"Say My Name" contains two sequences so powerful that they elevate what was an otherwise just-okay Breaking Bad episode to near-pantheon heights.
The first is a playground scene in which DEA agents converge on Mike as he's watching his granddaughter on the swings. The scene echoed Michael Mann's Heat (much referenced on Breaking Bad), in which Robert DeNiro's thief boils the film's macho-existential dilemma down to a line: "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." You could see by Mike's face that for the first time in his long, bloody life, he understood what that credo meant. The fact that it wasn't an abstraction anymore — that it was as real as his granddaughter on the swings — threw him for a loop. His brain was telling him one thing, his heart another. He listened to his brain and left Kaylee on the playground. As the episode's writer-director Thomas Schnauz cut to a long shot of Kaylee obliviously swinging — squeak squeak, squeak squeak — I was reminded of Mike's conversation with Lydia in "Madrigal": Mike threatening to kill her with her daughter in the next room and saying, "Nobody's going to find you, Lydia," and Lydia replying, "I can't just disappear. She has to know I wouldn't leave her … My daughter's not thinking I abandoned her. "
The other great scene, Mike's death, was a stunner, not just for its film-literate beauty — that sunny green final shot of Mike falling over dead by the river channeled Badlands, Sugarland Express, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid — but because it was a great example of poetic justice, Breaking Bad-style. If Walter disposes of Mike the usual way — by dumping his corpse into a vat of acid — no one will ever know what became of him, and Kaylee will think her grandfather abandoned her. Because we like Mike, with his grumpy one-liners and glacial cool and finely tuned sense of honor, and because Jonathan Banks inhabits him so completely, we root for his escape and mourn his death. But at the risk of ruining a virtual wake for a great TV character, we should remember that Mike, for all his gruff charm, was a vicious hitman and fixer, and that Breaking Bad, for all its violence and treachery, is one of the most deeply moral shows on TV, one in which characters inevitably reap what they sow. And that's what happened here. Mike killed a lot of people in his life, and this is his punishment: He dies knowing that the only person he loved will go to her grave thinking he left without saying good-bye.
The rest of the episode was a "B+" Breaking Bad, by which I mean any other show's "A." As we draw closer to the end, you can sense an anxiety — if not yet panic — setting in. The writers are just one episode away from "House on fire, pack one suitcase" mode. After next week's half-season finale, the show will take a year off and return next summer with its final eight. Series creator Vince Gilligan and company have to maneuver a lot of pieces into place to set up that flash-forward glimpse of Walt buying a machine gun on his 52nd birthday in "Live Free or Die." A lot of stuff happened tonight because it needed to happen. The "how"s were not always persuasive.
The opening scene in the desert was cinephile heaven: Walter laying out his game-saving Plan B to Gus Fring's rivals; Walt tossing the bag of blue meth in the dirt, then proving the maxim that if you act like you're in charge, you're in charge; the negotiators and their crews framed like gunslingers in a widescreen-and-Technicolor Western. But its menacing mood was undercut by fanboy-baiting dialogue. "Say my name." "Heisenberg." "You're goddamn right." I love Breaking Bad, but it shouldn't be supplying YouTube dance track composers with lyrics every other week. It's unseemly.
The scene between Walt and Hank in Hank's DEA office might be the season's worst scene; even played for knowing, sometimes hilarious comedy — Hank sighing and squirming during Walt's waterworks, then miming blowing his brains out — it was too sitcom-contrived. The Chevy Chase-as-Fletch glint in Walt's eye as he asked Hank for coffee again; Walt overhearing the news about the DEA discovering Mike's hush money stash; and a high five, seriously? What, no freeze frame?
And as amazing as that final sequence was, I don't believe that Mike, even in a state of extreme duress, would trust Walter White to go to the corner store and buy him a pack of Juicy Fruit, much less fetch a "Go" bag that Mike knows contains a loaded gun. I didn't buy the mechanics of how Walt ended up going in Jesse's place; given the astonishing resolve he displayed in another great scene — the one where he decides he'd rather give up five million dollars than spend another second working for a heartless, manipulative knave like Walt — I wasn't sold on him staying behind. He loves Mike, fears and pities Walt, and knows that Walt is capable of murder and has plenty of reasons to want to kill Mike. It was one of those moments you just have to decide to accept. So I accepted it.
But again, those are nitpicks. "Say My Name" was a compelling, ultimately upsetting episode, and smartly structured despite the sometimes clunky staging and dialogue in certain scenes. I love how it punctured the somewhat pandering comic book bravado of that desert opening and made Walt seem about as cool as a jackal. His dialogue with Skyler in the scene where he and Jesse stash the stolen methylamine from the car wash underlined another running theme in Breaking Bad: alpha male bravado is poison. The more imperiously arrogant Walter becomes and the more rival alpha dogs he bends to his will, the less human he seems, the more damage he does to whatever's left of his humanity, and the more harm he does to his loved ones. In this car wash scene, he's The Man, all right, growling at Skyler as if he's John Wayne ordering a schoolmarm around before a Comanche attack. But it's impossible — or should be impossible — to hear that voice coming out of a bald, bespectacled, middle-aged chemist's mouth without realizing, on some level, how absurdly delusional it is. You have to be crazy to act this way. Or on drugs. Walter's drug is machismo, and he's hooked.
Skyler: "What is this?"
Walt: "Do you really want to know?"
Skyler: "Why are you hiding it here?"
Walt: "Don't worry about it."
Skyler: "Who are you hiding it from?"
Walt: "I said don't worry about it."
Then the kiss-off: "Why don't you go back in the office and let us do this. We'll get it out of your hair." That last sentence certifies what's happening between Walt and Skyler: the brutish assertion of male privilege. Don't trouble your pretty head, with its girly long hair. This is man stuff.
Odds and ends
- More toxic masculinity, but played for laughs: the sick parody of a husband-wife dinner at the end of the work day. Walt manages to get through one sentence before Skyler walks out on him, wine glass in hand.
- Scene for scene, shot for shot, Breaking Bad is the best composed series on television. Mad Men is a close second, and there are others worth praising: Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, Louie, Girls, Community, Justified, Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf. But for me, this show takes the cake. The Sergio Leone wide-angle lenses in that opening desert confrontation, the figures arranged from foreground to background in triangular formations; that slow back-and-forth pan in the scene with Skyler, Jesse, and Walt in the car wash, the perspective lines of the building's interior converging into the deepest background in alternating planes of light and shadow; the gratuitous but very entertaining trick shots of Mike's lawyer's meat-slab hand moving toward and away from the safety deposit boxes; the wide shot of Walt returning to his car, exiting the frame entirely, then reappearing a few horrible seconds later and crossing the empty space to kill Mike; that final wide shot of the river as Mike collapsed, him and Walt diminished in the frame: Wow. And there were so many more. I bet series cinematographer Michael Slovis has a whole wall of 1970s thrillers on DVD at home that he never watches, because he's already committed them to memory.
- I love the two scenes between Mike's lawyer and the receptionist at the bank. The contrast between her warm, familiar greeting in the first scene and her colder reaction in the second primes us for the DEA's appearance in the safety deposit room. (I love Steve's grin, and his Christmas-morning-cheerful "Hey!") This is great, subtle screenwriting, foreshadowing events through body language.
- The music montage during the safety deposit box scene was lovely, but if I never see another meth-cooking montage I won't feel especially deprived. I think the show has run out of interesting ways to photograph guys maneuvering lab equipment around and chemicals flowing through tubes.
- Great moment of Walter White sociopathy right before Mike's death: After repeatedly demanding the names of Mike's hush money recipients, getting rebuffed and dressed down, and ambushing Mike in his car, Walt finds Mike bleeding out in the weeds — crickets chirping, birds twittering — and realizes he's a goner. He takes his gun away and gets a faraway look in his eyes. At first I thought he was experiencing vestigial emotion from the pre-Heisenberg era: horror, disgust, shame. But no. "I just realized that Lydia has the names. I can get them from her." Then, "I'm sorry, Mike, this whole thing could have been avoided" — a non-apology apology. Whereupon Mike says what we're all thinking: "Shut the fuck up and let me die in peace."
- The scene between Walt and Jesse was brilliantly written and acted. I love how Walter says whatever he thinks he has to say to keep him on the team, verbally jabbing at his younger partner like a thief trying every button on a cash register until he opens the drawer. The drawer stays shut, though, even after Walter calls Jesse a hypocrite ("Is it filthy blood money? You're so pure, you have such emotional depth"), and even after Walt strategically avoids naming his own sins while highlighting Jesse's murder of Gale. Jesse's exhausted, disgusted exit was one of his finest moments as a character, and one of Aaron Paul's finest moments as an actor. The show has built to this moment from season one. Walter White wants to be The Man, but Jesse is simply a man.
- In my "Madrigal" recap, basically a love letter to Mike, I wrote, "I hope he makes it all the way through to the very end of the series. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if he ended up being the last man standing." Clearly, my sentimentality is my undoing.