Monday, 12 September 2011

Never Come Back: Breaking Bad review


TELEVISION REVIEW

BREAKING BAD: 'Bug'

I have to admit that, as much as I have loved this season of Breaking Bad, a slight sense of frustration has been creeping in that there has been a lot of compelling build-up with no sense of impending pay-off. As I have said before, the slow-build is one of Bad's defining trademarks, but only really works when it feels as though everything could boil over at any moment. For the last few episodes, my worry was that Vince Gilligan and his writers were dragging the build-up out just a little too long. Of course something was going to happen eventually - explosive climaxes are as much a Bad staple as the build-ups - but no matter how big it was going to be, the idea that it might take all thirteen episodes to reach that point was a little wearying.

Although it didn't provide anything on the scale of Hank's confrontation with the killer cousins in 'One Minute', which is still in my opinion one of the most thrilling scenes ever put on television, 'Bug' put my fears to rest, taking several big strides towards the end-game of the Gus/Walt/Hank/Cartel showdown. In keeping with the rest of the season, which has tended to avoid big shocking moments in the aftermath of Gus Fring's demonstration with the box cutter, the tone was deceptively low-key. Or as low key as you can be when featuring a sniper attack and two men pummelling each other into a bloody mess.
    
As the title suggests, this episode was all about the fall-out of people having their business listened in on by outsiders and the big decisions made as a consequence. Much of this season has been stuck in a kind of Cold War state, with the key players all frustrated in their attempts to gain an upper hand and unable to make the moves they would like to. The bugs (listening bugs, not bugs as in 'Fly', which many people thought this episode might be a spiritual sequel to) came to represent one side making incursions into another's territory.

Each player in this wide-reaching game has been operating in isolation, with their unique problems to deal with, even when apparently forming partnerships. Gus has had to work out how to resolve the Walter White situation whilst dealing with an increasingly hostile cartel and inquisitive DEA. Hank has his mission to get Gus. Walt has to stop Hank from uncovering the truth, while finding his own way to gain the upper hand at work. Jesse has to sort out his demons and decide whose side he is on. Skylar has her money laundering operation at the car wash.

The moves which have been made to gain advantages have mostly been to solidify a position of strength in anticipation of a future move. Gus wants Jesse on his side so that Walt has no-one to turn to in his hour of need. Hank has been slowly trying to build up his case against Gus. Walt has been trying to leverage Jesse into becoming a pawn in yet another of his poorly thought through plans. The cartel has been trying to intimidate Gus into giving them what they want.

The bugs, though, are a different method of attack, setting up a person to incriminate themselves rather than attempting to do the job from outside. It's more underhanded and personal, a direct invasion of the enemy's inner sanctum. When the bugs are eventually discovered, the nature of the move to put them there is taken as a sign that all limits have been torn down, all boundaries disrespected, that it is time to make the big moves.

Let's start with Gus, who is at the centre of so much of what is going on. The man bugging him is Hank, but he also has a bug in place courtesy of Walt, who is informing him of his brother-in-law's every move. The conflict between the Chicken Man and the DEA Agent is already highly personal: Hank wants to apprehend the man he has spent so many years looking for and whom he suspects was responsible for his crippling injuries, while to Gus, Hank is the only man who can apparently see through his fa├žade of an honest businessman.

Both want each other out of the way and are willing to do anything they can to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, they are also held back by their circumstances: Gus would seem to have the upper hand in that he knows he is being bugged and Hank does not, but has his hands tied by Hank's status in the DEA - even if he is operating independently, should Gus make a move against him then the agency will know that Hank's suspicions had validity - and his conflict with the cartel. Hank is able to act freely, but does not know that he is leaking information courtesy of Gus having a hidden ace in Walter.

The cartel are not literally bugging Gus (unless the word is used with its 'annoying' definition) because they already know everything they need to about how he operates and are using that advantage to put the pressure on at every opportunity, be it shooting up his trucks or mounting a sniper attack at his distribution facility. With no-one on the inside working for him, Gus needs them out of the way quickly so their attacks do not trip off the DEA to his involvement in the meth trade, as Mike warned was a possibility last week.

The sniper attack is enough to convince Gus of the dangers of playing his usual waiting game: he is preparing his facility for Hank's arrival when it happens and though he knows the cartel will not kill him - as if we needed further confirmation of what a badass Gus Fring is, striding out into open sniper fire was it - he cannot afford to endure their provocation any longer. This leads to him making one of the episode's major decisions: not quite handing over Heisenberg, but his meth formula instead, to be delivered and demonstrated in person by Jesse.

Although Jesse has been tempted in the past by Gus and Mike's courting, his driving desire has always been to win the approval of Walt, his first adopted father figure. When invited to Gus' house for dinner, he may not take the chance to poison his host, but conclusively states that should anything happen to Walt, Gus had better kill him too. Gus has other plans, but Jesse's outburst showed that despite all the abuse he has taken, when it boils down to life or death, he was standing on the side of his first boss.

I say 'was' because Walter's attempt to emulate Hank's methods to his own advantage backfires in yet another woeful miscalculation. He fails to realise that Hank is in a much stronger position, as an agent of the law, with regard to his pursuit of Gus, than he is to Jesse. More importantly, he fails to understand once again that Jesse sees his relationship with Walt as more than just a business partnership and that in having committed murder for him, believes there should never be any doubt over each other's trustworthiness. Unfortunately, Walt is too paranoid to see anything other than more enemies gathering on his doorstep, or even that the reason for them being there is down to his inability to see beyond his unsubstantiated fears. Following the intense and bloody fight between the two which ended the episode, Jesse tells Walt to leave and never come back.

Skylar, meanwhile, has a bugging issue of her own to deal with. Ted returns with the news that the IRS have instigated an audit of his business, meaning that Skylar will be in trouble for signing off on all those dodgy accounts. The last thing that she needs, given the large scale laundering she is undertaking at the car wash to protect her husband, is the IRS shifting their attention onto her, so goes along to the audit meeting in her most revealing dress and pretends that her main qualification for getting the accounting job at Ted's company was not necessarily her grasp of the figures, wink wink. This alleviates Ted's difficulties for a while, but means he'll have to pay off his tax debts or else have a full investigation initiated, whereupon Skylar's pretence would come crumbling down. Crucially, this means the IRS would have the power to read the mail and (yes) bug the phone of anyone involved in the scam.

The shot of them discussing them from inside the car suggested how much both of them have to lose by letting this happen. It was also a visual pun that paid off when we saw Ted's car was just some crummy hatchback, not the luxurious ride we might have expected him to be rocking when Skylar was getting off over his heated bathroom floor last season. It looks like he really doesn't have the assets to pay his bills, but Skylar, of course, does. Will she demand to start laundering money through his business in return for saving him from a gaol sentence? If so, the fear of bugging would have pushed her into a far more aggressive move than she might have otherwise been willing to consider, accelerating her own move towards fully breaking bad. But when the enemy is listening in, sometimes extreme action can look like the only path left to take.

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