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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: "Abiquiu"

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: "Abiquiu"
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It's become increasingly obvious this season how quickly Breaking Bad has decided to move through its starting premises.  We began with two ominous cousins heading North to take care of Walter, and I for one thought we'd have weeks of dread before they got there. Boom — they were sitting outside his door the following week, and by episode 7 they were both dead or dying.  Between episodes 1 and 5 Walter and Skyler moved from separation to divorce.  Walter has gone from out of the business to the head of manufacturing for Gus Fring in six episodes, and Gus Fring has gone from a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker to a ruthless drug emperor — or at least our understanding of him has.  As fast as the writers can introduce a plot development that you think will sustain the suspense until the season-ending cliffhanger, the show's master plot moves on to its consequences, as if it were in a hurry to get us to the consequences of those consequences.

So it is with Skyler this week.  As stunning as it was to watch her spin the gambling yarn for Marie in "Kafkaesque," it was just as shocking to see how quickly she — and the show — realized that she's already broken bad all the way, and what remains is simply acting the part.  In for a penny, in for a pound.  With a cover story in place, and firmly ensconced as an accessory to Walter's crimes, Skyler goes from disapproving ex-wife to partner (and current wife) in the course of one episode.  She's motivated, it appears, by the bill for Hank's physical therapy that Marie apologetically presents to her; the amount must give her pause.  "This money has to be unimpeachable when it reaches Hank and Marie," she tells Walter.  Unimpressed by the check he presents her (from Ice Station Zebra Associates) and his assurances that "I have a guy … my guy is a top guy," Skyler insists on evaluating the financial arrangements herself.  Neither Saul's waiting room with its hordes of whiplash cases nor Saul with his sleazeball compliments ("Clearly Walt's taste in women is the same as his taste in lawyers: only the best, with just a little bit of dirty") and his master plan ("wait for it — lazer tag!") inspire confidence.


So Skyler thinks it through.  And Skyler has some experience cooking the books, as we know from last season when she helped her boss Ted hide some fake transactions he used to keep his company going through a cash flow crisis.  So her priority is believability, just as it was when she told that lie, just as it was when she separated from Walter, just as it was when she spun that yarn for Marie.  What will pass under the scrutiny of a suspicious outside world?  Why, Walter could buy the car wash where he toiled after school to make ends meet in the pilot.  One problem, Saul tells Walter when he hears about "Yoko Ono's" plan: There's no Danny.  Danny, the guy who owes Saul a big favor and so is motivated to run the lazer tag business the way Saul needs him to, keeping everything neat and tidy and keeping the secrets where they belong.  When Walter relays this fly in the ointment to Skyler, it doesn't even take her a second to decide to be the Danny.  "If I'm in this, I'm going to do it right," she asserts. More evidence that this isn't a sudden whim but a long-range plan: She never got around to filing the divorce papers, because "married couples can't be compelled to testify against one another … so there's that."  Her affair with Ted was not well-planned, but the product of sudden fury.  This move into the shadows has been percolating in Skyler's brain ever since "Mas," when she first started to think that Walter's ill-gotten gains might have an upside, and she's ready to figure out all the angles.

The other master planner of the show, however, isn't seeing his enterprises turn out nearly as well.  Walter is interrupting Jesse's supply by doing the weighing himself.  Badger and Skinny Pete, bless their hearts, are having a hard time selling to the NA group because "it's like shooting a baby in the face."  So Jesse, in a fit of anger, decides to show them how it's done by cultivating a relationship with a new member of the group, Andrea, whose resentment over being forced into recovery is palpable.  He'll give her a taste, get her hooked, and bam — first customer.  (Well, besides Skinny Pete, to whom Badger sold a teenth, which Urban Dictionary tells me is 1/16 of an ounce.)  But just when he's working his magic on her, convincing her that it's not smoking that's wrong but getting caught, her grandmother and — crushingly — six-year-old son burst in the door.  As soon as Andrea becomes a person to Jesse, his experience of complicity in Jane's death changes his relationship to her.  Now he can't imagine enabling her relapse; "What kind of a mother are you?" he asks in disgust when she decides to take him up on his offer of some blue meth the next time they get together.  And the answer changes where we're going next, in the course of Andrea's story about why she will always take good care fo Brock — because she doesn't want him to turn out like her younger brother Tomas, who executed a hit as part of a gang initiation.  "Just rode up on his bike and shot him," Andrea says.  Right around the corner.  And Jesse realizes that he's just found out who shot Combo back in the striking opening sequence of the second season episode "Mandala."  He goes there, makes a buy, and bounces — apparently bent on revenge.  The plan has changed.

What about Walter?  Well, he's being groomed by Gustavo Fring — treated like a partner, invited to an intimate dinner at his house, urged to help cook (ha!), and given mentorly advice.  "This life of ours," Gus muses (adroitly including Walter in the group of men like himself), "it can overwhelm.  To be poor, anyone can manage.  Never make the same mistake twice."  Cut to Jesse on the corner.  It appears that Gus means that Jesse is the mistake Walter should not make — partnering with him, or caring about him.  But maybe Skyler is the mistake — creating what amounts to a family business again.  Maybe relying on anybody other than yourself is the mistake.  Gus certainly seems to go it alone.  In any case, Walter is now yoked to two unpredictable horses, each with its own agenda.  My guess is that they're likely to pull him in different directions until he comes up with a plan of his own other than "I can't simply quit," which is the sum total of his long-term strategy at the moment.  But then, my guess for what's likely to happen — and how fast it will rush upon us — isn't all that relevant, is it?

Stray observations:

  • The episode title, "Abiquiu," refers to the New Mexico town where Georgia O'Keeffe lived and worked for 35 years.  In a beautiful opening flashback, Jesse and Jane go to see an O'Keeffe exhibit and argue about whether, by painting the same door over and over again, O'Keeffe was merely exploring different facets of the door and herself (Jane's position) or trying to get it perfect (Jesse's position).  Jesse's contention that she was trying to get it right connects to his determination to go back to his meth dealer lifestyle but do it right this time … and to Skyler's resolve to join forces with Walter but do it right … and to Gus's advice not to make the same mistake twice.  And given Breaking Bad's predilection for messages hidden in episode titles, we have to wonder whether our characters will be heading to Abiquiu anytime soon.
  • Hank is both determined to walk out of the hospital under his own power (he rakes Marie over the coals for installing a hospital bed in their house) and deeply shamed by the fact that he can't make the progress he expects in physical therapy.  He's hiding out, refusing to re-enter society until he can be the man he believes he should be.  And Marie's not helping with her chirpy fake optimism and her sloganeering ("pain is weakness leaving your body").
  • "Abiquiu" is bookended by family dinners: at the White house, where Walter Jr. jokes about getting an IROC or a Stang for his sixteenth birthday and Walter explains his power to put Holly to sleep by asserting "I'm a comforting presence," and at the Fring house, where Walter explains how the smell of paella spices takes Gus back to his childhood.  The two meals are even shot through windows in the same way — the first with three panes separating the participants, the second with two.
  • Jesse's employees abandon him: "Homey, I'm on step five!" Skinny Pete exclaims proudly, and Badger responds, "Deuce, yo, I'm catching up!"
  • Details to cherish: The Spanish-language version of Chicago's "Saturday in the Park" playing at the restaurant where Andrea, Brock, and Jesse eat; Brock's little smile when he finally returns Jesse's bump; the way Gus presents Walter the knife with a flourish then makes an elegant, minimal gesture when he instructs Walter to slice the garlic "very thin"; Walter's exaggerated "Oh darn it! No pencil!" as he pretends to take note of Walter Jr.'s many specific requirements for a car.
  • "My name is Brandon, and this is, I believe, Peter."
  • This is what we buy. — You.  This is what you buy."
  • "I once convinced a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it!"
  • Jesse drips water on the crumpled straw wrapper to make it expand in a caterpillar-like motion, which used to be one of my favorite restaurant pastimes as a kid.  "It's science and stuff makes it do that!"
  • "Walt's a scientist, scientists love lasers.  Plus, they've got bumper boats."

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