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Breaking Bad Recap: No Holds Barred

It’s no wonder Jesse’s favorite show is Ice Road Truckers. He must identify with the rush and fear of cruising along calmly before suddenly spinning out of control, possibly to your death. This frightening episode caroms and skids all over, with a GPS double-cross, a tax audit, a murder by sniper fire, and a series-changing brawl. In the end, it gets marvelously ugly.

Eight episodes ago, this season’s premiere was rife with surveillance, both symbolic and actual: Gale’s fatal bullet wound through the eye and rack of antique cameras, that disembodied teddy bear eyeball, Saul’s manic paranoid search for bugs, and a CSI murder-scene investigation that ended in zoom-in on Gale’s incriminating lab notebook. In the episodes since, Gus has installed security cameras to watch the lab from his laptop, Skyler has cased the car wash, Walt has bugged Gus’s car, Gus’s henchmen Tyrus and Mike have become an extra pair of all-seeing watchdogs, and Hank has turned into a super-investigator Sherlock Holmes, complete with a limp and, in Walt, his own grumbling Dr. Watson.

This episode begins and ends with the broken glasses, though Walt hasn’t been seeing things clearly for a very long time. Now, the feds are auditing Ted Beneke’s books and Hank is anxious to find Gus’s chicken coop. In a very literal sense, all those chickens hatched earlier this season are coming home to roost. So Jesse and Mike get to work scrubbing the warehouse clean of even the tiniest dot of U.V. paint, while Skyler tries to clean up Ted’s embezzlement issue with a bodacious lie. All this fraught scrubbing and cleaning and covering up amplifies that Macbeth vibe from earlier episodes: the guilty moral fear that what’s done is done and can’t be erased, no matter how hard you try. Walt and Jesse have just been in survival mode for a very long time now, and it seems like Skyler is abandoning her principles just as rapidly.

Thanks to a panicked tip from Walt, Mike’s cleanup is almost scarily professional, but when one of the cleaning guys gets suddenly shot in the head, it’s obvious Gus, despite his Terminator act, is outgunned. Gus caves. Skyler’s approach is a sloppy bit of improv theater. Once again, I wonder if Skyler’s transformation into a brilliant con artist is too sudden; that slutty ditz act just seemed too contrived to me. In any case, Skyler seems to be seriously considering giving Ted over 600,000 bucks: another solution that, like every solution on this show, can only lead to a series of disasters in the future.

As usual, one tense scene is only the setup for an even more tense scene: The long-awaited conversation between Gus and Jesse is terrifying and tense but only the prelude to that wild face-off between Walt and Jesse. That surprise sucker punch of a scene caught me off guard entirely. Did anyone see that coming so soon? Technically, it’s a bold example of how very theatrical, in the best sense, this show can be. Like so many of Breaking Bad’s best scenes, it takes place in just one room, with two actors. The scene is lit artificially like some Wooster Group production of a Greek tragedy: Perfect circles of light are scattered about a dark floor as bare as a stage. The effect is elemental: just two men in a room, clashing forces, nowhere to hide.

For a show obsessed with manhood, this is, in itself, a ballsy way to shoot a show. Such a spare approach (see: In Treatment) leans hard on the actors and just doesn’t work if stars like Aaron Paul or Bryan Cranston can’t deliver. Of course, they man up. A medium shot of Jesse’s long dissembling monologue goes on for three and a half minutes, before cutting to Walt’s angry reaction. Jesse remained loyal to Walt, despite his unstable nuttiness and condescending insults — up until the moment that Jesse realizes that Walt has not trusted him by bugging his car. (Who knew Skymall could lead to so much trouble?) At that point, the scene skids on the ice and gets ugly fast.

“You killed me,” says Walt. “You signed my death warrant … Go to Mexico and screw up like I know you will.” Then Jesse, maybe hearing the echo of his father’s voice, finally loses it. It’s a dirty fight, a mess of nasty cheap shots. That no-holds-barred ugliness feels right. It can only make things worse: Stuck in this web, every time these guys lash out they only end up more stuck. “Can you walk?” Jesse asks. “Then get the fuck out of here and never come back.”

Gus may have lost a battle with the cartel in this episode, but his scheme to divide Jesse and Walt seems to have worked perfectly. Have Walt and Jesse been divided and conquered into submission, or are they now double the loose cannon? Will Jesse show Gus the poison cigarette Walt made for him? Will Walt, realizing that Jesse’s his biggest threat, eventually decide to take him out? And now that the cartel is mollified, will Gus focus more on Hank? So far this season’s been daring in so many ways but one: All the main characters are still alive. It seemed like Gus was a goner, but now he seems safer. Still, they can’t all live for long, can they?

Photo: Lewis Jacobs/AMC