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Breaking Bad: "Shotgun"

Illustration for article titled iBreaking Bad/i: Shotgun
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After the season premiere, I wrote that one of the themes we were likely to see play out over the course of coming episodes was “your own worst enemy.” Consider this week Walter’s capitulation to that plotline. For an hour that starts with our protagonist on the move—acting decisively to save Jesse, believing that he may die in the attempt—the rest of the episode represents a complete reversal of his psychological position. By the end, his impotence combines with his pride in a stunning moment of drunken self-destruction.

It’s all part of the show’s relentless campaign to make us question what we want out of it. Are you into Heisenberg the badass? Here’s what he’s come to— outmaneuvered effortlessly by Gus, who pulls a disappearing act when Walter attempts to beard him in his fast food lair. I love the way the counter girl’s protests deny Walter any position in Gus’ empire, much less the partnership (or at least independent contractor) clout he believes he deserves: “This area is for employees only; I must ask you to leave immediately!” she insists when he bulls his way back to Fring’s empty office. Now he’s not even recognized as an employee, which is the role he’s been chafing under ever since Victor got sliced.

How about Pater White, family breadwinner? That role is looking pretty good when Skyler asks for reassurance about the future of the car wash scam, allowing Walter to be gently reassuring. It escalates to a romantic reunion when Skyler misinterprets Walter’s frantic last-words voicemail as a spontaneous expression of love. Even better, she invites him to move back in—purely as a show of unity for business purposes, of course. But he should know better when Skyler pointedly stays on top during their lovemaking. Pretty soon, he’s hearing from Walter Jr. that his move-in date has already been scheduled for Tuesday (“Tuesday, is it?” he mutters; “Huh … how about that”). And the sight of his son drinking his manly cup of coffee (“just black,” Junior orders) out of a Beneke mug seems to curdle his mood beyond repair.

We might expect Walter’s salvation to be Jesse, who has brought out the surrogate father in Walter and rescued him from terminal self-regard more than once. But that’s the cruelest misfire of all. First, Jesse doesn’t want to be saved. “We’re driving,” he answers Walter’s panicked cell-phone query. “Where?” Walter demands. “I don’t know—north?” Jesse guesses. “Where are you going?” Walter clarifies, seething. “Beats me,” Jesse shrugs, prompting Walter to demand that Jesse hand the phone back to Mike. Someone who can’t even be bothered to play damsel in distress— how frustrating is that? Then when Jesse does turn up at the very end of the cook, he’s been transformed from a dead-end kid to a player with a purpose. “I was out with Mike, helping make pickups,” he tells Walter, who is incredulous: “You? Guarded Mike?” “Two dudes tried to rob us, and I saved the stash,” Jesse asserts. “I took care of business, just like I’m taking care of business right now,” breaking up the ice for packaging and transport. “You wanna stand there dicking around or you want to suit up and get to work? … I have two jobs now.” The one person who owed his livelihood and life to Walter, the one whom Walter felt useful in protecting, has now leapfrogged over him in the organization. So much for Walter’s lonely martyr’s stand as the only professional in sight. Mike belts Walter to put him in his place, but when Jesse acts up, he gets promoted.

Let’s delve into Jesse’s new job as Mike’s collections partner, something many readers suspected might happen based on hints dropped about this season in interviews and on the unlikelihood that either Jesse or Mike would end up dead after their drive to the desert. It’s sheer delight to watch somebody new (and far more stoic, though just as cynical) deal with Jesse’s juvenalia. When Mike arrives back at the car after the second stop and finds Jesse ostentatiously standing guard, all cop-show stance and swagger, he’s amused: “You don’t need to do that,” he informs Jesse mildly. And Jesse, who has concluded he is being promoted to muscle, pleads, “If I’m out here in a guard-type capacity to watch over the money, that means I need like a gun, right?” “Nope,” Mike deadpans. Yet as the day wears on, even laconic Mike gets so annoyed at Jesse’s presumption that he explodes: “You are not the guy. You are not capable of being the guy. I had a guy, but now I don’t. You are not the guy.”

That’s our first confirmation that this long desert initiation isn’t Mike’s idea. And after the exciting drama at the last stop, when Jesse, thinking fast, smashes the would-be thieves’ car and high-tails it, leaves Mike to trudge back to civilization on foot, we see that this isn’t just on-the-job training for new professional responsibilities; it’s extreme makeover, meth edition. Jesse is getting a new self-image courtesy of a scheme cooked up by Gus. The immediate goal is to tie Jesse more tightly to the organization in order to prompt a clean-up of his risky off-hours lifestyle, to give him something to live for and someone else to be loyal to. But I suspect that Gus is also trying to cut the umbilical cord between Jesse and Walter, isolating Walter further and eliminating his ability to appeal to their partnership as a bargaining chip. Maybe when the security cameras were following Jesse around, they weren’t so much surveilling him as sizing him up for advancement. Score another one for Gus, who’s looked absolutely bulletproof so far this season, remaining invisible to Walter as Mike promised (“you’ll never see him again”) and carrying out this unlikely transformation of Jesse. “Just like you wanted, the kid’s a hero,” Mike reports, but he seems unconvinced. Not only wasn’t this his idea, but he doesn’t think it’s going to work.

And that takes us back to Walter and Jesse, lab partners, the last bit of identity the show intends to deny us via Walter’s ongoing humiliation. After dropping a barrel off the forklift, Walter screams at the security camera that he’s “done, finished—nothing happens until I get my partner back!” Prompting Gus’ new enforcer to show up, expertly retrieve the barrel with the forklift, and speak for the first time: “Where do you want it?” None of Walter’s power plays have gained the slightest traction. Even in a situation where he was sure springing into action would get results, he’s been pushed back on his heels without ceremony and without even being able to confront his opponent.

Hence his terrifying performance at Marie and Hank’s dinner table, where everyone is talking around him about the car wash and whether calling him “Nick the Greek” is a good idea since he’s in recovery and where he just downs glass after glass of wine, visibly frustrated at all the bullshit flying across the table. When Walter Jr. presses Hank for more info on “the crazy singing guy” (Skyler: “Sounds like an Encyclopedia Brown story”), the pressure on Walter builds to a boiling point. “He was an eccentric, a real character,” Hank muses, sounding like he’s built up quite an affection for Gale from his file.  “He was a meth chef, we’re talking five stars… a genius, plain and simple … If he applied that big brain of his to something good, who knows what he could have done?” And that’s when Walter can’t take any more of being put in a corner and being denied his due. “From what I saw on paper—genius? Not so much,” he asserts with boozy cockiness. “There was no reasoning, no deduction in those pages.” Claiming the authority of a high school teacher who’s seen a lot of plagiarized homework, Walter posits that “all that brilliance looks like nothing more than rote copying—probably of someone else’s work. … Maybe he’s still out there.”

And just like that, Hank has something to live for. Earlier when he declined to help his DEA colleague Tim work on the Gale case to find the shooter and possible further drug connections, he said, “Finding this guy Heisenberg dead like this—it kinda feels like closure to me … I’m done.” But watching Tim pack up Gale’s file, Hank looked stricken. Skyler told Walter in post-coital bliss that their visits are the only time Hank comes out of his room. No more. Now, Hank is at the kitchen table, cordially accepting a cup of coffee from his wife, poring over the file and spotting the first crack in the Gustavo Fring fortress—a Los Pollos Hermanos wrapper in a vegan’s house. Walter was home free but can’t stop himself from handing Hank the rope to hang him high.

Stray observations:

  • For a moment there in the car, careening through the streets of Albuquerque, Walter gets a chance to reclaim his “doing it all for my family” storyline when he calls Saul to insist that Skyler get all the money stuffed in a trash bag if he doesn’t make it back.
  • Those of you who hate Marie’s purple house found plenty to loathe in that final sequence, right down to the purple Houdini corkscrew Walter uses to pop open the second bottle.
  • Who wouldn’t love Gale with that little flip animation drawn into the corners of his notebook? “He’s like Scarface crossed with Mr. Rogers,” Hank chuckles. In the photos Hank later flips through, we also discover he was into hookah.
  • Hank gives Tim the only two names he has connected to the blue meth: Badger and Jesse. “Do you see Jesse as the shooter?” Tim asks. “That would surprise me,” Hank responds.
  • Continuing the theme of Jesse-the-savvy-criminal from last week, when Jesse deduced that Mike wasn’t about to off the moneybag thief because he’d bothered to blindfold him, Jesse gives Mike a rundown of how the dead-drop system they’re traveling is the same as the one he used when he ran a crew, just with more cheese. Also at one point in the fast-motion montage of his boredom, Jesse makes his seatbelt into a blindfold for himself.
  • Are Skyler’s professions of hesitation just a ploy to let Walter feel more integral to the family business? After signing the papers, she asks Walter how he feels, and he is so thrown he can only turn the question back on her: “Well… um… how do you feel?” He doesn’t like just being along for the ride but doesn’t know how to take the reins, either. Yet he retains enough duplicity to answer noncommittally when Skyler says they can’t have any more secrets: “I’m all for that.”
  • Walter’s watch alarm is quite the taskmaster. Beepbeepbeep, off to sign the car wash papers. Beepbeepbeep, off to finish the cook.
  • Marie thinks that Holly should be the mascot for the car wash, “just like the Gerber baby.” That would certainly set a new standard for squicky chutzpah in the drug biz.
  • Gus, ever the solicitous boss: “I will, of course, reimburse you for the damage to your vehicle.”
  • Notary with the car wash papers: “You having second thoughts?” Skyler: “Every day.”
  • Yes, I would like to try Los Pollos Hermanos’ breakfast chicken chalupa combo meal.
  • “I just wanted to say that I was thinking about you and the kids, and I love you.”

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