Welcome to our inaugural post of our new column, TV Misery! Because of timing for the launch of Film Misery 3.0, I decided to cover these first two Breaking Bad episodes in a single piece. That will not be the case in the future; expect six more recaps each Monday (of not late Sunday) until the end of this series.
Feel free to post any suggestions or feedback in the comments below, but be sure to tell me what all I got right and wrong in my recaps for each episode!
The cold-open to “Blood Money,” a continuation of the flash-forward that cold-opened season five’s premiere episode “Live Free or Die,” understandably prompted everybody to wonder what could possibly have happened reduce the humble abode of the decidedly not-humble Walter White to an emptied, ramshackle box. It struck me in equal measure, though, just how much had already happened in the years since Walt and his extremely pregnant wife Skyler first found themselves debating the costs and benefits of moving into 308 Negra Arroyo Lane (depicted in yet another time-jumping cold-open, a flashback in Season 3’s “Full Measure”). This is a home Walt initially did not want. “Why be cautious?” he debated with his wife. “We’ve got nowhere to go but up.” We presume now that the grizzled (and grizzly!) Walt, lurking through his deserted home to retrieving that indispensable yet chronically underused vial of ricin, is once again in that same position: with nowhere to go now but up.
So as curious as it feels to see Walt explore the empty shell of his former home and to wonder what more is in store for the Whites, it is melancholy that twangs hardest for me in this scene. I reflect on all the breakfasts, all the lies, all the Holly cuteness, all the hoarding of blood money, and all the I.F.T. declarations that have happened. Some memories were wonderful, others horrible. But now, there is only emptiness. Well… emptiness and ricin. Still, the point is hammered home: the trail Walt has spent the past two years blazing now runs deep, far too deep to believe that it is through mere dumb luck that his brother-in-law would find him out while on the toilet. We have flashed forward to a world that has been a long time coming. If Breaking Bad is a show about rewarding action with consequences, then surely the cold-open to “Blood Money” sets up this final batch of episodes as consequences of a serious, world-ending order.
But let’s talk about that brother-in-law, seeing as he has been on that pot for the better part of a year now, and should probably get off. I cannot say that Hank’s reaction in the minutes following his big epiphany – that his Blue Whale Heisenberg is a man with whom he’s regularly broken bread – is all that surprising. Yet what he does, politely blaming his desire to go home on a stomach bug, maintaining a casual air of Hank-style flippancy, all while remembering to stash away that fateful copy of Leaves of Grass, is absolutely the most understandable reaction you could expect him to have. Actually, I almost admire how swiftly and how smoothly Hank gets out, resisting the urge to tear off his brother’s face as he sweetly waves Holly’s little hand to say “buh-bye, Unca Hank!” If anything, Hank’s (initial) detective work seems as stellar as ever, as he takes a few days off to pour over all that Heisenberg evidence (in a manner requiring no less than a classic Breaking Bad-style montage), if only to reaffirm an ostensibly impossible suspicion that, when given more and more scrutiny, makes too much sense to ignore.
Yet these first two episodes have paved the way for a theory about Hank that I plan to nurture until I am proven wrong: as much as Hank has been established as Walt’s more principled, more morally consistent antithesis, he is not nearly as adroit as his brother-in-law in being able to blend family and business. Whereas Walt manages to adapt quite well to his wife’s insistence on getting involved, for instance, he still managed to find ways to keep her under his thumb. And let’s not forget how willing Walt was in Season 3 to trick Hank into thinking Marie had been seriously injured, purely to save his own ass. Hell, he’s even insinuated himself as a makeshift father figure for his lab partner Jesse.
Walt’s methodical ability to circumvent and even exploit his family, of course, is a likely by-product of the man’s ever-eroding sense of moral clarity. Compare this to the more rigid philosophy of Hank Schraeder, and how his poor handling of that same “Marie hoax” directly jeopardized his career, and indirectly left him incapacitated. Hank has a history of responding poorly when his family begins to mesh with his work. More broadly, his stubborn insistence on maintaining that divide impedes his sense of logical clarity.
We’ve already seen this impede Hank in some fairly obvious ways, and we will see the erosion of his rational side even more in the next episode, “Buried.” I have a hard time believing a logical Hank – a Hank in the right frame of mind – would even have considered tagging Walt’s car with the same tracking device he used to pin down Gus Fring. But it did happen. It has happened before, and I imagine it will happen again before the end. This is why, when I realized Hank and Walt’s long-awaited confrontation would cap this “Blood Money,” I was surprised more time wasn’t given for Hank’s suspicions and rage to gestate. Still, I was not remotely disappointed, since Hank has in the past relinquished his upper-hand so that he might acquiesce to his own emotions.
And how satisfying was it to see the emotionally explosive yet subversively humble Hank finally take on the monstrous hubris and the now pathological, faux-sniveling, truth-distorting Heisenberg? As thrilling as it often is to see two immovable ideologies finally crash against each other, a relentless ocean tide smashing ceaselessly against coarsened, mountainous rock. Of the two, one shall relent someday, but who will still be around on that day to witness the victor?
Walt’s final advice to Hank this week is to “tread lightly.” But I sincerely doubt he will.
- Since I had limited space to write, I did not really have a chance to get around to Jesse, who seems to have reassumed his now-typical fetal position, physically unable to share the same space as those two duffel bags of cash. What’s more, we learn that Jesse has suspicions surrounding Mike the Cleaner’s fate, seeing as he’s disappeared from the face of the earth and all of his imprisoned lackeys have been offed rather quickly (Pinkman can add two and two together, bitch!). Walt denies any involvement in killing Mike, lying through his teeth so convincingly that I almost believed him myself. But clearly Jesse’s had his fill of Walt’s moral compromises. Given what goes on in “Buried,” Jesse is clearly-redemption bound in this final stretch.
- Both Skyler and Lydia get minimal screen time this week, but I couldn’t be more pleased that they get to spend some time together. Watching a hapless Lydia getting shoved around will never stop being tired.
- A video game genius clearly needs to update the old Nintendo game Paperboy so you can play Jesse as he throws wads of cash at strangers’ doorsteps.
- The night after I watched this episode, I had a dream that the next Breaking Bad episode I watched was directed by David Lynch. I’m not entirely certain why, as nothing in this episode exactly inspired any direct formal comparisons to the Blue Velvet director’s mind-bending works, but perhaps the singularity of Breaking Bad simply reminds me of Lynch’s equally singular TV work two decades ago when he made Twin Peaks. Also, I have to admit I got a very Lynchian vibe from the opening scene of Walt exploring his old home, and particularly from that shot of Walt gazing upon the “HEISENBERG” graffito-tag on the living room wall.
- I made but one prediction for this week’s episode. I am pleased to say I was correct!
- Because it is seen through Hank’s newly-opened eyes, that “Buh-Bye, Unca Hank!” moment might be the most evil thing Walt has done, at least since he poisoned Brock.
Well, it would seem the monkey is in the banana patch.*
After opening with as taut and as eventful a season premiere as can be imagined, I have already heard some mumblings that “Buried,” the second banana in Breaking Bad’s final “Banana Patch” of episodes, was a perfectly worthy if disappointingly perfunctory follow-up episode, clearly intended to bridge the plot from one “Holy Crap Moment” to the next. That disappoints me slightly, if only because I like to think by now that everybody realizes Breaking Bad has never been a show about waiting for the next “Holy Crap Moment,” as awesome as those HCM’s can be. If anything, the HCM’s serve merely to punctuate the superb thematic and character work being worked on in every single episode. They are parsley, albeit unusually tasty and uncommonly satisfying parsley.
So if you walk away from “Buried” a bit let down, or less energized than you were at the end of “Blood Money,” don’t let the episode’s lack of bombast trick you into believing that nothing happened. In fact, I would argue that this has been one of Breaking Bad’s most clandestinely theme-driven episodes since Season 3’s “Fly,” even if it’s not nearly as flashy in its presentation (in fact, apart from a nifty shot involving Jesse and some playground equipment, this is one of the most visually straightforward episodes that regular Michelle MacLaren has directed).
In terms of theme, “Buried” actually lends some viability to one of my favorite recurring notions in the Breaking Bad utility belt: the notion of “Masculinity in Crisis.” I have always found the show at its most interesting when Walter White’s rise to power is perceived not as an authoritative sweep of grandeur and braggadocio, but as a sniveling, desperate attempt to retain power and privilege, cloaking any and all insecurities under a thinning, poorly quilted security blanket of machismo. To me, Walt’s most quoted line “I am the one who knocks!” was never the anthem of badassery that it has become with others; it was uttered at a time of immense insecurity for Walter White, at a time where death at the hand (or box-cutter) of his employer was but a certainty. Walt was trying (in vain) to convince himself of his own grasp on the situation as he was trying to convince his wife in that moment, and as a result, I have not since perceived Walt as anything more than the depressing sad-sack that he’s always been. All that has saved him is his amoral resourcefulness and his masculine grandstanding.
We left Walt last week as he was grandstanding some more, this time against a significantly less ignorant Hank. When there is nothing left to be said, however, the two men each take the first next step: They call Skyler. Unfortunately for Walt, his newly estranged brother-in-law gets to her first, and convinces her to meet with him. Walt, whom we learned last week has resumed chemotherapy, spends the remainder of the episode scrambling to cover his tracks. With the assistance of Saul Goodman and his increasingly delightful subordinates Kuby and Huell, Walt hauls his ungodly sum of cash out of storage, and in the middle of nowhere to bury it by himself. Nobody but Heisenberg, it seems, can be trusted to keep his secret.
In my recap of “Blood Money,” I articulated how Hank’s emotions often serve to squander whatever upper hand he might have, especially when his family is involved. My theory about Hank’s incapacity to manipulate gets a little more support this week in the way he bungles his chances to keep Skyler on his side. While it’s never clear how much tact would have been necessary to convince Skyler that Hank would protect her, both from Walt and from law enforcement (and judging from the look on Skyler’s face, I dare say Hank’s offer tempted her) it is clear that Hank lost Skyler’s trust the moment he asked for her recorded testimony. “What you want is to get Walt, at all costs,” Skyler tells Hank. When Hank starts to get desperate, she makes a scene. “Am I under arrest?!” she repeats, until Hank has to let her go. Again, Hank loses what control on the situation he thought he had.
When he tells Marie at the end of the episode “The day I go in with [Heisenberg’s true identity]… is the last day of my career,” you sense desperation. Hank openly acknowledges his livelihood is about to end. He accepts this as an inevitability. “[When] I go in there, I’m bringing proof, not suspicion. I can be the man who caught him, at least.” His search for hard evidence against Walt is, in light of the inevitable, his own desperate attempt to save face. Thank goodness for Hank that Jesse’s own downward spiral – his own desperate attempt to find redemption for the sins that haunt him – lands him back into the DEA’s custody. We’ll have to see if Hank can control himself a little better, now that he’s been blessed with yet another upper hand to squander.
With the livelihood of men in crisis, it’s gratifying to see the women taking charge en masse, particularly given that Breaking Bad has frequently been a boy’s club of a show (even if it does serve to expose those same men’s insecurities). Marie, confronting Skyler, is able to retrieve information not through an exchange of words and information, but in reading the agonized looks on her sister’s face. The sadly underused Marie finally gets her chance to connect the dots, and understands – perhaps far better than Hank can – how deeply complicit Skyler might be in her husband’s crimes. With a violent slap on the cheek, and a thwarted attempt to rescue baby Holly from the family Heisenberg (talk about an HCM), the sister-sister confrontation in “Buried” effectively mirrors the brother-brother showdown in the Schraeder Garage last week. Closing the scene, Marie has announces her shared interest with Hank in destroying Walter White, in finding vengeance for her own emotional despair throughout this series. “You have to get him,” Marie tells her husband. Now she’s out for blood as well.
Even Lydia gets a chance to shine. I almost cannot believe I am saying this, but I am legitimately interested in seeing how she picks up the pieces in a post-Heisenberg world. Will she flounder from incompetence, or will her unexpected coup on Declan help bring her product back up to a semi-respectable purity rate? Hopefully we’ll have a lot more time with Lydia before the end, because I am finally beginning to see something interesting in her character. I have severe doubts Lydia knows what she is doing, and I am fairly certain that she is in over her head. For sure, her decisions will all but doom poor Todd, whose only crime is being a dumber, less profane Jesse Pinkman. One last thing I know about Lydia, though, is this: She loves this work. Or at least, she loves the idea of doing this work. As close as she’s already come to losing her freedom, and losing her life, she relishes the danger as much as anybody in this series. She loves the idea of orchestrating a hit, even as she does so in her red-soled Louboutins and even as she plugs her ears and tightens her eyes to distance herself as far from the actual carnage as possible. But still, that carnage has bought her power, and I bet she won’t stop before the end.
But this episode really belongs to Skyler, whose decisions went a far this week in revealing not merely her increasingly astute pragmatism, but a significantly improved ability to employ a façade of emotional hysterics to manipulate any situation to her favor. If her encounter with Hank in the diner proved anything this week, it is that Skyler has become nearly as talented an actor as Walt has (though her conscience has eroded not nearly as much). Perhaps we will get more clarity as to why exactly Skyler did not pounce on the idea of selling her husband out – again, as great an actress as she’s become, I do believe enough emotion registers in her face to indicate that Hank’s outreached hand tempts her. I’m sure she is in enough control of the situation to understand that her involvement runs so deep that she cannot trust her brother’s ability to help her unconditionally. Still, perhaps deep down, as that final smile she gives Walt in the midseason finale “Gliding Over All” suggested, there is still a part of Skyler that feels loyalty to Walt, or perhaps even love. There may not be much left, but there might be enough.
Or maybe, given that all her choices this week follow her revelation that Walt’s cancer has returned, Skyler the Pragmatist has come out in full force, believing that the man who’s all but imprisoned her for the past year is dying once again, and that perhaps her own best option is to tread lightly, and to wait out the clock. While being tended to after he collapses on the bathroom floor, a sickly Walt pleads with Skyler to “…keep the money… never give it up… Please don’t let me have done all this for nothing.”
Like Hank, Walt is attempting to save face in light of certain defeat. Above anybody else in this series, thusly, it is Skyler who has the upper-hand. It is Skyler who still retains a modicum of her sister and brother’s sympathy. It is Skyler who is healthier than Walt. It is on Skyler that the freedom and liveliness of the White family now hinges, and it is Skyler who understands – as Walt does – that Heisenberg’s impending downfall will mean, by consequence, that she will have “done all this for nothing.” Her pragmatism takes charge:
“The Way Hank talks, he’s got his suspicions. Not much else. You can’t give yourself up without giving up the money. It’s the way this works, Walt. So maybe our best move here is to stay quiet.”
With the men suffering their little crises this week, it is now the women’s opportunity to seize control of the situation. Let’s see if they fare much better.
- *Need a labored metaphor to convey that all hell’s broken loose? Better call Saul!
- Now that I’ve written two recaps, I am find myself unwittingly parlaying discussion of specific plot points into referenda on Breaking Bad as a whole. Part of this is because I’ve never really written about Breaking Bad before, so I’m trying to fit all my eggs into a basket. Still, given that these are the final episodes, what better time than now to dole out referenda?
- I’m not sure whom to credit – director Michelle MacLaren, writer Thomas Schnauz or show runner Vince Gilligan – for deciding not to show Hank reveal what he knows about Walt to either Skyler or to Marie. Was this a matter of the show runners trying to avoid redundancies, or is this withholding of transpired events a stylistic/thematic flourish of some kind?
- Come to think of it, we didn’t exactly see the news get broken to Walter from his doctor that the cancer had indeed returned either! Bombshell revelations seem to be happening everywhere this season, except onscreen.
- I will not try to belabor this point every week, as I have grown a bit tired of arguing, but hopefully this recap hints at my position on the whole pro/anti-Skyler debate. If not, here’s my more willfully contentious take on her character. I’m not going to waste much space on these recaps trying to defend her role in this show. But you can know that I believe she is as critical to the success of Breaking Bad as any of the show’s other characters, and she is worthy of far more than the dismissal many fans have given her.
- Stupid Prediction of the Week: I say that somehow, the leaf of paper on the refrigerator showing the location of Walt’s money gets lost. Who knows, perhaps Skyler or Walter Jr. accidentally destroy it for a profoundly banal reason. Or maybe it gets cleared out when the police inevitably come and empty out Chez White.