Author Archives | Brian Schroeder

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 53 & 54

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 5, Episode 7- Say My Name

“Shut the fuck up, and let me die in peace.”- Mike Ehrmentraut

So how does everybody win, according to Walter White? By driving out to Mike and Declan’s deal without the methylamine and essentially strong-arming him into accepting 35% of Walt’s new business and giving up his own product. Walt does this (accompanied by Dave Porter’s Heisenberg theme) by trumping up the purity of his product, comparing Declan’s to a “tepid, off-brand generic cola,” to the “Classic Coke” of the Blue Sky. He tells Declan that he knows about their attempts to “ape his product at every turn,” and how he’s giving them the opportunity to sell it themselves, making more money off 35% of his product than they would have off of 100% of their own. Since Mike is retiring, Declan and his crew could step right and handle distribution (always Walt’s weak point) seamlessly. Why eliminate the competition when you can just become the competition? Declan, intrigued, asks just who exactly Walt is, and when he responds that they already “he’s the man who killed Gus Fring,” a look of shock comes over their faces. Mike confirms it with a sly nod, and Walt asks Declan to say his name. “You’re Heisenberg, ” a spooked Declan replies. “You’re goddamn right,” Walt snarls. Recognition is everything to him now.

After the opening credits, the three return to Vamonos Pest, where Mike gives Walt some parting words. First, that the legacy costs for Gus’ remaining employees will come out of the $5 million severance pay he just received. Second, that Walt needs to get the bug out of Hank’s office as soon as possible. He leaves, and when Walt asks if a “thank you” is in order, he scoffs, and Walt leaves. After Mike warns Jesse to get out as quickly as he can, the action shifts over to the laundromat, where Walt hid the methylamine. Skyler and Jesse share a strangely symbiotic look as Walt barks orders and tells Skyler not to worry about it. “Vamonos,” Jesse says as Skyler inspects the logo on the side of their truck. “I wish,” she replies.

Later, when Jesse comes to talk to Walt about his severance pay, Walt begins showering him with praise, telling him that he’s “every bit as good as me” and that soon, he’ll have a cook all to his own. When Jesse reiterates that he still wants out, Walt switches to teacher mode, telling Jesse that being “the best” at something is worth holding on to, and that he shouldn’t squander his potential. When he still refuses to budge, Walt starts berating him. He’s manipulated Jesse so much that, even to Jesse himself, the strings are showing. You can see it on his face. And when Walt starts saying that what happened to Drew Sharp was a tragedy, just like everyone they’ve killed in their partnership. If there is a hell (“I don’t know if you’re into that”), they’re already going. But Walt’s “not going to lie down until he gets there”. Jesse asks, again, just how many more people have to die. How much is enough? He’s done. He wants his money. “But isn’t it filthy blood money?” Walt retorts, and Jesse has had enough. “Whatever, man,” he says, reiterating that he’s done. Walt doesn’t believe him, telling him that if he leaves, he gets nothing. He hears no response. So ends the White/Pinkman partnership, possibly for the final time. Soon after, we see Walt getting ready for a cook with his new partner: Todd, who, despite not having any idea what he’s doing, declines his share of the profit until he gets it right. He’s the perfect student, and Walt is willing to teach, but it doesn’t seem like he really cares about it anymore. The allure of the freedom of being your own boss, what Walt has been striving for this entire time, is starting to lose some of its luster.

Most of the rest of this episode is dedicated to Mike, and his attempts to disappear into the New Mexican desert. First, we see Not Saul the Lawyer (his name is Dan) leaving money in safety deposit boxes for the families of the Nine (what I’m now calling Gus’ men in prison). In a remote location outside town, Mike listens in on Hank and Gomez talking about the warrant to search his apartment coming in, and, with even more weary resignation than usual, he dumps his computer and a veritable arsenal into a nearby hole (a well, maybe?), stashes a “go bag” full of passports and emergency money in the secret compartment of his trunk, leaves his car at an airport parking lot, hails a cab and heads home to face the music. When Hank and company come knocking, they don’t find a thing. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Mike is like a ghost. Hank’s superior acknowledge as much, and he forbids the ABQ office from ordering any more searches on Mr. Ehrmentraut. When Gomez comes in to console him, Hank comes up with one last-ditch effort to bag Mike: start tailing Dan, the lawyer. He represents every one of the Nine but not Mike. If anyone knows how they’re all being paid, it’s him. Sure enough, the next time Dan the Lawyer arrives to deposit some cash, Gomez arrives with a shit-eating grin on his face.

This all dovetails nicely back into Walt’s storyline nicely when he arrives at Hank’s office, ready to sob his eyes out again and remove the bug from the office. Before he can, however, Gomez arrives with the news that Dan the Lawyer is willing to give them Mike, and we finally see that look of mute terror that so categorized Walt in the first two seasons of this show, back when he was struggling everyday just to survive in his new career. Soon after, we see Mike at the park with Kaylee, his granddaughter, when Dan the Lawyer calls him and offers to meet him at the park to discuss “something that’s come up.” Immediately afterwards, Walt calls him to tell him that the DEA has “some lawyer” and that they’re coming for him. Mike snaps into action, and as he starts to say something to Kaylee, squad cars begin pulling up. After agonizing over leaving his granddaughter without explanation (again, much like Lydia was afraid of Mike forcing her to do to her daughter), he runs. He calls Saul afterwards and asks him to retrieve the go-bag he stashed at the airport. Saul refuses, as it’s extremely likely that the DEA is tailing him as well. Jesse volunteers, but Mike isn’t having it. He won’t risk Jesse’s freedom in exchange for his own. That leaves Walt, who goes to the airport and finds the bag, with what appears to be, funnily enough, a .38 snub inside.

They meet (at a beautiful grove near a river), and Walt demands the names of the Nine men before he hands the bag over. Mike refuses, telling Walt to get out of town while he can. Mike takes the bag and turns to leave before, once again, Walt demands a thank you. Mike tells him that he doesn’t owe him anything, and proceeds to lose his shit, telling Walter off for ruining the good thing that they had with Gus. “If you’d done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now,” Mike says, and you can see the very pride he was referring to spring up in the form of Heisenberg. Mike turns to leave again, satisfied with finally giving Walt the reaming he so richly deserved. Walt turns to leave as well, tail between his legs.

But he doesn’t. Just after he disappears off screen, he marches back into it, purposefully. At the same time, Mike opens his go bag to find his gun isn’t there. He turns to get out of the car, and Walt appears, shooting him through the window with the snub nose. Mike hits the gas, and slams his car into the bush line at the river’s edge. Walt runs up to the crash, only to find that Mike is gone, and for a moment, the flash-forward from the first episode snaps into focus. Walt ran because he knew Mike was coming after him, and he came back to settle the score. But then, after a few seconds of frantic confusion, Walt notices footprints leading from the crash, and a bloody handprint on the rocks. He follows through the underbrush to discover Mike sitting on a rock at the river’s edge, with a pistol of his own half-heartedly pulled out of his jacket. He can’t even grip it when Walt grabs it and takes it away. This is the end of Mike Ehrmentraut. Sitting there together, watching the sun set, Walt realizes that Lydia also has the names he wants. He can get them from her. He stutters out an apology, to which Mike responds with this episode’s quote. For once, Walt listens, and we cut to a wide shot of the two of them watching the river. Mike collapses, and the episode ends. This season, for the most part, has taken us out of Walt’s head a bit and given us a glimpse into how everyone around him views the Great Heisenberg. This season, we’ve seen Skyler truly come to understand what her husband is, just as we’ve seen Jesse come to understand. The look they shared at the carwash was a look acknowledging this understanding. For the first time all season, we get to see Walt again. The same Walter White we saw in the first season, and in “Fly,” the Walter White of lucid self-awareness. The Walter White who realizes that he just killed a man for nothing more than a casual insult. How much is enough? It seems as if, for the first time in a long time, it’s Walter who is asking that question.

Season 5, Episode 8- Gliding Over All

“Tagging trees is a hell of a lot better than chasing monsters.”- Hank Schrader

In a perfect world, the eighth episode of the last season of Breaking Bad would be the exact point where everything starts to pick up in anticipation of the explosive finale. This is not a perfect world. Because of this, this final season has been split into two parts, with the second eight episodes airing in 2013. This episode serves as a mid-season finale, but in many respects, it acts a series finale. A lot of things come to an end.

When everything comes to an end, it’s common for people’s lives to “flash before their eyes.” This show handles this idea by having Walt relive some of the more harrowing moments from this show’s past. I say this because the very first shot of the episode focuses on a fly, buzzing around the Vamonos Pest offices. The background comes into focus, and there’s Walt, face to face with one of his old contaminants. “It’s all contaminated” he had said then, in one of his moments of lucidity. I thought, at the end of episode 7, that Walt’s most recent bout of lucidity would be fleeting at best, and the first scene of this episode did very little to dissuade me of that notion. Todd arrive at VP, telling Walter than he had Old Joe crush Mike’s car (tying up that potential loose end nicely). As they prepare to dissolve Mike’s body, Jesse arrives (without seeing the corpse), asking Walt what their next move is. “I’m the only vote left,” Walt states, matter of factly. “And I’ll handle it,” he says, closing the garage door on Jesse.

On the plot front, a large amount whips by without much emphasis. First, we see Hank in a position of power with Dennis the laundromat manager. He’s got nine guys (ten with Dan the Lawyer). He can take his time getting what he wants from them. Then we see Walt meet with Lydia, who gives him the names on the condition that he go into business with her in the Czech Republic (where his product with “blow them away”). She wants to remain useful, maintaining that Walt is liable to view her as a loose end as well. He scoffs, wondering if she thinks that he’s just going to kill her there and then, in the middle of a restaurant. After she sells him on expanding his business overseas (something she says Gus Fring had agreed to, which is a scene I would very much like to see), she writes down the ten names, they shake hands, and she leaves. Afterwards, Walt picks up his hat, revealing the ricin capsule underneath. Lydia saw right through him. He’s the only vote in the business anymore, and he’s tired of loose ends.

After the cold open, however, my initial fears are turned right around, as most of the rest of the episode is framed around Walt reliving moments from his past. First, there’s the familiar shower scene that emphasizes his surgical scar. Then, there’s a painting identical to the one in Walt’s hospital room after his “fugue state” following Tuco’s death. It’s a painting of a sailor leaving his family on shore while he goes out to what he needs to do. It’s the painting that convinced him to resume cooking meth, and he sees it in a hotel room while meeting with Todd’s uncle about taking out the ten men on Mike’s list. While he spaces out, musing about the likelihood of two identical paintings (“where do they come from?”) Todd’s uncle tells him that the logistics of taking out ten men at the same time can’t be done, to which Walt responds that it can, and the only question is who is capable of it. Sure enough, the next scene is an elaborate montage showing the brutal prison deaths of all ten men, starting with Dan the Lawyer getting shanked at a payphone and ending with Dennis the Manager being doused with bleach and set on fire while in solitary confinement, all of interspersed with Walt setting the time to the watch Jesse gave him and Hank being informed during a photo shoot. Powerful, brutal stuff, if a bit on the kitschy side.

What isn’t kitschy is the scene immediately afterward, where Walt bounces baby Holly on his knee while a news report about the men whose deaths he orders plays in the background. In the living room of the man whom it affects the most. Speaking of Hank, he arrives home just as Walter is getting to leave, and offers his brother in law a drink. They sit down, and Hank starts talking about a summer job he had during high school. He’d go into the forest and mark trees for lumberjack crews to take down in his wake. He says that despite the tedium of it, he should have enjoyed it more, since “tagging trees is a hell of a lot better than chasing monsters.” Heisenberg is his Moby Dick, except in this analogy Moby Dick has left a veritable trail of broken bodies and decimated lives in his wake, and shows no signs of stopping. It’s eating Hank alive. Finding Heisenberg was what he held on to as his life collapsed around him, but now it’s the thing that going to drag him down again. If Walt is understands any of this, he doesn’t show it, as he simply responds that he used to love to go camping.

Immediately afterwards, we get what may prove to be the last cooking montage this show ever gives us, and they saved the best for last. Set to the 1969 hit “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells, it depicts a long period of cooking for Walt and Todd, interspersed with scenes of Lydia overseeing shipments to the Czech Republic and Skyler and Saul laundering money. It culminates in one of the most effective shots of the entire series, as a helicopter camera pans over a suburban area of the ABQ, with Vamonos Pests’ signature tarps popping up on every street. The smooth, reliable and unbelievably successful enterprise Walt always wanted has finally arrived. Afterwards, Skyler approaches Walt as he sits in their backyard, staring at the pool (another old trope this show is revisiting). She asks him to take a drive with her to a storage facility, and when they arrive, she shows him a literal mountain of money. “This is what you’ve been working for,” she tells him, revealing that what they see in front of them was too much for her to count, and certainly too much for her to launder. She has “no earthly idea” how much money it is, pleading with him to allow her her life back. “How big does this pile have to be?” Skyler asks, and it is at this point that I came to a realization. This is it. This is the zenith of Walt’s career. The pinnacle. There’s no where else to go but down from here.

Sure enough, the very next scene is another in the succession of greatest hits this episode has turned into: Walt getting another scan at the cancer center. His zenith followed by a reminder of his nadir: the cancer that ate away at him and forced him into this life that he now seems to be tired of. As he washes up in the center’s bathroom, he comes across another reminder of his crash; the bent and broken paper towel dispenser from “4 Days Out,” another reminder of the path he’s taken to the top, and how much more alive he felt while doing it than he does now.

Soon after, Walt shows up at Jesse’s, telling him that he was “in the neighborhood.” They start to talk, and Jesse reveals that Saul told him what Walt did (presumably that he killed Mike). Walt, unperturbed, tells him that he had no other choice, and when Jesse asks why exactly he’s there, Walt launches into a full on reverie about their old RV. Once an awkward pause sets in, we realize why Walt is there. He misses what he and Jesse had, the daily struggle to survive that was the crux of the first four seasons of the show. As he leaves, he tells Jesse that he “left something” for him: two bags. After Walt leaves, Jesse cautiously opens them, thinking what I’m sure most of the audience was thinking: that it would be Mike’s head, or Brock’s, or Andrea’s inside, one last torturous gasp to remember Heisenberg by. But when he opens them, it’s simply money. Jesse’s share. Probably $5 million or more. Jesse collapses against his living room wall and removes the pistol he had hidden in his waistline. The next scene takes place in the White home, where Walt approaches Skyler and tells her that he’s out. He gives her a relieved little smile and walks away.

Three months pass. A shot lingers on the White family hose, slowly dripping like it did in the apocalyptic flash-forwards from season two. The entire White clan is having a nice, almost peaceful family get together as Walt Jr walks Holly around in her stroller. The storm has passed. Walt has gotten away free and clear. He’s truly out, ready to live the rest of his life with his family. He seems to have finally come to terms with who he is. Skyler even seems to like being in the same room with him again. If I didn’t know already that there were eight more episode left for 2013, I might have even been fooled into thinking this was the final scene of the series.

But it’s not the end. We saw Walt in that diner on his 52nd birthday when this season began, bearded and despondent and buying an M-60 at a Dennys. And when Hank excuses himself to go to the bathroom, he begins searching for something to read. He find a magazine and tosses it aside. Then he finds a small green book. It’s Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and on the title page, there’s an inscription. “To my other favorite W.W. It’s been an honour working with you. Fondly, G.B.” As Hank sits, perplexed, we’re treated to a flashback of sorts, from Season 4′s “Bullet Points.” It’s that tense little scene where Hank muses on who exactly the “W.W.” in Gale’s notebook refers to. “Willy Wonka? Woodrow Wilson? Walter White?” Walt laughs and raises his hands in mock surrender. “You got me,” he chuckles. Returning to present, we see the realization dawning on Hank. It’s only fitting that something this random and silly be what finally does Walt in. It’s a testament to his hubris that he would keep this little memento around, just as it’s fitting that Hank, after months removed from the case, would remember such a small detail. I’ve been talking about how this season has shown us how Walt, Skyler and Jesse have come to realizations about just what Walt is. Now Hank knows what he is, too. It’s a long fall to that Dennys, popping pills and buying automatic weapons. And it’s coming. The end is in sight.

GLIDING o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul–not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing. 

Walt Whitman- “Gliding Over All”

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 51-52

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 5, Episode Five: Dead Freight

“No one other than us can ever know that this robbery went down. Nobody. You got it?”- Jesse Pinkman

One of the most enduring things this show has done is to start off certain episodes with enigmatic, surreal or just downright perplexing cold opens. Season 2 was built around these non-sequitur teaser sequences, but each year has it’s fair share of them. This episode, the fifth episode in the final season, trumped anything the show has done to this point, and it did it by being as blank and meaningless as possible. The cold open in question features a young boy riding a dirtbike across the Desert of Opportunity. Apparently he’s looking for something. Sure enough, we find out that that something is a tarantula (he even brought a glass jar for it to live in). After he scoops up his new friend, he gets back on his bike and takes off into the desert. A train whistles in the distance. Well, that was illuminating, wasn’t it?

We pick up the episode proper with Walt launching his plan to figure out just who exactly has been bugging their methylamine shipments. He starts this off by paying a visit to the newly appointed ASAC Schrader in his office, where the former immediately begins crying and whining about how Skyler doesn’t love him anymore, while the latter jut as quickly recuses himself in an effort to escape what is surely one of the most awkward situations imaginable. As soon as Hank leaves, Walt springs into action, bugging his computer and leaving the microphone behind a loving photo of Hank and Marie. The next phase of the master plan involves taking Lydia to some sort of underground structure in an undisclosed location and, after subjecting her to some Ehrmentraut brand Bad Cop, Worse Cop, forces her to call up Hank and ask him if he bugged the barrels. To her credit, Lydia manages to question Hank without Hank questioning her, and, after Walt’s bugs pick up on the fact that it was the DEA office in Houston who was responsible, she does her best to convince Walt and Jesse not to kill her (“everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their heads.”) Eventually, her promises of “an ocean” of Methylamine intrigues Walt to the point where he promises (on his children, apparently) that Mike won’t kill her.

Her “ocean?” a Madrigal chemical transport train from Long Beach that, after stopping in Flagstaff, passes through a three mile “dead zone,” where cell signals and automated signals cannot escape. Mike isn’t on board, for a multitude of reasons, least of which because they would have to kill the men on the train. While he and Walter argue over the logistics of the potential heist later at Jesse’s (in the second installment of “Two Angry Bald Guys Argue”), Jesse comes up with the brilliant idea of replacing the methylamine they take with water. We cut to Walt in full Heisenberg gear staking out a covered bridge inside the dead zone, with Mike and Jesse at his side. With the assistance of the Vamonos Pest boys, including Todd, (whom they explain the plan to while hammering home one simple tenet: no witnesses), they bury two giant tanks in the ground below the bridge: one for the methylamine they’re going to steal, and one for the water they’ll use to replace it. After a brief interlude at home, where Walter intimidates his son into going back to Hank’s and intimidates his wife for no reason at all, we’re back to the dead zone, and the plan is sprung.

Using Saul’s guy Kuby to stop and distract the train (by having him pretend to be a truck driver who’s ride has conveniently broken down on the tracks), they buy enough time for Jesse and Todd to set up the switch. In one of the longest and tensest scenes the show has done thus far, everything is going well, despite the variable presented by a friendly samaritan who happens upon the scene and offers to push Kuby’s truck out of the way and give him a ride back into town. Mike, acting as the lookout, orders Walt to withdraw, which of course Walt doesn’t do until he’s gotten his full 1,000 gallons from the tanker. Despite Walter’s procrastination, Jesse and Todd manage to escape, the former by hiding under the train while it passes, the latter making a daring leap from the moving train, a leap I was certain was going to kill him and provide yet another consequence of Walt’s hubris in a season dedicated to it. Thankfully, almost shockingly, neither Jesse nor Todd is hurt, and the heist has gone off nearly flawlessly. They’re back in business, and no one was seriously hurt. A truly victim-less crime.

They celebrate, Jesse calls the train a bitch, and Walt shuts off the motors providing the water pump. But the sound doesn’t go away. There’s still a motor on somewhere. They look around, and notice the strange little boy from the cold open sitting there on his dirtbike. A witness. After a few awkward seconds, he waves, and Todd waves back. Just some guys doing work on a train; a happy, coincidental meeting in the desert. A few more seconds pass, and Todd pulls out his pistol. No witnesses. He shoots the kid in the head. Jesse loses his shit. There are no victories in this business. There are no victimless crimes. Lesser shows might have given us at least a commercial break to process the catharsis that was the train robbery. Not Breaking BadWe get barely even a minute before a child is murdered, barely even a minute before another of Walt’s victories destroys someone’s innocence. As Walt himself said in the last episode: “nothing stops this train.”

Season 5, Episode Six: Buyout

“My wife is waiting for me to die. This business is all I have left. All I have. And you want to take it away from me.”- Walter White

In a muted, soundless cold open, Mike, Walt, Jesse, and Walt begin the process of covering their tracks from the heist. First they remove the pumping equipment and set it aside in the Vamonos Pest warehouse. Then they uncover the dirtbike, and begin reducing it to it’s components so they can melt it down in a barrel. The looks on their faces let us know that soon afterwards, they will be doing the same to the body of Drew Sharp (the boy). The last time Walt and friends melted a body in a plastic barrel was after Gus killed Victor, and it served as a form of black comedy to lighten what was one of the darkest hours in the show’s history. This time, there is no such levity. There is nothing worse than this, than melting down a boy’s body simply because he was in the wrong place and the wrong time, denying his family from ever knowing the truth much in the same way Lydia was afraid that her daughter would think she had been abandoned. Todd goes back to the dirt-filled dump truck and digs around. We see Drew Sharp’s hand poking out. Mercifully, we cut to afterwards, where Jesse is smoking a cigarette next to the methylamine container. Todd approaches, and starts making small talk about how “shit happens, huh?” Jesse punches him and walks away.

The next scene takes place inside the warehouse, where Todd tries to rationalize what he did by dropping all the old platitudes. “It was him or us” and “I had to save the team,” and all other manner of Heisenberg-isms that we’ve come to be less and less convinced by over the seasons. Walt asks him to step outside, and Todd tries to state his value to the operation (with a seeming throwaway line about his uncle’s “connections in prison”). After he leaves, Walt, Mike and Jesse decide that the only way to proceed is to keep him “on the payroll” (Walt’s really taken to the idea of being a boss, hasn’t he?).

The next morning, we catch up with Mike, by way of the DEA agent tailing him. Gomez arrives, sees Mike make a dead drop under a trash can, and elects to find out what it is after Mike up and leaves. It’s a handwritten note, from Mike to his friends at the DEA, with a gentlemanly suggestion of what he thinks they should do. How nice of him. Later, in his kitchen, Mike hears Gomey’s report to Hank about their encounter. The latter responds that “even pros make mistakes,” and that they just need to keep the pressure up. Mike smirks, and then Mike sighs, looking more weary than ever (which is saying something indeed). He doesn’t have the heart for this anymore. Jesse, meanwhile, has his crisis of confidence when, during one of their cooks, he sees a news report about Drew Sharp’s disappearance and nearly breaks down. Walt assures him that they have to keep going, that the future will hold “plenty of time for soul-searching.” He offers to finish the cook, telling Jesse that he’s had trouble sleeping, too. After Walt thinks he’s gone, he comes back downstairs to hear his supposed friend and mentor casually whistling away as he goes back to work. It’s taken awhile (almost too long for some fans’ taste), but Jesse is finally starting to see just what his partner is.

It is with both these scenes in mind that Walt stumbles upon his two partners in conference at the Vamonos Pest warehouse, where they tell him that they’re out, both of them. They’ll be taking their shares of the methylamine to a guy Mike knows in Arizona for $5 each. When Walt scoffs that they’ll be selling to his competitors for “pennies on the dollar,” they both retort that this is the only way. The next scene, where Mike and Jesse meet with Declan, Mike’s contact, shows them that selling two-thirds of the methylamine won’t cut it. Declan wants the “blue stuff” off the market entirely, and isn’t willing to scrounge up $10 million when the real source of his opposition is still in business.

A short time later, Walt gets a call from Jesse, whom he invites over to his house to talk. In the episode’s centerpiece, Jesse fills him in on the situation, and attempts to convince him that enough is enough. They’ve made enough money. He tries desperately to reach the Walter White he once knew, the man who sat in a junkyard and counted out the $737,000 he needed to secure his family’s future. But that man isn’t here. Perhaps he never was. There is only Heisenberg, who talks about Declan’s deal as “selling out,” and how, in the past, he made a similar choice with Gray Matter, his and his friend Elliot’s business (been a LONG time since either of those names have come up). He talks about how, for “personal reasons” (hint: Gretchen) he took a $5,000 buyout from Gray Matter. He talks about how, now, the company is worth 2.16 billion dollars (he looks it up every week). He “sold (his) kids’ birthright for a few months’ rent.” He’s not in the meth business of the money business. He’s in the empire business. After Jesse wonders whether a meth empire is really something worth being proud of, Skyler walks in, and what was one of the most revealing character scenes in the history of the show turns into one of the most surreal as Walt invites Jesse to dinner, demonstrating to his partner just how powerful he has become in his own home. Jesse nobly, almost painfully, tries to compliment Skyler at every turn, and after she asks Walter if he told his partner about her affair, Jesse shrinks back and takes an awkward drink, almost like a kid trying to get his parents to talk to each other again. It’s a wonderfully dark comedic moment, further cementing Aaron Paul as the heart of the show, always put in these horrible situations by Walt and always reacting in the most endearingly dopey way possible.

Almost immediately, however, we’re plunged right back into the pathos from before, as Walter tells Jesse that his family, the thing he was doing this for, is essentially gone. He has nothing left but the business, the empire. And he will not abide Jesse and Mike trying to take it from him. After Jesse presumably leaves, Walt hustles over to the warehouse in an attempt to steal the methylamine, only to find Mike there waiting for him. Mike tells him that the deal is going down the following morning no matter what Walter does, and after an awkward night spent in the office together (not in that way, though I admit it would have been a surprising plot twist), Mike tells Walter that he has something to take care of before the deal, and ties Walter to a radiator. While Mike deals with his business (which turns out to be a meeting with Hank and Gomez where Saul threatens them with a restraining order), Walt sets about freeing himself. He does this by first attempting to grab a nearby coffee maker and use the glass to cut himself free. After he accidentally sends the coffee pot itself skittering across the room, he comes up with another idea, using his teeth to strip and separate the coffee maker’s power cable, using the current as a blowtorch of sorts to burn his way free.

Mike, after leaving the DEA office, learns from Saul that their little gamble has given him maybe 24 hours free to “pull the ripcord” and get out. So it’s more than understandable that when he gets back to Vamonos Pest and finds the methylamine gone, he puts his gun to Walter’s temple and starts counting to three. Walter, who wisely seems to have clued Jesse into his plan (Jesse manages, once again, to calm Mike down long enough to give Walt time to talk), tells him that, according to his new plan, “everybody wins.” Cue credits.

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 49-50

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 5, Episode 3- Hazard Pay

“He handles the business. And I handle him.”- Walter White

Running a business isn’t an easy thing to do. Never mind a business “big enough that it could be listed on the Fortune 500.” And yet, that’s just the predicament Walter, Jesse and Mike find themselves in, and it’s the crux of another entry in what is easily Breaking Bad‘s strongest season yet (which is saying something). Putting this business back together starts with Mike’s visit to Dennis, the former manager of the laundromat. Mike, posing as a paralegal, guarantees Dennis that he, and by extension, all the rest of the names on Lydia’s list will get all the money that’s owed to them. Which explains why Mike has decided to enter into business with Walt again.

A business which gets its start, fittingly, in Saul Goodman’s office, where Mike meets up with Jesse, Walt and a protesting Saul. The first major sequence is Saul taking his three clients on a tour of possible lab venues, including Danny’s Lazer Tag, which Walt and Jesse reject immediately (it’s fun to imagine what, exactly, Mike thinks this place is. So strange that barely a season ago, Jesse was hiding in this place while Mike was trying to kill him). Eventually, they check out a small warehouse belonging to a local extermination company (Vamonos Pest), and while there, Walt comes up with an idea. They’re going to hire this extermination company and use the cover provided by their bug bombing to conduct a quick, efficient cook. In the client’s homes. The only catch is that they’ll have to take their lab equipment with them, which is a small catch in the face of becoming almost completely untraceable.

With the help of Badger and Skinny Pete (who plays a wicked keyboard), they complete their cover, and almost immediately begin smooth production. Despite Mike’s warnings to never talk to Walt and Jesse unless spoken to (a move that draws a modicum of respect from Walt. Mike is nothing if not professional.), one of the exterminators, Todd (played by Friday Night Lights‘ Jesse Plemons) comes up to Walt and Jesse and lets them know that he disabled the nanny cam in the first house. Walt asks his name, obviously marking it down for future reference. A king always needs more pawns.

And what does Walt need pawns for? The upcoming power struggle with Mike, of course. After their first batch sells, the three new owners meet to divvy up their profit. Mike begins taking cuts from all three to cover the costs of operation. Drug mules, operation costs, Jesse’s cut for financing the setup (and also the mission they undertook to destroy Gus’ laptop). Through all these things, Walt is quiet, if visibly annoyed. But when Mike takes a slice to put towards his guys’ “hazard pay,” Walt loses it. He maintains that since buying the silence of these former members of the Fring Empire is a business decision, it should come solely out of Mike’s pay. Walt has no desire to adhere to any form of criminal honor or decency. He’s in the hole, sure, but it’s not like he isn’t making a profit from all this, a fact Jesse is all too eager to remind him of. They aren’t making as much as they did under Gus’ rule, but they’re the owners now. They get a bigger cut. Plus, they’re only cooking 1/4th as much as they did as Gus’ wage slaves. Jesse is content. Which isn’t where Walt wants him.

Earlier in the episode, after their first cook, Walt sneakily inquires about Brock and Andrea (whom he officially met at Jesse’s earlier). He suggests that if Jesse is unwilling to share the secrets of what he does for a living with Andrea, then their relationship is doomed to fail (which is true, except for the fact that he and Skyler have nothing that could be considered a working relationship). Jesse is visibly panicked, and after the money-splitting issue with Mike, Jesse informs his old mentor that he has broken things off with Andrea. Walt dismisses him. He never really cared anyway. He just wanted Jesse all too himself, because, as he tells Jesse, he now understands why Gus killed Victor. “He reached too close to the sun,” Walt says, referring to Victor’s attempt to cook the formula while they were under house arrest at the superlab.

Walt’s insidious use of the truth to manipulate those around him continues when, after Skyler blows up on her at the carwash, Marie confronts him (of course Marie just assumes that Skyler being upset couldn’t possibly have anything to do with her.). While playing the cuckolded husband card, Walt tells Marie about Skyler’s affair with Ted, and how his accident is to blame for her recurrent breakdowns. Marie buys it immediately, since this is too juicy a lead for her not to sniff out (and also possibly something for her to hold over Skyler’s head in a few episodes).

The quote for this episode, from Walt to Saul, comes early in the episode, after Mike’s assertion that the business side was entirely his jurisdiction. Does that division of labor sound familiar? It’s similar to the one Jesse and Walt made late in Season 1, one that Walt almost immediately fractured when he marched into Tuco’s hideout with a bad full of fulminated Mercury and a new haircut. The difference now is that when Walt first became Heisenberg, he did so as a way of protecting himself from the criminal underbelly that he’s now all too acquainted with. At this point, it’s less about escaping the chafing bonds of middle-class servitude as it an all-encompassing desire for more. More money. More power. More freedom. If Walter White met the Buddha on the road, he wouldn’t kill him. He would dominate him and use him as slave labor. I think’s it time we stop calling Walt an anti-hero.

Season 5, Episode 4- Fifty-One

“Nobody stops this train.”- Walter White

Upon a re-watch, this episode’s cold open serves as some of the most welcome comic relief sequences in the show’s history. Walt and Junior go to pick up his Aztek from the shop, where the lead mechanic spends most of his screen time telling Walt just how reliable his old car is (“she’s got nine lives, this car”). After a passing reference to the “gunk” they cleaned out of the fender (the Rival Dealers’ blood, which Walt told them was from a deer), Walt sells the mechanic his car for $50. He’s done being dependable. It’s time for him to buy a car befitting his status as kingpin. Notice how this differs from Gus’ Volvo. Hiding in plain sight, Walter is not. It’s like he doesn’t even think about how the man in charge of the task force made to find him is his own brother in law. Regardless, after a pitiful look from Junior as they pull up in their respective rides, they return to the dealership, and Walt buys another Challenger for him. The exact same model. Let’s see Skyler take this one away. Walter is in such a dominant position in the relationship that he’s almost Big Brother to Skyler. He dictates her reality. “Life is good, Skyler,” he tells her, and you can almost see her soul leaving her body.

On the business side of things, Jesse pays a visit to Lydia’s plant after Hank’s investigation forces her to give up her “guy.” As Jesse removes the soon to be ignored barrel of methylamine, she notices a tracking device on the bottom. Mike figures out what her game is soon enough. By trying to make it seem as if the DEA is tracking her shipments, Lydia hopes to give herself a reason to escape her dealings with Mike. It’s a bold strategy, and one that bodes well for her character, if not her future (“she’s dead). Mike’s remarks that he and Jesse are being sexist in simply disregard her as being crazy is an interesting one, since that seems to have been this show’s go to move in dealing with its female characters (Hank himself jokes that Marie isn’t exactly the picture of mental health). I hope Lydia sticks around a little more, what with her mismatched shoes and all.

The centerpiece of this episode is Walt’s birthday celebration. It’s been a year since he was diagnosed, and it’s fun to pick out the contrasts between his 50th birthday party and his 51st. When Skyler threw him a surprise party in the Pilot, he was nervous and unabashedly against the entire affair. This year? This year he seems to expect it, and is visibly disappointed when his birthday bash turns out to be just Hank and Marie coming over for dinner (of course, Marie almost immediately told Hank about Skyler’s infidelity. Walt’s glare at her when he realizes is priceless). During Walt’s grand speech about how much he’s had to go through, Skyler begins inching closer and closer to the family pool. After Hank and Marie notice (Walt’s back was turned to the whole thing, of course), Skyler jumps in and attempts to drown herself. The shot of her below the water is the first time all season she’s looked happy. She can’t hear Walt. But then, in a jarring shot, he appears behind her below the water. One does not simply escape from Heisenberg.

One thing to notice is Hank’s reactions to all this. Before Walter Junior leaves (just in time, because Junior seeing just how desperate his mother is might be enough to sway him to her side. He’s not ignorant about his father. He just chooses to ignore it), Hank makes a quick joke about his nephew being “a millionaire.” He’s just been promoted to replace Merkert as ASAC of the the New Mexico office. He will no longer be in charge of the Fring investigation. Most reviewers have thought that he’ll find a way to continue it regardless. I think he’s going to find himself with ample opportunity to begin a new investigation. One into his brother in law. It has to be happening soon. There’s no way this show isn’t going to ignite that particular fire.

After Marie puts Skyler to bed, she and Hank corner Walt into letting Skyler get treatment, and offer to watch Junior and Holly for a few days. After they leave, he confronts Skyler, dropping the doting husband facade and practically chasing her around the bedroom. He calls her on all her attempts to get the kids away from the house, stating that there is nowhere safer for them to be. Gus Fring was the danger. “I thought you were the danger,” she retorts, and suddenly, Walt isn’t dealing with a comatose shell of a woman: Skyler has decided to fight back. Much like Walter himself did when he broke into the house in Season 3, Skyler has decided to stop being dominated in the War of the Whites. Unlike Walt, Skyler’s methods are much more patient. After Walt shoots down every one of her possible escape plans, she admits that she doesn’t have his “magic,” the magic that allows him to weasel his way out of everything. Skyler has no illusions of innocence, which is refreshing for her, considering nearly her entire run on this show has dealt with her rejecting just how bad things have gotten, either with Walt and with her own dealings with Ted. Walter has a new enemy to deal with (to go along with Hank, the enemy he doesn’t even regard as a threat), and this enemy is content simply with waiting. She says so herself. When Walt asks her what she could possibly be waiting for, she chillingly responds “for the cancer to come back.” Walt stops in his tracks. The show has been building to this for awhile, and as we saw in the flashforward that started this season, it’s a eventuality that the show hasn’t forgotten about. Walt was taking that pills in a Denny’s bathroom for a reason. Right now, he’s on top. He won. But the cancer that, a year ago, started all of this, is still lying in wait.

As he sits and listens to Jesse and Mike argue about what to do with Lydia, Walt has his trademark hat, which he recovered from the Aztek before selling it. When he found it then, he immediately put it on, in public. In front of his son. It’s not like anyone could do anything about it. But while he fiddles with the hat, he finds a loose strand. And as he lays down to sleep in the bed his wife is powerless to keep him out of, the watch Jesse got him for his birthday is ticking. Fifty. Fifty-one. Fifty-two. I don’t think he’s going to reach fifty-three. The clock is ticking, Walter.

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 47-48

Season 5, Episode 1- Live Free or Die

“I forgive you.”- Walter White

Season five of Breaking Bad begins much like all the others: with a strange, mysterious cold open. In Season 1, it was a pair of pants falling from the sky and a man making a confession to his family. In Season 2, it was a charred teddy bear in a swimming pool. In Season 3, it was a strange Mexican ritual with a shocking target. In Season 4, it was the seeming return of a recently departed friend. Season 5 lives up to this reputation, beginning in a Denny’s, where a man from New Hampshire is celebrating his birthday. His 52nd birthday, to be exact (in a nice callback to the pilot episode). This man is Walter White, and he’s returned to Albuquerque, after being forced out under circumstances we’ve yet to see. There’s a lot of interesting tidbits in this cold open, such as Walt’s beard, his hair, and his mysterious medication (is he terminal?), but the main concern, at least as far as the rest of the season goes, is simple: who exactly is he here to kill?

Just as the show poses this question, we’re snapped back to the relative present, just after Walt’s “victory” over Gus. After returning home to dispose of his bomb making tools and the now incriminating Lily of the Valley, he gets a surprise visit from Skyler and Junior, who have returned from Hank and Marie’s (after Skyler correctly assumed that they were no longer in danger). Sensing some hesitation from Skyler, he asks her what’s wrong, and why she isn’t relieved. She replies that she is relieved, and also scared. Of Walt. Something like this is sure to set his ego aflame even more than it already is, and after he realizes that Gus’ security cameras had to be feeding into somewhere, and that that somewhere had to be somewhere the police were surely looking.

As he and Jesse fly off to what I presume is the LPH distribution plant, they almost literally run into the returning Mike, who’s flying like a bat out of hell in an attempt to get his hands on Walter. Jesse, of course, throws himself in the line of fire, stopping Mike from taking a shot and forcing him to listen to Walt’s pitch: they’ve got to find Gus’ laptop before the police see what’s on it. After a stupendously humorous scenes, where Walt shouts out crazy chemistry ideas and Mike shouts down his crazy chemistry ideas, Jesse comes up with the relatively bright idea of using a magnet. So it’s off to Old Joe’s salvage yard, where he combines wits with Walt to form a super magnet, powered by 41 batteries and capable of frying any laptop within a 40 foot radius. This is just crazy enough to work, destroying half the APD’s evidence room and frying Gus’ laptop. With Mike’s help, Walt and Jesse escape into the night before the police can catch them. The episode is mainly focused on this, and while there’s more to it than what I outlined here, it’s mainly a cool-down episode. It’s nice to see Walt and Jesse scrambling to fix a (relatively) harmless problem again, which is an obvious callback to seasons 1 and 2. There are, of course, two added factors. One is Mike, who’s on sardonic overdrive in this episode, making everything just a little bit funnier. The second is Walter himself. Where before he was flying along on the seat of his science pants, finding exhilaration in the most basic survival instincts, now he’s cool, collected, and utterly sure of himself. He’s on top of the world, and nothing that comes his way will be too much for him, he thinks. As he makes clear in two separate but chilling scenes with Skyler and Saul, he is in charge. We’ll see for how long.

Season 5, Episode 2- Madrigal

“When we do the things we do for good reasons, we’ve got nothing to worry about. And there’s no better reason than family.”- Walter White

Another fifth season episode, another surreal cold open in an unusual place. This one features a Mr. Schuler, a man who holds a powerful position of some sort in Madrigal Electromotive, the German multinational corporation that seems to have been backing Gus’s criminal operations. After soullessly sitting through a tasting session (it is revealed that Schuler is in charge of Madrigal’s food division), he goes to meet the local police, who have come to question him. After watching a Los Pollos Hermanos outlet being closed down, he goes to the washroom and methodically commits suicide with a defibrillator. Gus’ criminal empire is closing in on itself, covering it’s tracks.

After the cold open, we see Walt making a fake ricin capsule filled with table salt to a backing track of he and Jesse going trying to retrace his steps and find the missing cigarette. What follows is a montage scene which features Walt and Jesse searching every inch of his house in an effort to find it (but not before Walt hides the real capsule behind an outlet in his bedroom). After their fruitless search, Walt suggests Jesse check his Roomba again, which he does, of course finding Walt’s fake cigarette. Walt moves quickly to dispose it, leaving Jesse shaken and crying, realizing that he almost killed Walter for no apparent reason. We, of course, know that he has every reason to kill Walt, and while Walt assures Jesse that everything turned out for the best, and they their healed partnership will serve them well as they “move forward.” When Jesse questions what he means, we cut to a meeting at Mike’s place, where Walt makes his pitch to include Mike on the ground floor of their soon to be refurbished meth empire. Mike refuses, saying that Walt is a “time bomb,” and that he has “no intention of being around for the boom.”

For most of the rest of the episode, Walt and Jesse disappear, leaving the episode’s focus on Mike and Hank. First up is Hank, who first attends a meeting with various Madrigal big wigs, who pledge that Schuler was a “lone anomaly,” and that the company is offering full transparency. Just after that, he and Gomez have a drink with Merkert, who is apparently going to take the fall for the DEA ignoring Hank all of last season. They talk about the recent developments in the Fring case, which leads to Merkert to reminisce about a time he had Gus over to his house for a 4th of July cookout, where he laments that the entire time, Fring was “somebody else completely. Right in front of me. Right under my nose.” On the surface, this should help put to bed the old “Merkert is Gus’ mole” rumors (unless Merkert himself is someone else, right under Hank’s nose.” More importantly, however, the look on Hank’s face tells us that he, at least is considering what would happen if someone he knew, someone under his nose, turned out to be another person, just like Gus. The wheels are spinning again, and some day, they’re going to spin right onto Walter.

Most of the rest of the episode belongs to Mike, and it starts with a not-so secret meeting with Lydia, one of the Madrigal big wigs, who gives him a list of eleven men who will assuredly be picked up by the police. She wants him to kill these men (she doesn’t say as much, of course, telling him to do what he thinks is best). Mike, of course, declines, telling this paranoid woman that these eleven men are his guys, they’re trustworthy, and they’ve been well compensated to be quiet in just such a scenario. Later, at the DEA, Mike runs into poor Chao (from the chemical plant from Seasons 1 and 3), who is positively terrified by the sight of him. Mike heads upstairs, where Hank and Gomez grill him from every angle imaginable. They express doubt that Fring would have hired someone with Mike’s qualifications (we get some confirmation about Mike’s past as a cop, mainly that it took place in Philly). After he denies any knowledge of Gus Fring’s supposed criminal empire, Hank mentions the $2 million dollars in one of Fring’s Cayman accounts, put forth in Mike’s granddaughter’s name, and how, if he cooperates, they might be able to slip some of that money back to Kaylee. Mike stays stone faced and reiterates that he doesn’t know anything about whatever Gus was doing, but once he leaves, his face devolves into a sneer of pure hatred.

Walt and Jesse make a short reappearance at Saul’s office, where the three discuss how, exactly, they’re going to go about getting their business back up and running. Aside from finding somewhere to cook, their biggest hurdle is, like it was in the past, finding a suitable quantity in methylamine. Saul puts forth that maybe the two should quit while they’re ahead. Which, of course, Walt laughs at. He’s on top of the world, and he’s not going to let something like common sense get in his way.

We catch up with Mike again spending time with his beloved Kaylee, when he gets a call from Chao, who tells him that they need to meet. Once Chao hangs up the phone, we see that he’s being held hostage by a scary looking thug with a silenced pistol. Mike, of course, knows this, and when he arrives, he tricks the thug (who we find out is one of the eleven names on that list, Chris), and gets the jump on him. He asks how much money Lydia is paying him to do her dirty work, and how many of the names he’s already killed. Chris says that Chao (who is already dead) was the first. He apologizes to Mike for trying to kill him, saying that he needed the money. Mike shoots him to death before he can start begging for his life. Immediately afterwards, we find ourselves at Lydia’s house, where she arrives to relieve her nanny and help put her daughter to sleep. Before she can, Mike appears out of the shadows and holds her at gunpoint, forcing her to tell the nanny to leave and for her daughter to go to bed. She begs him not to hurt her daughter, which he agrees to as long as she doesn’t scream. She asks him not to shoot her in the face, so that her daughter recognizes her when she finds her. Mike responds that no one will find her body, and when she starts freaking out, he realizes that she doesn’t want her daughter to think she has been abandoned. This shakes Mike, and after he ponders whether or not to kill her, he asks her if she can get her hands on methylamine. Mike, back in his car, calls Walt and tells him that he’s in.” “Good,” Walt responds. Walt hangs up, and does the dishes.

He goes back to bed, where Skyler has been all day, terrified by his very presence. As he tries to console her, he chillingly states that when they do what they do for their family, all is forgiven (more or less). Skyler doesn’t respond, and the episode ends with the further realization of just how little of Walt’s soul is left. He has become what he thinks Gus was, without the knowledge that Gus did what he did  without deluding himself into thinking that it was for good reasons. Gus was motivated by greed, sure, but also revenge. Some of Walt’s most powerful character moments come when he achieves some form of lucidity and realizes just how terrible a person he has become. These often come when he’s on the verge of collapse. So far, Season 5 has been no such thing. All hail the king. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, Walter.

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 44-46

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 4, Episode 11- Crawl Space

“I don’t want to talk about it, to you or to anyone else. I’m done explaining myself.”- Walter White

The teaser in this episode features Jesse frantically driving Mike and Gus to a pre-prepared first aid station in a warehouse in the desert. The doctors there immediately treat Gus, hooking him up to a dialysis machine in an attempt to filter the toxins out of him. After Jesse drags a bleeding Mike into the tent, screaming for them to help, the head doctor replies that since Gus pays his salary, Gus will be treated first.

After Gus recovers, he and Jesse begin the long trip, on foot, back to New Mexico. They leave Mike with the medical team to recover, but not before it’s revealed that not only was treating Gus planned for, but Mike and Jesse as well. The doctors there have full medical records of all three of them. It makes sense that Gus planned for poisoning himself, but to see that he had a contingency in case Mike or Jesse got hurt shows that he cares for them, if no more than as viable assets. As they begin their trek, Jesse tells Gus to let Walter go. To fire him. When they get back to Albuquerque, they pay a visit to Hector, and Gus gives him Don Eladio’s necklace, taken from his body. Gus then tells him how his grandson, Joaquim, the only family he had left, was shot dead by Jesse, who is understandably perplexed by the virulence of Gus’ hatred. “The Salamanca name dies with you,” Gus tells him, before imploring him to look him in the eyes. The inference is that whenever Hector is ready to look Gus in the eyes will be when he is ready for Gus to kill him.

Just before we start to think that the entire episode will be about Jesse and Gus, we’re pulled into Walter’s world, where, after being stonewalled by Tyrus, he takes Hank up to the distribution plant, and they have themselves a good old stakeout. Hank inquires about Walter’s face, telling his brother in law that “if he’s in over his head, I’m *the* guy to come to.” Walt declines. The next day, Walt picks him up again, but this time, they aren’t going to the distribution plant. They’re going to an interesting little laundromat Hank dug up, one owned by Madrigal Electromotive. One that Hank thinks is a perfect spot to hide a meth lab. Just as they prepare to turn into the laundry, Walt pretends not to notice, and then turns into oncoming traffic in an attempt to derail Hank’s chase. Later, Walt apologizes, and Hank reveals that instead of having other people drive him around, he “caved” and ordered a Tahoe with hand controls. His investigation’s going to continue, no matter what. All Walter has done is remove himself from the equation, which should only make it easier for Hank to find just what he’s looking for.

The other storyline in this episode begins when Ted calls Skyler and tells her that he’s not going to pay off the IRS. He can’t take her money. Undeterred, she enlist Saul and his A-Team, Huell and Kuby. The two goons strongarm him into writing a check to the IRS, and, as Kuby relays their plans to get the check to UPS and keep him company for a couple days until it clears, Ted makes a run for the door, slipping a rug in the entrance way and slamming into his kitchen divider. Oranges pour out of a dish on the divider, echoing the Godfather. Cue the Benny Hill theme.

When he returns to the superlab to begin cooking again, he notices that someone else has been cooking in his absence. A smirking Tyrus tells him that they can’t afford to stop, not even for him, and Walt realizes that he has become expendable. With his tail between his legs, he visits Jesse’s house (interrupting him in the middle of entertaining Brock and Andrea), asking him for help, to which Jesse responds by reminding him that when Jesse asked for help, Walt claimed that he hoped Jesse ended up dead in a barrel. Jesse slams the door in his face, and as Walt ponders what to do next, Tyrus appears behind him and tasers him. The next morning, Tyrus removes his hood to reveal that they’ve brought him deep into the desert, where Gus arrives in all his fearsome glory. “You are done. Fired,” Gus says, warning him not to show his face at the laundromat or contact Jesse again. “Or else you’ll do what?” Walt asks, realizing that the only reason he isn’t dead is because Jesse won’t sign off on it (just as he says this, the shadow of a cloud rolls over the landscape, obscuring everyone in darkness. If that was intentional, it was cinematographic magic). Gus tells Walt that eventually, Jesse will agree to it, but until then, he has Hank to worry about. He tells Walt that if he interferes, he will kill his entire family. After Gus and Tyrus leave, Walt heads over to Saul’s office in a frenzy, begging Saul to help put him in contact with the man who can help him and his family disappear forever. Saul obliges, and they say their farewells, but not before Walt has Saul agree to place an anonymous call to the DEA to tell that Hank is being targeted by the Cartel.

Walt runs into his house. His cough is coming back. He opens up the crawl space and starts gathering all the money he can. Something’s wrong. There’s not as much there as there should be. Skyler, terrified out of her mind, finds him, asking what the phone call he left her meant. Walt asks her where the rest of the money is, she tells him that she gave it to Ted, and something deep and primal inside Walt breaks. He starts to laugh at the absurdity of it all. At first, it’s a giggle, then almost a sob, but as Skyler leaves to answer the frantic message Marie is leaving on their answering machine, it’s an all-out cackle. As he passes out, lying in the dirt, the camera pulls upward, making the crawl space look more and more like a tomb. An finale like this could have been a satisfactory ending for the entire series, but we’ve still got two episodes left in this season and two seasons after that. One thing that is apparent is this: no matter what we see over the next two episodes, the Walter White that we met at the beginning of the series is now dead. That meek, pathetic also-ran of a man, with all his bland thoughts and regrets, is dead. What we see from now on is pure, unadulterated Heisenberg, pushed to his absolute limit by the primal need to survive. Gus Fring’s masterstroke has come and gone, and now he is on the verge of taking everything from Walter. He quite literally has nothing left to lose.

Season 4, Episode 12- End Times

“Then let me help.”- Walter White

End Times begins with a pair of black cars descending upon the White house. Is this Gus’ hit squad? Apparently not. It’s a DEA detail come to take Walt, Skyler and their children to Hank and Marie’s, where they have a full security detail set up. Walt refuses to go. He tells her that if he’s there, none of them will be safe, and that the consequences for his actions should fall on him alone. “No more prolonging the inevitable,” he says. He goes outside to see Skyler off, and hugs his daughter for what he thinks will be the final time. The credit sequence rolls. This episode, along with the finale, forms an effective two-part finale, so instead of recapping individual character storylines, I’m going to give a chronological summary of events.

Walt sits in his backyard, passing the time until armed men come to kill him. He spins his gun twice, and twice it ends up pointing back at his chest. He does it a third time, and it points to a plant sitting next to his table. He smirks bemusedly. While Marie and Junior complain about Walter’s absence, Hank convinces Gomez to check out the laundromat, convinced that the anonymous threat against his life is a smokescreen to get him to give up his pursuit of Gus Fring. Gomez manages to convince the manager of the Laundromat to let him look without a warrant, he brings the pictures back to Hank. After they leave, Jesse resumes the cook, and when he leaves, he gets an urgent summons from Saul. He heads over to Saul’s office, where Huell frisks him and Saul gives him his share of the money, telling him that he’s skipping town and Walter’s facing an imminent demise.

Since his scene next to the pool, no one has been able to contact Walt. As Jesse and Skyler wait to hear from him, Jesse gets a frantic call from Andrea, telling him that Brock is in the hospital. Jesse hurries over, and after Andrea tells him that the doctors don’t know what’s wrong with him, he heads outside to smoke. As he does, he realizes that his “lucky cigarette,” the one with the ricin capsule in it, is missing. Jesse sprints back inside and tells a confused Andrea that Brock may have been poisoned, and to tell the doctors that it’s Ricin. Then, Jesse heads over to Walt’s, where he finds his former partner barricaded and paranoid. Walt tells him what Gus has done, leaving his gun on an end table as he paces around the living room, telling Jesse that he doesn’t know how or when Gus is going to kill him, but he knows it will be soon. When he turns around, Jesse’s pointing the gun at him, asking him why he did it. Walt thinks he means the DEA, but that’s not what Jesse means. He thinks Walt poisoned Brock in an attempt to hurt Jesse one last time. Walt denies it, and Jesse knocks him down to the floor. Walt asks who, if anyone, would have anything to gain from poisoning a child, and that’s when he starts laughing again.

“I have been waiting all day, waiting for Gus to send one of his men to kill me. And it’s you,” Walt cackles, telling Jesse that not only has Gus gotten Jesse’s approval, but he’s gotten Jesse to be the one to pull the trigger. He reasons that Gus has “known everything, all along,” and has orchestrated this entire plot. As Jesse starts to believe it, Walt tells him to go ahead and kill him, if he thinks his old partner capable of poisoning a child. He grabs the gun and pressed the barrel to his forehead, demanding that Jesse shoot him. Jesse can’t do it, and as he leaves to go exact vengeance upon Gus, one way or another, Walt asks to help. White and Pinkman are reunited again.

Their plan begins when Jesse returns to the hospital, spending the night. When Tyrus wakes his up the next morning, he refuses to leave, telling Gus’ top enforcer that if their boss has a problem with it, he can come tell him himself. When Tyrus leaves to call Gus, Jesse sneakily texts Walt, who is busy making something scienc-y in his kitchen: a bomb. When Gus pulls into the paring garage to talk Jesse down, Walt sneaks to his car and plants the bomb on it. Their plan goes flawlessly except for one thing: Jesse’s accusatory tone. It throws Gus off enough that when he returns to his car, his instincts tell him not to get in. As Walt watches from the roof of a building across the street, Gus turns around and walks away, electing to get a ride with one of his subordinates. The episode ends with Walt crushed, defeated, and thoroughly out of options. Much was made, after the episode’s initial airing last October, of Gus’ seemingly supernatural premonition not to get back into his car. In actuality, there’s nothing inhuman about it. Gus knows that Walter is actively moving against him. He knows that Jesse thinks someone poisoned Brock. He knows that his car had been left unattended. Something about it irks him, rubs him the wrong way. So he leaves. You don’t achieve the sort of success Gus has without having a finely-tuned sense of danger.

Season 4, Episode 13- Face Off

“I won.”- Walter White

The final episode of Season 4 begins almost immediately after the penultimate one ended. Walt races to Gus’ now abandoned car and successfully removes the homemade bomb he planted, bringing into the hospital in a diaper bag, eliciting quite the response from Jesse (“did you just bring a bomb into a hospital?”). As they discuss where, if anywhere, they can catch Gus off guard, two detectives from the APD approach Jesse and ask him to accompany them to the station. They want to discuss why, exactly, he was so adamant that Brock had been poisoned with Ricin, and while he does his best to feign ignorance (“I saw it on National Geographic”), he’s saved by the timely arrival of Saul. After they confer, Jesse is free to leave, since Brock’s tox screen came back negative for Ricin (which surprises Jesse). He barely makes it out of the police station before Gus’ men kidnap him and take him back to the superlab, where he remains for the majority of the episode.

Walt, meanwhile, heads over to Saul’s, having to first break his way in and then bribe Saul’s secretary into giving up her employer’s location. It’s the rare comedic scene in an episode like this, with Walt having to crawl his way out of the broken door after being shaken down by Saul’s secretary, who plays well off of the aloof Bryan Cranston. After this, he heads back to the White home, but not before his own danger sense kicks in. Worried that Gus’ men might be waiting to kill him should he step foot inside, he calls his next door neighbor, Becky Simmons (through a collect call, cleverly enough) and has her enter the house under the pretense of checking to see if Walt Jr left the oven on. The elderly Ms. Simmons (played by series creator Vince Gilligan’s mother), checks the house, and Walt sees two men leave through the back as she does. After having risked this woman’s life for something she has absolutely no stake in, Walt sneaks into the house and grabs all of the money he can from the crawl space, narrowly avoiding Gus’ goons as he makes his escape.

When he meets Saul at an abandoned building outside of town, Walt learns that Jesse thought of somewhere were Gus’ guard might be down: Casa Tranquila, the nursing home where Hector Salamanca lives. Walt is noncommittal until Saul mentions that Gus and Hector are enemies. Soon after, Walt pays a visit to Hector, who is mad with rage upon seeing one of the men he wants dead the most. Fortunately for Walt, he wants to see Gus dead even more, and they come to an agreement. It is then that they put their plan in motion. Hector signals a nurse, with whom he awkwardly tells her that he wants to talk to the DEA. He requests to see Hank personally, and, under a security detail, they meet at DEA headquarters. Hector, in one of the more painfully funny scenes in the show’s history, begins to tell Hank both “suck my” and “fuc” before ASAC Merkert ends the meeting. Hector is too much of an old gangster to ever tell the DEA anything, but Walt knows that Gus is watching his old nemesis, and when Tyrus sees him leaving the DEA, he immediately calls Gus. When Hector returns to his room at Casa Tranquila, Walt appears, having hidden in the bathroom, and asks if he’s ready to begin.

Soon after, Tyrus arrives and scoped out Hector’s room, not noticing Walt hiding just outside (despite the efforts of a very confused resident). Walt leaves afterwards Tyrus then returns to his car and informs Gus that everything is clear, also offering to kill Hector himself to avoid danger. Gus refuses, just like Walt knew he would, letting his desire for revenge cloud his judgment. Gus makes a final march into the nursing home, sitting in front of Hector and scolding him for talking to the DEA. While he prepares the syringe he is about to kill him with (either an untraceable poison or a lethal overdose of one of what is surely one of his many medicines), Gus offers his old nemesis one last chance to look him in the eye, which, surprisingly, Hector accepts. What is first a mocking sneer morphs into an expression of absolute hatred. Hector begins furiously ringing his trademark bell, which has been wired to the bomb Walt has strapped under his wheelchair. Just as Gus figures this out and screams in denial, the bomb explodes, wiping out all three men and blowing Hector’s door of its hinges. As an alarm goes off, a pair of nurses arrive and are shocked to see Gus stride out of the wreckage, seemingly unharmed. He begins to fix his tie. As the camera pans around, we see that in fact, half of his face has been blown off, and as the shock begins to wear off, Gus realizes it, too, and collapses. He is dead.

In an airport parking lot, Walter hears on his car radio that there has been a deadly explosion at a nursing home. He breathes a sigh of relief. After this, we catch up with Jesse, who is being forced, almost literally at gunpoint, to continue his cook. After someone buzzes in on the freight entrance, the man guarding him handcuffs Jesse to a pole. He answers the buzz, only to have Walt appear and shoot him in the face with his snub nose pistol. Walt strides across the superlab, dropping his gun in a manner not unlike how Gus dropped the bloody box cutter in the premiere. He releases Jesse and tells him that Gus is dead. The two of them torch the superlab using the chemicals there, and leave as the underground explosion rocks the Laundromat. We next see them on the roof of the hospital parking garage, where Jesse has just learned that Brock is going to be fine. Somehow, he ingested a flower called Lilly of the Valley, one that can be very deadly to anyone who does so. Walt is relieved, and reassures Jesse that even if Gus didn’t poison Brock, he still deserved to die. They shake hands. Just then, Skyler calls, having just seen the news that Gus Fring is dead. She wants to know if Walt had anything to do with it. “I won,” he replies, and as the Danger Mouse song begins to play, Walt glances over at Gus’ Los Pollos Hermanos chain, hanging from the rear view mirror of his Volvo. He smiles. The final shot of the season is a close up of the plant Walt’s gun landed on back in “End Times.” It is a Lilly of the Valley.

Whatever the ramifications of Walt having endangered a child to orchestrate this entire affair, one thing remains true: he is no longer a fundamentally good person. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing these recaps, almost as much as I’ve enjoyed rewatching what is perhaps the most morally challenged and intense show ever produced for American television. If this is your first time reading or your 14th, thank you for doing so. Season 5 of Breaking Bad debuts Sunday, July 15th at 10/9 central on AMC.

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 41-43

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 4, Episode 8- Hermanos

“Well, guess what? *Every* life comes with a death sentence.”- Walter White

While Walter is undoubtedly the main character, there are certain episodes of Breaking Bad that focus on other characters. Season 2′s “Peekaboo” is primarily a Jesse episode, while Season 3′s “One Minute” is mainly with Hank. “Hermanos” is another of those episodes, but this one is about Gus. It starts with a cold open that is taken directly from “I See You” in Season 3, where Gus visits the hospital and brings food to the DEA there, while also meeting Walt and giving Mike an opportunity to sneak in and poison Leonel before the surviving Cousin can inform Juan Bolsa of Gus’ treachery. This serves to establish the setting, as the second scene of the teaser takes place at a local nursing home, where Gus visits Tio (Hector) Salamanca, Tuco’s invalid uncle. While there, Gus taunts him over not only the death of his nephews (sons? this is never fully established), but the recent death of Juan Bolsa. As he tells him that “this is what comes from blood for blood,” we hear the rippling of water in a pool, and see blood seeping through water.

Early in the episode, Gus is called into the APD for a meeting with Tim, Gomez, Merkert and Hank (where he sees a wanted poster for Victor). In this meeting, they question him about his relationship with Gale. He tells them that Gale was a recipient of a scholarship he made to honor a dear friend (a Max Arciniega, whom we will meet later). He then says that after having not seen Gale for many years, he reappeared at Los Pollos Hermanos a few weeks before, and invited Gus to dinner, where he offered Gus an “investment opportunity.” After this, Hank asks him if Gustavo Fring is his real name, since there seems to be no record of him in his native home of Chile. Gus brushes it off, stating that the Pinochet regime was “notoriously unreliable at keeping records.” It’s interesting to note that Merkert, Tim and Gomez are all seated opposite Hank. Sort of a contrast in threat to Gus. And a threat it undoubtedly is. As he rides the elevator back down, there is a noticeable twitch in his fingers and an emptiness in his eyes. For someone like Gus Fring, this might as well be an explosion of rage. Hank is on to him.

Walt’s first scene is a meeting with a younger man at the cancer center, a man whose fears he quashes by telling him that until the day the cancer kills him, he is in control. He comes off as an asshole (which, really, he is), but it’s a pretty good character spot for him. It shows that Walt believes that no matter how much Gus threatens him, there’s nothing he can do to that is worse than what’s already happening. He doesn’t want to die, but I could argue that he’s no longer afraid to. That night, Hank asks him to drive him to a mineral show the next day. Only, it isn’t a mineral show. It’s a side trek to Los Pollos Hermanos, where Hank relays his theory about Gus and asks him to plant a bug on Gus’ car. As Hank’s explaining what he needs to do, Mike pulls up next to them and casually reads a newspaper (you can almost hear Walt’s soul screaming). Instead of planting the bug, Walt goes inside and surreptitiously shows it to Gus, who implores him to do it. He goes back out, plants the bug, and leaves. So begins the horrendously awkward buddy cop relationship between Hank and Walt, one of the most surprising and bleakly comical storylines the show has ever done. After Walt delivers a hasty explanation to the camera in the superlab, he heads over to Jesse’s to tell him that their timetable has been drastically advanced. After he explains to Jesse exactly how he should go about getting close to Gus, Jesse goes to the bathroom. His phone goes off, and Walt looks at it. It’s a text from Mike, telling him that their impending meeting with Gus is off. Walt puts the phone back and tells him he got a message, asking if it’s “anything important.” Jesse shakes his head no.

The episode’s focus heads back to Gus for its final act, beginning with a report from Mike that Hank is indeed acting on his own, and that if they watch their backs, he shouldn’t be a problem. The cartel, however, is a problem, and after Gus removes the tracking device and leaves it at LPH, he returns to Tio at the retirement home, and we find out why. He tells Hector that he has said no to the Cartel’s mysterious ultimatum, and that Hank is “looking into my past.” He asks Hector if today is the day, and we are suddenly flashed back to an indeterminate period in the 80s, in Mexico, where a young Gus and his friend Max (the same Max from the scholarship) are meeting with the leaders of the Juarez Cartel. Don Eladio, played with an effervescent menace by Steven Bauer (who I think is Tuco’s father. I don’t know why), Juan Bolsa, and a young(er) Hector, before whatever malady afflicts him now (most likely some form of “Locked-In Syndrome).

They begin discussing the quality of Max and Gus’ chicken restaurant, and the role Gus plays in the business. Quickly, however, they begin talking about how some of Don Eladio’s men have been getting methamphetamine samples from The Chicken Brothers, and it becomes clear that Max is not only a chicken chef. In many ways, Max is a prototype for someone like Gale, which explains why the scholarship in his name is a chemistry one. And why is there a scholarship in Max’s name? Well, because, after they attempt to pitch their new product to Don Eladio, he asks what use Gus is to this him. As Max frantically tries to bargain for Gus’ life (sounding not unlike Walt bargaining for Jesse’s life with Tuco) Hector shoots him in the head, and Don Eladio tells the restrained Gus that the only reason he isn’t dead as well is because they know who he is. As Don Eladio tells him that he’s “not in Chile anymore,” Gus watches Max’s blood trickle into the pool before we’re pulled back to the present, where the Gus of the present sits, taunting the man who killed his friend. There is the interpretation that Gus and Max were lovers, which, while interesting, doesn’t exactly change the stakes. Gus is out for blood either way. Sangre por sangre.

Season 4, Episode 9- Bug

“A guy this clean’s gotta be dirty.”- Hank Schrader

“Bug” is an episode that, in many ways, is the weakest of the second half of season 4. The teaser is exactly that, a teaser that portends something bad happening to Walt, who opens the episode proper by driving Hank over to Los Pollos Hermanos, where they retrieve the tracking device under the watchful eye of Tyrus. Back home, they discover that the tracker has only recorded Gus going two places: his work and his home. We know that this is because he removed it before going anywhere else, but Hank doesn’t (though he might have his suspicions). Walt seems particularly defeated by this entire scenario and, as he’s leaving Hank’s for the laundromat, he pulls up to Tyrus’ car and calls the police to report a “suspicious man.” As he arrives at work, he asks Jesse for a cigarette, and has a strangely detached conversation with him, about cigarettes and “Ice Road Truckers” (“Dudes drive on ice.”) When Jesse, confused, reiterates that he will kill Gus when he gets a chance, Walt responds that “they’re both dead men anyway.” This malaise continues for him until later, when Skyler calls him and tells him that the car wash might actually be able to turn a profit, and that he should start “thinking of an exit strategy.”

After Walt warns Mike that a certain DEA agent is going to be taking a ride to visit a certain distribution plant, Skyler gets a visit at the car wash from good old Ted Beneke, he of the cooked books and the broken heart. While at first it seems he’s trying to reignite whatever they had together, he reveals that he’s being audited by the IRS. As he blunders his way through trying to get her to fix the damage, she realizes that there’s no way the IRS will think that Ted acted alone, and that they’ll come after whoever else they can find in the records, which of course, is her. This kicks off her storyline for the rest of the season, where she tries to fix, or at least contain, the disaster that is Ted Beneke. She gets the heat off temporarily by showing up to Ted’s audit, playing the role of a ditzy, floozy sort of woman, playing off the idea that Ted only hired her to have sex with her. As she tells Ted afterwards, “ignorance of the law doesn’t equate to criminality, it equates to ignorance.” It’s a fun side plot, and it’s interesting to see her going through her own version of the sort of growing pains Walt went through in Season 1. Ted is her Krazy-8.

Jesse storyline picks up in the second half of the episode where, after a discussion with Mike about the logistics of killing Hank, he’s present at the chicken farm when Gaff begins killing Gus’ men from afar with a sniper rifle. Mike pulls him out of the line of fire and before they can even formulate an escape plan, Gus walks directly into the line of fire, daring Gaff to kill him. The shots stop. That night, Gus tells Gaff on the phone that his answer is yes. The Cartel is pushing, harder and harder, and Gus needs an exit strategy of his own.

Later in the episode, Jesse visits Gus’ home for dinner, in a scene that obviously parallels Walt’s earlier meeting in Season 3. But where Walt was content to deal in inference, Jesse speaks openly. Gus tells him that he will answer all of his questions, provided Jesse answer one of his own: can he cook Walter’s formula on his own? When Jesse refuses, saying that he won’t sign off on Walt’s murder, Gus tells him that he asks this because “circumstances with the Cartel are untenable,” and that he needs Jesse’s help. We aren’t privvy to exactly what Gus needs his help with, but when Jesse calls Walt the next night and tells him that he needs to talk to him, we learn that Gus needs him to go down to Mexico and cook Walter’s formula in his stead, since Gus has finally given into their demand for access to the blue meth. Jesse is nervous, and asks Walt for pointers in advance of the trip, but Walt ignores him, asking him why he didn’t kill Gus when he had the chance. When Jesse reiterates that he never saw the man, Walt reveals that he knows Jesse was at Gus’ house. When Walt mentions that he knows Jesse was there for “2 hours and 18 minutes,” Walt has another revelation: that he bugged Jesse’s car. They have words, words that culminate in Jesse throwing the tracking device in Walter’s face, breaking his glasses. Then they have a little more than words, and, even though Walt does surprisingly well for someone in his condition, Jesse ultimately beats him. “Can you walk?” he asks, as Walter stumbles around while bleeding profusely, now having achieved what we saw in the cold open. “Then get the fuck out of here, and never come back.” The White/Pinkman partnership has had its fair share of setbacks in the past, but this is the first time that they have come to blows like this. For all intents and purposes, it’s over. Jesse has chosen his side.

Season 4, Episode 10- Salud

“I promise you this: either we’re all going home, or none of us are.”- Mike Ehrmentraut

We start this episode with Jesse, Mike and Gus getting on a plane to Mexico, where they go to meet the Cartel and give them Jesse’s formula. But before that, we catch up on Walter, whose involvement this hour is limited to two big scenes. After Walter Jr. gets his birthday present (a P.T. Cruiser, which ups their terrible car collection to 2, after Walt’s Aztek), he heads over to his dad’s apartment to see why he hasn’t been returning anyone’s calls. There, he finds Walter, still recovering from his fight with Jesse. Walt tells him not to tell Skyler, because he was gambling. When Junior asks him how, he breaks down in tears and tells him that he made a mistake, and that he “had it coming.”

Later, after he calls his son “Jesse” while in a haze, they have a frank conversation, one in which Walter tells his son that the only memories he has of his father are of him withering away on a hospital bed from Parkinson’s. He doesn’t want that, or how he was before, to be the only thing his son remembers of him, but Junior disagrees, saying that to remember him like that would be better than how he has been since his diagnosis, since at least that would be “real.” Walter is afraid of appearing weak to his family. It’s why he tells this to Junior. It’s why he showed baby Holly the walls packed with money in Season 2. It’s his pride, rearing up again. These are easily the most important scenes Walter Jr has had in the entire show’s run (you may notice that he only uses one of his crutches while doing this, which is supposed to signify that he’s growing up. Good job, Vince Gilligan. Matthew Weiner would be proud.).

Meanwhile, Saul meets with Ted Beneke, where he informs him that the death of an obscure relative has left him with just enough money to pay of his debt to the IRS! Hooray Ted! Of course, Ted immediately uses this money to lease a Mercedes, prompting Skyler to pay him another visit, in which she implores him to pay his debts. After he brushes her off, she asks him who exactly he thinks he got that money from, setting up the major side plot of the next episode masterfully.

The bulk of the action this episode takes place in Mexico, however, and it begins with Jesse, Mike and Gus arriving at the Cartel’s giant warehouse lab in the Mexican wilderness (a place not unlike what poor Max was suggesting to Don Eladio before he was killed). The head cook, obviously a trained chemist, scoffs at the idea of someone like Jesse teaching him anything, but Jesse doesn’t back down, telling the chemist that since he is the man brought in by the Cartel to show them how it’s done, he’d better do as he says. It works, and the resultant product from the Jesse-directed cook comes to be over 96% purity, well above Cartel standards and right on par with Gale’s “hard-earned” number. Gaff congratulates him on the “first of many,” after which he reveals that due to their agreement with Gus, he belongs to the Cartel now.

Later, our three adventurers are at Don Eladio’s resort house, standing over the pool that Max’s blood spilled into so many years ago. While it’s just the three of them, Gus ingests a mysterious pill while Mike assures Jesse that they’re all going home together. Don Eladio arrives soon after, flanked by his capos. He is pleased to see Gus, and is happy that he “finally came to his senses.” After Don Eladio introduces himself to Jesse, his new employee, he notices the gift Gus brought with him, which is revealed to be a bottle of rare tequila. Don Eladio opens it and pours a glass for everyone in attendance, aside from Gaff, Mike and Jesse (whom Gus tells him to be a recovering addict). After seeing Gus take a drink, Don Eladio offers up a toast to their renewed friendship, and begins the party in earnest. Later, Don Eladio tells Gus that he isn’t angry, he just had to keep Gus in line, and that there’s no room for emotion in this. “Business is business,” he says, and Gus responds by asking if he can use the restroom. While in the restroom, Gus fastidiously, almost mechanically, removes his glasses, folds a towel to kneel on and forces himself to vomit.  He has poisoned the tequila. This entire trip has been a cover, one that has allowed him to get close enough to Don Eladio to kill him, both enacting his vengeance upon the Don and eliminating a massive swathe of the Cartel. As Gus walks back into the party, where most of the guests are dead and Mike is garroting Gaff, we realize that this is his masterstroke, and even though the poison has severely weakened him, the three of them make their escape, but not before Mike is shot by one of the lesser members, whom Jesse kills. The episode ends with Mike telling Jesse to “get us out of here, kid.”

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 38-40

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 4, Episode 5: Shotgun

“Guess I have two jobs now.”- Jesse Pinkman

This cold open picks up full steam, right after the last episode ended. Walter is driving like a maniac, frantically calling both Saul and Skyler, the latter of whom doesn’t pick up. It ends with him flying into the parking lot of Los Pollos Hermanos, where, after the credits sequence, he marches through the front door and asks to see Gus. After getting stonewalled by the staff, he takes a seat and waits for his boss to show himself. As he waits, he begins to realize just how stupid a decision he has made. He’s holding an unregistered, concealed handgun in a public place surrounded by cameras and any number of potential hitmen. Then, his phone rings. It’s Mike, with Jesse, who is fine, and still in the car, heading to some indeterminate location to the north. Mike assures Walter that everything will be fine and that he should get on with the cook. Unconvinced, Walter makes a break for the back of the restaurant, only to find that Gus really wasn’t there. It appears he left his car there as a way of tricking Walter.

The focus then shifts to Jesse and Mike, and while Jesse’s been spending the last few episodes seemingly not caring if he lives or dies, he tells Mike to “shoot straight, old man.” However, when they arrive at their destination, Mike doesn’t kill anyone. He simply grabs a shovel from his trunk and digs up a bag of money, hidden under a trap door in the desert. He’s making collections for Gus, in a system not completely dissimilar to the one Jesse ran with Badger, Pete and Combo. Jesse gets back in the car, and for most of the rest of the episode, their scenes are a collection of pickup scenes in which the eternally exasperated Mike has to put up with Jesse’s antics, until, around dusk, they pull into an empty alleyway while Mike goes into a building to fetch their last dead drop. As Jesse waits, he notices a car pull up behind the car. As one of the men in the car approaches with a shotgun, Jesse takes control, ramming Mike’s car into theirs and escaping into the night. Later, as Mike walks the street by himself, Jesse pulls up to him, and tells him the story. Mike, realizing that Jesse just saved them a lot of money, lets him smoke, something he vehemently objected to earlier in the episode.

Although maybe he’s not the hero he thinks he is, because when Mike meets with Gus to discuss the incident, he remarks that “it all went like you (Gus) thought it would,” and that “the kid’s a hero.” Obviously, this suggests that Gus set up the robbery attempt, which is interesting at first because it suggests that, of course, Gus is attempting to drive a wedge in between Jesse and Walt. Later, it will become apparent that this is also the start of his final gambit against the Cartel, in which Jesse will play a pivotal role. This season is a long game between Gus and Walt, and even though Walt won the first round, Gus is moves ahead.

Hank and Walt’s storylines are inexorably connected in this episode. Hank’s first scene is with his cop friend Tim, whom he tells that finding Heisenberg, dead, feels like closure for him, and that he’s done as a cop. Walt, meanwhile, struggles through cooking without Jesse, at one point screaming at the camera that he needs someone to help him. That someone turns out to be Tyrus, who smirkingly assists Walter with some maintenance around the lab. Walter is nonplussed. Later, after he spends the night with Skyler, he has a nice conversation with his son, during which he notices Junior is drinking out of a “Beneke Fabricators” mug. The next day, he finds Jesse back in the lab, as if nothing has happened, and before he can get an explanation, Mike calls and Jesse leaves. The emasculation of Walter White continues, and it culminates that night at Hank and Maries. Walter, after drinking more than his fair share of wine, he suffers through listening to Hank blather on about the genius of Gale Boetticher. Eventually, his pride gets the better of him, and he explains to Hank that the notes he saw in Gale’s notebook suggest that he was merely a copycat, and that “the real mastermind might still be out there.” As the episode ends, Hank is going through Gale’s case notes again, and he remarks to Marie that of all the things found in that apartment, a napkin for Los Pollos Hermanos is the strangest. “Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?”

Season 4, Episode 6: Cornered

“Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”- Skyler White

This episode begins with a teaser (I’m getting tired of saying “cold open”) that directly mirrors the one in episode 4. Two armed men are  inside one of Gus’ trucks, obviously as a response to Mike’s ordeal with the cartel. This truck is also stopped, but before the two grunts can use their automatic rifles to defend their boss’ cargo, the cartel boys (lead by a man named Gaff), bar the door and pump the trucks’ exhaust into the cabin, suffocating the two men and taking the specially marked tub when the smoke clears. Simple. Efficient. The Cartel is learning.

The episode proper begins with one of the most telling scenes in the history of the show. After waking up from his wine bender the night before, Walter is accosted by his wife, who accusingly asks him if he knew Gale Boetticher, and if the same people who killed Gale might come after him. Walter brushes her off, telling her that his job and their relationship should be treated as “church and state,” that is to say, separate. Skyler continues pushing, however, and when she puts forth, again, that he should go to the police, he loses it completely (after symbolically removing his red to reveal the black one underneath, of course). “Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see?” he scoffs. He tells Skyler that he is not the guy who answers his door and gets shot in the face. He is THE ONE WHO KNOCKS. He leaves, to take a shower, and Skyler is mortified. She leaves Albuquerque entirely, and nearly leaves New Mexico, before deciding to come back. As she tells Walt at the episode’s conclusion, she has to “protect this family from the man who protects this family.” Whatever damage this does to Walt’s ego is quickly repaired, first by his meeting at the car wash with Bogdan, where he does his best to humiliate his former boss, going as far as to insist that he keep Bogdan’s framed “first dollar,” which he uses to buy a soda from the vending machine.

His storyline in the episode ends with Skyler’s return, but before that, he has another egocentric conversation with Jesse, where he correctly assumes that Gus’ interest in Jesse is all about him, going as far as to assume that the robbery was a set-up (which is was). Of course, in typical Walter fashion, he  does this by being as much an asshole as he can. When Jesse gets a call from Mike and leaves, Walter goes upstairs and hires some poor cleaning ladies from the laundromat to clean for him (“Presidente Grant, very important man”). Later, he sees Tyrus escorting them off of the premises and on to a bus “back to Honduras.” When Walt sheepishly tries to tell him to tell Gus not to blame them but him, Tyrus responds by saying that “he does.”

Mike, and by extension, Jesse’s storyline begins while they are at a local diner, and Mike gets a call, presumably from Gus, informing him to deal with the actions taken against them by the Cartel. The next day, Jesse and Mike head to stakeout a meth house where two tweakers have apparently gotten a hold of their product without paying. Mike say that tweakers are unpredictable, and that he “doesn’t like unpredictable.” Jesse, of all people, “knows meth heads”, and he, against Mike’s judgment, confronts them. He tricks Tucker, the one who answers the door, to help him dig a hole in the yard, allowing Jesse free entry into the house. There, he confronts the other tweaker (brilliantly played by Justifieds Damon Herriman), who is nervous, paranoid, and armed with a shotgun. After he points the gun in Jesse’s face, he’s distracted by Mike coming through the door, allowing Jesse to disarm him. There, they find the stolen batter with “ready to talk?” written in Spanish on the lid. Later, back at the diner, Gus arrives to talk to Mike, who suggests that they hire “10-15 more good operators” (a term that I believe derives from the US Special Forces, which is a reasonable-sounding origin story for Mike), and Gus refuses. At this point, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while initially Gus “hired” Jesse just to keep an eye on him and perhaps turn him against Walter, Jesse might turn out to be a useful asset in the upcoming war against the Cartel

Season 4, Episode 7: Problem Dog

“What are Gustavo Fring’s fingerprints doing in Gale Boetticher’s apartment?”- Hank Schrader

After a very substandard teaser sequence (featuring a poorly represented product placement for a game that wasn’t even out yet), we join up with Walt and Skyler at the car wash. She wants him to return the car he bought for Junior, seeing as an unemployed former school teacher who is fighting cancer shouldn’t be able to afford something like this. So, of course, Walter takes the Challenger to an empty parking lot and does donuts with it, eventually crashing into into a ditch. Instead of calling for someone to come and get it out for him, he simply takes the car’s title, sticks it in the gas tank and light it on fire. Later, at Saul’s office, he tells his lawyer that there’s “nothing he can do but wait” for Gus to kill him. They bounce ideas off of one another of how, exactly to kill Gus, when Saul tells Walt that his partner has been in contact with him. He heads over to Jesse’s house (where he is symbolically painting over the graffiti left from his mega-party), and gives him a “sales pitch” on why he should kill Gus. Jesse agrees, and tells Walt that he’ll do it “the first chance he gets.” Soon after, Walt presents Jesse with the most elegant possible solution to their problem: their old friend, ricin. They put it in a little capsule that fits inside one of Jesse’s cigarettes. The plan is set, and unlike with Tuco, it actually is a plan.

The first chance Jesse gets to kill his boss comes the next day, when he and Mike head up to the chicken farm to act as lookouts for a meeting between Gus and Gaff (Jesse’s rocking an incredible Dave Grohl shirt during this, by the way). As he’s making coffee for everyone and pondering dropping the ricin in it, Mike hands him a gun and tells him not to use unless it’s an emergency. The meeting is quick and abrupt, as Gus offers a severence pay of $50 million, and Gaff refuses, telling Gus that they both know what it is the Cartel wants. He leaves, and as Mike is driving Jesse back to town, he tells him that he should probably teach the younger man how to shoot, since “things might be getting pretty hairy soon.” When Jesse confronts him and asks exactly what it is Gus “sees” in him, Mike responds that it’s loyalty, only “maybe you’ve got it for the wrong guy.”

The next scene is Jesse returning to his group sessions, where he admits to his grief over killing Gale, whom he refers to as a “problem dog,” a dog that had to be put down (by this I mean a literal dog). As the group leader comes to his defense as some of the other members attack him, Jesse refuses and says that maybe they’re right, maybe he deserves the judgment of others. “If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point?” he rails. Then, as the leader, this nice man who’s only ever tried to help him, tells him that self-acceptance is the key, Jesse attacks him, throwing the death of his daughter in his face and revealing to him that the only reason he came back to group was to sell meth to other members. Jesse’s at a crossroads, stuck between loyalty to his partner, who’s never done anything but destroy his life, and his new employer, who seems to accept him for what he is. He’s going to need something to jar him loose from this conundrum, and Walt, sooner or later, is going to find something to do it (*ominous lightning*).

Meanwhile, Hank and Walter Jr head over to Los Pollos Hermanos, where Gus serves them personally. Seizing upon his hospitality, Hank accepts a refill, and bags the cup Gus uses for later. The episode’s conclusion sees him visiting his old DEA office, where he’s meeting Gomez and ASAC Merkert to discuss with them his theory: that Gus Fring, owner of Los Pollos Hermanos and all-around saint of the Albuquerque community, is a major drug kingpin. As he walks the incredulous pair through the winding path that lead him from a serial number in Gale’s apartment, to a multinational corporation called Madrigal Electromotive, through one of their subsidiaries (Los Pollos Hermanos) we can see that the “clean living and vitamin pills” Hank’s attributes to his recovery are actually the thrill of the hunt returning him to life. After he ends his speech, Gomez and Merkert are dubious, to say the least, and he agrees with them, that it’s a pretty major reach. That is, until he reveals to them that some of the fingerprints found in Gale’s apartment are a match for the prints he pulled of the cup he got from LPH earlier in the episode. They are Gus’ fingerprints, and they represent the biggest danger Gus has ever faced. Hank is coming for him, and it’s only a matter of time before he unravels the entire plot.

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episode 34-37

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 4, Episode 1: Box Cutter

“Well? Get back to work.”- Gus Fring

Oh, Gale. This fourth and best season of Breaking Bad begins with a nice little flashback that serves as a final genesis for both the superlab and Gale’s role in it. He was Gus’ original choice, his star chemist, and only though a sense of professionalism did any of that change. He comments that the sample of blue meth Gus gave to him to test is the best he’s ever seen, and that whoever made it is capable of a higher level of chemical purity than he himself is, and that if Gus is paying for the best, then he should get the best. Of course, we know this mystery chemist to be our very own Heisenberg, which places this conversation somewhere during the events of Season 2′s “Mandala.” Unknowingly, he has just vouched for the man who will eventually order his execution.

Flash forward a few weeks and we get back to Gale’s apartment, just after Jesse has shot him in the face. He leaves, and we see Victor show up just as Gale’s neighbors are calling the police. He says nothing and does nothing, but leaves as soon as he sees Gale’s body. He goes outside to find Jesse still in his car and in shock, and forces him to drive back to the superlab. The vast majority of the episode takes place here (aside from Skyler and Sauls efforts to find Walter and a quick check in on Marie and Hank, who are going through difficulties in acclimating Hank to his new lifestyle). After Victor tells Mike that Gale is dead (and that the residents got a good look at him as he searched), Mike calls Gus, and the four of them spend most of the episode waiting for Gus to arrive, with Walt trying his best to convince the two goons to let he and Jesse cook. This prompts Victor to try his hand at the fabled Heisenberg method, surprising Walter with just how much of it he has picked up (“Bet he forgets the Aluminum. Guarantee. Guarantee he forgets.”).

This continues until, finally, Gus arrives, and what follows is one of the most chilling and terrifying scenes in recent TV history. He strides in, and stalks his way across to lab, oblivious to Walt’s frenzied rationalizing of what he’s done. He then, methodically, and with fastidious precision, changes into one of the lab’s orange jumpsuits, grabs a stray box cutter and strides, threateningly, over to where Walt and Jesse sit. As Walt starts to panic and grovel, Gus calmly and definitively grabs Victor and slits his throat, killing him both for his failure in being seen at Gale’s apartment and to send a message to Walt. Gus can’t afford to stop production, not for a single day, and if Walt’s the only chemist he’s got, then he’s going to have to make due. But that doesn’t mean he can’t make Walt’s working life as oppressive and terrifying as he possibly can. After he leaves Victor’s corpse at Walt’s feet, he strides back over to the locker station, removes his jumpsuit, washes his hands, puts his suit back on and leaves. He does all of this without saying a word until, just before he leaves, he tells Walter and Jesse to “get back to work.”

There’s a nice little callback as Walt and Jesse are cleaning up the mess where, as they load Victor’s body in a plastic barrel, Mike asks if the hydrofluoric acid they’re using will do the trick. “Trust us,” Jesse responds,  referring to their little adventure with Emilio’s remains in Season 1. Then, we see the barrel containing Victor’s liquidy remains marked as “corrosive” and loaded into the back of a truck. Such is the fate of those who fail Gus Fring. Strangely, the extraordinarily bloody message Gus sent seems to resonate with Jesse, who seems to snap out of the comatose state shooting Gale put him in. He sits up in his seat and locks eyes with Gus, staring him down. As he says later to Walt at the Dennys where they eat in matching Kenny Rodgers shirts (very stylish, very stylish), “we’re all on the same page.”  He understands that if Gus cannot afford to kill them, then he’s going to “make you wish you were dead.” Walt seems to feat this more than anything. He knows, intimately, what it’s like to wish you were dead, and he didn’t seem to care for it (refer, of course, to “Fly.”) And as he returns home to find that Skyler has moved his car to another street, he brushes off her questions and walks away to get his car, we see that he sees no conceivable way out of the mess he’s in.

We see differently, as among the evidence at Gale’s apartment, which is currently being combed over by the APD, is his notebook marked “Lab Notes,” which surely has a few things that a certain former DEA special agent might find interesting.

Season 4, Episode 2: Thirty-Eight Snub

“Thanks for the drink.”- Mike Ehrmentraut

This episode’s cold open deals with Walt buying a pistol (a .38 special, of course) from a local gunsmith, played with a Tarantino-esque flair by Jim Beaver, of DeadwoodSupernaturalJustified, and general awesomeness fame. Despite Walt’s clamoring that the gun is “for defense,” the salesman (whos name is Lawson) reiterates that he might best be served buying a weapon legally, since the defaced serial number on the gun he’s interested in could land him a felony charge if he is caught with it. Walt insists that this is how he wants to do it, ending the open with “I’ll take it.” He might not be actively trying to kill Gus, but if the events of the first episode have taught him anything, its to be prepared for it.

This is an episode split in two, not only in the parallel Walt/Jesse storylines, but in theme. One is plot, one is character development. Walt’s half deals with his attempts to find a way to kill Gus, while Jesse’s deals with how he’s dealing with Gale’s death. He spends it hanging out with Badger and Pete at first, gradually progressing into a full blown, episode-long party that he only leaves to go to work and to catch up with Andrea, who wants to know if anyone’s going to come looking for the stacks of money he’s been having given to her. When Badger, Pete and the rest of their guests (including the guy who looks uncommonly like Bryan Cranston in a wig) leave after more than a day of partying, and Jesse is finally alone with his thoughts, we see him crack and collapse inward. He’s so terrified of what he’s done, of what Walt has made him do, that even the idea of being alone is causing him to implode.

The rest of the White Clan gets their fair share of screentime, starting with a visit to Hank and Marie’s house, where Hank is beginning to make serious progress in his physical rehabilitation. Of course, he still can’t stand being alone with his wife, who, to her credit, has yet to give up on him. I will, without hesitation, tell you that Marie is my least favorite thing about this show, but her dedication to Hank is easily her most endearing character trait, and Betsy Brandt deserves all the credit in the world in making me feel sorry for Marie early in this season (at least until the third episode). Skyler, meanwhile, spends her screentime scouting out Bogdan’s car wash, keeping track of the comings and goings to give herself an idea of how much the place is worth. She then uses this information to give an offer to Bogdan, who places his price at $20 million. After Skyler scoffs and beings telling him her estimation of the car wash’s value ($879,000), he reiterates his price, telling her that if Walter White wants to buy his car wash, 20 million dollars is the price he will pay.

I skipped over Walt’s half of the episode a bit, because, upon first viewing, it seems to be the more pertinent and noteworthy. The first instance of his new plan occurs when he thinks he sees Gus coming down into the superlab, only for it to be a new, unknown man (Victor’s replacement, Tyrus). When Walt asks the arriving Mike where their boss is, Mike responds by saying that Walt’s “never gonna see him again.” That night, Walter drives over to the house Gus invited him to late in Season 3, where, after a moment spent gathering himself, he dons the Heisenberg hat and begins marching towards Gus’ house, stopping only when someone (later revealed to by Tyrus) calls his phone and tells him to go home. In the penultimate scene, Walt visits Mike at a local dive bar. He buys Mike a drunk and they start talking about their respective jobs, and when Mike asks Walter why he’s carrying a gun, Walt makes him an offer. If Mike can get him in a room with their boss, he can get rid of Gus before he kills one or both of them. Mike asks him if he’s done, and when he says yes, punches him in the face and kicks him around a bit before thanking Walt for the drink and leaving. Even if Mike is afraid of his boss (as his pulling his gun when Victor was murdered might suggest), he’s far too much of a professional to stage an insurrection just because this so-called genius can’t. He’s not going to risk his life by backing the losing side.

Season 4, Episode 3: Open House

“To clean cars…and clean money.”- Walter White

Quick little open in this one, where Walt, after coming in to work, notices a camera on the wall of the superlab. After testing its motion-tracking capabilities, he tells it (and the person or persons watching it) that he thinks they’re just the best. That they’re number one, even. After the intro, at Walt’s apartment, Skyler pressures him about the car wash and discovers the black eye he received from Mike the night before. After pestering him about whether or not he is danger, Skyler makes Walt deliver what is assuredly an empty promise that he will go to the police if he has to, as a last resort.

Walt’s main focus in this episode is hosting a pow-wow of sorts, where Saul and Skyler (and, tangentially, Saul’s bodyguard, Huell) bounce ideas off of one another as to how to get Bogdan to sell the car wash. Things stall until, when pressured about why exactly it has to be this car wash, Skyler slyly lets slip to Walt that Bogdan insulted him personally. This gets Walt’s attention, and gets him fully behind the idea of taking the fight to Bogdan personally. Later in the episode, Skyler formulates a plan of attack, and coordinates with Saul to place one of his men (played by the comedian Bill Burr, of Chappelle’s Show fame) at the car wash as an EPA agent who, while being coached by Skyler, finds enough contaminants to convince Bogdan that selling would be preferable to being fined or having to pay full retrofit of the filtration system. Later, when Bogdan calls, Skyler lowballs him on her original $879,000 offer. Eventually, he accepts, at $800,000, to Walt’s astonishment.

Jesse takes a backseat in this episode, though the scenes he does get do well in illustrating just how fucked up a state he’s in. After asking Walt if he wanted to do anything later in the lab, we see him at an indoor go-kart track, alone. When he returns to his house, we see that the somewhat good-natured party house from the second episode has devolved into an embryonic form of the same sort of meth hellhole that Walt rescued him from after Jane’s death. Later, as he regales his guests by making it rain on them with money and drugs, we see Tyrus watching his house from afar.

The major sideplot (to the point of almost being the main plot) of this episode concerns Marie and her visits to various open houses in the ABQ area, where she gives a different false name and background before surreptitiously stealing some sort of trinket from the homes. Eventually, she gets caught by suspicious realtor who had seen her before, and has to call Hank for assistance with the police. Despite proving once again that she’s the least essential and most aggravating character on the show, these scenes do well to show just how trapped she feels in her own home, and how escaping into these false lives is her only release. This is best seen when Hank’s detective friend Tim (who assisted when Walt was missing in Season 2) comes to take Marie home, only to have her fear in stepping foot in that house break her down. As I said before, things in the Schrader household are very, very bad right now, but they receive their first little ray of sunshine when Tim pays a visit to Hank, and asks him to review a notebook they found at a crime scene: Gale’s notebook. Hank is noncommittal at first, but as the episode ends, his interest gets the better of him, and he takes a peek. Things are going to be picking up very soon, plotwise.

Season 4, Episode 4: Bullet Points

“Oh, God. How did everything get so screwed up?” “Yeah, you do have a little ‘shit creek’ action happening.”- Walter White and Saul Goodman

One of the simmering plot points brought up near the end of Season 3 was Gus’ impending conflict with the Cartel. Until the cold open of this episode, this had yet to materialize in any meaningful way. Mike is providing protection for a Los Pollos Hermanos delivery truck that gets pulled over by a pair of Cartel thugs. When the driver begins speaking in English (to give Mike an idea of what’s going on), the thugs kill him and fire on the back of the truck, where Mike hides as best he can among the batter. He survives, though not without losing a chunk of his ear, and summarily eliminates the two gun-toting Cartel boys. Jonathan Banks is just the right amount of exasperated for all of this to play as more a shitty part of a shitty job than a high-stakes gunfight.

The first major scene in this episode is one of the longest (and most humorous) in the history of the show, as Skyler walks an unwilling Walt through the script she’s prepared for their long-awaited confession of Walt’s “gambling problem” to the rest of the family (sans, Marie, who of course already knows). It’s not a particularly complicated set of scenes, but they do well to illustrate just how goofy a criminal combination Walt and Skyler are (I also love how terrible Skyler’s writing is, which hammers home the old plot point that she’s something of a failed writer). It also serves, in a roundabout sort of way, as a form of meta self-commentary by the writers (you can imagine them having similar conversations about what Walter would and wouldn’t say), who must have gotten a kick out of writing it. Just before they actually “come clean,” Hank shows off a piece of evidence from a case he’s working on, which just happens to be a ridiculous video featuring the recently departed Gale singing a karaoke version of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” (which is interesting, because in many ways, Peter Schilling is to David Bowie what Gale was to Walt. I’m not being serious).

When it actually comes to revealing the tale, Walter seems to have a bit of trouble playing the contrite and sorrowful role Skyler has picked out for him. After excusing himself, he sneaks back to Hank’s room and starts going through the case notes. Later, he convinces Hank to show him the notes in a more open manor. While they’re poring through Gale’s notes, we’re treated to one of the most sneakily tense scenes in the show, where Hank tells Walter the grand tale of his hunt for the mysterious Heisenberg, which culminates with Hank  throwing out possible names that fit the “W.W.” found on the first page. “Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?,” and with that last one, he and Walt share a laugh. “You got me,” Walt jokes (and then immediately flips to Gale’s tribute to Walt Whitman’s “The Learned Astronomer”) but I’m not so sure Hank is entirely joking. He’s shown a bit of a blind spot where Walt is concerned, but the story of this hardened gambling mastermind he’s just been fed seems to have re-awakened him to just how brilliant his brother-in-law really is. I’m not saying it’s going to happen soon, but Hank’s too good of a cop to not put the pieces together some day. And what a day that will be.

Jesse spends the first half of this episode conspicuous in his absence. Once Hank mentions to Walt that a “person of interest” was seen in connection with Gale’s shooting, we cut to Walt pounding on Jesse’s door, who’s sporting a newly shaven head. Jesse scoffs at the idea that the police have any interest in him, or else they’d already have knocked down his door. Walt visits Saul after Jesse proves unwilling to help, and flies into a mini-rant after Saul tells him not to worry. He’s got everything to worry about, and as a last resort, Saul tells him about a guy who can make him and his family disappear. This seems like a red herring, but it plays a relatively important role in a future episode. Either way, Jesse has descended into an unstable maelstrom, and neither of them think he’s going to last very long.

Walt’s fears are pushed further when he notices the camera in the super lab has begun to focus almost entirely on Jesse, and sure enough, the next morning, Mike and Tyrus wake him up, having put an end to his permanent house party and caught the thief who stole his giant bag o’ money. Jesse is nonplussed, and surprises Mike when he not only sees through his attempt at intimidation by noting that they aren’t going to kill the thief, or else they wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of putting a blindfold on him. Mike goes to Gus with his concerns that Jesse is a liability and that “something has to be done,” and when Walter shows up at work the next day, Jesse is nowhere to be found. When he goes over to Jesse’s house, there’s no one to be found, and Jesse’s cell phone is still next to his bed. We cut to Mike driving Jesse to an undisclosed location in the desert and a major cliffhanger to end the first four episodes of the fourth season.

Playing It Bogart: The Evolution of Film Noir in Video Games

Bogart, Playing It (Illustration by Maddison Bond)

Film Noir (literally “black film”), first coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, is a term referring to a certain style of (primarily American) film that rose to prevalence during the post-war period. To pin down exactly what makes something Film Noir is hard to do, since the genre (if it can be called such) has proven to be extremely expansive and easily translated, but most critics agree that there are a few common criteria. Generally, the stories star a cynical, world-weary anti-hero chasing down shadowy leads in a dark, often rainy, always foreboding environment. Usually, the anti-hero is a private detective, or beat cop (the “Harboiled Detective”) who stumbles into a tangled web of lies and deceit, often in New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles or some other modern metropolis where one can disappear in plain sight. Oftentimes, the protagonist encounters corruption, betrayal, and a series of unenviable moral choices.

All of this is almost by default coated in pessimism, as the hero bemoans not only his involvement, but the irrevocable nature of his existence as a whole. More often than not, this fatalism is expressed through the hero’s inner monologues, which are as close to a trademark as the genre/style can get. At the core, Film Noir is essentially hyper-stylized crime procedurals. French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton simplified the style as being “oneiric (dreamlike), strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel,” and it is the first of these, oneiric, that distinguishes Film Noir for perhaps more traditional crime films. For instance, The Godfather fills many of the criteria often associated with Film Noir. It’s a dark, cynical crime starring a hero pulled into a bad scenario mostly against his will, a scenario filled with scheming, betrayal and backstabbing. What holds it back from being considered Noir? The lack of any sort of dreamlike state and/or a central narrator. Michael Corleone is undoubtedly a reliable narrator. The events are presented very realistically and without too much of a stylized or expressionistic quality.

Many of the most well-known and seminal works from the so-called “Classic Age” include The Maltese Falcon (1941), Angels With Dirty Faces  (1938), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). All of these films generally fit neatly into the criteria listed previously, but what’s interesting is just how many classic films can be seen as Noir from certain points of view. The aforementioned The Godfather being one. Other examples are Citizen Kane (1941), Vertigo (1958), and of course Casablanca (1942). In the 1960’s, well after the concept of Film Noir was retroactively applied to these films, “Neo-Noir,” or “New Noir” was also conceptualized. Essentially, Neo-Noir fits the same criteria as Classic Film Noir, just without the trappings of setting restricted to 40s Noir. A great many films fall under this designation, including, but not limited to: Training Day (2001), Serpico (1973), Pulp Fiction (1994), Gone Baby Gone (2007), Drive (2011) and of course Sin City (2005) an adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic series, which essentially played out as a tribute to Film Noir. Sin City aside, the most important impact Film Noir had on comics comes from the world of Batman, which accepted and flourished using Film Noir clichés and tropes to elevate itself to hitherto unseen heights. Think about it. Every notable Batman story features the Caped Crusader meticulously winding his way through a dark elaborate labyrinth filled with colorful villains and dangerous dames.

All of this leads me to the film that was probably the most influential to Film Noir in video games: Blade Runner (1982), a sci-fi/thriller/noir/detective flick starring Harrison Ford. At the expense of explaining the film (if you haven’t seen Blade Runner then you have more pressing issues than reading this internet post), I’ll just say that, aside from its visual legacy (it’s hard to think of a film that has done more to affect the visual tone of video gaming), it’s most important feat was marrying the seemingly disparate science fiction and Film Noir styles. Although both, at their best, ostensibly run on pessimistic ideals and sensibilities, the thought of them together resulted in a strange brew (obligatory shoutout to Philip K. Dick for writing “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, which the film was based on). And yet, Rick Deckard searching the dark and steamy underbelly of a dystopian 2019 Los Angeles for runaway androids fit so well that it seems as if it’s always been there, and will continue to be there into the foreseeable future (note here that one of the biggest missteps the film made was trying to shoehorn in some truly awful Film Noir-styled voiceovers).

I said before that one of Film Noir’s most distinguishing characteristics is the unreliable narrator, or the sense that the protagonist isn’t seeing exactly what he thinks he’s seeing. “Oneiric” is the word used for this. Few, if any mediums are as capable of capturing this dream like quality as video games are. Through changing the viewpoint of the character, game designers are able to convey that the hero may be having hallucinations, ranging from the influence of an enemy to out and out schizophrenia. A great many games do this well. Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain (2010) is a prime example of this, as one of the main characters, FBI Profiler Norman Jayden, has a very tenuous grip on reality amplified by his drug addiction. In many ways, some of the best, most imaginative Noir works of the last two decades have been video games. Among them are Grim Fandango (1995), a stylized fantasy-adventure game in which Manny Escalera, in his duties as the Grim Reaper, uncovers a sinister plot in the land of the dead, replete with nearly endless references to Casablanca. Other examples are the Deus Ex series, futuristic conspiracy stories set in Blade Runner-inspired dystopian futurescapes filled with mystery, deceit and the worst excesses of human nature. Another notable, if limited example of Noir Gaming is 2009’s Halo 3: ODST. ODST was a departure from the bombastic, more straightforward sci-fi of the other games in the Halo series, as developer Bungie adopted a more muted take upon their mythos. Where there usually was a genetically modified super soldier waging a one-man war on a xenophobic alien horde on vast, imaginative planetscapes, there was a lone soldier sneaking through a dark, conquered city, searching for clues to the whereabouts of his scattered squad. This new take extended as far as the soundtrack, which was punctuated by soulful saxophone and lonely piano interludes. Where it pales in comparison to some of the other games here is in its protagonist, a silent blank slate of a character named only “the Rookie.”

Ultimately, however, there are two shining examples of Noir in the world of video gaming. The first (though not chronologically), is 2011’s L.A. Noire, developed by Australia’s Team Bondi. As the title suggests, L.A. Noire is extraordinarily aware of the style, and for good reason. To say that the game takes inspiration in the genre is a massive understatement. Hell, the main source of collectibles in the game come in the form of film reel cases named after many of the greatest Noir films of the Classic Age, including some listed above. The plot centers on Cole Phelps, a brooding former soldier turned cop who slowly uncovers a vast conspiracy in 1940’s Los Angeles. Everyone wears sharp suits, drinks sharp liquor and hurls sharp insults. Cole seems, at first, the very picture of the straight-laced idealization of the perfect policeman, but it soon becomes apparent that he is hiding major flaws, both in his past and in his character. This makes him a perfect Noir anti-hero: broody with just the slight hint of major psychoses. Many of the most iconic visual cues and styles of the Classic Age of Film Noir are recreated to perfection in L.A. Noire. Shadows cascading through the slits of a window blind, endless rain pouring down on a dark and empty alleyway, shifty men being shaken down by shiftier cops. Everything’s here. It’s a beautiful, thought-provoking game.

In Noir, characters are less characters than they are concepts. If done correctly, they should be seen primarily in how the protagonist sees them. The villain is a dark, shadowy form on the horizon, oftentimes secondary to the more pressing threat of the hero’s metaphorical demons chasing down alleyways and empty streets. The love interests are as undefined and idealized as they are dangerous and unpredictable because, to the hero, the idea of love itself is a dangerous and unknowable thing. The plotting, while sometimes tense, taut and terrifying, will usually take a backseat to the inner monologues and broody musings of the haunted, vulnerable anti-hero, and no game series has ever captured this as perfectly as the Max Payne series. Remedy Entertainment’s first installment, 2001’s Max Payne, stars the eponymous, indefatigable former beat cop as he investigates the racketeering of Valkyr, a nightmare designer drug that fueled the men who killed his new wife and infant daughter. Where L.A. Noire played as a tribute to all things Noir, Max Payne played as an absolute love letter. Everything about this game is steeped in Noir. Max himself is as engrossing poetically pessimistic a Noir hero as anything Humphrey Bogart ever gave us (Max namedrops Bogey several times, including the prefix of the title of this very article). The game takes place in New York City during a torrential blizzard (which leads Max to dub it “Noir York City”), and deals with Max’s hunt for the men and women responsible for his wife’s death and framed him for the murder of his best friend (even if he blames himself more than most, another common Noir trait). Also notable is the impressionistic, almost dreamlike quality of the graphic novel cutscenes. While they were obviously done to hide the fact that the “actors” were just developers in tacky outfits, they work to accentuate the confusing haze Max is in, how everything blurs together and coalesces to a singular course of revenge.

One of the most charming aspects of this series is it never-ending self awareness. In the sequel, Max sees snippets of a television show that acts as a direct parody of his adventures (“When you’re in a situation like mine, you can only speak in metaphors”- Dick Justice). After killing his way through the Mafia, a secret society and a rogue military operation, Max finds himself reinstated as a cop, and in the second game (2003’s Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne) tangles with Mona Sax, a nearly flawless example of the “Femme Fatale,” a female character in Noir who acts as a sometime accomplice, sometime enemy, sometime lover of the protagonist. She is a suspect in Max’s partner’s homicide case, and eventually finds herself in the middle of Max’s feud with a shadowy cabal bent on world domination (or something). After Rockstar, themselves distributors of the game, bought the rights to the character, they took their shot, resulting in this May’s Max Payne 3. The second sequel controversially moved the setting to Sao Paulo, Brazil, but kept everything that made Max the compelling character he is, including the wonderful voice acting of the erstwhile James McCaffery, who is as important to the character as his trademark Bullet Time. While the game perhaps puts too much emphasis on Max’s substance abuse (resultant from his retirement and subsequent fall to depression in the nine years since his encounter with Mona), it still fully lives up to the pedigree of its predecessors. It’s Noir to the core.*

I said before that video games have, in a way, taken up the torch of Film Noir in the 21st Century, and indeed, it was playing through Max Payne 3 recently that inspired me to write this, which is not something any recent film or comic that aspires to Noir has been able to do for me. Some might accuse Noir of being shallow and without substance, of relying more on style. They fail to understand that, in this case, the style is the substance. Everything about Noir speaks to one of the darkest corners of the human condition, forming characters and plots out of the deepest human fears and anxieties. Max Payne responds with a disinterested shrug, a fresh glass of whiskey and a night spent wistfully wondering about the dame that got away.**

*I comment on this over-emphasis not because it makes the game any less Noir, but because it replaces the psychotic dreams and hallucinations he once had, lessening him from a dangerous psychopath on the verge of breaking to a sad drunk stuck in his own past. Obviously, this was the point. He’s meant to be lessened, to think so little of himself that he’ll throw himself headfirst into suicidal situations to save a woman he barely knows and hardly likes. Redemption.

**Dame is the weirdest word, am I right? It might be the most genre-specific word in the English language. It’s almost impossible to say it without adopting a shitty Bogart impression.

If you haven’t heard/seen any of Max Payne’s inner monologues, check out the first game’s graphic novel here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_RrJPX3E78)

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 31-33

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 3, Episode 11: Abiquiu

“Never make the same mistake twice.”- Gus Fring

We get a short, bittersweet little cold open this episode, a flashback in which Jesse and Jane finally head to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. It’s not the most meaningful open the show’s ever done, but it ties into Jesse’s side of the episode. He starts off cooking under the watchful eye of Walter, who still believes he’s stealing. Then he attends his group meeting, where, in an attempt to start selling meth to their fellow group-mates, he befriends Andrea, whom he soon starts seeing. This episode sees a death, of sorts, for Jesse. The final death of the “bad guy” facade he’s been hiding under since the beginning of the season. The only weakness he has that’s bigger than his need for acceptance is his soft spot for children. And when he meets Andrea’s son, Brock (and eventually her kid brother Tomas), he gets cold feet about selling to her. And when he finds out that Tomas is the same kid who killed Combo (on the order of the drug lords that run the neighborhood), it galvanizes him to do something about it. He goes down to the corner where Combo was killed and sets up a deal with Tomas, who signals the two dealers, giving Jesse his first view of his new targets.

Walt’s portion of the episode deals primarily with Skyler’s growing involvement in Walt’s business, primarily the practicality of using laundered money to pay for Hank’s treatments. This leads to a scene that, just a few episodes before, may have seemed impossible. Skyler and Walt meeting Saul in his gaudy office (University of American Samoa!), so Saul can “alleviate her concerns,” which of course he doesn’t do. This culminates in Skyler’s somewhat brilliant idea of buying the carwash he used to work at. Walt relays this idea to Saul, who initially scoffs, and then states that the idea won’t work because they don’t have someone to run the establishment for them, someone who will look the other way. Later, Skyler puts herself up to be the owner of the carwash, leading Skyler to, after Walt questions her stake in this,  reveal that she didn’t actually file the divorce papers after Walt signed them. “Married couples can’t be compelled to testify against one another. So there’s that.”

The centerpiece scene in this episode comes a bit out of nowhere, as Gus invites Walt to dinner at his home, a disarmingly quaint little suburban house. There, we’re treated to an array of tensely symbolic interaction between the two that culminates in Gus’ not-so-subtle warning to Walt that Jesse is a liability that needs to be dealt with. A confrontation is coming.

In many ways, this is a setup episode. A setup for Jesse’s storyline through the rest of the season, and a setup for Skyler’s storyline through most of the Season 4. It’s not a great episode, but the things it sets up are indeed great.

Season 3, Episode 12: Half Measures

 “Now I realize you two have a history, but this kid’s been on the bubble a while now. It’s a long time coming.”- Mike Ehrmentraut

This episode contains one of the few cold opens that continues right into the main plot. After we get a nice view into the wonderful world of Wendy the Prostitute, we see her visiting the two Rival Dealers and scoring a teenth of the blue stuff as Jesse watches on.

Walt’s storyline starts off with him agreeing to Skyler’s plan to buy the carwash and use it as a front, followed by him negotiating his terms of the deal. Then, after “work,” he goes to a local bar, at Jesse’s insistence, where his protégé gives him the sample he bought from the two Rival Dealers. First Jesse asks him to confirm that it is indeed theirs, then asks him to help him make Ricin to poison the dealers with. Concerned (mainly with his own wellbeing), Walt goes to Saul, where they come up with the idea of getting Jesse arrested on a minor charge to get him off the street long enough to cool his head. Saul enlists Mike, who immediately refuses and heads over to Walt’s home to have a conversation with him. In that conversation, he gives Walter one of the show’s signature monologues, about how, when he was a beat cop, there was a man named Gordy who used to beat his wife, a man that Mike tried and tried to frighten, but to no avail. The man eventually beat his wife to death. Mike chose “a half measure when he should have gone all the way.” He advises Walt to do the same. This conversation not only gives us our first real glimpse into Mike’s character, but it gives Walter his primary motivation for the rest of the season. Mike means it to be a warning that Jesse has to go, but Walt takes it another way. He has to do whatever he can to do what he thinks is right.

Later, Mike and Victor head off Jesse and Wendy, whom the former has recruited to be his poison delivery system, before they can enact their plan, and brings them to a meeting in which Gus brings the two dealers in and sits them down with Jesse. Gus promises that the Rival Dealers will stop using children (“no more children), and Jesse promises to back off his crusade. Everything seems to be fine, except for the fact that Jesse thinks Walt ratted him out (which he did, inadvertently). Things seem to be back to normal, until Jesse finds out that Tomas has been shot dead, presumably by the Rival Dealers. He fails to show up the next day, which annoys Walt right up until he sees a news report about Tomas’ death. What seems to be apparent is the fact that the negotiation was staged by Gus primarily for Walt’s benefit. If he can incite Jesse into attacking the Rival Dealers (with or without ordering Tomas’ murder, Gus knew Jesse would break his promise), he can remove an annoying thorn in his side and get back to business with Walter, who still believes him to be the rational businessman he appears to be. (If you’re doubting this, note the “anonymous tip” that brought police to Tomas’ location. Someone wanted Jesse to know about it.) What throws this plan for a loop is the fact that Walter has decided to take a full measure. He intervenes, killing the two Rival Dealers and telling Jesse simply: “Run.”

Of note is that before Mike came to his house and told him that the plan to get Jesse incarcerated was moronic, Walt had no idea that Saul’s PI was also Gus’ PI. He was truly trying to protect Jesse. Selflessly, and without involving Gus, he was trying to protect Jesse. What he ends up doing instead is another form of protecting Jesse, this time by involving Gus so deeply that he has no choice but to match wits with someone he considers a dangerous and knowable foe. He’s set in motion of series of events that play out over the fourth season that will take all of his cunning, ingenuity and downright maliciousness to overcome. As he said early in Season 3, Walt can’t be the bad guy. Heisenberg can. And Heisenberg’s coronation is at hand.

Season 3, Episode 13: Full Measure

“When it comes down to you and me versus him, I’m sorry – I’m truly sorry – but it’s gonna be him.”- Walter White

We pan across an empty living room. Just as we recognize it as the White family home, we see a man in a suit waiting by the door, writing in a notepad. Just as we piece together that he’s a realtor, there’s a knock at the door. It’s a pregnant woman named Skyler and her husband, Walt. It’s a nice house, a good value for their price range. But Walt doesn’t want to settle. He’s a young hotshot at Sandia Laboratories, and he doesn’t think this is good enough for him and his new family. “Why be cautious?” he asks. “We’ve got nowhere to go but up.”

We cut to Walter now, nearly two decades later. He bought that starter house, and never moved out. He had nowhere to go but up, no he got up and went nowhere. Then he got diagnosed with lung cancer and started cooking crystal meth. Then he murdered two of his boss’ best men in an attempt to save his misguided partner. Now, he waits in the desert, just after dawn, for his boss to arrive. Slowly but surely, he sees a car on the horizon. Then his cell phone goes off. It’s Mike. It’s time for the meeting, the one where he has to convince his boss not to kill him. He grabs his hat. The Heisenberg theme trickles out. He marches towards what will surely be his doom. He tells Gus a simple truth: Jesse is now out of the picture, just as Gus had wanted from the start, and tells him that he has two options: kill him or pretend this never happened. Gus seemingly chooses the second, but little does Walt know he’s actually “chosen” the first. When he returns to cook the next day, he finds that good old Gale has returned as his assistant. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out what’s going on. Gus plans for the always-fastidious Gale to learn every iota of Walt’s method, as he infers when he visits Gale in his wondrous apartment later in the episode. He intends for Gale to learn this so he can take over the lab and Gus can rid himself of the troublesome Heisenberg.

We then get a nice interlude with Mike, who pays a visit to the same chemical plant Walt and Jesse stole from in Season 1. It’s been taken over by a squad of Cartel men, who are quickly and efficiently eliminated by our trusty PI. He brings their identification to Gus, who states that the Cartel is “probing for weakness.” “Well,” says Mike. “They didn’t find any.” It’s a nice little set of scenes that sets up next season’s major conflict nicely, while also painting a lot of Gus’ motivation. He’s not trying to be rid of Walt simply out of the evilness of his heart. Walt’s put him under a lot of pressure, and he’s trying alleviate some of that before the Cartel backs him into a corner. His primary method of alleviating this pressure? Sending Mike over to Saul’s office to learn where Jesse is hiding. Saul, acting under his own interest in not getting beaten to a pulp, surreptitiously gives Mike an address in Virginia. Soon after, under his clients’ best interest, he drives Walt to the laser tag he mentioned before, where Jesse has been in hiding. There, Walt relays his suspicions that Gus is going to murder him, and has Jesse tail Gale in an effort to find out where he lives and buy himself a little leverage.

Soon, Jesse calls him with Gale’s address. As he prepares to head out and do the deed, Victor pulls up in his driveway, telling him that there’s a problem at the lab and they need his help. When they get there, Mike is opening the secret entrance, and Walt fully understands what’s going on. They’re about to kill him. Pleading for his life, Walt tells them that he can deliver them Jesse. Mike obliges, and Walt uses the opportunity to warn Jesse and tell him that he’s going to have to be the one to do it. As Mike snatches the phone and demands to know what’s going on, Walt makes a turn. “Your boss is gonna need me,’ he sneers, without a hint of the fear he just showed. When Mike scoffs and asks why, Walt recites Gale’s address, leaving Mike stunned and Victor making a break for it. The episode ends with Gale again in his apartment, oblivious to what’s coming for him. He hears a knock at the door. When he answers, Jesse’s pointing a gun to his face. He pleads for his life. Maybe he remembers Jesse from the lab, maybe he doesn’t. It doesn’t matter, though, as Jesse shoots him all the same, tears in his eyes. The season ends with a bang, figuratively and literally. Walt has played the role of the oppressed employee long enough. It’s time Gus knows exactly how difficult getting rid of him is going to be. It’s a game they’ve started, one with the highest stakes imaginable. And by using one of his protégés to kill another, Walt just took round one.

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