted by Chris "Nerdist" Hardwick, Samuel L. Jackson actually made an interesting observation about Walt’s paternal instincts toward Jesse--that Walt is somehow fighting for Jesse’s soul. That almost singlehandedly justified every other strange superfan outburst he had during that half-hour aftershow discussion.
Published 11:12 pm Sun, Aug 25, 2013
About the AuthorKevin McFarland is a Contributing Writer at The A.V. Club and in other little corners of the Internet. His Alaskan Malamute, Dynamite, loves the snow so much he might as well be a direwolf. Follow him on Twitter.
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