(Continuing my assessment of Breaking Bad‘s fourth season. Find the first installment here.)
3. “OPEN HOUSE”
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. In my last post, I emphasized the stark bleakness of Breaking Bad. And bleak it is. When you think Breaking Bad, you think of those shocking bursts of violence and mayhem, the nail-biting tension, or the overall scuzzy feel of the world these characters inhabit — the way you may need to take a shower after certain episodes.
But don’t get me wrong — Breaking Bad is also consistently a very funny show. Moments of humor find their way into just about every episode, but some, like “Open House,” are darkly comedic through-and-through. The dramatic storylines — primarily the tension with Gus — are placed on the backburner in this one to give us twin stories of wives up to no good. Remember in my last entry, when I wondered when the show would find something for Marie to do, besides play the part of the put-upon shrew? (Not that she doesn’t do that well.) In “Open House” her kleptomania flares up again with a vengeance, giving her character the best showcase she’s had on the series to date. In many ways, “Open House” is Marie’s episode, and I think that’s dandy.
The title has a double meaning (or triple, if you want to read into the purchase of a car wash as akin to Walt and Skyler buying a new “home” and renewing their partnership). First and most obviously, Marie finds escape from Hank (who’s particularly cruel to her here) by visiting opening houses and chatting up the realtors with piles upon piles of lies about her fictional children and husbands who aren’t bedridden meanies. While this is a crack-up because of Marie’s bubbly passion for fibbing, it’s also depressing for what it says about how unhappy she is with her actual life. At one point she buys Hank a fantasy football magazine, but Marie’s the one living out a fantasy in “Open House.” Then things take a turn for the worse once we (and a realtor) notice that Marie’s also been taking little “souvenirs” from each home she visits. It doesn’t take long before she’s busted.
Meanwhile, Skyler and Walt are still fixated on that car wash. (Is it only a matter of time before we get the disco hit “Car Wash” on the soundtrack?) The owner won’t sell because he hates Walt, so Skyler takes a turn for the ruthless and tricks him into thinking the government will shut him down as an environmental hazard. (Skyler may blanch at threats of violence, but when we see her baby with her on these nefarious errands, it only highlights that, morally, she’s almost as compromised as everyone else on the show by now.) It culminates in a wonderful scene with Walt and Skyler sipping $350 champagne, the celebration cut short when Skyler freaks out (rightfully) because Walt needs to be more careful about being seen buying expensive things.
Mostly, it follows what I picked up on last week — Walt and Skyler in business together means a rekindling of some kind of affection between them. I don’t necessarily need to see them back together as a couple, but I do enjoy watching them working together as equal partners (and it was hilarious seeing Skyler get the upper hand while negotiating the price of the car wash on the phone). Not to incessantly compare this show to The Sopranos, but some of my favorite moments there were when Carmela had to face the truth about Tony’s line of work and often failed to take the moral high ground when push came to shove. Skyler’s storyline this season reminds me of that, except she’s taking a more active role than Carmela ever did. And a bad girl to match all the bad boys on this show may be just what Breaking Bad needs to liven things up.
Finally, “Open House” refers to Jesse’s home, which has quickly detoured from “nonstop party crib” to “sinister meth den,” where the town’s most strung-out denizens are free to get high, do graffiti, have sex, and start a fight club, while Jesse remains all but catatonic. (He barely speaks in the episode.) If “Open House” has a flaw, it’s that it goes overboard in depicting the squalid nature of Jesse’s haven for the damned. (It looks more like something out of True Blood than Breaking Bad — not so subtle.) I did find the overall gist of this development appealing, though I hope it doesn’t last for longer than another episode or two, because the point has been made. Jesse’s lost, and no one is helping him. Maybe no one should. He wants to get pulled out with the tide of hopeless losers that are crashing at his pad, but something’s keeping him ashore. His guilt? His business? Or something more? We’ll see.
Oh, and on a final note: there’s this business of Hank getting back into the police game from his bed, which somehow makes his involvement even more menacing for Walt; since Hank can’t walk, he’ll be using his noggin and probably piecing together clues he wouldn’t have spotted before. Intriguing. Overall, I found “Open House” a relatively light-hearted delight after a darker opening to the season, and since I know things are bound to get more hellish from here, I will savor this levity while it lasts.
Goodbye, levity. “Bullet Points” contains a key scene — not so much key to the plot of this episode, but to the series as a whole — that alerts us to the possibility that Saul can help Walt and his family “disappear” if worse comes to worse. Walt’s conversation with Saul reminded me of The Sopranos, with Walt bemoaning how “unprofessional” everyone in the drug trade is — just like Tony used to whine to Dr. Melfi about how stressful being a career criminal can be. Dear Walt and Tony: shouldn’t this have been obvious? The scene makes clear how Walt and his immediate family are every bit as damned as the Sopranos crew — even if Walt, Skyler, and their kids managed to vanish, I imagine it wouldn’t take long for Hank and Marie to suffer at the hands of someone looking for them.
“Bullet Points” opens with one of those quintessential Breaking Bad teasers in which we don’t know exactly where (or when) we are or what’s going on; it drops us into the middle of the action and lets us put together the pieces later, or possibly in a subsequent episode. In this one, Mike the Cleaner is doing a ride-along with some illegal product when he’s stopped by some bad dudes (the South American cartel, I gather). Of course, Mike handily dispatches them, but the larger significance of this scene is left open for another episode as we instead focus on Walt and Jesse.
After last week’s comic hijinks in “Open House,” “Bullet Points” finds humor again as Walt and Skyler “rehearse” the tale of Walt’s gambling addiction — the alibi for their purchase of the car wash. Type-A Skyler has typed up a multi-page script for their conversation with Hank and Marie, complete with “bullet points.” They rehash the events of the past three seasons, putting their own methless spin on it — both a nice catch-up for anyone new to the series and a meta-commentary on the show itself. Walt and Skyler essentially “rewrite” what’s happened to make palatable and believable. (Funny: Skyler’s script is thuddingly terrible and on-the-nose, like a parody of bad TV melodrama, while Breaking Bad’s actual writing is full of ingenuity and surprise.) But despite the high comedy, the scene is also emotionally loaded, as Walt and Skyler have to confront the actions they’ve taken to hurt each other and face the fact that their current activities are far from acceptable to their loved ones.
Though quite funny in that early scene (and a hilarious/tragic karaoke video featuring Gale singing to “Major Tom”), “Bullet Points” does not maintain the light touch of “Open House” but descends into some rather heavy territory. First, Hank unwittingly discusses Gale’s murder with his brother-in-law, the man responsible for having him killed; then Walt stops by Jesse’s 24-hour party den, disgusted by the meth-addled wretches without noting the irony that he’s the one supplying them. Opening act aside, the episode turns out not to belong to Walt and Skyler at all, but to Jesse. Jesse’s apathy peaks when a junkie steals $78,000 from him and he doesn’t even notice (or care). Mike the Cleaner (now missing a chuck of his ear) realizes Jesse has become a liability and tells Gus something must be done. He’s right. Walt is unable to keep Jesse in line, but his reckless behavior is bound to catch all kinds of attention if Mike doesn’t keep him in check.
I have to wait until the next episode to find out what exactly that “something” is, but as Adriana from The Sopranos could tell you, going on a long car ride with a menacing man never ends well…
Clearly, in “Bullet Points,” Jesse has already accepted his fate, while Walt and Skyler still think they can contain control what happens. “Hello, Western Union, message received!” Walt exclaims in frustration, but I’m not sure he gets it yet. To us, the irony is clear — Walt went into this business to provide for his family, but doing so means none of them will ever be truly safe again.
Will Jesse be the first to go?
(Obviously not. But it’s a great cliffhanger anyway.)