Roll with the changes, or try to make some changes yourself? That’s the question facing all our major characters in the aftermath of the explosive, bloody, and entirely unstable premiere last week. By the end of “Thirty-Eight Snub” almost nothing has happened, yet in a testament to the coiling tension of this show, that sixty minutes of nothing puts us through the wringer. We find out what coping mechanism everyone is going to be attempting for their personal new normal, and in each case, it’s abundantly clear that the attempt will fail — that something will have to give, throwing the balance out of whack and starting a fresh round of domino-tumbling.
Let’s start with the supporting characters and work our way to the top, moving from frustrated passivity to foiled activity. I’m really excited to see what the Hank and Marie storyline will offer over the next few weeks; their situation was briefly teased in the premiere, but this week we see the cold, cold depths of their separate despair. Hank is staying up to all hours examining his minerals under a lighted magnifying glass, and when Marie raises her side of the adjustable bed (with an agonizingly slow grinding whirr) to find out if he’s planning to sleep, he pointedly mentions that “there are four bedrooms in the house.” The next day, after struggling to make it down the hall and earning the enthusiastic praise of his physical therapist, Hank is as exhilarated as his cheering section — a show of emotion from him that relieved me, since last week had me wondering if he cared at all whether he lived or died. “See you next week?” the therapist asks; “Damn straight!” Hank confirms. But after giving the man a huge high five, he almost leaves Marie hanging, only clasping her hand reluctantly due to the therapist’s presence, it seems. Certainly he resents being dependent on her care, and despises her attempts at positivity. Whether those emotions have already curdled into active hatred is still to be determined.
Marie, on the other hand, can’t find the magic formula that will make Hank respond to her the way he does to the therapist — she’s saying the same things, she feels, but for some reason gets the opposite reaction. In desperation she tries to spend some more of Skyler’s money to get the therapist to move in and work with Hank full-time, and heartbreakingly, he sees through her plea, gently telling her he’ll be back at their next scheduled session. Later, Marie almost cracks while stacking up Hank’s latest shipment of rocks, er, minerals, as Hank yells from the bedroom for her to inspect every box for damage: “Those delivery jagoffs, I’m tellin’ ya — I’m not gonna get assraped by those bastards!” Whether she offers encouragement, anger, or simply her presence, Hank gives her back nothing but contempt, and she appears to be at the end of her rope.
There was much discussion last week of what Jesse’s unblinking gaze at Gus’s atrocity, and hearty appetite at Denny’s afterwards, meant for his mental state. Tonight we know: Jesse is distracting himself with drugs, parties, music, and companions — anything to avoid the reality of his job and circumstances. Last season he had a fingerhold on a way out, but after shooting Gale and watching Victor die for it, he has lost all hope. When Andrea, the lover he met in rehab then decided to use to jumpstart his skimmed meth business (before he found out she has a little boy and that her younger brother was the kid who killed Combo), comes by to ask if he’s the source of the stack of cash she found in her mail, he confirms the gulf between them: “Use it to get you and Brock out of that shithole of a neighborhood … or you can spend it on glass and I’d have no way of stopping you … but I gotta believe you won’t do that.” He’s pushing her away from the brink while sliding back to the bottom himself. But eventually Badger and Skinny Pete go home to get some sleep and tend to other necessities (Badger: “I think I’ve, like, got this cat, I think I’m supposed to feed it”); Brock waves insistently at Jesse from the car (and he waves back — there’s a bond he can’t ignore); and Jesse’s left alone with his demons.
Both Skyler and Walter, however, are ready to get busy getting something done. Must be a White family trait, although they couldn’t be on more different tracks. Skyler can’t get Walter on the phone to talk about the car wash deal (much like Saul freaking out last week when she says “meth lab,” Walter goes ballistic when Skyler utters the syllables “car wash”), so she packs up adorable Holly and stakes out the business to get the intel she needs. Striding confidently into Bogdan’s office, she announces her intention to buy and asks him for a figure. He’s unimpressed; thirty years it took him to build the business, and she doesn’t look like she’s willing to scrub on her hands and knees. $10 million. “Let’s try $879,000,” she counteroffers, showing him her exhaustive research into his entire cash flow and infrastructure, with a $50,000 bump to avoid insulting him. “$20 million,” he responds. Business, research, logic, profit — he could care less, because he’s still steamed about Walter quitting without notice, breaking his air fresheners, cursing, and grabbing himself seven months ago, not to mention “sending his woman” to do the deal today. So much for Skyler’s methodical accountancy approach. Having all your ducks in a row doesn’t mean that they’ll fall willingly when you start firing.
And then there’s Walter. From the perfectly-constructed playlet of the cold open to the cold-as-ice comeuppance of Mike the Cleaner’s favorite barroom floor, “Thirty-Eight Snub” is a machine calibrated precisely to demolish his delusion that he has any clever moves left to make, that there’s any control of the situation for him to salvage. Just listen to the difference in the way the trio of the gun dealer, Mike the Cleaner, and Walter use their words. Lawson, the gun guy, speaks in Tarantino-esque stylized rhetoric (speaking of New Mexico’s generous right of self-defense: “Some call it a moral right, I do include myself within that class … If you’re not a convicted felon, you might be best advised to bear your arms within the confines of the law”), but conveys ringing and plain truths under those elevated phrases. Mike is a man of few words, and uses them to try to keep himself from having to take the trouble to resort to violence, although the universe never seems to cooperate. Nobody listens to his blunt advice, least of all Walter, to whom he pleads: “You won — you got the job; do yourself a favor and learn to take yes for an answer.” So he heaves a heavy sigh, rolls his eyes, and delivers a fist to the eye socket and a few kicks to the midsection.
Walter, on the other hands, uses words for anything but straightforward communication. He dissembles, schemes, cajoles, gets defensive, and of course, tries to convince himself. “It’s for defense,” he distractedly reassures Lawson, then, as if still trying the concept on for size, mutters “… defense …” again to himself before committing to this misbegotten enterprise: “I’ll take it.” And then he sticks to that bit of rationalization when trying to bring Mike into his poorly-conceived mutiny: “I feel like I need to explain myself … everything I did, I did out of loyalty to my partner and then later, of course, purely out of self-defense.” Walt is forever explaining himself to people who don’t care about his motives, or at least asserting that he needs to; witness his officious demand to Mike that he be brought into Gus’s presence (“Because the way we left things, I would like a chance to clear the air”) which is so deftly swatted away by Mike’s realism (“Walter, you’re never gonna see him again”). He still believes that if he makes the right argument, he can change the way everyone around him perceives their reality and bring them into his universe. “Makes a man wonder exactly where he stands,” he muses to Mike regarding Victor’s show murder. “You and I, we’re in the same boat — if it happened to Victor, it could happen to you … Get me in a room with him — and I’ll do the rest.”
He’s proposing to free Mike from Gus’s tyranny. But he’s made a wrong assumption — that Mike wants to be free. Mike isn’t out to find a better deal. He just wants to do his job. And the idiots he has to work with keep making him have to do it the hard way.
- As directed by Michelle MacLaren, this is an uncommonly stylish episode visually, full of unusual angles (my favorite is the row of .38 shells on Walter’s counter leading to his lunch bag) and extended expressionistic montages (like Jesse’s three-day house party, punctuated by the Roomba-POV shot negotiating the floor littered with passed-out guests). There are too many nifty choices to mention, but I’ll highlight just two more: the extreme closeup of the business end of Walter’s gun as he practices drawing from a seated position and squeezing off five shots — clickclickclickclickclick — and the chaotic jerks from Walter’s point of view as Mike decks him.
- Speaking of that sitting draw, Walter’s first attempt gives Lawson pause. “General rule, you don’t wanna cross-draw, not unless you’re gonna be sittin’,” he advises. “Either way you’re gonna wanna practice your draw. A lot.”
- Look at what Breaking Bad can do to us now that we’ve hung on for this much of the crazy ride. When Walt gets that gun out of his locker, when the footsteps ring out on the catwalk, when he unzips his jacket and gets ready to fire — and then later when he puts on the porkpie hat and starts marching across the huge empty expanse of street to Gus’s house — we can’t be sure Gus isn’t about to get shot. Anything really could happen; that’s the dynamic the show has established, and what great use has been made of it as this season opens.
- The main topic of conversation during Jesse, Badger, and Skinny Pete’s coke binge is zombie-related pop culture. To Badger’s insistence that Nazi zombies are the baddest zombies of all, Skinny Pete retorts, “Zombies are dead. What difference does it make what their job was when they were living?” Certainly the zombie reference is to Jesse, who considers himself a dead man still walking around (and a sly plug for AMC's The Walking Dead), but it may come back later in the season in another form — I wouldn’t be surprised.
- And speaking of details that might turn out to be significant later on, early speculation that Hank is buying into his crystals’ healing properties is almost certainly wrong. The meaning of his mineral obsession is still to be discovered, I think, beyond the obvious linkages between crystals and those plastic tubs full of blue shards that our heroes are producing on a daily basis.
- Blue corundum is the mineral Hank is examining when Marie bugs him at 2 am. Sapphires are the gem quality version of this mineral; it’s the second hardest mineral after diamonds.
- Nice bit of retconning when Jesse and his friends discuss why the pizza doesn’t come sliced. Not only does it save money (“they don’t cut the pizza and they pass the savings on to you”), and not only is it “democratic” to let the customer choose his or her own slice size and pattern, but it also explains how that ludicrously large pizza from the same restaurant (Venezia’s) ended up as an unbroken whole on top of the White garage roof in “Caballo Sin Nombre” last season.
- Jesse is really into his LED-riffic new stereo: The subwoofers have “aluminum cones so they’re really like, sonically neutral.”
- How is Jesse going to keep his expensive habits going when Mike the Cleaner announces a “new policy” to reweigh the product at the end of the day?
- Saul’s commercial, playing on the barroom TV: “Have you recently lost a loved one in an aviation disaster? Have you suffered injury, shock to the senses, or property damage due to debris or, God forbid, falling body parts?”
- Delivery guy at the Schrader front door: “Ton o’ bricks?”