BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION FOUR
Binge Watch Period: August 15-16, 2014
Episodes Watched: Season 2, Episodes 7–13 ("Negro y Azul," "Better Call Saul," "4 Days Out," "Over," "Mandala," "Phoenix," and "ABQ" )
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Completely in the binge-watch zone.
Considering that there is a town in New Mexico by this name—about 150 miles from Albuquerque—I find myself wondering if Vince GIlligan ever thought about calling this show Truth and Consequences.
Too on the nose? Because those two things seem to be largely what Breaking Bad is about, especially in this back half of this second season. It's no coincidence that that small New Mexico town gets a name-drop in the season finale, almost simultaneously with our figuring out the exact nature of the disaster that has been coming down—almost literally—on Walter White's head since the season premiere. Telling lie after lie, betraying and deceiving everyone he knows, Walt has been running from the truth since the very first episode of Breaking Bad. But, by the end of this extraordinary season, he can't hide the truth anymore—from his loved ones, or from himself—and he can no longer escape the consequences of his actions.
By the end of this season, in fact, the sky is actually falling.
Let's talk about truth first. The back half of Season Two opens with a fantastically gonzo declaration of truth: Walt is a dead man. "Negro y Azul" begins with, of all things, a music video: specifically, it is a band called Los Cuates De Sinaloa singing a narcocorrido about the legendary "gringo boss" known as Heisenberg, who has taken over the market but enraged the cartels. "The cartel's 'bout respect/and they ain't forgiving/But that homey's dead/he just doesn't know it yet."
I'm aware that binge-watching—and the way I'm writing up this binge-watch—creates artificial divisions in a season, and lends false weight to what are really completely arbitrary stop-and-start points. These last seven episodes of Breaking Bad's second season are not really a unit, any more than the first six were: there was no mid-season hiatus, or even a break between "Peekaboo" and "Negro y Azul." (All 13 episodes aired back to back, on consecutive Sunday nights, in March, April, and May of 2009.)
But the musical teaser for "Negro y Azul" feels like a dividing line, not just for the season but also for the series. The first half opened with the image of the pink bear in Walt's pool, promising disaster; now this back half opens with a similar—but further reaching—flash forward to inevitable doom. Whether we take it as a literal premonition or a symbolic one, the ominous song carries the same weight: the path this guy is on will lead to his becoming a legend, to his becoming a monster, and to his becoming dead.
But why is it here now? Why is it placed where it is? Again, I have to leap back over the imaginary gulf between this episode and the previous ones, and think about where we left Walter White on his path to becoming el capo Heisenberg. Walt and Jesse had just started their distribution operation, and one of their foot soldiers had been ripped off. "Handle it," Walt ordered Jesse in "Breakage," leading to Jesse's surreal descent into squalor in "Peekaboo," and causing (however indirectly) the death of the unfortunately named "Spooge." As I wrote last week, that was an important moment—albeit one of many—in Walt's evolution into an evil man: his embracing of violence not for self-defense or self-preservation, but as good business policy. There is a clear line of inevitability between that decision and the corrido sung about the legendary gringo boss.
Interestingly, Walt has gotten cold feet about that decision by the beginning of "Negro y Azul," and tries to call Jesse to call off the hit. "Just…let it go," he says in a message to Jesse, but it's too late for that: Spooge is dead, and everyone thinks Jesse was the one who crushed the addict's head with an ATM machine. Walt, of course, sees the upside in this, and he explains to the understandably nerve-shaken Jesse about how blowfish make themselves seem larger to ward off more dangerous predators. "You are a blowfish!" he says, in a funny but surprisingly effective pep talk. "You see, it's all an illusion, it's nothing but air." With this new, illusory infamy, he convinces Jesse, they can expand their operation, pushing into territories they didn't dare enter before.
Walt thinks he can build an empire on air. He thinks if he just keeps lying fast enough, and convincingly enough, he can construct an elaborate web of illusion that will keep his family together and keep his enemies—criminal and cop alike—away. If he tells the right lies, in fact, he won't even have to be a bad man: he just has to seem like a bad man, to get what he wants.
Because fear is what it's all about, isn't it? In "Better Call Saul," Walt goes to comfort Hank after a particularly horrific DEA disaster. (More on that later.) Hank, at first, doesn't think Walt can relate. "The things I deal with," he says to his brother-in-law. "You and me don't have much of what you might call an experiential overlap." But Walt tells him that, actually, they do.
"I have spent my whole life scared. Frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen. Fifty years I spent like that, finding myself awake at three in the morning. But you know what? Ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine. . .I came to realize that it's that fear that's the worst of it. That's the real enemy. So: get up. Get out in the real world. And you kick that bastard as hard as you can right in the teeth."
Obviously, this little speech is about the liberation Walt has felt ever since he began to grapple with his own mortality. But one of the things I'm liking about this binge-watch approach to analysis is that scenes like this, from one episode, begin to echo forward and backward through all the others. Here, this speech about fear, here, as something Walt has conquered, seems to reverberate throughout these other episodes, in which fear is a tool: something to be created, and used, and wielded as a shield or a weapon. Fear is more powerful than truth: that's the lesson of the blowfish, the lesson of Jesse's legendary murder of Spooge. Even when it's based on an illusion—a lie—fear can rule the world.
Except for one thing: it can't. All of these episodes, taken together, are about Walt (and us) learning the limitations of illusion, and the fragile nature of a house built on lies. The real world doesn't work that way. We get our first lesson on this fact in "Negro y Azul," as a counter-narrative to Walt's "blowfish" revelation. While Walt is convincing Jesse that they can scare the cartels away with lies, we see evidence of what the cartels are really capable of through Hank's eyes, when a DEA snitch named Tortuga (Danny Trejo)—who has so little fear he arrogantly orders his payoffs out of the Sky Mall catalog—ends up with his head glued to a booby-trapped exploding tortoise.
(There are some sentences one just doesn't expect to have occasion to write, and that is one of them.)
Walt thinks Jesse's reputation as an ATM-dropper is going to frighten these people? THEY DECAPITATE PEOPLE AND BOOBY-TRAP TURTLES. They are not fucking around. They don't live in the world of illusion: they live in the real world, and they are not scared of blowfish.
Lessons in the real world begin accumulating throughout these episodes, in small and large ways. One of the best teachers on this subject is Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), who stands at the intersection of legality and illegality, of illusion and reality. "When the going gets tough, you don't want a criminal lawyer," Jesse explains to Walt. "You want a criminal lawyer." Saul is a master of misdirection and obfuscation. He knows how to set up dummy corporations for tax purposes. ("Make it out to Ice Station Zebra Associates.") He knows how to launder money. ("I got a guy, who knows this guy, a Rain Main type, who lives with his mother in her basement in Belarus.") He knows, in short, how to manage the smoke and mirrors necessary for Walt to be able to keep the money he is making—minus Saul's commission, of course.
So Saul is a great illusionist—but he's also a realist, and knows the difference between the real world and the fantasy world Walt and Jesse have been living in. In one of my favorite sequences in the series so far, Badger gets busted selling drugs near a playground. Badger is smart enough to be suspicious of the potential buyer (DJ Squalls); he's smart enough to spot the surveillance vehicles ("Duke City Flowers! C'mon, can't you at least be original?"); but he's stupid enough to believe the old myth that a cop has to tell you he's a cop if you ask him directly. ("It's in the constitution," the cop says. "The constitution of America?" Badger asks, impressed.)
Walt and Jesse first try to bribe Saul into making sure his client doesn't cut a deal with the DEA. But when that doesn't work—"I don't take bribes from strangers"—they think they can scare him with guns and ski-masks. (Because everyone is scared of a blowfish, right?)
But Saul lives in the real world: "Why don't you just kill Badger?" he asks them. "If a mosquito is buzzing around you, and bites you on the ass, you don't go gunning for the mosquito's attorney." But Walt and Jesse still think they're not really bad men: they still think they can somehow become the meth kingpins of the Southwest while keeping their hands clean.
They have, in short, no idea what they are doing, and eventually they start to figure that out. Badger's arrest in "Better Call Saul" was just the first warning; a more serious one comes in "Mandala," when Combo meets some real criminals, and ends up gunned down in the street by a twelve-year-old on a bicycle. (Again, we see the inadequacy of the "blowfish" defense: Combo flashes his gun at the men who drive by to scope him out—pretending to be larger and more dangerous than he is—but it doesn't save him from being shot to death by someone who doesn't look dangerous, but is.) By now, even Skinny Pete has seen the writing on the wall: "This game we're playing?" he says to Jesse. "We don't have the street cred to survive it." The blowfish is just a lot of air, and it hasn't taken long for everyone to realize it. (It's Saul who has to lay a little "tough love" truth on Walt and Jesse: "You two suck at peddling meth. Period.")
To say that "lying" is a major theme of Breaking Bad is not a particularly insightful or perspicacious observation: of course that's what it's about, just from a plot perspective: the main character is, after all, living a double-life, and lying constantly. (There are plenty of other lies floating around this season as well: Skyler's boss Ted [Christopher Cousins], for example, is fudging his financials in a major way, and Skyler—though she initially refuses to be a part of it—seems at the end of the season to be both accepting of his malfeasance and flirting with infidelity.)
But, in a show as concerned with identity and self-image as Breaking Bad is, lying becomes a very complicated thing. My favorite spin on this theme is the fact that Walt is increasingly facing, in his domestic life, the opposite problem he faces in his criminal life. In his criminal life, he's trying to be the blowfish, and make himself larger than he really is. But in his domestic life he's forced to make himself smaller, and he resents it. He is bitter that Gretchen and Ellliott get credit for coming through with money to pay for his treatment; he is humiliated when Walt Jr. creates a website to solicit contributions; he is furious when Saul's money-laundering plan requires channeling the meth money through anonymous donations. "I am not going to have my family think that some mystery benefactor saved us," he says. I did this, he wants to scream, to everyone. He wants everyone to know how powerful he is, how clever he is, how many things he has done to save and protect his family. (The only one he can tell is the new baby, Holly, and so he shows her the cash: "You wanna see what Daddy did for you?" he coos to her. "That's right. Daddy did that.")
Obviously, all of this ties back into the theme of masculinity, of male empowerment, that has been present since the beginning of Breaking Bad. Walt wants to be a man, and it's not enough to be one—that's the problem with lying—he also wants everyone to know he's a man. But what it means to be a man is something the show has a lot of fun playing with, and "Over" is the episode that most directly focuses on that as perhaps the central question of the show.
At the end of "4 Days Out," Walt has learned that his treatment is working, and that his tumor has shrunk 80 percent. He is done with cooking meth (after his marathon session with Jesse), and it looks like he is actually going to live. So he should be happy—but he's not. (The final scene of "4 Days Out" finds him pounding his fist bloody against a paper-towel dispenser.) He never articulates why he's upset—and he can't explain it to anyone else—but we see him play out his frustration in "Over." At the party to celebrate his good news, Walt is acting as though it is a funeral; pounding tequila, and getting Walt Jr. drunk in the bargain, he gets into a macho pissing contest with Hank that almost comes to blows. Later, he apologizes to his son, but Walt Jr. is just concerned over whether he is manly enough. "But I kept up, right?" he asks his dad, in what must be one of the saddest pleas for paternal approval ever captured on television. I'm a man, I could drink with the big boys, right? (Walt—horrified at his own actions—is kind enough not to point out that, in fact, Junior didn't keep up: he yakked in the pool.) Throughout the rest of the episode Walt channels his own masculine insecurity into home improvement projects: he replaces the hot water heater, and then becomes obsessed with fixing the rot in the floorboards. These things are, for most modern men, the pinnacle of manly validation—but they're no longer enough for him. It's in the hardware store—that mecca of suburban masculinity—that he sees another would-be meth-cook buying supplies, and reclaims both his territory and his power.
This is another one of those moments—there seems to be many of them in Breaking Bad—when it is important to note that Walt is making a choice: he has made all the meth he needs to make to pay his bills, and at this point he could walk away clean and live out the rest of his life peaceably with his wife, and his son, and his daughter. As I said when Walt turned down Elliott's offer in "Gray Matter," everything that happens from here on out—which at this point includes Combo's death, Jane's death, the deaths of an untold number of airline passengers, the devastation of Jesse, and the disintegration of his own family—could have been avoided if Walt could just be satisfied with what he has.
But Walt's story was never about finding the money for his treatment: there were always other ways he could have done that. It was never even about his own mortality, because when he discovers he might actually live, he is not relieved but angry. He receives his medical reprieve like it's a death sentence, because it means turning back into plain, ordinary Walt, and giving up the rush he got from being powerful, from being larger than life, from being bad.
It's not about money, and it's not about fear: it's about power. It's no coincidence that it's also in this episode that Jane (Krysten Ritter) observes that the superheroes Jesse draws—"Kanga Man" and "Backwardo" and the rest—all have Jesse's face. "Like you never wanted a superpower," Jesse says, inadvertently expressing one of the core themes—and tragedies—of Breaking Bad: the longing for power, the need to feel special, the inability to be satisfied with normal life.
It's a very adolescent instinct—"Yo, I was a kid when I drew all of these," Jesse says—and it's a very male instinct. It's interesting that Jane observes that "Kanga Man" must actually be a female, because only female kangaroos have pouches. It sounds like a throwaway line, but it isn't: it's actually one of the key observations of the season, and perhaps of the series. The male instinct for power manifests itself in a lot of ways, ranging from Walt's new hot water heater all the way to the building of the atomic bomb—by men like the real Heisenberg—which is commemorated in the museum where Walt and Jesse meet their crew. But that masculine drive, as we see throughout this season, is incompatible with qualities like love, and nurturing, and family. Walt misses the birth of his daughter because he's busy making a meth deal, and—by the end of the season—he may have lost his family as well. Jesse loses the woman he loves because of his involvement in the meth trade, and because he is flying—a superpower!—on heroin. The will to power is toxic to love: only female kangaroos have pouches.
So men like Walt and Jesse can play at being superheroes—or, more accurately, super-villains—but there are consequences to that choice, and it may mean there is no room for protecting or caring about anyone else. Throughout these episodes Jesse falls in love with Jane—and his feelings seem genuine—but his love turns out to be poisonous to her, drawing her back into her own addiction and eventually leading her to her death.
When Walt runs into Jane's father Donald (John de Lancie) in a bar—neither man having any idea who the other is, or how terribly they are and will be connected—Walt asks his advice on raising daughters. "Just love them," Donald says. "I mean, they are who they are." But that's not something Walt may be capable of doing: his love—for his wife, for his children, and even the nascent paternal feelings he has developed for Jesse—is too mired in those other things, in the drive for empowerment and control. Walt talks to Donald about knowing what's best for his "nephew"—Jesse—and wanting to fix his life for him. And, in setting out to do so, he goes immediately from this meeting with Jane's father to killing Jane herself.
I noted in one of my earlier reviews that there had been, so far, absolutely no discussion about the morality of cooking and dealing meth. There still has been no discussion of it—the thought seems honestly not to have occurred to either Walt or Jesse—but at the end of Season Two we see the consequences in ways that utterly destroy our ability to get caught up in Walt's bullshit about taking care of his loved ones and his self-serving fantasy of self-empowerment. Walt's family is falling apart; one of his dealers is dead; Jesse is a broken man; and poor Jane chokes to death on her own vomit while Walt stands by and watches. We can argue the legal technicalities all we want—she did the drugs herself, and rolling her onto her back was an accident—but Walt deliberately ignores his instinct to help her and chooses to let her die. Like he always does, he convinces himself he's doing it for someone else—in this case, for Jesse's own good—but really it's because Jane poses a threat to him. It's cold-blooded murder, pure and simple, ruthless and heartless and utterly selfish.
And this is not the last, or even the most terrible, reminder of the consequences of Walt's actions: we still have that damn bear to contend with. Jane's father, it turns out, is an air-traffic controller, and in his grief over his daughter's death he finds himself rattled, confused, and ultimately paralyzed as two planes collide over Albuquerque. Walt—left alone after Skyler has finally left him—watches in horror as the explosion occurs overhead, and the sky begins falling, and a child's scorched pink bear plunges like a bomb into his swimming pool.
I suspect some viewers probably felt cheated by the reveal of the disaster we'd been promised all season. (Who is in the body bags? we had been wondering, ever since we first saw them. But it turns out we don't even know those people.) I felt that same sense of anticlimax for a moment—but only for a moment. Then I began to marvel at how perfectly this all has been constructed. The symbolism is not at all subtle, but it works, and it works on several levels. It's about Jane, of course. (There is a pink bear in the mural on her bedroom wall.) But it's also about the ramifications to Walt's domestic life, and how destructive a force his adolescent male fantasy turns out to be. The pink bear is all those "feminine" qualities Walt is sacrificing in his pursuit of male empowerment: love, nurturing, family. (Walt and his baby girl are, in these final scenes, both dressed in pink, visually tying "Walt the Family Man," and his family, to the collateral damage left in "Heisenberg's" wake.) Only female kangaroos have pouches: Heisenberg isn't capable of love.
And the airline disaster also works as a larger metaphor for Walt and Jesse's entire enterprise, and completely explodes any illusions we had about drug dealing being a "victimless crime." Throughout these episodes, Walt has hooked up with Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), a real player in the meth trade: we learn from Hank that Walt's blue meth has been turning up, now, everywhere but in Albuquerque. Walt can let someone else handle the distribution, and push the immediate consequences of his action further away from him, but that just means he's sending his sins out into the world to bring untold pain to unknown people. The anonymity of those victims in the plane crash is exactly the point: Walt and Jesse may destroy people they love, but they are also destroying people they have never met, innocent victims of their selfish pursuit of identity and empowerment.
"I have this coming," Walt said in "4 Days Later," when he thought he and Jesse might die out in the desert. "I deserve this." That is what is known in recovery circles as a "moment of clarity," the sudden, terrible realization of how untenable your life has become. Jesse, too, has a moment of clarity in "ABQ," and he repeats Walt's words back to him: "I deserve this," he says. "I deserve whatever happens."
And you know what? They're both right: they do deserve whatever is coming. Because the moment of clarity, by itself, is not enough: it needs to be followed by a genuine determination to change your life. Whether Jesse will have the strength to change his ways in the wake of this tragedy remains to be seen, but—especially knowing there are still three seasons to go—I wouldn't bet on it. Walt had his moment, halfway through the season, before everything really bad happened: he made a half-hearted attempt to reform himself in "Over," but he just couldn't give up the adolescent thrill he gets from being Heisenberg. I doubt even the memory of Jane's death, or the image of a little girl with a pink teddy bear, will be enough to change him now. He's addicted to the will to power, addicted to the rush, addicted to this vision he has of himself as a strong and dangerous man.
And—as Walt's new friend Gus informs us—you can never trust an addict.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Speaking of addictions, I confess that I'm in full-on binge-watch mode now. I posted my write-up of the first six episodes of Season Two on a Friday evening, and by Saturday afternoon I had blasted my way through the remaining seven episodes. It's finding time in the week to write about them that is the problem, and, if I didn't have to, I probably would have finished the series by now.
- But I'm also discovering that my "binge-watch" plan is flawed: I can watch endless episodes, but there's a limit to the number I can write about effectively at a time. (This post—covering seven episodes—was beyond that limit: it was way too long, and even so I skipped over a bunch of stuff, and only made passing feints at themes that really deserved to be unpacked more fully and coherently.) So, new plan: I'm going to admit to myself that this will be a weekly series—it's looking like they'll keep being posted on Friday evenings—and I'm going to limit each post to four or five episodes at most. (A 13-episode season makes that math complicated, however: I'm leaning towards either a 4-5-4 format, or—more likely—a 5-5-3, so I have more space to discuss the last three episodes of a season when the shit really goes down. Thoughts?)
- Speaking of things I mostly skipped, I gave "4 Days Out" nowhere near the attention it deserves. This sort of episode may be Breaking Bad in its purest form: just Walt and Jesse, alone in the 'Bago, cooking meth. (It's not a true "bottle episode," but I understand we have one or two of those to look forward to down the line.)
- This show—I am now willing to admit—has a lot more going on thematically than I'd anticipated, which is making these posts a nightmare of pick-and-choose. So, one theme that I decided not to write about—but want to stick a pin in for later—is the question of whether the universe itself is moral or indifferent. If you've read my Game of Thrones reviews you know it's one of my favorite themes to discuss, and it pops up here several times, most notably in Walt's reaction to his remission. "It's funny," he tells the guests at his party. "When I got my diagnosis, cancer, I said to myself Why me? And then, the other day when I got the good news, I said the same thing." It clearly troubles Walt that—after becoming a bad man, and after knowing he deserves to suffer—the universe should choose to reward him. (On the other hand, since his life seems to be getting shittier in every other way, perhaps the universe is perversely just.) At any rate, I expect we'll have plenty of opportunities to discuss this idea going forward.
- I keep planning to give Skyler some serious attention, and then I never get around to talking about her: I'll try to fix that. For now, I'll just say that—though Anna Gunn is a very attractive woman, and not a bad singer—the "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" scene might have been the most awkwardly disturbing thing in all of these episodes. Something about that was just downright creepy.
- Apparently, Saul Goodman is getting his own spin-off, a one-hour dramedy called—of course—Better Call Saul, scheduled to premiere on AMC in February of 2015. I enjoy the character, but I have trouble imagining him (or Odenkirk) sustaining his own show. On the other hand, I am learning to have faith in Vince Gilligan, so one can't help but be a little excited.