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Breaking Bad: "Sunset"

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: "Sunset"
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Among the many reasons to treasure Breaking Bad, week after week, is the show’s remarkable ability to defy convention and the expectations that convention brings.  After a lifetime of watching television, we settle so easily into the rhythms of the hour-long drama.  We anticipate what’s coming based on the clues from the season so far, and we expect them to be revealed with a certain decorous pace.  This season Breaking Bad has been masterful in seeding its episodes with portents of things to come, then bringing them into the plot at completely unexpected times.  It’s such a thrilling shock to find ourselves already thrust into a Walter-Jesse partnership of necessity, just a week after they’d been arrayed against one another, as if someone decided to play an endgame just a few moves into the match.  And even better, the RV showdown, with its horrific prospect of Hank discovering Walter’s connection to the blue meth, happens with more than a quarter of the episode still to go.  How amazing is it to look at your watch and realize: This isn’t the climax of the episode.  This isn’t a cliffhanger.  The last page of the script isn’t going to rescue us.  We’re going to be here awhile.

Just in case we’ve forgotten that the Cousins are cold-blooded killers, a policeman who checks in on a woman living out in the desert gets hacked to death by that shiny axe in the cold open.  And the pan of the interior of her place, which the Cousins have turned into a shrine to Santa Muerte, remind us again that they’re after Walter White — the guy in the drawing.  But “Sunset” is determined not to leave us anywhere in the vicinity of where we started.  In a brilliant twist with deep reverberations for the show’s characters and themes, the episode brings the Hank Schrader subplot all the way into the mainstream with Gus Fring’s final speech.  Gus saves his new employee by turning the Cousins’ quest for vengeance toward his brother-in-law.  Do we want Walter spared at that price?  Does Walter?


Almost certainly not.  This is a man who is still far enough away from a thorough criminal identity that he takes off to save the rolling meth lab on Jesse’s behalf, even though he doesn’t need either of them anymore.  Now he might be thinking about keeping evidence of his cookery out of the hands of the DEA, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t say so to Jesse at some point.  But in the moment, there’s no doubt in my mind that he just can’t bear to sit idly by in his new model apartment and see Jesse go down.  He loves that RV, too, doesn’t he?  When he gets into it after it’s been transported to the wrecking yard, he seems to be looking for something at first — or maybe just making sure he’s not leaving something behind.  But his examination quickly turns into a nostalgic interlude where he runs his hands over the equipment and pats that lawn chair, remembering the good (and not so good) times.  Fring’s secret lair is undeniably awesome, but Walter has affection — maybe too much for his own good — for his first meth lab.

And I think we’re meant not to be too sure about Fring’s supervillain hideout, either — especially about Gale, the henchman he provides for Heisenberg.  Waxing eloquent about his love for chemistry, decrying the empty hoop-jumping of academia, then casually asking about Walter’s secret methods … this guy’s gotta be a Fring plant, sent to play on those character traits of Walter’s that Fring seems to know so well.  But boy, Gale does it well, from his perfect coffee-brewing apparatus to his modesty (giving credit to the grind of the beans) to his dramatic recitation of Whitman’s “When I heard the learn’d astronomer.”  Walt’s not near enough of a hard case yet to be properly suspicious of his new, custom-made, perfected Jesse.

There’s the other astounding accomplishment of this episode.  How many characters can it use to break my heart?  Tonight Jesse and Hank, along with Walter, tore at my emotions.  Jesse in the papasan chair, unselfconsciously adopting the pose of the drug kingpin for his minions Skinny and Badger, but far too personally invested in proving himself.  “We sell it safe, we sell it smart, we don’t get greedy like before,” he dictates.  But his anger and desperation erupt all too quickly, betraying his real motivation — not business, but a last ditch self-construction project.  And Hank rushing to the hospital, terrified that Marie is dying — a terrible, terrible thing to do to a person — then acquiring a brand new reason to take this case personally when he finds out he’s been tricked.  That’s followed by the kicker of Fring’s masterful diversionary tactic to keep the Cousins out of Walter’s way for the next three months: sending them after Hank.  He escaped the cartel task force by giving up El Paso; now El Paso has come to him, uninvited, and far more dangerous than he can know.

Now Jesse’s lab is gone.  What choices does he have?  How long can he and Walter (if they can bridge their differences) keep Hank at bay?  How long can Hank elude the Cousins, especially since he doesn’t know they’re after him?  And will Fring exhibit any cracks in his iron control over the New Mexico meth trade? There’s only thing we can be pretty sure of — the answers to those questions won’t come at the time or in the way that we expect them.


Stray observations:

- "Name one thing in this world that is not negotiable," Walter challenges the real estate agent who balks at letting him rent the model apartment.  Which he seems to like mostly for the big painting of the desert mountain in the living room.


- Do you believe Jesse when he tells his posse "I can cook and I can watch"?  Is his sobriety solid?

- "It's a small world, Albuquerque," Hank muses as he watches Jesse send Badger and Skinny off on their errands.


- Walter really gets excited about his chance to take Walter Jr. to school, cutting the crusts off that sandwich without a shred of remorse and writing "Walt" on the paper bag with flair. "I am the man that I am, and this just is what it is," he tells Walter Jr.  "Call me crazy, but I'm actually feeling really good about the future."

- Neil Describes Himself: "I'm definitely a libertarian." "Yes, I am a nerd."

- Good to hear Jesse say "Yo!" again.

- Walter calls Saul to get rid of the RV, but Saul offers neither a "secure line" nor any suggestions on how to make something "RV-sized" disappear: "Did you not plan for this contingency? The starship Enterprise had a self-destruct button!"


- In the category of Almost Too Tense To Watch: Walter holds the door closed while Hank tries to pry it open with a tire iron, and pinpoints of light appear on Walter's torso when Hank rips the duct tape off the bullet holes.   In the category of Right Man For The Job: The guy who owns the wrecking yard and moonlights as a jailhouse lawyer.  Jesse follows his lead perfectly: "This is my domicile and I will not be harassed — bitch!"  "Hm, there's somebody in there," Wrecking Yard guy observes philosophically.

- "This is the best coffee I've ever tasted … why are we making meth?"

- "May his death satisfy you."


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