"You think I have some overweening pride that clouds my judgment?" Walter sneers at Gustavo Fring tonight, in a scene that Cranston brought to his appearance on The Daily Show a few weeks back. "No. I simply respect the chemistry. Chemistry must be respected."
That speech is at the center of tonight's episode, but what begins and ends the hour belies it in every word. Remember back when Walter gave Jesse his life savings to buy an RV that they could use for a meth operation? He did it because he had nothing to lose, and because he was sure he could rescue his beloved chemistry from these money-grubbing amateurs and their chili-adulterated product. He could tell himself then that he was simply respecting the chemistry. But Fring's expensive, gleaming bribe to his chemist identity isn't quite enough to pull Walter back into the business, is it? Luckily Fring has another card to play: the manhood card. Pure pride. And there's Walter at the end of the episode executing a brutal power play to wrest his domain back from Jesse lock, stock and barrel. He can't be the cook anymore. He has to be the boss. Respect, sure, but not for chemistry. He wants the respect of these new colleagues, employees, rivals — of this market. One wonders if chemistry will take an interest in getting back a little for itself.
"Mas" is a clever, touching, and often jaw-dropping turning point for Season 3. The title alone clues us in that we are going through the door that "No Mas" had shut — back into the Heisenberg business. But it's also about waking up to what you want, and the narrow window of opportunity that there is to get it. Take Skyler, who finds that there's something she loves a bit too much about being Ted Beneke's mistress: the heated floor in his master bathroom. That's the "mas" that she never expected to crave in this spite-driven affair. She knows there's no future for her and Ted, no matter how often he drops hints about wanting one (asking her to leave a few things at his house, for example). But could she have the nice things that he has? Well, there's that big duffel bag of money in the baby's room. Before you know it she's at the divorce attorney's office for some very expensive quasi-therapy about her conflicted desires. ("Are you asking my permission to spend this money?" the attorney asks her incredulously.)
And there's the "mas" that Hank sees slipping away from him because of his anxiety reactions to the El Paso job. He has to pretend there's more to his decision (the blue meth is back, a break in the Heisenberg case is within his grasp) and that there's more to Marie's concern about his well-being (she just wants a townhouse in Georgetown and is angry he isn't moving up the DEA ladder). But the truth is that Hank's always seen himself as a big man on campus. Look at the way he runs a meeting — with all the swagger and bluster of a TV police lieutenant. A little bit of that makes its way, painfully, into Hank's half-hearted and belated participation in his partner Steve's going-away party when Steve accepts his place in El Paso. And staying put is a huge blow to Hank's pride. There's only one way out, and that's to actually bust open the case he's using as an excuse to stay put. When he finally sees the evidence that Jesse is connected to the stolen RV that is now a lab making blue meth, it's not a triumphant moment. There's more to this case than he bargained for. His pride is going to run headlong into his family responsibilities.
That's a conflict that Walter doesn't seem to be feeling right now. Sure, Fring says the right things about him needing to provide for his family; that's the excuse Walter could use for Season 1. But now that he's conquered Skyler and re-entered his house as the conquering hero, he doesn't need that validation anymore. Skyler may have started sleeping with Ted to hurt Walter, but her continuation of the affair just cedes the family ground to Walter without a fight. Now she's the one who escapes whenever she can, even slipping out of the room when Walter assumes responsibility for comforting the baby. Skyler's in total surrender mode. And Walter, that devious son of a bitch, knows instinctively how to knife her in the back while she's walking away. Just when she's accepting that he's not going anywhere and starts thinking about how to make the most of this new reality — he turns the tables. What a moment, when Skyler sees the empty nursery, all of Walter's things gone, the divorce papers signed. Exactly what she has been insisting loudly that she wants, and exactly what she just now started to no longer want at all.
So what is the "mas" that our primary antagonists, Jesse and Walter, now are inviting into their newly minted rivalry? After Walter pockets the business and forces Saul to his whiny little five-percent knees ("It's the nature of the business, you go with a winner," he shrugs when Jesse protests that Saul is his lawyer), Jesse heaves a chunk of concrete at Walter's windshield — then looks stricken at the sight of the radiating cracks, exactly like the ones inflicted by the debris of Wayfarer 515 on the White's other car. He has nothing to lose, but there's still a part of him that rebels at being the bad guy. Meanwhile Skyler protests to the lawyer "I didn't marry a criminal," only to hear "Well, you're married to one now." One who seems to be over his identity confusion and ready to crank up the secret lab Fring is hiding under his laundry like a Bond villain's grandiose lair. At least Jesse knows who he's dealing with. Walter still doesn't know the Cousins are out there. Will he be willing to embrace the role of drug kingpin to their faces?
- I don't expect to see a niftier bit of television exposition and reveal than that flashback showing how Jesse really got the RV, and how Hank finds out he has it. RIP Combo.
- Mark down the final image of powerless Walter, at least for the time being: Emerging from the baby's closet with the child-sized folding chair in which he was perched stuck to his ass.
- The old couple in their underwear that Hank peers in on during his ill-advised stakeout of the RV park are credited as Ma and Pa Kettle.
- Marie makes a little ritual out of lining up Splenda packets on the counter and one by one pouring them into her coffee.
- Twice the episode cuts from Skyler's bare feet on Ted's heated bathroom floor to her hands setting the table. The second time she puts a towel under her feet the better to resist the floor's temptation, and doesn't hesitate to set Walter's place.
- I thought shooting through the window in order to have a big black bar separate Walter from his family while they eat dinner was a bit on the nose. But it paid off beautifully when Walter bridged the gap by picking up the baby, only to find himself alone.
- Saul gets Xanax from his Vietnamese "chiropractor": "She adjusts you to completion."
- That is one ugly DEA-themed cake. Naturally it must be sliced right through the American flag.