Monday, 20 August 2012

Television - Breaking Bad 'Buyout' review

'Buyout' feels like an episode which could prove pivotal in Breaking Bad's mythology, marking the moment when Jesse finally started to see through the layers of manipulation Walter White has been crushing him under, but also spinning its wheels a little as we approach the halfway point of the final season. For all its funny, tragic, and heart-stopping moments, of which there were plenty, there was a little too much which felt like the gang had returned to the breaking point they were at earlier in the season, with rebellion from the core members of the group against Walter White's unstoppable obsession with empire building.

At this stage, what seems most likely to happen is that this first half of the season will reveal the tiny cracks in the foundations of Walt's dream as they expand, before finally tearing the ground out from under him as the series enters its year-long break (boo!) until the concluding part of this final season comes to a head in 2013 and we catch up with a fifty-two year old Walt with a machine gun in the boot of his car and an unknown score to settle.
One of Breaking Bad's most powerful tricks is not so much the dramatic cliff-hangers it leaves its characters stranded on at the end of each episode or season - although it is outstanding at them - but way it makes them more powerful by laying traps in the buildup, allowing Walt to unwittingly stumble into them through his refusal to look at the bigger picture and see what is clear to everyone else. Putting down traps seemed to be the main goal in 'Buyout', as a range of new elements were introduced which could all individually lead to the collapse of the nascent Heisenberg empire.

In the stunningly shot, wordless cold open, Walt and his gang dismantle and destroy the dirt bike from last week's thrilling train robbery, before doing the same to the dead boy to whom it belonged. It seems as though all the evidence has been removed - and there's something achingly heartless about destroying a little boy's body, denying his parents the closure of finding or burying him - until Todd reveals the scorpion in a jar as a keepsake, presumably with fingerprints all over it. If that jar gets into police hands either by mistake or betrayal - and given how Todd has kept a trophy from his kill and refers to his contacts in gaol, the lad's obviously not exactly of solid character - it will bring bring the full force of the law down on Walt's head.

Secondly, Skylar seems inching ever closer to giving away her husband's secret to Marie. Her patience with Walt's cruelty and arrogance is reaching breaking point, as is her mental state, and it surely won't be long before her sister realises there's much, much more to the Skylar - Walt breakup than meets the eye. Skylar effectively tells her as much, though doesn't go into detail, and if there's one thing Marie has never been able to resist, it's gossip. Once her nose has caught a scent, she only needs get the faintest whiff of Walt's secret life and pass it onto Hank (as she inevitably will, because who else is she going to tell?) before Hank realises what has been going on under his nose the whole team.

It's no surprise Skylar is cracking, because Walt is not only refusing to see how dangerous she could be to him, but pushing her harder and harder as his authority struggles to assert itself elsewhere. The scene with her, Walt and Jesse at dinner was one of the funniest the series has ever done, with Jesse providing possibly the worst awkward dinner conversation in the history of scripted anything - and Aaron Paul's guilty eating/drinking is second to none - but to her represents yet another sign of Walt being willing to bring his dirty laundry back to the family home. Also interesting are the number of references to imitation foods: the fake caviar made from kelp, Jesse's (urgh) scab-like lasagna, Miracle Whip... possibly foreshadowing what Walt has in mind for his end-of-episode plan?

Jesse seems increasingly likely to make a push for freedom, as Walt's cavalier attitude to the blood on his hands is making it increasingly obvious to his young charge how insincere his partner's declarations of empathy and sadness really are. Walt's carefree whistling as he prepared the latest meth batch, following a heart-to-heart over the death of the young boy the pair's actions were directly responsible for, was the first sign, and the dinner scene was enough to cement in his mind how Walt has long abandoned any moral boundaries tethering him to ideas of right and wrong. That he's finally invited to the White family home - not only for business discussion, but subsequently dinner - exposes any remaining pretense of Walt trying to protect his family, and by the end of the evening, Jesse's aware that he's being used as a pawn in a nasty marital conflict. He may still side with Walt enough to stay Mike's trigger finger at the episode's climax, but his ongoing loyalty (which has been on a precarious edge for some time now) seems ever more foolish, and he's becoming aware of it. Todd, meanwhile, might have inadvertently presented himself as a candidate to succeed Jesse in Walt's operation (even referring to his boss as 'Mr. White') in his rambling justification for killing the boy. However, while his lack of empathy makes him a good fit for Walt, it also means he cannot be trusted.

In the meantime, Hank's investigations might have seemed like stalling, but as usual, Walt's intervention in Mike's affairs could put him back on the trail in a big way, to avoid the 'Uncle Miltie' metaphor which Saul (a welcome return for a disappointingly underused character this season) so colourfully deploys. Mike gives the gang an easy way out after the DEA's investigations into Mike intensity: the methylamine will be sold to a rival pusher, netting each member of the group a cool $5m and allowing them to go their separate ways. Walt is bound to a radiator in the gang's office to stop him from turning the deal sour, but those pesky chemistry teacher skills get him free once again.

As Mike is buying enough leeway from the DEA to get the transaction done, Walt has ferried away the methylamine reserves, offering an alternate scheme which (as usual) sounds too good to be true. What he doesn't know is that within twenty-four hours, the DEA will be on Mike's back more forcefully than ever, now presumably aware that Mr. Ehrmantraut has something to hide. Meanwhile, those drug dealers from Phoenix seem mighty keen on putting Heisenberg out of business, and surely won't be too pleased if their arrangement with Mike fails to go through.

I like how this season is making it perfectly clear that Walt has reached the end point of his journey from good guy making bad choices to out and out villain. He's had chances to turn back on his path into the darkness before, but always talked himself out of it. Now, he doesn't even need to do that. He wants a criminal empire to call his own, and while he makes various excuses to Jesse about why it's important to him - losing out on the Grey Matter money by selling early; his legacy as a meth cook being all he has left since losing his family (naturally failing to connect the former being responsible for the latter) - none of them ring true.

He's doing it because he's a small man addicted to power, a more potent and dangerous drug than anything Heisenberg could cook up. It has torn his life apart, yet his dependency on it is all-consuming and can only end one way. In the present, 'Buyout' felt like it was retracing old ground - the group breaking apart, Skylar confiding in Marie, Jesse manipulated into saving Walt's life - but the traps it lays for the final half of the season promise a thrilling fall for the house of Heisenberg.


Anonymous said...

Some odd (auto-correct?) errors left in that piece. Good read otherwise.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for the comment and pointing out the errors. Hopefully they've all been rectified now!

Jamie said...

Awesome analysis of the episode and speculation of the underlying arc of the rest of the series, Xander.