Monday, 15 August 2011

Not The Guy: Breaking Bad review


TELEVISION REVIEW

BREAKING BAD: 'Shotgun'

First off, some good news: Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan has reportedly been locked in difficult negotiations with network AMC for some time now over the programme's future, but it was confirmed last night that he has finally got his wish: a sixteen-episode final season which will bring Walter White's story to its end.

I usually avoid reporting news, but apart from the fact that the announcement is something all Breaking Bad fans should be celebrating (there were rumours about having to change networks, or drag the story out by at least one more season than Gilligan wanted), it seemed timed to ominous perfection to coincide with Walter White taking another big step towards his inevitable self-destruction. Every step of the way, pride has been Walt's downfall. Remember all those times he could have saved himself and escaped the meth business, with minimal damage and money in the bank, yet pride has pulled him back in. Now that same character flaw isn't just keeping him trapped, but calling in the predators to finish him off once and for all. Why? Because Walter White's ego can't handle being forced to ride shotgun.
 
Everyone has their pride: I adore deconstructing Breaking Bad and the subtle tricks and themes it weaves into every episode, and almost cheered after realising what the title of this episode really meant. Of course, we were supposed to think that something terrible was about to happen to Jesse - pretty unlikely both at this stage of the season and in a programme which never avoids an opportunity for misdirection, though it did bring about a tense and beautifully filmed homage to Once Upon A Time In The West - and that the weapon of choice of Gus' 'assassin' was the key point of reference, but it was what happened during that scene, rather than the props used within it, which was symbolically important. 

Jesse, having been bored out of his mind all day doing his duty as a lackey by following Mike around on pick-ups, takes the initiative and jumps from the passenger to driver's seat. As long as we've known him and no matter how much suffering he has endured, Jesse Pinkman has always been the one riding shotgun. We've seen his intelligence peek through at several moments this season - remember last week when he immediately saw through Mike's ploy to intimidate him? - and Gus, in his ongoing battle for supremacy with Walter White, is moving to make Jesse realise that he doesn't need to be stuck in the metaphorical passenger seat of his partnership anymore. 

In honesty, the scenes where this played out were among my least favourites of the season so far, if only because they were uncharacteristically predictable and relied a bit too much on Jesse making the right assumptions - that Gus didn't send the man to kill him, and that Mike genuinely had nothing to do with it, etc. The possibilities it set in motion are exciting enough to cover for those contrivances though: I've posited a few times in these reviews that this season will see a role-reversal in the relationships between the masters and their 'servants', most notably that Jesse might be the one with the most to gain from the Gus-Walt feud. I certainly never imagined that Gus might be the one to set that in motion for his own advantage.

Where Gus has sat back, dispassionately judged the situation facing him and played according to the conditions of the board, Walt continues to make his choices based on irrational instinct and insecurity. Wherever Gus is hiding himself - he certainly bailed from his Pollos office fast enough - he must be laughing himself silly at the idea that Walt, aside from his one superbly executed play at the end of last season, poses a serious threat to his operations. At this stage, he's just a ranting fool with a single talent that is keeping him alive. Gus has had his number at every turn and now identified his need for self-affirmation and power as his key weakness, so started gradually stripping away every trace of self-worth. 

For some reason, it had never occurred to me before that the reason for Walt clinging onto his relationship with Jesse so obsessively is because of it being something he has control over, rather than out of genuine affection. He gets to act the big man when Jesse is in trouble, as prompted his transformation into Heisenberg back in season one's A Crazy Handful O' Nothing, so the idea of Jesse taking control is just about the worst thing that could ever happen to him.

He doesn't love Jesse, or even care about him - we've seen that proven countless times. What Walt cares about is his having the ability to control Jesse's fate, to be the one who can save him or make him sacrifice himself. He relies on Jesse staying under his thumb to feed his ego while Skylar takes control of his money and home life, and he has to face the truth of being Gus' glorified worker bee, or less still: how demeaning was the Pollos Hermanos manageress who told him to get out of Gus' office because it was an 'employees only' area?

Everything in this episode was designed to build up Walt's feelings of inadequacy - from his frenzied 'rescue' attempt and armed visit to the restaurant being all for nothing, to having to listen over dinner to the flood of lies that he no longer has control over - until he drank himself into a stupor and committed his gravest folly to date when Hank started giving credit to the deceased Gale (who is turning out to be quite the loveable character, since passing - the writers are clearly having a ball with all the little personality quirks they're cramming into the evidence he left behind) for Heisenberg's achievements as a 'meth chef', at the same time reminding Walt of all the potential he had to be a great and respected man.

Was it a step too far? Would even Walt, his ego being squeezed so tightly, have made such a monumental misjudgment? I can imagine it being a point of contention given the magnitude of the stupidity involved, yet the circumstances came off as painfully plausible to me, making the scene one of the most agonising and intese yet produced in a series which has specialised in them. Just as Hank was ready to accept a life in the passenger seat, satisfied with the closure he had to leave his meth investigations to someone else, Walt gave him a reason to take the wheel again. Walt's outburst, meanwhile, has left him exactly where he was: riding shotgun in his own life, only the ride just got a whole lot bumpier.

It should be noted once again that, as logical as every one of Gus' moves have been, he hasn't exactly been playing a perfect game either. Last week, I ventured that his failings seemed based on an inability to take the human element into his calculations, and the end of this episode could have marked a turning point when those small mistakes compiled into a serious problem. He has worked his plan to strip Walt down until he is worthless enough to discard, but did not anticipate how that same pride he is manipulating would manifest itself at the White family home, or around that pesky DEA Agent of a brother-in-law.

Even Gus couldn't predict Walt making as stupid a mistake as he did, and it looks to have led Hank right to the Pollos Hermanos doorstep. There's also still the question of whether Mike will stay loyal once the going gets tough, having witnessed how his boss sees his henchmen as disposable assets. With a major collision seemingly not far down the road, who will be the one to take the wheel?

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1 comment:

W. I. Boucher said...

Excellent analysis of the situation. Gustavo's manipulation of Walt's ego began when he bought blue sky from Jessie and tossed Walt half the money. it was the key to get Walter to sign on to the project.