Monday, 19 September 2011

Business Is Business: Breaking Bad review



If last week's Breaking Bad hinted at end-games to come, 'Salud' provided pay-offs in spades. I usually like to comb through these episodes and find some theme linking the various storylines together, but this week was all about the big moves forward. For sure, there was an undercurrent about memory and how it makes people the way they are - consider Walter describing his highly revealing relationship with his father as an attempt to salvage how his son might remember him, or how Don Eladio fails to realise that the vivid memories he left with Gustavo Fring proved the cause of his downfall, or Skylar again getting burnt by her rose-tinted view of Ted - but having that as the main discussion seems to be missing the point.

There are three episodes to go this season and Breaking Bad is kicking off in a big way. I have complained before that the build-up to this has been a bit too long in coming, but now that it appears to have arrived, the result was one of the best episodes of the season. Not a second was wasted in an hour by turn tragic, tense, exasperating and thrilling.
Let's start with Walt, because I might as well get my only complaint out of the way early, that he is once again on the periphery of the main action. I still see him as the series' lead character, whose arc from mild-mannered nobody to morally hollow villain will be remembered as its crowning achievement when everything ends twenty episodes from now. He only had two scenes in 'Salud', the first being when welcoming Walter Jr. into his flat and the second dealing with the aftermath, when he felt compelled to recount a haunting story from his childhood so that his son understood why he hadn't wanted to be seen in his battered, emotionally-ravaged state.

Both scenes were remarkably powerful: Walt Jr. has always been kept on the outside of his parents' business, protected from the horrors that occupy their real lives. His main concern is that the car his mother bought him for his birthday is a ridiculously grim little beast, which looks like a pencil sharpener and doesn't even come equipped with up-to-date media formats. (CDs? Pshaw!). He goes to see his dad, concerned after he missed his party, only to be faced with a wreck of a man, his face carved up by bloody wounds and wrinkles, barely able to speak or stand up. Walt Jr.'s only previous hint that something wasn't perfect in his parents' lives was when told that his father had a gambling addiction, but this only resulted in him seeing Walt as kind of a hero for beating the system. For the first time, he can see the effect that playing the system, albeit in a more dangerous way than he could ever dream of, is having on his father.

When Walt tells the story about his abiding memory of his crippled father, it is supposed to reassure Walt Jr of his determination to break out of his rut and leave behind a positive memory when he is gone. Instead, all it inspires from Walt Jr is the admission that he would rather remember his father in the way he was than the image of false sincerity that has been put forward over the past year.

That's a key difference between father and son right there: Walt endures his bad memories with bitterness, remembering his father only by the bad smells and fear rather than understand how much devotion he evidently inspired in those around him. He would rather live in a shallow illusion of happiness than have a long-lasting positive effect on his family and friends but go out in a weakened state. He despises his father for that memory and it has obviously shaped him very strongly, from his obsession with chemicals (trying to wipe clean the stain, as the hospital did?) and his problematic idea of legacies, which was what started his downfall in the first place.

Walt Jr, on the other hand, prefers to see the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is. He has had to live with being in a weakened state his entire life, so appreciates the value of people being honest about their difficulties to him as he has to be with them. It wouldn't surprise me if he reacts to his father's story by sympathising more with his grandfather than with Walt's fear, driving them even further apart. Walt Jr doesn't want to be spoken down to or seen with trepidation by those around him. There has (thankfully) never been any sense that he envies those without his problems, nor does he want their pity, just that he be treated like any other decent human being and given the truth. His parents may shelter him, but now that he has an inkling of something going on that doesn't know about, how long before he starts asking questions, like who Jesse is, or accidentally spreads word to his uncle Hank, who has previous with a certain Jesse Pinkman?

Unfortunately, neither his father or mother are particularly rich in honesty right now: just as Walt is suffocating in his lies, Skylar too is feeling her deceptions closing in on her. She tries to pay Ted off by getting Saul to pretend a distant relative has left him a vast sum in her will, yet discovers that all he does is go out an buy a Mercedes and start up his company again, rather than getting himself and her out of trouble by sorting out his troubles with the IRS first. She still remembers the Ted who had the orgasmic heated bathroom floor (and now has a heated steering wheel, a terrific little callback) rather than seeing him as the charlatan he so obviously is, which Saul is fortunately wise to. In the end, she has to reveal to him who his real benefactor was, surely creating yet another loose end that all leads back to Walt. The question is surely now who is going to blackmail who first.

Life is also looking dangerous for Walt outside his immediate family circle. In a scene dripping with tension, Jesse proves he can cook Walt's formula with almost as perfect purity as his mentor. He may be worthless as a real chemist, but his memory of the routine gives him massive value. Gus pulls yet another badass coup in wiping out all the key players of the cartel in one devastating swoop, meaning that if he can get back to Albuquerque, he now has a replacement for Heisenberg all lined up. Not only that, but the loyalty between master and protégé took (several) hefty blows in last week's fight. Will Jesse will be okay with the possibility of sending his old father figure to his death? He has now also killed for Gus, but with much less hesitation than it took to do so for Walt. Completely different situations, of course, but his becoming numb to the deaths of others doesn't bode well for Mr. White.

Getting back home may not be so simple, though: Mike has taken a bullet, while Gus has only delayed the effects of the poison running through his own veins. It's all up to Jesse, who has proven himself highly competent under challenging circumstances in the past but now has to navigate the border in a car with a hitman bleeding from a gunshot wound in the passenger seat and a fried chicken entrepreneur enduring the effects of a poisoning (and not by his own fast food) on the back seat.

Perhaps Gus will attempt to sacrifice Mike to the authorities in order to save himself and Jesse, just as he did with Victor back in the season premiere. That could turn a powerful, if wounded, player in Walt's favour. Hank was on the back-burner this week, but if Gus gets pulled over in a mess by the border police, he will surely be the first to hear about it - especially if in a car driven by Jesse Pinkman, whose name could trigger an uncomfortable association for Walt Jr.

All speculation, of course, but it's testament to what a fantastic feat of writing 'Salud' was that it answered so many of the questions we thought were important, then replaced them with even bigger ones. One to remember for sure.



Anonymous said...

Great review!

Anonymous said...

Notice that Mike seemed to raising his gun to shoot Jesse just before he was shot... could just be slightly bad timing in the filming.
Hmm, food for thought anyway.
Great recap/review by the way.


Anonymous said...

Cheers Xander, you seem pretty on the ball with things and summarise each episode really well, giving insight and reminders of past events! you really know your shit!

a lot of people have mentioned Mike raising his gun to jessie which i had not noticed until it was said, im pretty sure its a mistake or Mike just keeping his wits about him; Gus informed Jesse that they would all be returning home together, plus Mike has taken on the mentor role from Walt

when this season ends its going to be an unbearable cliffhanger i know it!


Xander Markham said...

Thanks, everyone, really appreciate your comments and kind words!

As for Mike raising his gun, I assumed it was in reaction to the guy who then shot him - there's no logical reason revealed so far (that comes to my mind, anyway) why Gus would want Jesse dead. If anything, Jesse is more important than ever now he has proven his skills as a cook.

nesse said...

Excellent review. I had to put it up on Stumbleupon!
Badass review...on a badass show!!!

W. I. Boucher said...

Great review as always. I think one of the strengths of the series is each time it answers questions it poses new ones which compel you to dig deep for an answer.

We are witnessing a downward spiral of flawed people who made bad choices. It is a classical tragedy which will not end well.