Monday, 3 October 2011

Prolonging The Inevitable: Breaking Bad review



I have repeatedly referred to the events of Breaking Bad's fourth season as a game, played between three men (Walt, Gus, Hank) and their lieutenants (Jesse, Mike, the DEA) desperate to come out on top. The astonishing scene which concluded last week's episode seemed to point towards total victory for Gus, who appeared to have won the fight for Jesse's loyalty, put Walt in an untenable position and removed any need for Hank to be kept alive.

Yet there was a subtle change in Gus that suggested something might be on the turn: the man who tormented the paralysed Hector Salamanca was not the same as he who had so calmly and methodically manipulated the board to what looked like his check-mate. It was a man burning with the thrill of vengeance, revelling in his victory. When he told Walt in the desert that he was prepared to slaughter the entire White family, his voice crackled with fury. Did the Pollo Hermano count his chickens a little too early?
There is no question that Gus has played an exquisite game. But perfect? Not quite. Back in my review for the episode Bullet Points (week four), I discussed how the season was dividing its leading players into romantics and scientists. The romantics, like Walt, are driven by their emotions and see the world as they want to see it. The scientists, like Gus, see the world as a logical series of cause of effect. What the romantics have that the scientists don't, though, is the ability to connect with people. The loyalty that Walt has engendered in Jesse, however misplaced, is all that has been keeping him alive. The scientists see people only as pieces to be moved into different positions, failing to recognise the innate human desire to ask questions, to yearn for something better. Should everything go wrong, Gus has no such safety net.

He has moved his pieces as superbly as would be expected of a man with his exceptional mind, yet his deliberate shutting-down of any trace of feeling (most likely following the death of his partner at the hands of Don Eladio, as seen in the episode Hermanos) has led to little loose ends being left along the way due to his inability to read how people might react emotionally, rather than logically, to his actions. He understands that Jesse still has loyalty to Walt, but cannot see how far it goes. When he calls him in the lab to issue a reminder that the DEA investigating the laundromat is directly down to Walt's actions, he cannot understand why this would still not sway Jesse, even though everyone would be safer with Walt out of the way. It is similar to how, at the end of last season, he failed to recognise why killing a child would tip Jesse over the edge, leading to all the problems he is now trying to work his way out of. He might even have repeated that mistake a second time. Let's also not forget Mike, who was visibly shocked by his boss' disregard for his soldiers' lives in the box cutter stunt and has now been left coldly behind and given second-rate treatment after taking a bullet for his boss.

That's a question for the future, though. What we should be asking now is whether or not it was Gus who is responsible for poisoning Brock with the ricin from Jesse's cigarette. Walter's explanation made a kind of sense, although leant strongly on speculation: if Gus was aware of the poison, would he have been so willing to have Jesse get so close to him, offering so many chances to use it? Surely Jesse has learnt to stay out of sight of the camera when need be, and how would Gus know what was hidden inside the cigarette even if it was taken out? Surely Jesse wouldn't have any reason for removing the ricin capsule anyway, especially in the lab. For a series so precise in setting up its story beats, there are one too many questions for Walt's explanation to represent the whole story, at the very least.

In that case, has Walt himself gone so far as to knowingly kill a child to save his own life? As much as the character has shed almost every shred of moral decency left within him, it seems too big a jump even for such desperate circumstances. He might well be using Brock's suffering as a means of manipulating Jesse, but I'm not convinced he actually initiated it. As he said, when could he have taken the cigarette? How could he have got it to Brock? Given how quickly Jesse was frisked at Saul's office, it seems unlikely that he could have convinced someone to take it for him then. It even seems unlikely that Brock's importance would register to someone as self-centred as Walt: all he seems to know is that Jesse is dating the boy's mother and sometimes plays videogames with him. He does know that killing a child is enough to push Jesse over the edge, but again, does Walter White, a man with a crippled son and baby daughter, really have it in him to do so, even if the opportunity presented itself?

My belief is that Brock took the cigarette for himself. (He's at the age where trying a smoke might be tempting, especially given the environment he has grown up in). Jesse said that he checked it in the pack before leaving for work, but also that he moved it to another pack. Might Brock have pulled a switcheroo, discovering the hidden capsule (maybe believing it to be drugs) and turned another cigarette over to cover for his taking it? Jesse might have found that cigarette and moved it to a second pack, perhaps absent-mindedly forgetting to put it in upside-down. No explanation makes perfect sense, but placing the responsibility with Brock seems to hold together slightly better than the possibilities offered by Walt or Jesse. If ricin takes twenty-four hours to show its effects, as the programme has previously suggested, it makes sense that Brock could have done all this the night before. He has enjoyed more free access than anyone to Jesse's things. But then again, who knows what tiny piece of information we might have overlooked?

Either way, the result of Brock's poisoning was that Walt managed to talk Jesse back onto his side, giving him one more shot at taking out the chicken man. Although the central mystery about Brock and the cigarette was enormously effective, the scenes revolving around its immediate consequences could not achieve the same level of tension. The scene where Walt won Jesse over was as brilliantly acted as ever, but there was never any real possibility of Jesse pulling that trigger, no matter how dedicated the actors were. The return of Walter's manic laugh from the end of the previous episode also felt a bit forced, lacking the ominous context which gave it such power last time.

The talk between Jesse and Gus, staged a little too bluntly beneath a cross in the hospital altar, revolved around the question of the cigarette and was thus not short of suspense, but Walt's subsequent attempt on Gus' life by planting explosives on his car struggled to overcome the modern television viewer's knowledge that, with one episode of the season to go, Gus was unlikely to meet his end in such an easy way. (Plus, when have Walt's plans ever gone right?). What did work well was how Gus stopped in his tracks without the need for an obvious flaw in the plan: if Walt has lived under the threat of death for the past year, Gus has done so for much of his life. When he sees an unguarded car which he has been specifically called away from, all the while as a man is somewhere out in the city with a death wish against him, those logical processes of his would have warned him to be safe rather than sorry: a neatly played character moment, showing that though he may be acting more emotionally than usual, Gus' mind and instincts are still forces to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately for him, so are Hank's. It turns out that he's rather pleased by the news that someone might be out to get him, because it gives him just enough leverage to get the DEA back on the chicken man's tail. Hank is the character with the most naturally balanced sensibilities, part scientist and part romantic, so is able to present a logical case for why Gustavo Fring is still worthy of investigation, then use his knowledge of Steve's personality to get him to do what he wants. His colleagues are learning too, as shown by Steve talking his way into searching the laundromat. Hank's balanced view of the world may make him the most dangerous man possible for Gus, but he also has in him a bit of the weaknesses inherent to both the scientist and the romantic: his familial connection with Walt has blinded him to the logical truth under his nose, while he is also vulnerable to scientist's belief in his own infallibility - or at least, the need to present that image to those around him. One of Breaking Bad's greatest tricks is leaving all these little escape routes open, coming as close as any narrative ever has to eliminating the foregone conclusion.

In truth, 'End Times' was one of the weaker episodes of the latter half of the fourth season. Its big showdowns were diminished by being based around the unlikely possibility of major characters being killed off, despite there still being one episode left to go. After the last episode's incredible ending, it also felt like it was dragging its feet just a little, ending with everyone in only slightly changed circumstances to how they started the episode: Jesse's loyalties still torn, Walt still in danger, Hank still pushing on with his investigation, Gus still breathing. Only the outcome of the ricin poisoning - which will presumably attract the authorities to Jesse, thus opening more avenues leading back to Walt and Gus - looks to have added an appropriately big twist at this late juncture. As gripping and expertly paced as it was, undoubtedly an outstanding hour by the standards of any other programme, it couldn't get around the fact that the ultimate Face Off is still a week away. It will be an agonising wait.



Beth said...

Wow, really well-written! Can you tell me what you think about any significance if Gus has a wife and kids? I remember seeing toys in Gus' house, but no one else is ever home when Gus has guests over. If Gus does have a family, will his family emerge somehow in future scenes? Will his children be threatened by Walt accidentely?

W. I. Boucher said...

On some points I agree, however on one I do not. Mike knew on how the plan would go down and Gus would be near death. There were provisions made for wounded operatives. When they arrived at the "hospital" Gus was almost dead and not able to order Mike's care over his. The doctors saw Mike was still lucid and dealt with the closest to death. He was nor released to travel when Gus and Jessie had to leave. Gus said he would be picked up when released. That is not abandonment.

I agree about Brock not being poisoned by either Gus or Walt. It might have been due to other problems and since Gus and Waltt both knew Jessie had the risin it gave Gus leverage to drive the wedge between Walt and Jessie deeper.

Kot789 said...

As for the last scene in episode 12, Walt's plan had one serious flaw - no Heisenberg outfit. Seriously - full sun plus bald head plus Walt's glasses on his forehead plus his binos equals a very noticeable shine. That's probably what Gus and his team had seen.