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Breaking Bad Recap: Everybody Wins

After one of the loudest, most visually spectacular Breaking Bad episodes comes one of the quietest — and one of the most perversely funny. "Buyout" picks up in the aftermath of Walt and the gang's daring freight train robbery — a crime that seemed to go off without a hitch until a tarantula-hunting boy stumbled upon them and got killed by one of Walt's helpers, the clean-cut sociopath Todd. But the bulk of "Buyout" is only glancingly concerned with the disposition of the boy's corpse and the fate of the shooter. As written by Gennifer Hutchinson and directed by series TV veteran Colin Bucksey, it's mainly about Walt and Jesse. And it's a study in contrast.

Jesse is a criminal who can still feel shame and remorse, and fights to hold onto the remaining shards of his humanity. Walt willingly throws his away. He can't excuse his actions by saying that he was only doing what he was told, or that he was raised in a family of gangsters, or that he's traumatized from the war, or even that he's dying of cancer and needs the money to pay for medicine and support his family. He's a self-starting monster, Horatio Alger from hell. The series has taken Walt from cancer-ridden chemistry teacher and suburban schnook to borderline comic-book mastermind in the space of one screen year. His schemes have become increasingly elaborate and preposterous, with touches of James Bondian sci-fi ("Live Free or Die," with its giant electromagnet) and big-budget Hollywood action spectacle ("Dead Freight"). But "Buyout" reminds us that while Walt's criminal achievements may be big, he's a small man — a control freak who'll say or do anything to preserve his inflated self-image, and who doesn't care what harm his actions cause as long as he makes a fortune and stays out of prison. With each week it becomes harder to a recall a time when he was sympathetic. Skyler's scheme to have Walt, Jr. and Holly go live with Hank and Marie might be awkward from a plot standpoint — verging on sitcom-like — but her heart's in the right place. When Walt dotes on Holly, I picture her nestled in the tentacles of a squid. 

The script likens the child shooter to Walt, who only pretends to be troubled by the killing. Todd might be the fantasy surrogate son that Walt wishes he has — one that Walt would never need to manipulate because Todd has no conscience to twist. When Todd confirms his scumminess to Jesse during a smoke break, Jesse clocks him, then dresses him down in the presence of Walt and Mike. When Todd justifies himself, he directs most of his spiel toward Walt, even addressing him directly at the end: "Did I make a mistake, Mr. White?" That "Mr. White" is very Jesse-like.

Before leaving the room, Todd says, "I just want to make sure you know that my priority is this business," then drops the fact that he has an incarcerated uncle with big-time connections; Mike says he's not worried about Todd's uncle, but in retrospect it seems like one of many reasons the trio decides to let the shooter live. When Walt addresses Mike and Jesse in private, it's clear that he agrees with Todd's position and only pretends to be troubled by it. He allows that although the murdered boy didn't know what he was looking at, leaving him alive would have been problematic — a sentiment that Jesse hoarsely shouts down: "Is this how we do business now?" Before driving home, Todd reaches into his bag and produces a souvenir that's also a metaphor for his probationary status: the boy's tarantula-in-a-jar.

"I haven't been able to sleep the past few nights just thinking about it," Walt tells a stricken Jesse a few days later, describing a theoretical Walter White who can still feel remorse. Then he sidesteps into opportunism: "But Jesse, now, finally, we're self sufficient. Finally we have everything that we need, and no one to answer to except ourselves." In a year, Walt says, they'll be comfortable enough for "soul-searching" and they'll make sure that such a thing "never happens again." If you put off soul-searching until you've accumulated a nest egg, you have no soul to search.

The punchline on the end of this scene is grimly funny: Walt suits up for a cook on the other side of a translucent sheet, whistling merrily, unaware that Jesse is outside listening. This might be a random bit of dark humor, or it might be a subtle shout-out to Fritz Lang's M, a child-killer who wandered Berlin in search of victims while whistling "Hall of the Mountain King." Walt poisoned one child — Andrea's son Brock — and helped create the conditions that led to another boy's murder. He's scarier than M in one notable respect: His vileness is deliberate. M is driven by compulsion. "I can't help myself!" he shrieks, in the film's signature moment. Walt could help himself, but doesn't.

I love the lingering closeup of Jesse's face as he listens to Walt's infernal tootling. Not only is it a rich reaction by Aaron Paul — a great actor who continues to amaze — it calls attention to the moral chasm separating Walt and Jesse. It also sets up the next scene, in which Mike and Jesse tell Walt they're done — that the DEA has been on Mike since he joined Walt's new business, and they've decided they'd rather sell the stolen methylamine to rival cooks for a small profit and retire than keep cooking and end up in prison, penniless. Walt tells Mike, in effect, "Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out," but seems stunned that Jesse wants out, too. "I don't think I can do this anymore, so I'm retiring, I guess," Jesse says, with a weary resolve that we've never heard before.

Walt invites Jesse over to his house* and has … well, I nearly typed, "a heart-to-heart talk," but you can only have that if both parties have hearts. (Heart-to-lump-of-coal, maybe?) It's plays like a grotesque parody of father-son bonding. Jesse tries to talk Walt into selling his share of the methylamine. Walt won't listen to reason. He retreats into wounded vanity, telling Jesse that he won't sell out. "It's not 'selling out,'" Jesse protests. "Yes, it is, Jesse," Walt says, then tells him about Gray Matter, the company he co-founded and named in graduate school, then lost "for personal reasons" (outlined back in season one). The company is now worth a billion dollars. "I sold my kid's birthright for a few months' rent," he says. "Jesse, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business." Jesse's reaction is exhausted and incredulous. "I don't know, Mr. White," Jesse says. "Is a meth empire really something to be that proud of?"

The next scene pushes the episode even further into black comedy. Skyler comes home, surprising Walt and Jesse, and the younger man shifts into Eddie Haskell mode ("You have a lovely home"), then accepts Walt's impulsive invitation to stay for dinner. (Jesse’s closeup right after Walt says, "See?" is devastating — such empathy and horror in his eyes.) If you didn't know the White household is irreparably broken, the dinner scene leaves no doubt. The Whites are momentarily childless and feeling the ache of that absence — and now here's Jesse, apprentice to Walt's crystal meth wizard, and ambassador from the criminal world that helped ruin their family, sitting at their table like a prodigal son returned.

Jesse gamely tries to make the evening feel normal. It's a lost cause. He compliments the green beans: "Mom always made 'em like that." "They are from the deli … at Albertson's," says Skyler, drinking wine from a glass big enough to hold a toy boat. "Well, uh, good work on your shopping, because these are choice!" Jesse says, then launches into a monologue about "scabby" microwave food. ("Yo, whatever happened to truth in advertising, you know?") Fishing for good vibes, Jesse relays Walt's praise for Skyler's car-wash-management skill. "Did you also tell him about my affair?" Skyler asks Walt. She lets the question sink in, then adds, "May I please be excused?", skewering Walt's man-of-the-house bluster. "My wife is waiting for me to die," Walt says after Skyler leaves. "This business is all I have left now. It's all I have. And you want to take it away from me."  In both of Jesse's scenes at Casa de White, Walt sinks deep into chairs, and the dim lighting turns the creases on his face into crags. He looks ancient, and very tired.

Mike and Jesse are tied to Walt again at the end of "Buyout," not because they suddenly decided they liked him after all, but because circumstances pushed them into it. The methylamine sale falls through when the buyer figures out that the mysterious Heisenberg is their refusenik third partner and says he wants all or nothing — not just to increase his supply, but to increase demand by keeping Walt's blue meth off the streets. After the domestic weirdness with Jesse, Walt, and Skyler, Mike lies in wait for Walt, correctly assuming that he'll try to break into their headquarters and steal some or all of the chemicals, then ties him to a radiator with plastic police handcuffs and tells him they're going to spend all night there (man, how I wish that was its own episode!). Then Mike leaves the next morning for a meeting with DEA agents and Saul, whose legal trickery forces Hank's team to quit surveilling Mike long enough for Mike to sell the whole load. The sequence in which Walt improvises a soldering iron from an electrical cord and burns through the cuffs has an animalistic desperation. The sparks burn his wrists, but he keeps the fire going, moaning and gritting his teeth. He's a fox chewing off a paw to escape a trap.

Mike returns to headquarters and finds all the chemicals missing; Jesse is there with Walt, who says he has a plan that will let him keep his share of the methylamine while still paying Mike and Jesse their $5 million. The final line is one of the funniest moments in an episode already lousy with horrifying comedy: "Everybody wins." Give the devil his due: He's down but never out. He never stops hustling.

Odds and ends

* Mike's note to the DEA surveillance team that's watching him in the park is another great touch: "Fuck you," it says. But AMC felt it necessary to bleep the middle two letters in the first word. What show do they think we're watching? Who do they think the audience is? Basic cable content restrictions make no sense.

* Censored or not, however, the park scene belongs on a list of great crime thriller moments in which crooks bust the chops of lawmen assigned to tail them. It's right up there with the scene in GoodFellas where DeNiro and Liotta are leaving the diner and DeNiro raps on the FBI agents' car window to wake them up.

* I wish someone would do a supercut of Saul's wildly inappropriate pop culture references. This episode had another keeper: After telling Mike that his B.S. legal protest against the DEA "harass[ing] a senior citizen" would likely get thrown out of court, he added, "Schrader's hard-on for you just reached Uncle Miltie proportions." Google Milton Berle and "endowed" if you don't know what that's about.

* Finally, about last week's recap: I did not particularly like "Dead Freight," even though I praised its filmmaking craft.  If you unreservedly loved the episode, yay, I'm happy for you, and I'm glad some of you defended it in comments. But I now realize that I need to clarify a line that wasn't clear enough the first time. Hammering on what I thought was an unbelievable (for me! not for you, necessarily!) heist plot, I called the episode, "beautifully crafted but ultimately a mistake from which the series will be lucky to recover." I did not mean that I thought Breaking Bad will never produce another good episode, or that this one was bad overall, or that I wasn't going to watch the show again ever, waah, though some of you have insisted that I did say some or all of those things. 

Here is what I meant: The episode was, no pun intended, a bridge too far for me, plausibility-wise. The show has flirted with silliness before, and Walt, Jesse, and Mike using that giant electromagnet against the DEA in "Live Free or Die" was comparably absurd. But the practical execution of the electromagnet plot only involved three people. The train heist was far more complex and involved hole-digging, pilfered schedule information, help from a Madrigal insider, pinpoint timing, multiple lines of simultaneous criminal action, and what I thought was very unconvincing role-playing by at least one team member (the truck driver, whose professed ignorance of what was under his own hood would not have convinced my eight-year-old). And I didn't like that the final kill shot was fired by a glorified red shirt that we'd barely gotten to know. It struck me as a cop-out at the time, although scenes in this week's episode partly answered that concern.

More to the point, as I said in a comment on my "Dead Freight" post, as Breaking Bad has amped up the scale of Walt's escapades, an essential intimacy has been lost. Maybe that's a necessary tradeoff as the story moves forward; maybe the series finale will find Walt breaking into DEA headquarters in a self-designed biomechanical combat suit with flamethrowers and rocket launchers in the chest, and the train heist will look puny in comparison. Vince Gilligan can do whatever he likes, and he's so good at making TV that I'll gladly watch. But I found the train heist far less thrilling than that simple moment back in season two when Walt, still a struggling dealer, ran into a meth-head buying supplies at the local hardware mart, followed him into the parking lot, got in his partner's face and growled, "Stay out of my territory." That's much more exciting and powerful to me than watching Jesse shimmy under a train like a commando in a Michael Bay flick. 

Did last week's episode "ruin" Breaking Bad for me? Duh, no — of course not, silly. I love the show, here I am recapping it, and I'll continue writing about it until it ends. Do I have very strong, maybe over-the-top negative reactions to particular episodes of shows I otherwise enjoy? Absolutely, and unless you are an undiscriminating viewer who laps up anything that's put in front of you, you do, too — if not to Breaking Bad, then to some other show. I've had strong negative reactions to certain episodes of series I consider great or near-great: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Homeland, The West Wing, The X-Files, Seinfeld, Miami Vice, Community, Hill Street Blues, The Simpsons, All in the Family, you name it. Yet I kept watching, because TV series aren't self-contained, compact works. They are sprawling, messy, ongoing, slow-motion-improvised sagas which, by definition, cannot please everyone every single week. You can write off my reaction to "Dead Freight" as subjective and not be wrong; all opinions are subjective. You can call it arbitrary or inconsistent or unwarranted and I won't dispute you there, either. Your threshold of plausibility might be higher or lower than mine, or different, or you might not care about plausibility at all (some people don't). You may want more killings or fewer, bigger action scenes or smaller ones. Some of my opinions, positive or negative, might be reversed or revised months or years from now.  Others won't change at all. Read "The Sum and the Parts," it explains where I'm coming from when I write one of these things. As David Chase cryptically says of the Sopranos finale, it's all there.

* This review has been amended to remove an incorrect estimate of how many times Jesse has been to Walt's house.

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC