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Breaking Bad: "Phoenix"

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I wasn't discouraged by last week's merely-good episode.  This whole season, whenever the pawns needed to be moved into place for some crisis, Breaking Bad has done so with panache, flair, and an eye for unexpected thematic resonances.  Last week was a rare exception.  Nevertheless, you can also take it to the bank that when the board is being set up for a major gambit, the payoff is going to be mindblowing.  And friends, this week is the payoff.  And it is perhaps the single best episode to date in one of the best shows television has ever produced.

Let me just highlight three major themes.  As much of the rest of the brilliance as I can, I'll stick in the observations at the bottom of the post.


Walter The Liar.  Remember earlier this season when we were all cringing at Walter's overkill explaining the second cell phone to Skylar?  It's a new day, and Walter now lies as easily as breathing.  Pulling thirty pounds of meth out of the family truckster at a scary abandoned motel, he blithely pretends to be stuck in traffic while being informed of the birth of his daughter.  At home he hides $1.2 million dollars in fat stacks of cash behind the insulation in the walls of an unfinished laundry room — a frighteningly insecure location, rendered safe as houses by Walter's seeming lack of concern that his family could ever find out, perhaps born of his apparent success in weaseling his way out of every rough spot to date.  So accustomed has he become to lying that he tells Skylar he can't find newborn-size diapers ("what if we just went up a size?") so he can sit at a bar and drink beer.

Walter The Breadwinner. Now we're starting to get a glimpse of how Mr. Home Improvement and Mr. Meth Kingpin — the two sides of Walter that collided in the home warehouse a few weeks back — are affecting each other.  Walter doesn't just need to provide for his family; he needs to get credit for it.  To that end he suggests an expensive sonar alarm for the pool and chafes upon learning that Skylar plans to go back to work and Walt Jr. plans to get a job.  He demands that Walt Jr. take down the donation-collection site savewalterwhite.com (which redirects to the AMC site, just to save you a click).  And he rejects Saul's common-sense attempts to explain the windfall to his family (e.g., "Many's the happy memory of Uncle Murray bouncing me on his knee; we lost track of the old pervert years ago, but now …") simply because he earned that money and he doesn't want anybody else getting the glory.  He tries to shame Jesse, going along with Jane's blackmail scheme, by appealing to his patriarchal pride: "Nice job wearing the pants."  And even though his daughter is only days old and has no ability to form memories much less understand symbolic exchange through currency, I was appalled when Walter lifted the insulation and bragged to her, "Daddy did that for you."  After all, as the lullaby states, the way you show your love for your children is by buying them mockingbirds, diamond rings, etc.  Walter's built himself up from a high school chemistry teacher, part-time car washer, and full-time disappointment into a successful millionaire businessman.  But it chafes at him that he can't associate his magnificent accomplishment with his name.


Walter The Family Man.  Tucking sweet little Holly (7 lbs. 3 oz.) into her bassinet, he arranges a towel to prop her up on her side.  ("Hammacher Schlemmer makes a proper one of those … it's hypoallergenic," frets busybody Marie, who has no confidence in Walter's improvisational abilities.  Little does she know.)  But he's lost Jesse, the only person who knows his deepest secrets, to the hypnotic spell and heroin skills of Jane.  "I've got this nephew … you can't infantalize them, you can't live your life for them, but there's that frustration … what do you do with someone like that?" he confides to the guy on the next barstool over.  "Family.  You can't give up on them, ever.  What else is there?" replies Jane's father, fresh from his own showdown with a daughter who promised him, tears in her eyes, that she'd go to rehab tomorrow, and then tells Jesse they need to extort the money from Walter so they can skip town and live a romantic life on the road.  ("Is New Zealand part of Australia?" Jesse asks hopefully.  "You can paint castles and shit, and I'll be a bush pilot.")

Q's words reach Walter.  But he's not moved to reconnect with his actual family.  Nope, he goes to reconcile with his meth son, Jesse, and finds him passed out and high as a kite, spooned with Jane.  What happens next represents a new, shocking turning point in Walter's life of crime.  He shakes Jane loose while trying to wake up Jesse, and lying on her back, she starts to vomit.  Instinctively he rushes to the other side of the bed — and stops short of reaching for her to turn her over.  Seconds pass as she gurgles and he does nothing.  And then she stops.  Dead.


Who knows if the Albuquerque PD will agree, but that's cold-blooded murder, Walter.  Not a drug dealer who would have killed you if he could; a girl who posed a threat only to your Type A neuroses and your pocketbook.  A blackmailer, sure, but someone your surrogate son cared about.  A father's daughter.  You killed her in a snap-judgment attempt to save Jesse by playing God.  Do you really believe you have that much control over your life and everyone else's all around you?

That's one body bag sooner than any of us guessed.  Whom will Walter's frantic machinations kill next week, when presumably everything goes kerblooie?


Grade: A

Stray observations:

- Twinned reveals: Walter turns around with his new daughter in his arms, and Ted is behind him.  Walter resists Jane's grab for the money, and Jesse comes out from behind her.  Who's in the foreground, and who's in the background — changing places like a lamp and two faces.


- Jesse wounds Walter by running down his classroom: "Why don't you have computers and shit?  It's the twentieth century!"  So Walter wounds Jesse by running down Jane, calling her "your little junkie girlfriend."

- The minute Walter makes the mental shift to viewing Jesse as family, Jesse is persuaded to make the mental shift to exchange Walter for Jane: "He's my partner!" Jesse protests.  "I'm your partner," Jane corrects him.


- Even Saul is impressed by savewalterwhite.com: "Well, look at that … it's got PayPal and everything."  (That whole scene is a bucket of crispy Saul, muy caliente: "Haven't you ever seen White Heat?  Maybe you need a moll more than you need a wife who can't share your secrets." "However — stay with me — zombies.")

- Walter's beer of choice, Fat Tire on draft, happens to be Noel Murray's favorite tipple as well.


- "Theoretically they can separate the hydrogen from the oxygen and turn that into fuel for manned spaceflights, thereby turning Mars into a giant gas station."

- "Whatcha doin' … learning about elephants?"

- And the moral of the whole series, spoken by Jane seconds after lying to her father's face: "I just think if we had enough money …"


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