(This piece was orginally published on Chud.com on 7/12/12)
Season Four does something new, and actually opens with a clean up
episode. And a great example of how the show builds tension out of
long, quiet stretches and stillness. The scene in that
episode? Nearly ten minutes, uninterrupted, with no dialogue from
anyone but Walter. Most shows would cut to commercial on the look of
shock on the characters’ faces once the murder was committed, but Breaking Bad, oh man, Breaking Bad not only shows the victim bleed out in agonizing real time, but watches Gus wash up and unhurriedly change back into his street clothes before ending the scene. Breaking Bad may not move slowly overall, but it sure as shit is methodical. And it is riveting for it.
You know what’s less riveting? Hank collecting rocks. Moving on…
I guess it makes sense to have Hank being in a funk for a few
episodes in that it allows the Heisenberg investigation to be the thing
that revives him. And I suppose the writers like exploring how the
terrible medical adversity can bring out the worst in people as well as
the best (sometimes I wonder if the whole show wasn’t inspired by one of the best Onion articles ever), but man it is unpleasant to watch him take out all his frustrations on his wife.
You know what else is unpleasant? The facework Anna Gunn had done
after season 2. It’s…simply unfortunate. It actually pulls me a bit
out of the incredible, intense conclusion of “Crawl Space” how along
with the angle and make-up job, it has her looking more like Pennywise
than her S1 self.
The plot mechanics get a little convoluted this season, even before
we get to Walter’s circuitous plan in in the climax. A fair amount of
this comes from Mike and Gus being written to be “cool” for such a long
time. Gus has always been coldly logical and inscrutable, which is what
makes him so imposing as an antagonist. But his whole decision-making
process re: keeping Walt and Jesse alive and trying to turn them against
each other is so complicated and counter-intuitive that we do need to
understand what he’s thinking to a degree. I know that to some extent
we’re supposed to be in Walt and Jesse’s shoes, anxiously trying to
decipher his motivations and predict his moves, but it’s not like the
show keeps us exclusively in their headspace. We see just enough to
understand more than our main POV characters do (which can make for some
good stuff, like the parallels between his partnership and
Walt/Jesse’s, and how the cartel “can’t” kill Gus just like he “can’t”
kill Walt), but we still have to connect a lot of dots ourselves.
The vague outlines are there, what with the cartel attacking Gus’s
trucks and sniping his employees, but things don’t feel as urgent as
they need to be to motivate him to keep the guys alive. And that’s in
part because there’s one too many scenes of Mike being an unflappable
badass for the threat to register as truly dire. Yeah, those sequences
wouldn’t be as exciting if he had back up, but when Mike hardly breaks a
sweat taking out the first 6 soldiers the cartel sent all by himself,
it’s hard to take them seriously as a mortal threat to Gus’s entire
empire. Mike being such a supersoldier makes for fun action sequences,
but it’s bad for the show’s greater narrative. It’s an issue the show
has run into from the other direction too; scenes are funnier when Jesse
is dumb enough to think “wire” is an element, or building a robot out
of RV parts is a viable option, but eventually the show is going to need
an entire season to hang on his being the 2nd best chemist in North
America. Scene vs season, micro vs macro…you get the idea.
That stuff never really sinks the show, though, because Jonathan
Banks is so fun to watch and holy god damn, Aaron Paul is so, so good.
He has all kinds of great scenes in this season, but the most amazing
has to be the “Problem Dog” monologue, which demonstrates why for all
the terrible shit both characters do, I continue to find Jesse a much
more sympathetic character that Walter. While Walt continually makes
excuses and evades responsibility for all of it, Jesse is begging
to be held accountable for his actions, and incredibly frustrated that
the universe refuses to punish him in a tangible way (he can’t even get
himself killed, no matter how many hardened murderers he pisses off!).
He doesn’t want to be “the bad guy”, but he lacks licit skills and the
world seems to constantly conspire to push him back into that role.
The most controversial aspect of the season was Walt’s Machiavellian
plot to turn Jesse back to his side by framing Gus for poisoning Brock.
And yes, it is complicated and improbable; just look how many different
names are in the previous sentence for crying out loud. But I’ve come
around on it in rewatching. I do have the caveat that I think it
would’ve been even more of a gutpunch if Brock actually did die, to
underline just how heinous Walt’s action was. As an audience to a piece
of fiction, it’s fairly easy for us to take a “no harm no foul”
approach to the reckless endangerment of ancillary characters,
regardless of age. And so I’m not sure if this registers as worse than
what Walt had done to Jane or Gale in previous seasons to everyone,
although there was a degree of premeditation and absolute innocence on
the victim’s part that wasn’t there with those who had to some extent
willingly involved themselves in Walt’s drug dealings. I will probably
take that back in season 5, though, when Jesse starts thinking back on
what a coincidence it was that his poison cigarette disappeared the same
day that the kid just happened to eat poison berries. Having Brock
around to confirm certain details could be crucial to the final split
between Walt and Jesse.
What I do not have trouble with is the logistics of the thing, which
are convoluted, yes, but make sense when you keep two points in mind.
1) This was an utter desperation move on Walt’s part, so even if it’s a
bit leaky, I can buy that it seemed like the only option at the time.
2) For all the logical leaps and reversals of blame Jesse goes through
in “End Times”, the plan didn’t need him to go through them. It
only required that he end up blaming Gus; if he jumped to that
conclusion initially, then maybe he comes straight to Mr. White for his
help. Or maybe he makes a suicide run at the Chicken Man all by
himself, which is win-win for Walt. If he gets lucky and takes Gus out,
problem solved, and if he gets himself killed then all of a sudden
Walt’s value to the Fring empire shoots back up. If he jumped to the
conclusion that Walt did it, then we get exactly what we got. Yes, Walt
has to talk him around while he’s pointing a gun at his head, but see
The only other issue I have with it is that the “twist” that Walt was
actually responsible is gotten to by the show playing less fair with
its audience than it has traditionally. BB has evolved into
something of an ensemble piece, as all shows must by their 4th year, but
Walt has always firmly been our protagonist, and we’ve never been left
out of his decision making process mid-crisis to such a large and
crucial extent. So yeah, as a “surprise” moment, it’s a bit cheap. But
it’s so much fun watching Walt scramble around and trying to figure out
his angle with Tio that I don’t mind that the show broke its own
narrative rules to get there.
Let us conclude this portion of the program by paying homage to one
Gustavo, oh, let’s say “Elezier”, Fring. Esposito is incredible in the
role, holding the screen and dominating scenes with little dialogue and
even less facial expressions. It seems like between this show, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and Sons Of Anarchy,
the default mode for a mob boss character is becoming to go completely
cold and affectless, but as good as even Michael Stuhlberg is as Arnold
Rothstein, none of those performances are as effortlessly compelling or
instantly iconic as Gus Fring. The biggest problem facing the final
stretch is finding a new threat to Walt that will not completely pale in
comparison, no mean feat with only a single season to develop them. I
do not envy the actor charged with filling Giancarlo Esposito’s shoes.
I have doubts that even an entire cartel can fill the void.
Estimated Profits: ~$1.25 million – ~$5000 (38 Snub)
+ ~$1 million (various cooks over a period of roughly 2 months) –
$800000 (car wash) – $62000 (car destruction and replacement) + $274000 –
~$100000 (Hank and Walt’s combined medical expenses) – $622552.33
(Ted’s taxes) – $25000 (bribe to Saul’s secretary) = approximately $1
million ahead, but then Walt wasn’t able to scrape together half of
that for the vacuum salesman, so I must have been underestimating the
combined costs of Walt and Hank’s treatment, Saul’s cut for the money he
laundered, replacement Aztek windshields, Walt’s new condo and random
start up costs for the car wash (or overestimating the amount of cooks
in the superlab). Let’s call it $400,000 ahead.
Murders – Emilio, Krazy 8, Jane, two of Gus’s dealers, Gale, Gus, Tyrus, Hector “Tio” Salamanca, two other Fring goons
Lesser Included Offenses - fraud in service of
breaking and entering (Walt’s condo), possession of an unregistereed
firearm, fraud/impersonating a government official in service of
extortion (car wash), misdemeanor trash burning, breaking and entering,
extortion (Ted), attempted murder (Brock), destruction of property and
reckless endangerment (Casa Tranquila), destruction of property and
reckless endangerment (the laundry)
Collateral Damage – One innocent janitor loses his
job and goes to jail on a bullshit marijuana charge. Hank had to kill a
guy, even if he was an insane, degenerate piece of filth who deserved
to die, giving him fairly severe PTSD. Combo was killed dealing for
Walt. Jane’s father’s life is utterly ruined. 167 passengers on two
planes are dead. Skyler is forced to become an accessory after the fact
(or take down her son, sister and brother-in-law with Walt). 3 broken
Pontiac Aztek windshields. Jesse’s RV is destroyed (I’m actually
suprised how sad I was to see it go, since it’s not like it hosted a ton
of good times or anything). On their mission to kill Heisenberg, the
Cousins kill 9 illegal immigrants and their coyote, an old woman with a
handicap-accessible van, a grocery-shopping bystander, an Indian woman
and the Reservation sheriff that investigates. Also they shoot Hank
multiple times, forcing him through a long, painful physical therapy
process. Andrea’s kid brother is murdered by Gus’s dealers due to
trouble Jesse and Walt stirred up. Jesse murders Gale, crushing him
with guilt and destroying his hard-fought sobriety. Gus murders
Victor to send a message to Walt and Jesse. Three Honduran workers get
deported (or maybe worse). Walt purposefully wrecks a car, straining
an already-injured Hank’s neck in an unspecified fashion. Ted Beneke
breaks his neck fleeing from Heisenpire goons. Brock is poisoned and
nearly dies. Tio blows himself up, but no one’s weeping for that
vicious old fucker. The staff of an industrial laundry is out of their
Sequences To Make Hitchcock Proud: Gus suits up in “Box Cutter”, the final scene of “Crawl Space”, the parking garage scene that closes “End Times”.
Heisenberg Certainty Principle - “I am the one who knocks.”
But honorable mention to Gus walking directly into sniper fire and dare it to come at me, bro.
Best Lie – A crowded field this year. I have to
give it up for the wonderfully protracted sequence of Walt and Skyler
having a script reading of their gambling cover story, with Walt as the
worst sort of primadonna actor, objecting that the writing isn’t
believable when he really just doesn’t want his character to look uncool
(which is ironic, because although it’s tremendously showy and
awards-bait-y material, Cranston himself is not the least bit vain in
his performance). It’s a great scene, but only a passable fiction.
Though in Skyler’s defense, she had to work within the basic contours of
the plot Walt’s actions had established.
I’m also partial to the careful recalibration of reality that is
Walter’s recounting of Mike beating him up. He certainly didn’t get
roughed up by a professional killer to discourage a plot to assassinate
his drug overlord, no sir. He “had an argument with a co-worker” over a
“particular business strategy” which “got a little heated” leading the
guy to “hit me, once”, and of course he didn’t retaliate because he’s a
“much older man.” But it’s good, really. It cleared the air. It’s a
great bit because Walt knows he’s lying but is still trying to convince
himself, but it’s a relatively trifling matter overall.
No, the best has to be Gus’s alibi for why his fingerprints were
found in Gale’s apartment. It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation,
with airtight execution, even when Hank throws him a curveball about his
past. Brilliantly conceived and impeccably performed, this is the Abbey Road of criminal alibis.
The Erlenmeyer Flask Is Mightier – Walt once again
cooks up ricin to try to take out Gus. He builds a pipe bomb in his
kitchen, and works up both a remote detonator and one linked to Tio’s
bell. Uses his botanical knowledge to fake ricin poisoning with (the
incredibly-fake-sounding) Lily of the Valley berries. Rigs the superlab
to self-destruct using only it’s contents.
Official Walter Jr. Breakfast Count: 13 (“Pilot”,
“Cat’s In The Bag”, “Gray Matter”, “Crazy Handful of Nothin”, “Down”,
“Negro y Azul”, “Over” x2, “ABQ”, “No Mas”, “Green Light”, “Cornered”,
We Are Done, Professionally – Break up number five
occurs in “Bug” (this time with more violence than ever before!), but
the boys are back together within three episodes.
It’s The Little Things – The incredible performance
Aaron Paul gives throughout “Box Cutter” without saying a word for 40
minutes. The performance Giancarlo Esposito gives in “Box Cutter” while
uttering only a single sentence. The ill-fitting Kenny Rogers truck
stop clothes Walt and Jesse are suddenly wearing after disposing of
Victor’s body. The way Gale is continually developed even though he’s
dead from the get-go, keeping him alive in the audience’s memory as he
continues to haunt the characters. Saul recounting his 5th grade
romantic history to Brock. Bimbo Skyler referring to “the Quicken” when
talking to the IRS. Tyrus making a point to smuggle Walt into the
laundry in a cart of dirty sheets. The way Huell says
“reasonably”. Walt crawling back out the broken bottom pane of the
glass door after being shaken down by Saul’s secretary. The hilariously
protracted scene of Tio dictating his phony message to Hank and the
Random Bits of Business: I’ll be doing posts about
each episode, but I don’t get screeners or anything and I have to work
like the rest of you shmoes, so I’ll have to just take some notes as the
show airs and hopefully shape them into legible if not complete
thoughts on Monday night.
Check out this great video,
highlighting the show’s magnificent cinematography. If it weren’t for
the huge, massive spoilers in the last two minutes, I’d recommend it as a
perfect trailer to rope in new folks.
I hope we see Jim Beaver’s gun dealer again for at least one scene.
Jesse Plemmons is going to be in season 5! This makes me inappropriately pleased, as he was always one of the best parts of Friday Night Lights.
My best guess is that Skyler hires him as a manager at the car wash,
but how hilarious would it be if they gave him a terrible spray tan and
had him as a new cartel boss? What? Only to me? Yeah. Yeah, that’s
Random predictions for the final season: Hank and/or Marie find out the truth about Heisenberg relatively early (i.e. the mid-season finale at the latest), Walt is entirely
insufferable in his triumph, the Beneke situation becomes a major
issue, as does the fact that Walt and Skyler don’t have much in the way
of cash reserves left, and Jesse unravels the Brock situation by episode
8. Walter Jr. eats at least one flapjack. Gus shows up again in at
least one flashback.