BREAKING BAD Binge Watch – 4×01-4×04

It's been a tough few months here at The Unreliable Critic, as the demands of my real job and the distractions of the real world have made my posting schedule erratic at best. (Apologies.) I'm hitting the ground running with my New Year's Resolutions, however, by committing to finish my binge-watch of Breaking Bad over the next few weeks.

Not that binge watchus interruptus is an uncommon phenomenon. One of my goals was to capture the experience of bingeing a show, and, often, part of that experience is taking (or needing) a goddamned break. Though there were external factors at play, I confess that part of the reason for my unannounced hiatus was "Breaking Bad Burn-Out." First-run viewers had nearly a year between seasons, but watching the first 33 episodes over a period of a few weeks left me feeling a little fatigued, and more than a little depressed.

Part of this was due to my finding Season Three to be the weakest season so far—with some fairly execrable episodes like "Abiquiu"—but part of it was also just a creeping malaise. Through Season Two I still harbored hope that there might eventually be some light at the end of this tunnel—for Jesse, at least, if not for Walt—but by the end of Season Three I felt quite certain that the tunnel, like the characters, is going to just keep going down.

At this point, however, I've now had a couple of months off, and am ready to return to the meth-baked, money-grubbing, face-shooting, turtle-exploding, despair-inducing world of Breaking Bad.


Binge Watch Period: December 28–29, 2014
Episodes Watched: Season 4, Episodes 1–4 ("Box Cutter," "Thirty-Eight Snub," "Open House," and "Bullet Points" )
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: I've got my second wind, and I'm ready to push on through to the end.

An unfortunate side-effect of my time away from Breaking Bad was that I had to go back and refresh my memory about where we left things at the end of Season Three. I remembered, for example, that Jesse shot poor Gale right in the face, in order to prevent Gus from killing Walt. But I couldn't remember exactly why Gus wanted to kill Walt and Jesse in the first place.

What it comes down to, of course, is Jesse: Jesse is a loose-cannon—"never trust an addict," Gus told Walt way back in Season Two—and Walt's loyalty to his young apprentice is a problem for Gus. Last season, Jesse was skimming product from the lab, and he caused a ruckus by seeking revenge on the two dealers who killed his girlfriend's little brother. Walt himself then had to kill the dealers, to prevent them from killing Jesse. All of this, finally, led Gus to the understandable conclusion that Walt and Jesse had become more trouble than they were worth. (Got all that?)

I'm covering this ground again not just to remind myself (and you) where we are, but to emphasize the interesting point that Jesse is Walt's Achilles heel. Which, when we think about it, is ironic: Jesse is the victim of Walt's greatest crime—killing Jane—but he's also the source of most of Walt's problems. Walt has become a monster in many ways, but he refuses to give up on Jesse. (In the third-season finale, there was a moment when it seemed he had given Jesse up—when he pretended to offer Jesse's life in exchange for his own—but this turned out to be a ploy.)

The complicated relationship between these two men is the real reason I'm sticking with Breaking Bad: I want to see how it all plays out. Walt—as Jesse has accused him—has screwed up Jesse's life thoroughly. (And Jesse doesn't even know all the ways in which this is true.) And Walt continues to screw up Jesse's life, as we see this season. But Walt has also repeatedly put his neck on the line for his young friend and surrogate son. I think there are a lot of complex reasons for this, that perhaps have very little to do with friendship or genuine goodness. (Walt's powerful guilt—and his need to not see himself as a monster—is probably driving his protection of Jesse much more than affection or morality.) Still, the way the souls of these two men hang together in delicate tension is fascinating: Jesse's only chance for salvation lies in getting away from Walt, but he himself probably represents the only hope for Walt's fading humanity.

Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walt (Bryan Cranston) in Box Cutter

Where Walt's allegiance to Jesse has gotten them both at the beginning of Season Four is facing almost certain death. The season premiere, "Box Cutter"—by far the best of these four episodes—is a tense hour of television in which Walt and Jesse are held hostage in the lab by Mike and Victor, waiting to see what Gus will decide to do with them.

The difference in how the two men react is striking. Jesse—clearly traumatized from shooting Gale—is almost catatonic; if he cares whether he lives or dies, he doesn't show it. (In fact, he may prefer at this point to be dead.) Walt, however, almost seems to be enjoying himself: he is nervous, yes, but he's also cocky, like an arrogant chess player who is exceedingly proud of the brilliant move he has just made. He is convinced that he is now the only one who can cook Gus's meth, and he's smugly amused when Victor tries to prove him wrong. ("Bet he forgets the aluminum," he says to Jesse, as he watches Victor begin a cook.)

The centerpiece of this episode—and it's a good one—is the scene in which finally Gus shows up. The scene is almost exactly ten minutes long, and it's ten minutes in which Gus says not a word, and Walt never stops talking. As they watch Gus slowly and silently cross the room, undress, put on splash-gear, and retrieve a box-cutter from a drawer, Walt lays out his case for why Gus needs them, frantically making the argument through logic, through economics, through chemistry, through principles of professionalism, through anything that will stave off whatever Gus is about to do. (Giancarlo Esposito plays this brilliantly: he channels, through Gus's controlled movements and expressionless face, just how very much he would like to kill Walt.) Finally, Gus surprises everyone present—including Mike, and especially Victor—by slitting Victor's throat instead, and holding him in front of them all as he bleeds out and dies. He drops Victor at their feet, reverses the long slow sequence of his entrance and changing of clothes, and—just as he is leaving—says the first words he's uttered since he arrived. "Well?" he says. "Get back to work."

Breaking Bad Season Four, Part One

It's a great scene, and a complicated message that Gus is sending about his own brand of "professionalism." First of all, obviously, it is a monstrous demonstration of his ruthlessness and will. (In case they mistook him for a mild-mannered businessman, Gus demonstrates—symbolically and literally stripping off the garments of an executive—that he is a dangerous man willing to get his hands as dirty as necessary.) Second, it's an expression of his total absence of sentimentality, and a demonstration of the principle that everyone in his operation is expendable. Finally, it's an odd gesture of reassurance, and even good-will: Victor did know how to cook their recipe fairly well, and so, if he had lived, Walt and Jesse would have constantly feared that they were still in danger. By killing Victor, Gus is both reaffirming their importance to the organization and sending them a warning not to rely on that too heavily.

(I should mention here that—though it is a brilliant scene—there is a part of me that just doesn't buy any of this. Even if we accept that Walt's meth is so good that he is, indeed, indispensable—a point reinforced by a pre-credits flashback to Gale's expression of that very belief—I don't believe for a moment that Gus wouldn't at least kill Jesse. "You kill me, you have nothing," Walt tells him, while making his argument. "You kill Jesse, you don't have me."  It's a nice thing to say—and we see Jesse register the sentiment—but is it true? If Gus had killed Jesse—removing nearly all the complications in their operation—what would Walt's options have been? Would he really have died along with Jesse rather than go on working for Gus? And even if Gus had let him quit and live—for some reason—would Walt have really walked away from all the money? We know that Jesse's death might have snuffed out the last fading embers of Walter White's soul, but, even if Gus knew that, why wouldn't Gus want to do that? It's not even as if he needs Walt's affection for Jesse in order to control Walt, since there are plenty of other people Walt cares about. The only reason I can think of is not an organic one, but a necessity of plotting: the show needs Jesse alive.)

Heisenberg Returns

But what this episode really does is establish the dilemma of the season as a whole, which is being trapped. It's funny to remember now that I spent a lot of my first few reviews of Breaking Bad talking about it as a fantasy of male self-empowerment, because here—at just over the halfway point for the series—"empowered" is the last thing we'd call Walt and Jesse. Once, Walt's super-villain alter-ego Heisenberg seemed like a force to be reckoned with, but there's a nice reminder in this season's second episode, "Thirty-Eight Snub," of just how ridiculous the Heisenberg act always was. "At the first opportunity, Gus will kill us," Walt tells Jesse at the end of "Box Cutter," and so the next episode opens with Walt buying a gun. The dealer, Lawson (played by the fabulous Jim Beaver) is politely helpful, but there's an element to the conversation that suggests he is a grown-up gently remonstrating a foolish adolescent. (Watching Walt fumble with the gun from various positions, he says "You're gonna want to practice your draw—a lot.")

Walt is still living—and, I would suggest, still on some level enjoying—the fantasy and drama of his real-life game of cops and robbers. Note how disinterested he is, throughout these episodes, in Skyler's more down-to-earth and practical concern about buying a car wash so they can launder the money. It's further proof that this was never really about the money for him, or even—really—about protecting and supporting his family. It was always about this silly, self-aggrandizing game in which he could feel more alive. He is addicted to the drama, addicted to the danger, addicted to the sense of power.

But these episodes emphasize just how ridiculous Walt is, and how outmatched he is trying to play this game for mortal stakes. First, he tries to convince Mike to set up a face-to-face meeting so he and Gus can "clear the air." Mike—who knows exactly what Walter wants to do—just looks amused. "Walter, you're never going to see him again," he says. Later, having no better ideas, Walt drives to Gus's house and prepares to walk up to the front door and—presumably—assassinate him. We see him compose himself, steel up his courage, and—as a final gesture of preparation—don the mighty hat of Heisenberg. He walks like a gunslinger towards Gus's house, the music building dramatically for the showdown—and then his phone rings. "Go home, Walter," Mike says calmly, and the mighty Heisenberg deflates. (It's a nice touch from the director—the brilliant Michelle MacLaren—that we cut immediately from the tight, dramatic close-up of Walt to a high overhead shot, emphasizing just how small and insignificant a player he is on this game board.)


Finally, Walt tries to turn Mike against Gus, and it's another one of those scenes in which we feel Walt is in way over his head, displaying a confidence in his own intellectual superiority and criminal acumen that just isn't justified. Walt thinks he's clever enough to manipulate Mike—"If it happened to Victor, it could happen to you"—and Mike politely hears his pitch. "You done?" he asks, when Walt is finished—and then gives Walt a well-deserved beating. There isn't really even any anger in Mike: just annoyance, and a need to teach a lesson. Walt thinks this is a meeting of mutually-respectful equals—"an argument with a co-worker," Walt later calls it—but to Mike it's a smacking-down of an annoying, out-of-line subordinate.

And one wonders if this isn't the real problem for Walt. "You won, Walter," Mike tries to tell him. "You got the job. Do yourself a favor, and learn to take 'yes' for an answer." But Walt is clearly bristling at being an employee: he resents the presence in the lab at Victor's replacement Tyrus (Ray Campbell); he is insulted at the "new policy" of double-checking the weight of the meth; he is infuriated at the surveillance cameras Gus has installed. ("It's a violation of the workspace!" he complains.) We have seen since the beginning that Walt is driven by a desire to feel powerful, to feel like a criminal mastermind, to feel like a bad-ass, but he has now become something he never wanted to be: he has become Gale. That's not good enough for him, even at $15 million a year.

And it's worth noting, of course, that Gale, in death, has become him. The cops have found Gale's lab notes, and Hank—shown the evidence by his former associate Tim (Nigel Gibbs)—has come to the understandable conclusion that Gale was Heisenberg. "That's Albuquerque's public-enemy #1," Hank tells Walt, as they watch Gale singing Tom Schilling's "Major Tom" in a hilarious karaoke video.

This, we suspect, is something Walt will not be able to tolerate: since the beginning of the show, Walt has barely been able to contain the urge to tell everyone that he is Heisenberg, that he figured out how to take care of his family, that he is the criminal mastermind behind the best meth in the Southwest. He will not be able to allow Gale to get credit for his recipe, any more than he could let Jesse sell blue meth without him. ("This is my formula, mine," he protested at the beginning of Season Three, after he had supposedly reformed: this blow to his vanity was what allowed Gus to lure Walt back into cooking in the first place.) The theme of pride comes up again in these episodes, when Skyler is coaching Walt through his gambling cover story: again, Skyler is just being practical, figuring out how to explain their financial windfall to the outside world, but Walt bristles at the "shame" he's supposed to express when describing his gambling addiction. "And why am I so ashamed?" he asks Skyler, venomously, as he goes through her script. "I was, and am, providing for our family." Like so many before him, it seems inevitable that pride will—someday—be his downfall.

And, finally, that may be what he wants. I've talked before about Walt's self-destructive streak: throughout the series, every bit of good fortune—his cancer remission, the end of his financial problems, etc.—has set him off on a spiral of disaster; every time he has achieved any kind of security he has felt compelled to fuck it up. "Learn to take 'yes' for an answer," Mike wisely tells him, but Walt can't do that, has never been able to do that. His greatest fear, in fact, may be that Gus doesn't intend to kill him: if that's the case, everything—the job, the money, the car wash cover-story—has fallen perfectly into place, and Walt has stumbled into total security. That's intolerable to him—that's the real trap he fears being caught in—and so he has to manufacture the drama and danger for which he secretly longs.

Jesse (Aaron Paul)

And this, ultimately, brings us back to where we began: Walt's allegiance to Jesse. The question of why Walt keeps Jesse around has been unanswerable since Breaking Bad began: these two men, who are so inextricably linked, do not even like each other. But perhaps Walt sticks to Jesse precisely because Jesse is the fly in his ointment, the monkey-wrench in his machine, the crack in his armor. Take Jesse out of the equation, and Walt's life becomes simple, and stable, and successful. Walt needs Jesse, because Jesse provides chaos, because Jesse will almost certainly—one way or another—get him killed.

But what does Jesse need? I've skipped over Jesse in my discussion of these episodes, because—though Aaron Paul does fantastic work here—Jesse's arc if fairly simple right now: killing Gale has pushed him over the edge, and brought home to him just exactly who he is and what his life has become. "I'm the bad guy," he said at the beginning of Season Three—after Jane had died—but it wasn't totally true then. Season Three was all about that premonition becoming true, ending with that final shot of Jesse pulling the trigger. Now he's dealing with that, and he's not dealing with it well. It's almost funny how little he cares about all the drama Walt is manufacturing: he doesn't care about Gus, he doesn't care about the cameras and the increased supervision, he doesn't care about the danger they might be in.

He doesn't even care about the money, and perhaps he never did. All Jesse is using his money for is to keep a party going at his house 24-hours a day, a party in which he takes no pleasure of any kind. It's not about fun, and it's not even—as it once might have been—about his being lonely. It's just about distraction, about sustaining a constant, deafening din—he keeps turning the stereo up—designed to drown out all the thoughts in his head and annihilate his own consciousness. Everything he has ever touched has turned to shit, everyone he has ever cared about he has destroyed. We see the last person he cared about, Andrea, come back in "Thirty-Eight Snub," and—though Jesse has given her money—he won't even try to be a part of her life. "Use it to get you and Brock out of that shitty neighborhood," he says of the money. "Or you could go out and spend it on glass and I'd have no way of stopping you." It's not that he doesn't care; it's that he knows better now than involve himself with her at all, even with the best of intentions. He won't even go near her son, as if his own very presence is toxic.

So he uses his fortune to surround himself with people he doesn't care about, and turns his house into a meth den, all to drown out his own thoughts and the voice of his conscience. He doesn't care when some random junkie steals the $78,000 in cash he has left carelessly lying around; he doesn't care when Mike brings the money, and the junkie, back; he doesn't care about much of anything right now.

"At least now we all understand each other," he says to Walt in "Box Cutter." "We get it. We're all on the same page…The one that says, If I can't kill you, you'll sure as shit wish you were dead." Jesse probably does wish he were dead, but it's worse than that: he seems to know that he's not going to die, and has just accepted the endless, living hell his life has become.

At the end of these four episodes, Mike has convinced Gus that Jesse has become "increasingly uncautious," and that something needs to be done. Our last shot is of Mike driving Jesse out into the desert, and I'm sure we are supposed to think—as Walt does—that Gus has decided Jesse's time is up. But the dead-eyed Jesse himself looks resolved, even bored: if his history on this show has taught him—and us—anything, it's that Jesse won't die: he'll just wish he had.

See why I need a break from this show once in a while?

Jesse and Mike in BULLET POINTS

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  •  Obviously, I skipped over a lot in these four episodes, but in truth they are largely uneventful. I enjoy Hank and Marie, and the contrast of her perky optimism with his dark frustration yields some funny moments. ("I heard you broke new ground today!" she says. "I walked 16 feet in 20 minutes," he responds. "And I had maybe this much less shit in my pants.") But overall it feels like the show is straining a little too hard to make their situation parallel Walt and Skyler's. Hank, of course, is more literally trapped than Walter is, resenting the care of his wife and channeling his boredom into mineral collecting: it's an absurd dark reflection of Walt's own impotence and boredom, being trapped in his job with nothing but chemistry to think about. Meanwhile, Marie "breaks bad" through stealing from strangers and pathological lying, paralleling Skyler's own descent into lying, money laundering, and extortion as she as increasingly become the resented caretaker of her husband.
  • Skyler, as it turns out, is rather good at lying, money laundering, and extortion. She manages to con the car wash away from Bogdan (Marius Stan) with a phony environmental inspection and some shrewd negotiation, and she manages to con her husband into going along with it by playing—as everyone does—to his masculine pride. (She tells him Bogdan said "something along the lines of, 'You weren't man enough to face him yourself…that you had to send your woman to do your business for you.")
  • Gus is apparently still having problems with the cartel, as one of his shipments comes under attack from Mexicans with machine-guns. Apart from everything else, it's a nice reminder of how Mike and Gus are used to dealing with much bigger problems than Walt and Jesse's adolescent bullshit. (We see Mike stoically wait it out while the truck is perforated with bullets—barely noticing when half his ear is shot off in the bargain—and then calmly dispatch the two hijackers. It's no wonder that Walt barely even registers as an annoyance to him.)
  • I like when this show cuts the tension with some (pitch-black) physical comedy, as when Walt and Jesse try to stand Victor's body up in a plastic drum in "Box Cutter." And it's a nice callback to Season One's "And the Bag's in the River" when Mike wonders aloud whether hydrochloric acid will really take care of the body. "Trust us," Jesse says, darkly.

Next: Episodes 4×05–4×09

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