BREAKING BAD Binge Watch – 3×11–3×13

As I mentioned in my last review, my original concept for this series of posts was to capture something of the experience of binge-watching: the addiction-fueled sprints, the bleary-eyed marathons, the occasional need for a break after stuffing yourself full of more episodes than a human being can safely consume.

That hasn't worked out quite the way I'd intended: mostly, I've found myself taking long breaks between viewing sessions to write the same sorts of overly analytical posts I normally write, just about more episodes at a time. (Mea culpa: I yam what I yam.) It's possible that I simply picked the wrong show for this experiment: for some reason I thought Breaking Bad was going to be a little more shallow and addictively incident-driven. I don't know why I thought this, but there's no denying that I seriously underestimated this show: I expected it to provide a steady sugar-rush of plot without much in the way of nutritional content. (I didn't, in short, realize there was going to be so much to talk about.)

I'm not the least bit sorry Breaking Bad turned out to be so much more substantial than I'd suspected, and I've enjoyed blathering on at obsessive length about it. But this week I've decided to do something more in the spirit of what I originally intended for this series, and try to capture the more immediate experience of binge-watching.

As I write this, it's about a quarter to ten on a Saturday night, and I've just made a pot of coffee. I've got three episodes left to watch in Season Three, and I'm going to blast through them tonight, and somehow—I haven't figured out how yet, but I'm going to wing it—chronicle my thoughts and reactions along the way, with minimal editing and little time to reflect.

Whether this experiment within the experiment will be worth reading remains to be seen, but let's see how it goes.

BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION SEVEN

Binge Watch Period: Saturday, September 27, from 9:45 P.M.–3:00 A.M.
Episodes Watched: Season 3, Episodes 11–13 ("Abiquiu," "Half Measures," and "Full Measure" )
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Committed, curious, and over-caffeinated: let's do it.

3×11: ABIQUIU

OK, "Abiquiu" opens with Jane and Jesse talking vaginas, so I'm already happy: I'm thrilled to see Krysten Ritter again, and I think it's a good move to show us a little more of their relationship, since it has—I have a hunch—become more important to Jesse's arc than it was perhaps originally intended to be. I'm not sure the relationship we saw in Season Two was quite well-developed enough for her to be the great, tragic love of Jesse's life: bringing her back in flashbacks to flesh out their connection a little is a good idea.

(But is it a flashback, or is it a dream/imagining? I remember them talking about going to the Georgia O'Keefe museum, but they never made it, did they? Without going back and checking, I feel like Jesse bailed on her to go cook meth—which would make this another regretful, "road not taken" vision, much like Walt's speech about his "perfect moment" to die in the last episode, "Fly.")

What this scene really seems to be about, however, is repetition, as Jesse questions why O'Keefe painted the same thing over and over again. Was she trying to get it perfect? "Nothing's perfect," Jane says, but that doesn't mean things aren't worth doing again and again, finding something new in the experience each time. It's a nice tie-in to Jesse's longing to make something perfect—even if it's meth—and a nice acknowledgement of that "sine wave" of growth and regression I mentioned a few reviews ago: Walt and Jesse keep going through the same patterns of remorse and regression, and keep making the same mistakes over and over expecting different results. In art, doing this may represent a quest for perfection, but in addiction circles it's the definition of insanity.

And crap, here I am stopping to blather and I haven't even gotten through the credits yet…

Ah, Hank in physical therapy, wearing a harness that looks like a diaper. "Pain is weakness leaving your body," Marie encourages him. "Pain is my foot in your ass," a frustrated, humiliated Hank snaps back. (Did Dean Norris never get an Emmy nomination for this show? He really is the secret weapon of Breaking Bad.)

Walt and Jesse are in the lab, and Walt doesn't trust him to work the scale. Jesse's offended at the implication that he's stealing—though, of course, he is stealing. Then we have Jesse's rehab group, which reminds me of something I forgot to mention last week: the brilliant marketing strategy of having Badger and Skinny Pete sit in on these sessions, expounding the tempting excellence of the blue meth that's out on the street. (It reminds me of a fantastic scene in an episode of Cracker—one of my all-time favorite shows—in which Robbie Coltrane's character goes to Gamblers Anonymous with a deck of cards and tempts all the rehabbers into putting their money on the table.)

This doesn't seem to be working though: Badger has only sold a teenth, and that was to Skinny Pete. So Jesse sets out to show them how it's done by selling to Andrea (Emily Rios) an attractive young newcomer to the group. This now puts the Jane scene in a new light: is this a new love interest? A new person for Jesse to destroy? Both?

(I'm going to pause here for a moment to say that Jesse is fucking up my theory that he's the secret hero of Breaking Bad, the dealer-with-a-heart-of-gold. Pushing meth to people in rehab is so straight-up evil that even Badger is conscience-stricken: he likens it to "shooting a baby in the face.")

Meanwhile, Walt is having dinner with the family. (I like how director Michelle MacLaren keeps shooting from outside the dining room: the panes of glass in the door dividing the three members of the family into a triptych, with Walt and Skyler facing off and Walt Jr. between them. From outside they appear to be a nice, loving family, but the framing is a visual shorthand for the real divisions and conflicts that actually exist between them.)

Walt, Walt Jr., and Sklyer in ABIQUIU

After Junior leaves, Skyler is pushing Walt on how good his money-laundering is: it's a reasonable question (especially for an accountant), but I continue to be frustrated with how Skyler is always saddled with such a nagging, judgmental role.

OK, I take it back: after Walt assures her that he's laundering his money through a "top guy," the very next scene pans across the waiting room of Saul's law office, through his low-life, criminal, ambulance-chasing, busted-hooker clientele to find Walt and Skyler sitting uncomfortably among them. That joke was worth all of Skyler's hectoring. And, as the scene unfolds, watching Skyler face off against Saul—and questioning his plan to run the money through an investment in a Laser Tag venue—brings a welcome air of adulthood: if Skyler ends up being the grown-up, pointing out the absurdities of this adolescent male endeavor, this storyline has promise.

And, speaking of adolescent males, Jesse is making out with Andrea while simultaneously trying to convince her that sobriety is for the birds. This is fucked up about a dozen different ways, and I was just about to complain that he shows no recognition that this woman is an actual human being—but then the door opens and Andrea's five-year-old son enters with her grandmother: kids, as we know from "Peekaboo," are Jesse's Achilles heel, cutting through his gangsta self-image and bringing out his humanity. (I hope.)

Skyler has a better idea for money laundering: the car wash where Walt used to do his humiliating part-time work. "This is what we buy," she says, and Walt catches that significant we. She's in.

Meanwhile, Jesse has taken Andrea and her son out to dinner, and once again the scene is shot from outside the window: this time, however, all three characters are in the same window frame, indicating that this is a more genuine human interaction than Walt's pantomime with his family. (And Jesse is being adorable with Andrea's son, teaching him about "science and stuff.")  A few scenes later, Jesse and Andrea are in bed: now she wants to get high, and he's lecturing her about being a good mother. His self-righteous venom is ill-conceived, but his heart is in the right place, and my faith in Jesse is momentarily restored.

And then —

—okay, stop the presses. Seriously, I need to pause and rant about this for a minute. Because Andrea is talking about how her little brother killed someone as a gang initiation, and before she even finishes speaking I'm rolling my eyes, because I'm praying she's not talking about Combo—but of course she is.

It's too much: I'm willing to see how it all plays out, but this might be the first major misstep I think Breaking Bad has taken. I was so on board with this storyline as a way to explore the ethical implications of Jesse's meth dealing in general— a subject ridiculously overlooked on this show—but tying her into everything that has come before is just too much: it's too big a coincidence, too on-the-nose, and way too hamfisted an orchestration of events by those cosmic forces we were discussing last week.

This is so disappointing it makes me angry: we're no longer speculating about whether there's an order to the universe, we're now having the simplistic machinations of the writers' room thrust in our faces. We've left behind the world where things happen remotely the way they do in real life, and are slumming in the fantasy land of television, where the world is ridiculously small and all roads converge conveniently on our protagonists. Breaking Bad should be far above this.

I try to get over my revulsion with this turn and proceed. But just a few minutes later I'm fuming again at yet another contrived twist, as Skyler—volunteering to be the front-woman for the car wash—confesses to Walt that she never got around to filing their divorce papers. WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING TO THIS SHOW? Did Vince Gilligan go on vacation? Did network hacks take over the writing chores? This is so unjustified, such a ridiculous backpedal, and such a squandering of the carefully constructed development that's come before, that I'm losing my interest in finishing this binge tonight. I've complained before about how this show keeps taking one step backwards into domesticity for every two steps forward Walt takes into criminality, but this is ridiculous.

Gus and Walt in ABIQUIU

But this episode is almost over (thank God). Walt is invited to dinner at Gus's house, and this scene, too, feels a little phony, with Gus being menacingly charming like a B-movie villain. (There's a repetition of the outside-the-window trope here, as Gus and Walt sit down to dinner framed in separate panes.) Gus wants to give Walt some advice, and his advice is this: never make the same mistake twice. He's talking about Jesse, of course, and this echoes back to that opening scene, and Jesse's question about why people do the same things over and over, trying to get them right.

(This is as good a place as any to mention that I have trouble buying, for a second, that Gus would have ever allowed Walt to work with Jesse in the first place. But then, there's a lot about this that requires suspension of disbelief. Would a criminal of Gus's obvious savvy really build his empire on the brother-in-law of a DEA agent? I don't care how good Walt's meth is.)

We end the episode with Jesse buying meth from Andrea's little brother Tomas (Angelo Martinez), who happens to be exactly where we saw him last, on the corner where he killed Combo, and who happens to tell Jesse to "Bounce!"  This is, of course, what Combo said to Tomas, back in "Mandala," right before Tomas shot him.

And it's now 11:40 PM: with frequent pauses to write, it's taken me almost exactly two hours to watch this 42 minute episode. Is that what's making me irritable, or was this, as I feel at the moment, the worst, most contrived, most hamfisted episode of Breaking Bad so far?

I need a little break.

3×12: HALF MEASURES

OK, it's just past midnight now, and I've had a few minutes to regroup, re-caffeinate, and reflect on the fact that I have now stumbled upon a form of reviewing that is even less efficient than what I usually do. I'm tempted to spend another half-an-hour writing about my problems with that last episode (and the storylines it leaves us with), but instead I'm just going to plunge ahead (and probably—hopefully—pick up the pace).

"Half Measures" opens with yet another of Jesse's former lady friends. (Jesse Pinkman, this is your life.) This time it's Wendy (Julia Menesci), the meth-addicted blowjob queen of the Crossroads Motel, plying her trade to the tune of "Windy" by The Association. Jesse stakes her out, and witnesses her buying meth from the two goons from Tomas's crew.

And Walt Jr. is practicing driving with Walt. I don't care. Since he seems to have outlived what little usefulness he ever had, I've found myself wondering if Walt Jr.—or even baby Holly—could eventually fall victim to Walt's lifestyle. Children, and parenthood, have been mini-obsessions of this show, so it seems like a thematically logical consequence of Walt's decisions to end up sacrificing one or more of his kids on the altar of Heisenberg.  (Of course, since I occasionally have to look up an actor's name on IMDB, I know that all of the regulars appear in every episode of the series. This lack of suspense is one of the disadvantages of watching this show after it has concluded: it made, for example, Hank's shootout with the Salamanca Brothers a little less suspenseful than it might otherwise have been.)

But back to the episode. Skyler is still trying to convince Walt to let her be his money launderer. I'm not sure I buy her sudden determination to become part of this deal, or the fact that these two people have never had a discussion about the morality of it all. Are we supposed to believe that Skyler isn't at all troubled by this? That, deep down, she's every bit as immoral as Walt is? (Which is very immoral: Walt just said the whole story she wants to concoct might be more believable if they were sleeping together again, which kind of makes him an even bigger piece of shit than he was before.)

Walt and Jesse go out for a beer, and Jesse shows him the meth he bought from Tomas: it's theirs, of course. Jesse is outraged that the crew that killed Combo is now selling their product, and using children to do their dirty work. (But really, what did he think was happening? There are children working corners all over this country: anyone who has ever seen an episode of The Wire knows that children are the low-level, disposable workforce that constitutes the backbone of the entire drug industry.) So Jesse wants to poison the two guys he bought the meth from, and frames it as a service to society. (Because wiping out these two street-level dealers makes the world a better place? Is Jesse really naive enough to believe he's saving kids like Tomas by knocking these guys off? Is Walt seriously arguing against the morality of murder while pumping millions of dollars worth of meth into the local system?)

I'm honestly having trouble deciding if we're supposed to take this dramatic turn seriously, or if we're supposed to be marveling at how ridiculously small-minded, self-deluded, and self-involved these two men are.

A few minutes later, Walt and Saul come up with a plan to get Jesse arrested, so he has time to cool down in the county clink. (This should go well.) Meanwhile, Jesse is enlisting Wendy's help: Wendy, it turns out, is a mother, and Jesse taps into her maternal instincts to convince her to go along with his "save the children" crusade. (I'm having a bad feeling about Wendy's life expectancy, but I guess it wasn't long to begin with.)

Mike (Jonathan Banks) in HALF MEASURES

Ha! Now Mike, Saul's fixer, is telling Walt that his plan to have Jesse arrested is "moronic." (Thank you, Mike.) In the process, Mike admits that he's really working for Gus, and suggests that Walt's efforts to send a warning to the out-of-control Jesse are misguided. In an excellent monologue (that, for the moment, makes me like this show again), he describes an abusive husband he dealt with repeatedly when he was a cop, and how—after getting called to the house one too many times, and watching the guy revert to his bad behavior over and over again—he almost put a bullet in the guy's mouth. But he didn't—he tried to do the right thing—and two weeks later the guy killed his wife. (Jonathan Banks' performance here is excellent, his voice measured but his face twitching with old but never-forgotten rage. I also like how Mike remembers that the guy "caved her head in with the base of a Waring blender," the specificity of the memory underlining how much this case haunted him over the years.)

Obviously, this whole monologue also ties back into that first scene in "Abiquiu" with Jane and Jesse: the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. The moral of the story, Mike says, is that he chose a half-measure, when he should have gone all the way. "No more half-measures, Walt," he says.

What he means by this seems to become clear when Mike and Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui), the guy who monitors the meth lab for Gus, pick Jesse up and drive him out to the desert. The implication is that they're going to put a bullet in him—which is the logical thing for them to do—but instead they take him to a meeting with Gus and Walt, in which Jesse is supposed to shake hands and make nice with the two dealers he wanted to kill. Jesse refuses, on the grounds that the men are using children to do their dirty work, eliciting an order from Gus: "No more children."

Jesse, Walt, and Gus in HALF MEASURES

I gotta say, I'm not buying this. (I hope that Gus still intends to kill Jesse, because nothing else would be believable: there's no way Gus doesn't already know his industry is built on children, and there's no way he would allow this mouthy punk to dictate the terms of his business.) But Aaron Paul is good enough in these scenes that I am almost believing his willingness to take a stand for the children. It's ridiculously naive, but that's not bothering me so much anymore: in fact, it's consistent with Jesse's character, for a lot of reasons. We know children are a weakness with him, after all, and beyond that he's always wanted to believe he could somehow deal meth without hurting anyone, without becoming an evil man. Plus, I think we can extrapolate that this is all really about his own guilt, trying to expiate his sins—about Jane, and other things—by drawing this one line in the sand.

Afterwards, Walt is driving Jesse home, and lectures him: "Jesse, your actions affect other people." (Really, Walt? You're saying this?) Jesse storms out of his car without a word, and rightfully so.

I won't comment on the interjected scene in which Marie tries to inspire Hank to rejoin the world by giving him a handjob in his hospital bed. (She and Skyler really are sisters, aren't they?)

Then we pick up with Jesse in bed with Andrea. "Bad day?" she asks him. "I don't even know," Jesse says, and truer words were never spoken. But then we get an answer as the phone rings, and we learn that the inevitable has happened: Tomas has been killed. Jesse's effort to save even this one kid have backfired. Suddenly Badger's line about "shooting a baby in the face" doesn't seem so funny: Jesse's actions have led directly to the execution of this child.

"Everything is contaminated," Walt said in "Fly," and everything these two men do seems to reinforce that theory. "Your actions affect other people," Walt just said, and yet they both keep doing the same destructive things, over and over, expecting different results.

Walt hears about Tomas on the news, and goes out to find Jesse. But Jesse—after fucking up his hard-fought recovery with a line of meth—has gone gunning for the dealers. He approaches them like it's an Old West showdown—about to have a gunfight Jesse would almost surely lose—when a car slams into frame and runs the two dealers over. It's Walt, who gets out, shoots one of the surviving dealers in the head, and says one word to Jesse: "Run."

Damn. Yes, it's ludicrous, and over the top, but it's also kind of awesome.

It's now 1:30 in the morning, and, to be honest, I sort of thought I might bail on this and go to bed. But I may have one more episode in me after all. (Just one more…I gotta know what happens! That's how the binge-watch gets its hooks into you…)

3×13: "Full Measure"

OK, it's season finale time. (Since I'm both very tired and want to pay attention to the episode, I'm mostly going to watch, and just drop in a few comments…)

"Full Measure" opens with a flashback: sixteen years earlier, with Walt and a pregnant Skyler shopping for a home, walking through the empty house we know they end up buying. Here's where it all began, the foundation for the nightmare of crime, violence, and betrayal that is The House That Walt Built. (Mostly, I'm impressed with how convincingly younger Bryan Cranston looks. Anna Gunn looks pretty much the same, but—since she looks fabulous in the present as well—it works.)

Back in the present, Walt is driving out to the middle of nowhere for a meeting with Gus, who is suddenly talking in a South American accent. (That can't be good.) But Walt convinces him that Jesse is out of the picture, and that it's in all of their best interests to put this behind them and continue making beautiful meth together. Gus appears to agree, though he insists that he pick Walt's new assistant.  (I hope it's Gale.)

And it is Gale! (Though their reunion in the lab is, surprisingly, considerably less warm than their first meeting.)

Continuing the theme of children that's running throughout these episodes, we see Mike with his adorable young granddaughter, who wonders why he has a bunch of balloons in the back of his car. "You're never too old for balloons," he tells her. (Which is true, but there's probably more to it than that.) And indeed, that night, we see Mike release his balloons into some power lines, knocking out the electricity to a facility. What follows is a mini-action movie—complete with an electric, 1970s-style, wah-wah pedal soundtrack—in which Mike dispatches with smooth efficiency some cartel guys who have infiltrated what I presume is the chemical warehouse where Gus gets his meth ingredients. The scene is ridiculous, but it's so much fun I don't even care. (The bit where the warehouse manager silently signals Mike to adjust his aim, so he can shoot a guy in the head through a plywood wall, is sheer genius.) This is the first episode since the pilot that Vince Gilligan has directed as well as written, and this sequence makes me wonder how much fun a Gilligan-directed crime movie would be: someone give this guy a big budget and an Elmore Leonard novel to adapt, for the love of God.

Mike takes aim

Back in the lab, Gale is being his ingratiating, eager-to-please self, but is it just me, or does there seem to be a layer of psychotic instability underlying it now? Later, we see Gale at home, singing to himself in hyperactive Spanish as he waters his plants, when Gus arrives for a surprise visit. He wants to know whether Gale could take over the lab himself "if push comes to shove." It makes me extremely happy to discover that Gus is not as big of a sucker as Walt seems to think he is. (And neither is Gale as big a sap: though Gus frames the question as concern over Walt's cancer, Gale understands exactly what Gus is telling him.)

In fact, it turns out that Gus is taking care of all family business: Mike pays a visit to Saul, and threatens to bury him unless Saul tells him where Jesse might be. (Saul manages to hold onto his professional ethics for about 30 seconds before caving, which is impressive.)

Except, hold the phone, he didn't give Jesse up. In the next scene the whole episode takes a turn, and my respect for these characters and this entire storyline goes up: we discover that no one is as stupid as they appear. It turns out Jesse is hiding out at the Laser Tag facility, and that Walt knows Gus is going to whack him. Jesse encourages Walt to go to the cops and get into witness protection—making this yet another one of those many moments in which Walt could just stop, and get out of this, and protect the lives of his family. But of course he won't. His plan is to rely on Gus's need for production, and making sure he is the only chemist Gus has: so Gale has to die.

"I can't do it," Jesse says: he's not a murderer. (Uh oh: this already feels like foreshadowing.) Walt says he'll do it himself, if Jesse finds out where Gale lives. "There's got to be some other way," Jesse says, but Walt is insistent. "I saved your life, Jesse. Are you going to save mine?"

Walt and Holly in FULL MEASURE

(More children: we get a brief, sweet scene of Walt with his infant daughter. As I mentioned above, something about scenes like this fill me with dread: the general air of menace and corruption that permeates Breaking Bad makes it impossible to see any child and not fear for their lives and souls. Skyler should take her son and this adorable little girl away from Walt and never let him near any of them again.)

Jesse has found Gale, but he's still against the plan. "Don't do this, Mr. White," he says. "Please." And as it turns out, Walt doesn't get the chance: he's on his way to Gale's when Victor comes to get him, with a bullshit story about a chemical leak at the lab. Walt knows what is up, even before he sees Mike waiting for him at the laundromat.

These last scenes are fantastic, as Walt begs for his life, all illusion of toughness and composure collapsing in an instant: Heisenberg has left the building, and there's just this terrified, milquetoast science teacher groveling for mercy. "I'll give you Jesse Pinkman!" he promises, and I have just enough time to think You fucking piece of shit! before realizing that Gilligan has played us once again: Walt calls Jesse, but instead of summoning him to his death he tells him to rush over and kill Gale.

And this, I realize, is where this entire season has been heading. "I'm the bad guy," Jesse said, way back in the season premiere, but he didn't really mean it, never really accepted that his chosen line of work would necessitate truly evil acts. ("Did you notice the fly is the first living thing on the show that Jesse has killed?" one of my commenters asked last week, and I confess I hadn't noticed, but it's true.) Jesse has kept his hands relatively clean throughout three seasons of Breaking Bad, but that's all over with as he shows up at Gale's door, and shoots the poor guy right in the face.

And with that, the screen goes black, and the season is over.

Postscript

Okay, after completing my binge watch at three in the morning last night, I went to bed, and dreamt of balloons, and babies, and pink teddy bears, and other terrifying, horribly upsetting things. (Seriously, this is not a cheerful show.) This morning I did a little clean up on this post—my spelling gets erratic when I'm writing fast, and I tend to use the same phrases over and over again—and dropped in my links and screenshots. Otherwise, this is a fairly honest (if laborious) account of my binge-watch experience.

I'm going to resist the urge to do a bunch of rewriting this morning, or attempt any overview analysis. But I will say that I think the middle of this season of Breaking Bad was far better than the beginning and end, and—though delivering some fantastic moments—Season Three was generally weaker than Season Two. (I am, I confess, slightly less excited about moving on to Season Four.) The contrivances are seriously a problem—"Abiquiu" was kind of horrible—and I'm finding it harder and harder to accept the overall situations. It feels like the show is floundering a little, struggling to find excuses for Walt and Jesse to keep doing what they're doing, attempting to justify why Gus wouldn't just shoot them both in the head, and straining desperately to keep characters like Skyler, Walt Jr., and Hank involved far past the point where they've outlived their roles.

But I'm still in it for the main characters, and far more for Jesse than for Walt: Cranston is excellent as always, but Aaron Paul has become the star of Breaking Bad for me, as Jesse's character arc has become the only one I really care about. Everything on Breaking Bad is contaminated, and Walt corrupts everyone he encounters, and no innocents—even children—are safe. (It's worth noting that Jesse is not far from being a child himself, and certainly fills the role of Walt's surrogate son.) I still find myself hoping that Jesse's soul can somehow be saved before this show is over, but perhaps that's naive of me: maybe he really is the bad guy after all.

Now I'm depressed.

Next: I return to my usual, overly analytical format as
I tackle the first five episodes of Season Four.

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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