Monday, 22 August 2011

Choices I Have Made: Breaking Bad review


BREAKING BAD: 'Cornered'

Has there ever been a character so dislikeable whom an audience has been asked to root for than Walter White? Some would immediately argue Tony Soprano, yet for all his cold-bloodedness, he had his sympathetic side: the exposure of his vulnerabilities in therapy, his love for animals, and so on. Walter White? All he has are excuses. He had cancer once, as this episode reminded us through the appearance of his conspicuous scar when taking a shower, but to all intents and purposes, that has long since been forgotten. He started cooking meth to support his family, but it soon turned into his own personal mission to justify his delusions of self-importance.

Now he's just a hateful narcissist, being slowly driven mad by the constant danger hanging over his head. He continues to tell himself that he's still the one in control, burning every bridge that may lead to his being forced to face the truth. In 'Cornered', the sixth episode of Breaking Bad's remarkably tense fourth season, Walt finds himself more isolated than ever. He's not completely wrong when thinking aloud in front of Jesse that 'this is all about me', but fails to remember that he's not the only one involved in his own story. Walt has left quite the trail of devastation on his way to Gustavo Frings' laboratory, and he's going to need the help of those who got him there to also get him out. Unfortunately, asking for help is not something Walter White seems able to do anymore.
The worst thing for Walt is that everyone is beginning to see him for what he really is, except himself. His lies, self-obsession, pathological streak... everyone around him is telling him things he ought to recognise in himself, yet he has placed himself on too high a pedestal to take note, even when it could save his life. Instead he rejects people and dismisses their claims as foolishness. After all, no-one can match the intellect of the great Walter White, physics genius and meth chef extraordinary. He's survived long enough in this business not to need advice, so he'd like to think, conveniently forgetting quite how much luck (if the continuation of his descent into hell could ever be called that) has been involved in his staying alive.

Walt remains steadfast where all around him, people are adapting to the perils posed by their new environment and chipping away at what little power he has left. In the cold open, cartel thugs show that they've learnt from their encounter with Mike in the back of the van by asphyxiating Fring's men inside rather than mounting a direct attack. Gus Fring needs Walt alive for the moment, but is stripping away his layers of protection: primarily, his relationship with Jesse Pinkman. Even at home, Walt's wife Skylar is becoming increasingly aware of what her husband's job could mean for her family should it all come crashing down around him and is working to reinforce what little defences they have left. Yet Walt is immovable. To him, nothing is changing because he isn't changing. The world can only be defined by his rules.

'Cornered' showed quite how deep that fallacy of Walt's goes. In virtually every scene he shared with another character, he was offered advice which could either help him or someone close to him, yet stubbornly refused to see them as anything other than irritating blemishes blocking the bigger picture he has painted for himself. Skylar confronts Walt with the outcome of his drunken boasting to Hank at the end of last week's episode, but all he hears is a nagging wife whom he thinks has no idea about his work. She might not know the details, but does knows (a part of) her husband well enough to recognise when he's cracking under pressure. If she can piece together his links with Gale and the danger he now finds himself in, Hank is only a whisker away from doing the same. No follow through on Hank's discovery of Gale's links to Pollos Hermanos, incidentally, but it's one of many lingering threats that Walt continues to be blind to. 

When Skylar states the obvious to Walt that he's in over his head, he can't in any way accept that there may be some truth to what she is saying (even if her suggestion of going to the police would obviously be madness) and digs himself deeper in his furious attempt to reinforce his own sense of power. 'I am the danger!' he declares. He's right, but not in the way he thinks he is. When death comes to your door in Albuquerque, Walter White is probably involved, but by accident rather than design.

Had Walt been the man he like to think of himself as, he would be able to manipulate Skylar into recognising the broad strokes of his situation enough to get her on his side and recognise the danger of going to the police, without going into enough detail to ruin her vision of him as a good man in a dangerous world. Instead, he only succeeds in portraying himself as a psychopath who poses a direct threat to her family. That she returns from her short-lived bid for escape - following a beautifully shot, if rather too obvious, scene at the Four Corners monument - is only out of loyalty to keeping the people she loves safe. How long can Walt hope to be included in that group?

Even Bogdan, the former owner of the car wash whom Skylar fooled into handing it over, sees Walt more clearly than he is able to see himself. He's goading him, for sure, when recalling the days when Walt was an employee scrubbing cars and how he had to turn to Skylar to get the car wash deal done. Yet Bogdan recognises Walt as every bit the same impotent worker he used to be, and is spot-on in his observations that he doesn't have what it takes to become the boss.

His belief that Walt will become lax, kicking back and putting his feet up, is proven literally true when Walt bribes a trio of Fring's workers to clean the meth lab for him. As they scrub away at his equipment, Walt smugly raises a cup of Gale-brand coffee, his feet resting on a nearby table, to the watching security camera with no thought to the consequences for the three women he 'employed'. As far as he is concerned, nothing can go wrong because he is in charge. Or so he thought: soon the women are on the bus back to Honduras (or so Tyrus says, anyway) and Walt is reminded that his actions will not be without consequences.

That's the difference between Walt and Gus at this junction. Both are at an impasse, yet despite Walt's protestations to the contrary, Gus is the only one still able to make choices and slowly progress towards a situation more to his advantage. Where Walt has to shout in an attempt to remind everyone of what a powerful and fearsome man he purports to be, Gus makes more subtle, concise gestures that are infinitely greater in meaning and effect. If their roles were swapped, Walt would probably have killed the three women who cleaned the meth lab for their transgressions. Gus simply has them removed (or if they are to be killed, waits for the right moment and place to do so), sending the same message to Walt - his actions affect innocent people around him - with none of the messy consequences that a rasher choice would result in.

His ongoing seduction of Jesse is also based on his ability to see him as a person, rather than disposable lab rat. (Let's not pretend that Walt keeps Jesse around for anything other than self-affirmation). Where Walt tells Jesse at length how insignificant and useless he is, Gus offers two short sentences which are more genuinely appreciative and effective at appealing to Jesse as a person than anything Walt has ever come up with.

If Jesse can continue to prove himself useful beyond his part in the Walter White saga, he may come out of this with a far better deal than he had initially, and a more agreeable father figure to boot. Oh sure, Gus has a habit of dicing his workers up with box-cutters, but that's chicken feed compared to what Walt has put him through. Jesse is finally getting a sense of self-worth and the opportunity to explore his talents - even though, as proven by his almost talking himself into getting shot inside the meth house, he's still as blunder-prone as ever. Walt may see Jesse as being manipulated as part of a larger scheme and while that's technically right, on a fundamental level it boils down to Jesse being offered something significantly better than what he had before.

By the end of the episode, the only person Walt has left who is loyal to him is his son, but even he is beginning to grasp the nuances of their relationship and play them to his advantage. He immediately recognises Walt's desire to buy him off when Skylar does a runner, making his dad shell out for the far more extravagant car than has been put on offer. Junior feels safe in doing this because while he only has a small part of the picture available to him, he's using that narrow field of vision to maximum effect.

Walt is fully taken in by being able to play the doting father, yet Skylar immediately drags him back to reality on her return and forces him to see how the one act of buying the car could break down everything they've worked for to protect themselves. Walt is one of the few characters with the entire picture open to him, yet limits himself to seeing only a tiny part of it at once. Skylar and Junior can only see bits and pieces, but they connect them in far more significant ways. If Walt is to prove himself as the one who knocks, he'll have to be careful that it is not on his own door.


No comments: