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Breaking Bad: "Kafkaesque"

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: "Kafkaesque"
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Everybody has a plan this week.  Except Walter.  Not to say that he's ignorant of his surroundings.  When he correctly describes Gus's play in saving him and provoking a shootout with Hank as the target, it's one of his most perceptive moments of the season.  But his knowledge does not give him power.  He's immediately put in the position of reacting to Gus's proposal for an indefinite arrangement.  In response to his unexpected passivity, he briefly gives up control of his car and allows himself to drift toward a head-on collision.  And in a brilliantly sustained scene at the episode's conclusion, Walter becomes the protagonist in Skyler's new, fictional version of his life.  As he listens to her weave her tale, he leans forward and his mouth drops open, entranced.  He can't wait to find out who she's making him out to be.

But all around him, people are taking action — and taking advantage of his relative apathy to hatch their own schemes.  Jesse is dissatisfied with being a mere employee.  He tells a poignant story at his NA group about the one time he felt competent, making a beautiful box in shop class because his teacher, Mr. Pike, pushed him to think about what he could do if he really tried.  The lesson his group leader wants him to get out of this is that he could take some classes and start working with wood again, something that fulfills him, rather than suffering at the "laundromat" where "my boss is a dick" and the boss above him is not only a "super-dick" but too elite to walk amongst the peons.  But Jesse decides the story means that he needs to take control of his life and make something again — not meth, but the organization to sell it.  He pins his dissatisfaction on being a wage slave, alienated from his labor. Marx would easily recognize his solution as false consciousness: If he were working at managing rather than laboring in the factory, he wouldn't be alienated anymore.  So he aspires to taking the job of those who oppress him, becoming the oppressor in his turn.  He already has the tools: the excess weight he's noticed in the bins of blue meth coming out of Walt's lab, product no one will miss if he reports it incorrectly and skims a small cut.  And in a brilliant display of irony, he launches his guerrilla competitor to the Fring meth empire at his NA group, having Badger and Skinny Pete enact a little reverse-psychology PR playlet about how difficult it's going to be to resist relapsing now that the blue stuff, the kind that's "like lighting your whole head on fire," is back on the streets.


Gus is taking action. He's got what Walter and Jesse estimate to be $96 million dollars worth of meth (wholesale over the three-month contract period) rolling out of the lab, submerged in buckets of Los Pollos Hermanos frying batter with its blend of authentic Mexican herbs and spices.  (Jesse protests that "that's messed up, fairness-wise" and Walter, missing the point, responds "You're a millionaire, and you're complaining.")  Far from being intimidated by Walter's accurate appraisal of his relationship with the cousins, Gus offers, without batting an eye, to extend the contract indefinitely for $15 million a year.  Ted Beneke's taking action.  He comes by Skyler's house while Marie is there for a little downtime and presses Skyler on their relationship.  "You're divorced, I'm divorced," he points out.  Why do they have to keep their affair a secret any longer?  (Although since the shooting, he hasn't seen Skyler.  From his point of view it's a temporary suspension because of emergency, but from Skyler's point of view, is there an affair any longer?)

Saul is taking action.  He calls Jesse to a meeting at a nail salon he proposes Jesse buy for $312,000 to launder the meth profits, and gives him a cautionary tongue-lashing about the way the IRS got Capone for tax evasion.  (What Jesse hears is that being a part of organized crime means paying taxes, which makes no sense because "I'm a criminal," and that he's still paying Saul 17% because only Walter got the 5% deal — "privileges of seniority.")  Marie is taking action, albeit in an hysterical, wronged-wife-of-a-hero kind of way.  She's furious that her insurance will only pay for four physical therapy sessions a week for Hank's lower-body rehabilitation, and plans to take her shaming campaign to the newspapers and Nightline (if Nightline still exists).

And Skyler is taking action.  She has intuited what Saul knows professionally: that money is worthless if you can't use it to do what you want, like keep Marie from banging her head against the DEA's insurance company's policies.  And further, she knows that Walter has a moral obligation to help, since "something tells me Hank is here because of you, and I'm not forgetting that."  So she lies — elaborately, dramatically — about where Walter got the money she's now offering to Marie to pay Hank's medical bills.  He developed a gambling system after his diagnosis, she says.  Before it started working, he lost a lot of money, enough to send him into that fugue state one time, before he put in enough to gain a, whaddyacallit, "statistical edge, right?" And then he turned from casinos, where you have to pay taxes on your winnings, to "illegal backroom games."  Marie is horrified and fascinated by what she's hearing; at one point when Skylar describes the $14,000 loss, she turns on Walter: "How could you do that to her, Walt?" she demands, and Walter, suddenly the focus of attention, collapses back into his chair.  This version of himself almost as guilty as the real version.  Neither can honestly answer Skyler's question from earlier in the episode — "Are we safe?" — as Walter does ("absolutely").  There may not be murderous cartel enforcers coming after him as a problem gambler, but he would be likely to make some violent enemies winning millions in illegal games.

That's the problem with all the plans being made by all the planners in "Kafkaesque."  They're short-term stopgaps.  They scratch the immediate itch, but they're unsustainable.  Walter can't cook meth for Gus indefinitely — and I doubt Gus expects him to.  Jesse can't carve out a piece of the action without making an enemy of his current unseen employer, a man who just cut the entire Mexican operation off at the knees.  Skyler's story can't hold up past her immediate extraction of promises from Marie not to tell anyone, and especially not Hank.  Only Walter's momentary lapse into suicidal lethargy seems likely to work as a long-term strategy for meeting his professed aim: to give security to his family.  That's a sad commentary on the direction everyone is headed, namely into endless spirals of battering their heads against the structures they're trying to escape. "That's messed up," Jesse observes cogently, plagiarizing his NA group leader without a trace of irony.  "That's Kafkaesque."


Stray observations:

  • Beautiful and imaginative cold open this week, with the fried chicken from the Los Pollos Hermanos commercial transforming into a shower of blue meth.  (But do they fry the chicken after cooking it on a rotisserie?  Something amiss there.)
  • Love the bureaucratic (and Apartment-esque!) "-wise" speak that recurs at least twice in the episode: Jesse observing the inequity of his and Walter's compensation "fairness-wise," and the doctor's weak justification of the recommended rehabilitation treatment to Marie: "Plan-wise, four sessions a week is fairly typical, and the therapists in your network are mostly fine."
  • Skyler and Marie, exclaiming over the contents of Ted Beneke's gift basket, talk it up at first to raise Hank's spirits, and then later, to show Ted his gift was appreciated: "Cheese sticks!"
  • Astounding staging for Skyler's gambling speech, with her back to the camera for long takes while Marie listens in dawning horror and Walt leans forward to find out what comes next, frequently nodding or shaking his head as he adopts the story as his own.
  • "Darth Vader had responsibilities.  He was responsible for the Death Star."
  • "What's more important than money?"
  • "He read books and he did a whole lot of research and he came up with this system."
  • "I learned from the best."

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