In the course of not just watching, but having to write at length about a TV series each week, it’s only natural that episodes get graded on a curve, that certain positive elements get celebrated and inflated beyond their actual worth. It is with that disclaimer that I offer this: This may have been as well-written an episode of dramatic television as has been produced. Yes, yes, Deadwood and The Wire, put your hands down, but in its own quiet, bleak way, Breaking Bad is finding new ways to reach those high-water marks without seeming to break a sweat.
Look no further than the opening. In the season’s second Jesse-related flashback scene, he and Jane are at the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit he’d already wiggled out of going to once to cook meth — and get stranded in the desert with — Walt. Which leads to a discussion of not only vaginas, but the nature of compulsion: Did the artist paint dozens of doors because she loved the concept, or because she couldn’t get it right? Knowing that this is happening in the brief, halcyon period of their relationship before Jane’s ill-fated relapse makes this back-and-forth about addiction bittersweet. But then there’s the kicker: Jane punctuates her point by stubbing her lipstick-tinged cigarette butt in the ashtray — the same butt Jesse stares at dewy-eyed before last week’s fly-catching melodrama. (A flashback that actually informs and enhances the current action rather than merely be a structural parlor trick with no discernible payoff? Now we’ve seen everything.)
How pervasive is Breaking Bad’s all-enveloping sense of doom? You could probably be excused for mistaking the shot of Hank’s useless feet dangling over the training apparatus for those of someone who’s just hanged himself. Hank’s frustration over his condition and his refusal to leave the hospital until he can walk out feel as palpable real as Walt’s resigned acceptance of his illness two seasons back. With the bills for Hank’s therapy starting to roll in, Skyler is determined to make good on her promise. After a genuine, unforced familial moment at the dinner table, Skyler reveals to Walt that she has not filed the divorce papers, citing the ol’ married-couples-can’t-testify-against-one-another chestnut, but this isn’t about reconciliation. She knows a thing or two about shady bookkeeping, she wants in, and she has her doubts about whether the awesomely-named Ice Station Zebra Associates will hold up as a front.
Which can only mean one thing: Better call Saul. Not only does this meeting of minds lead to one of Saul’s best-ever lines (“I see Walt has the same taste in women he has in attorneys — the very best, with just the right amount of dirty”), as well as the revelation of his alma mater (University of American Samoa), but it sets up a conflict that will drive the rest of this season and beyond. Should Walt continue to trust Saul’s well-honed criminal instincts, or would it make more sense to outsiders if he, as Skyler suggests, buys the car wash he worked at for four years? Saul insists the laser tag plan is foolproof — it comes complete with Danny, who will play ball and make sure everything goes smoothly. The car wash’s manager doesn’t look so compliant. Her shady-bookkeeping skills no longer needed at Beneke, Skyler volunteers her services.
Meanwhile, Jesse’s quest to prove himself as a liberated, heartlessly evil meth-slinging automaton hits a snag. He seduces Andrea with the hope of selling to her, only to rediscover his capacity for remorse upon learning that she has a precocious, slightly husky young son, Brock. Badger and Skinny Pete are no help selling to the 12-steppers; they’re actually getting into the recovery themselves. And now that Walt’s clearly onto Jesse’s skimming, he needs to move the product fast. But Jesse’s remorse is short-lived upon learning that Andrea’s little brother Tomas was initiated into a meth ring by killing Combo. Yes, it’s a coincidence as unlikely as Walt having a drink with Jane’s dad, but maybe Albuquerque is a really small town? We’ve never been.
Walt is surprised, and presumably terrified, to find himself invited to Gus’ house for a fish stew dinner. (“You can help me cook,” Gus deadpans.) The scene is as genteel and civilized as Gus’ well-appointed kitchen, yet, praise be to Giancarlo Esposito, feels absolutely drenched in tension. This all leads to Gus’ flatly-intoned warning: Don’t make the same mistake twice. It could be an admonishment for letting Jesse back into his lab and his business, or for not letting his marriage stay dead. Either way, Walt knows he’s in too deep to take that warning lightly. Extricating himself from Skyler would be impossible, so that can’t be good news for Jesse. Anyone have a copy of Aaron Paul’s contract lying around?