(Continuing my assessment of Breaking Bad‘s fourth season. Find the first installment here.)
After last week’s tense, cinematic Gus-centric flashback episode, “Bug” gets the forward momentum back on track, focusing on the series’ core characters and the central relationship of Breaking Bad — Walt and Jesse’s. For the entirety of Season Four, Walt and Jesse have been operating on completely different wavelengths, both physically and emotionally. Walt is acting out like a reckless rebellious teenager at work, while maintaining his mild-mannered “normal” persona for his family; after a drug-addled flirtation with apathy and self-destruction, Jesse cleaned up his act and became a key player in whatever plan Gus is cooking up (in addition to all that meth).
Jesse’s star is rising while Walt’s is sinking rapidly, and their storylines have rarely intersected. Walt remains in the dark about what Jesse’s really up to and Jesse has no idea what a fuck-up Walt has become. Now, in “Bug,” Gus even asks Jesse if he’d be able to cook without Walt. And even if he isn’t asking because he’s thinking about eliminating his rock star chemist, the implication is definitely there. Walt’s days as Gus’ employee are numbered. Walt knows it. Gus knows it. We know it. And somehow, this has all come to fall on Jesse’s shoulders.
Once again, Walt insists that Jesse try to take Gus out. (Is it me, or are these scenes getting repetitive?) Walt apparently has no grasp on what it actually means to kill Gus Fring — even if Jesse does get a clean shot, or manages to slip Walt’s secret killer potion in Gus’ food, who’s to say Mike wouldn’t turn around and put a bullet in him immediately? Who’s to say things won’t get even worse when the cartel swoops in and takes over? (I imagine this may very well be the storyline for Season Five.) As we saw last week, and could probably have guessed anyway, the cartel is not an organization to be fucked around with. And if Walt thinks Gus is a bad boss? Well, I bet the cartel makes Gus Fring look like Mr. Rogers in comparison.
So yet again, Walt is completely wrong-headed asking Jesse to take Gus out. Jesse knows this, despite his loyalties. I don’t doubt that if Jesse thought he could take Gus out and live to tell the tale, he’d do it, but Jesse realizes the devil they know is safer than the devil they don’t. That’s assuming jittery, incompetent Jesse even could pull one over on cool, calculating, always-one-step-ahead Gus. Unlikely. After seeing Gus walk Terminator-style into a spray of sniper bullets in this episode, who could blame Jesse for being a little gun shy?
It culminates in a knock-down drag-out fight between Walt and Jesse that doesn’t really resolve or change anything, as far as I can tell, except add an extra helping of bitterness to what is already one miserable stew. Walt uses Hank’s car bug on Jesse and finds out that he’s been dining at the Fring residence, despite his claims that he hasn’t seen the guy. Yes, this does look bad — it makes it seem Jesse is now playing for Team Gus. (And if he’s smart, maybe he should be.) The fight is well-shot and well-staged, and after all the tension brewing between them this season, I guess this showdown was inevitable; still it didn’t feel quite as surprising or satisfying as I think it was intended to. Maybe it felt a little too purposefully crowd-pleasing. I don’t have any problem with the scene per se, but I prefer Breaking Bad‘s craftier twists and turns. This one felt very high-concept, very “TV,” like, “Yeah! Let’s put the good guys in a room and turn them against each other! Fight!” It left me entertained, but unmoved.
If “Bug” has one saving grace, it’s Breaking Bad‘s unexpected bursts of comedy. While everything with Walt, Hank, Jesse, and Gus is tense as can be, Skyler’s storyline this week gives us one of the most hilarious moments of the series and proves that Season Four Skyler may be this show’s new secret weapon. (It’s one of many key comedic moments deftly handled by Anna Gunn this season.) When Ted of “I fucked Ted” infamy shows up at the car wash begging for Skyler’s help with his audit, it’s both a big “raise the stakes” moment — show of hands, who thinks now is a good time for the Whites to be investigated by the IRS? — and also a comedy goldmine. The ever-resourceful Skyler comes up with a smart solution that paints her as just the opposite of smart — she pretends to be a cleavage-baring bimbo who got the accounting job because, well — she fucked Ted. It’s a riot to see Skyler ditz it up, which she’s astoundingly good at, especially for a woman who is by nature pretty conservative (at least until she got pulled into the drug trade). It almost made me wish Bimbo Skyler would remain on the show as some kind of evil twin. Luckily for all involved, the ruse works, though Ted is still unable to pay what he owes.
Hmm… where could Ted possibly get access to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash under the table?
In “Bug,” Jesse tells Walt to get the fuck out of his house, but will the brawl have such grand ramifications, or will this merely be a blip on the chaotic radar that is the Jesse/Walt relationship? The relative lightness of Skyler’s storyline is a nice counterpoint to the heavy-handedness of everything else; it’s a solid plot-advancing episode, but not as tense or dramatically sly as so many from this season. Still, Skyler raving about “the Quicken” makes it all worth it.
Those two words were spoken aloud, by me, when the end credits came up on “Salud.” It’s tied with “Shotgun” for the most nail-biting and exhilarating hour of Breaking Bad so far this season, though this one might be even stronger overall thanks to a rousing payoff. You might think that episodes centered on the two unlikely “heroes” of the series, Walt and Jesse, would be the strongest, but Season Four’s best moments have come when they don’t share the screen at all. (Whereas their mano y mano tussle last week was maybe not as juicy as it might’ve been.)
When Jesse asked Walt for help in “Bug” because Gus was planning to ship him off to Mexico, I figured something would happen to stop it before Jesse actually south of the border. But nope. The episode begins with Gus, Mike, and Jesse heading down to Mexico to give the cartel a chemistry lesson. One of Season Four’s most enticing elements is Jesse’s surprising character arc; little by little, he’s becoming the drug kingpin Walt can only sometimes pretend to be. From those first few episodes, we expected his arc to be just the opposite. Here, he steps up his game by bitching out a condescending chemist who rightly calls out Jesse’s shortcomings as a cook. Instead of crumbling under pressure, Jesse knows the only way to save face is to play badass even when he doesn’t necessarily have the power to back it up. (Walt has taught him well.) It works, and the little smile Gus gives as a result is just sublime.
Back in New Mexico, Saul tricks Ted into thinking he inherited Skyler’s money from a long-lost relative in Germany. So he can pay his taxes, right? Wrong. Ted leases a Mercedes and plans to relaunch his business. Skyler stops by to have a little chat with Ted, playing dumb just like she did last week (minus the cleavage), feigning surprise when she hears of Ted’s good luck. But when Ted proves himself to once again be a huge pig-headed idiot, she can’t resist telling him just where he got that money. The scene ends before we learn how, or if, any of this is resolved. If there’s a weak link in “Salud,” I think it’s this — after Skyler’s ingenious, uproarious solution to Ted’s IRS problem last week, her tepid confrontation here was a tad disappointing. I was at least expecting Skyler to play hardball and threaten to turn him in to the government if he didn’t pay immediately; instead, she reveals that she gave him the money, and that’s it. I’ll hold out until I see how this is resolved before I truly condemn this interaction, but it was the only fizzle in an otherwise crackling episode.
Because, see, while Jesse’s off having Scarface-level adventures in Mexico (more on that in a moment), Walt spends the entire episode in his signature tighty-whities, drugged up on painkillers following his bout with Jesse. He looks like a frail old man, a reminder of the physical weakness that got him into this mess in the first place. And if Walt’s been a particularly difficult guy to like this season on every level, failing as a husband, father, and crime lord all at once, “Salud” gives us the chance to feel a little pity for the guy. When Walter Jr. stops by to rouse a near-comatose Walt out of bed — on the poor kid’s birthday! — Walt is so out of it, he ends up breaking down in tears about the “mistake” that led him to be beaten black and blue. (Oh, if only it were just gambling.) Is the mistake betraying Jesse’s trust and bugging his car? That’s what directly led to Walt’s current bruises, but perhaps it’s Gale’s murder that he’s alluding to. Or perhaps getting into the drug trade altogether. Interesting, that it’s Walt’s actual son, not the surrogate he should be apologizing to, that gets this confession.
Walt’s pitiful apology is heartbreaking, and a necessary moment for us as viewers if we’re to go on caring about this guy, damned as he is. This is the “Walt Redemption Episode,” though it’s nowhere near as pandering as that sounds, and the guy doesn’t even leave his apartment. It also gives Walter Jr. one of his meatiest episodes, even if most of it is reacting to Bryan Cranston’s uniform actorly excellence. (I’d almost swear Walt’s story about his father’s death takes up half the running time of this episode.) Walter Jr. nails it when he tells his dad that remembering him as sniveling and sorry in a stupor isn’t the worst way he could be remembered; obviously Junior doesn’t know the half of it, since Walt surely doesn’t want to go down as a murderous drug dealer, either. But Walt’s so ashamed of his weakness that he might prefer the latter over the former — like a few episodes ago, when he preferred to tell Skyler he’s the “one who knocks” rather than let her think he’s in over his head.
In an episode that contains such a whopper of a climax (I swear, we’re getting to that in a sec), Breaking Bad is brilliant for letting the main character sit around and do nothing for an episode. These scenes didn’t need to happen, on a story level, but they’re the reason why this show is what it is. The big moments on Breaking Bad tend to be incredible, but they’re made all the better by the texture, the layers, and the investment we have in these characters as human beings. We now know at least one reason why Walt’s pride so often gets the better of him — he doesn’t want to turn out the way he remembers his father. It fills in a lot of what we’ve wondered about Walt, why he’s been such a brazen, brash asshole this season. In a way, it makes it all understandable, if not forgivable. It’s what elevates this series from solid entertainment to true masterpiece.
Of course, Walt’s weepy confession isn’t what left me walking away from this episode with a “Holy shit!” “Salud” is a sequel of sorts to “Hermanos”; after that episode, I remarked upon the hierarchy of vengeance this season. Eventually I’ll want to see Walt and Jesse beat Gus, but first I want to see Gus get his payback on the cartel. I didn’t necessarily think that would happen, though — just last episode, I wondered if Don Eladio and company would be the villains of Season Five. I thought it might be the cartel who eliminate Gus at the end of Season Four. Instead, the title of “Salud” is a nod to a much more delectable comeuppance for the cartel than I could have imagined. We know right off the bat when Gus pulls out that special tequila what he’s planning; especially when he excludes Jesse from drinking it. What unfolds isn’t exactly a surprise, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s still tense and a wonderful payoff to “Hermanos.” Breaking Bad doesn’t always give its audience what it wants, but when it does, it doesn’t half-ass it.
What really makes the last act of “Salud” so gripping is the fact that Gus has taken a shot of tequila, too, which has us wondering what exactly is going to go down. When he excuses himself to the bathroom to purge the poison, I wasn’t sure I bought that it’d be so easy for him to stay out of harm’s way while killing everyone else. But when Gus nearly fell victim to the toxin, too, I realized exactly what a deadly gamble he’d taken. Gus really doesn’t fuck around, which is what complicates our feelings toward him. He’s so admirable in his evil, it’ll almost be a shame to see him ultimately undone.
And even if the poisoning of Don Eladio and his men is predictable — in that satisfying, drawn-out “I know what’s coming and I can’t wait to see it happen!” kind of way — “Salud” leaves us with a development that certainly wasn’t foreseeable. With the anticipated comes with unexpected — Gus has poisoned himself, Mike’s been shot, and Jesse has maybe the only chance he’ll ever get to eliminate them. He doesn’t take it. And I don’t know that the notion even crosses his mind (though I gather it will in the next episode). That’s quite a fucking cliffhanger. Gus has spared Jesse’s life when he easily could have let him imbibe along with the rest of them; even in the interest of self-preservation, could Jesse find it in him to off Gus and Mike now? We know what Walt would do — hit the bad guys in this rare moment of vulnerability. But that’s not Jesse.
I was on board with “Salud” just for the spectacular way it pays off “Hermanos,” same poolside locale and all, but now that Jesse’s got the lives of Gus and Mike in his hands? Well, I think I said it best when the episode ended: