Back-to-back, Breaking Bad just delivered two slick, action-flick cold opens. Last week, Mike sat in the back of a Pollos Hermanos truck, bullets thunk-thunking tubs of fry batter (and meth). This week begins with Walt, breaknecking down the street — 38 special on the passenger seat — fishtailing all over the road in his boxy SUV, while telling Saul to give “every last dollar” to Skyler, whom he then calls to tell that he loves her (and, maybe, good-bye). The mid-action fury, scored and shot so stylishly, recalls J.J. Abrams at the height of his game — only with more grit and less comic-book gloss. Only, this opening doesn’t work because Gilligan’s execution is so controlled; it’s frightening because Walt is so utterly out of control.
Not only is Walt freaking out, he’s making stupid, sloppy mistakes along the way. He breaks every traffic rule while in possession of a pistol with the serial numbers filed off. He bum-rushes Pollos Hermanos with that pistol in his pocket, a dumb decision made worse by his decision to walk up to the counter and say, “Tell him it’s Walter White.” Maybe Walt could draw up a formula for his level of danger: Current danger equals real threats cubed by his own recklessness. The real question is why?
The show has been obsessed with masculinity, and, as such, it’s been very much about mojo; that Austin Powers–ish feeling of vigor and momentum and control has been the driving force of Walt’s once-stunted ego. For years, he was hemmed in by his lame job and abandoned ambition, but once that mojo got flowing again and he felt that surge of power, he just started rolling. After working for others, he took control of his life. And now, despite making loot, he’s lost that feeling of being in the flow, of being his own boss. It’s not just that he’s making bad decisions or the wrong moves on Gus, it’s that none of his moves seem to matter at all. Gus was the one man whose respect seemed to matter to Walt, and now he won’t give him the time of day.
When Walt has felt that mojo working, he’s been invincible, but now he’s floundering, sputtering, impotent. When Walt looks in that security cam and imagines how he looks, like some kind of employee, he loses it. When he looks at the real-estate agent and imagines what he must look like — a nervous man worried about a pathetic little car wash — he seethes. Only when he looks into Skyler’s eyes and imagines that she sees him as a vigorous badass does he really perk up. (Still, I’m having trouble buying Skyler’s role in all this — she and Marie are the two least sensible characters on the show right now.)
The sex puts a smile on Walt’s face, so he proudly boasts about being in the house to his son. Then Skyler, who was on top, reminds him that he’s only there because she’s allowed him in. What seems to burn the most is that she just assumes that he’ll move in anytime she deigns to allow it (despite the fact that his son is drinking from a coffee cup emblazoned with the name of the man she screwed). The grimace on Walt’s face says it all. He can’t stand the idea of being under anyone’s thumb, even if he’s getting exactly he wants, not if he’s not the one calling the shots. When you lose control, that’s when you lose your mojo. Walt seems like he’s ready to do anything to get that manly feeling of control back, whether making some absurd play at Pollos Hermanos or pointlessly berating Jesse.
Then some real Greek tragedy stuff leads Hank to pick up that abandoned blue-meth case file. When hubristic Walt drunkenly, brazenly blurts out that “Crazy Singing Guy” Gale was just a hack cribbing notes from a real genius, why does he do it? Does Walt, deep down, really want to get caught? It leads Hank to wonder, “Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?” But I think that’s too easy an explanation and that Gilligan is going for something else here. Maybe Walt’s just struggling to recapture that feeling he had when his mojo was working, when he was expanding his empire. Maybe he’s plateaued and he’s just desperate for that next rush. Maybe meth is not the most dangerous drug on this show. Mojo is. And Walt’s an addict.
Meanwhile, broken, bald Jesse spends the episode off in mystery land, driving with Mike to God-knows-where, in a strange second story line, pitched somewhere between Beckett and Mamet (“You are not the guy. You are not capable of being the guy. I had a guy but now I don’t.” And, once again, the soundtrack, featuring this great Ana Tijoux track “1977,” is fresh and surprising.) Is Gus doing exactly the wrong thing by driving a wedge between Walt and Jesse with his fake-robbery scheme? Sure, he might kill their alliance, but what is this, Survivor? What does it get Gus? Is the purportedly logical Gus motivated just as much by ego as Walt? And does he think so little of Walt that he’s not worried at all that Walt will fight back? And Jesse? He’s not stupid. On the other hand, Walt’s done nothing but yell at him all season long. Maybe, now that Walt is the irrational, unstable one, it would make sense to align himself with the muscle.
On that note, at this point in the season, the relationships between the men on the show — Gus, Mike, Jesse, Walt, and Hank — often seem much more believable than the relationships in any of the more domestic story lines. Marie’s cluelessness at the dinner table just seemed outrageous, didn’t it?