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Breaking Bad Recap: Conference Table Theater

In crime fiction, there are few myths as potent as the idea of the kingpin-as-CEO. The Wire’s Stringer Bell, American Gangster’s Frank Lucas, and Jay-Z’s Jay-Z are just a few of the most recent examples of a metaphor — drug biz as American biz — that is far more common in fiction than in reality. In this subtle critique of an episode, Vince Gilligan begins to unravel that romantic idea of the murderous thug as calculating executive with two great, parallel scenes set at conference tables. Both make it clear that Gus, that dapper, bilingual post-NAFTA entrepreneur, is a dead man.

In the first conference-table set piece, Jesse’s got the veggie plate. Mike’s got the earpiece and the sprawling security team. All that’s left is for Gus to look as ridiculous as Walt, overdressed, overprepared, and blathering on about some absurd pay-off proposal that Cartel Man can only ignore. With his tableclothed conference table, carafe of water, and natty suit, where does Gus think he is? At some Marriott methamphetamine convention? Some Drug Lord of the Month corporate retreat? “This is not a negotiation,” says Cartel Man, leaving the chintzy veggie plate untouched. Gus may make millions — at a company big enough to be listed on NASDAQ, says Walt — but this episode shatters any remaining illusions that meth dealing is a pat parallel for American business. The difference is critical: Businesses negotiate over money, and often, like Gus, they play hardball. But criminal syndicates tend to kill people a lot.

In the second table read, Hank is at the head of the table with his two DEA colleagues at either side. In a masterful little one-man show of dramatic theater, Hank says, “Yeah, the whole thing is off-the-map nuts,” before nailing Gus with hard evidence. It’s a genius display. In fact, lately, everyone who hasn’t seemed too obviously book-smart brilliant — Hank and Jesse — suddenly seems very brilliant indeed, reading their situations accurately. Meanwhile, the guys who pose like elitist geniuses — Walt and Gus — are coming off like blowhard idiots. Maybe the difference is that Hank and Jesse don’t have any illusions that America is a rational place, or expectations that dapper, polite people like Gus or educated men like Walt are good guys.

Either by DEA, cartel, or Walt’s concoction, Gus is dust, baby. Gus is dust. There’d be a certain symmetry if Colonel Sanders was put down by a special recipe of herbs and spices cooked up in his own kitchen, but that cartel seems much more scary. Walt’s audacious move and Hank’s revelation make it all the more likely that Walt will end this season as New Mexico’s meth-business drug lord. Will he work with the cartel, content to take Gus’s cut? Will Gus bow out that easily? Could Hank’s DEA boss be corrupt, and, perhaps, paid off by Gus? What about Hank’s former buddy Steve? Hank is right about Gus, of course, but he still doesn’t have his Heisenberg. If Gus ends up dead, will that leave Walt free and clear from DEA suspicion? Or will Hank find him? Would Walt kill Hank to save himself?

Meanwhile, in a colossal act of video-game violence product placement, Jesse kicks off the episode by playing Rage, the much-anticipated next-gen first-person shooter, due from Quake’s Id Software designers this October. This is just what erstwhile video-game violence crusader Hillary Clinton denounced as the “silent epidemic of media desensitizaiton” that turns gamers into meth-dealing murderers. (Though, guys, did you really need to give Jesse a light gun like he was playing Duck Hunt?) Sorry, Hillary, but Rage doesn’t tell Jesse to kill anyone, and neither does Gus. That honor falls to Walt. Now, he’s made the demand twice.

Meanwhile, Jesse comes clean at Narcotics Anonymous to killing a “dog” that never bit anyone, and to using the meetings to sell meth to users who wanted it. In the session (Insert: another round of effusive praise for the Many Harrowing Aspects of Aaron Paul), Jesse’s meltdown is not just critiquing the substance-abuse circuit, it’s critiquing that fundamental idea that forgiveness is even a relevant concept. What does acceptance even mean, when you’re a murderer?

Compared to Walt’s sudden amoral resolve, Jesse’s moral struggle feels all the more intense. Can Jesse find some peace? Will he off Gus? Last week, I wondered if Walt was indeed going to become the kingpin by the series’ end. Now, I wonder if Walt will take over by the end of this season, leaving Jesse to eclipse Walt next year. If Jesse can wrestle his demons to the ground — and the jury is still out on that — maybe he’ll be tough enough to pin Walt. If he can take down Gus, why not?

On the other hand, if this episode advances some critique of the corporate kingpin myth, maybe it also propels crazy-ass Walt’s rise to power. Spinning doughnuts in that Dodge Challenger, setting the fucker on fire, fuming over $800 in restocking fees negotiated by his nagging wife before blithely paying $52,000 for his lark, Walt is becoming ever more spectacularly ego-freaky. Yet he cooks up a perfect recipe for Gus’s assassination. Vince Gilligan said he was going to take Walt from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” and, last week, some readers and some of my friends objected to the idea that Walt could ever be so powerful. But don’t forget: By the end of Scarface, Tony Montana had risen to power in the face of overwhelming odds, sure, but he didn’t do so by being a calm, calculating CEO like Gus. Montana learned that what really worked was being a fucking sociopathic lunatic. Only then was he gunned down.

Photo: Ben Leuner/AMC