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Breaking Bad Recap: Barrels of Fun

Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 13 - Photo credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

If you’re reading this, it means the Internet did not in fact explode at 10:01 p.m. Eastern time, September 8, 2013.

What a place to end an especially tense episode of a show that does cliffhangers so well: not right before an action scene, not after, but in the middle! In the middle of a shot, in fact: Walter White cowering in the back of his car while Hank and Gomez shot it out with the white supremacists that Walter had called in as backup.

"To’hajiilee", written by George Mastras and directed by Michelle MacLaren, was a classic episode, and a milestone in the show’s ongoing storyline; the climax leading to a long, ugly denouement, perhaps? The moralist in us took unseemly pleasure in watching Walter squirm and flail as his enemies out-thought and humiliated him. Hank reading Walter his rights was one of the most cathartic and deeply satisfying moments in TV history, but for my money, this episode contained at least one runner-up: Jesse taunting Walter via cell phone during the drive to the desert. "Got my photo, bitch? That barrel look familiar? ‘Cause I just found six more exactly like it…" "Fire in the hole, bitch. There’s goes ten Gs! Ah, nice orange flame."

Where do we go from here? Will Hank, Gomez and Jesse make it out of the desert alive? (TV characters who call their wives to say it’s over and "I love you" tend not to live very long.) Was that giant machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car in the flash-forward at the start of the season premiere, "Live Free or Die," intended for use against Jack and Todd and company, perhaps to free loved ones they’d taken hostage to make Walt cook again? I’m not guessing, just asking. There are still three episodes left. In a sense, this story is over — Walt surrendered, and Hank arrested him — but since the big theme in these last few episodes seems to be something along the lines of "You cannot un-ring a bell," I have a feeling we’re about to see more blowback, more regrets, and more impotent raging at fate.

The last few episodes have shown Heisenberg receding and Walter re-emerging. The rationalizations that the show’s antihero once tacked onto the end of his nastiest actions — in order to re-frame evil as "necessary evil" — have seemed increasingly deluded as the end draws near. "It’s not for me," he screamed at Jesse while rushing toward the burial site, freaking out about his loot. "I won’t be around long enough to use it! It’s for my kids!" Yes, family. He went there. He always goes there. "Jesse’s like family to me," he’d told Jack’s gang earlier, while setting up a hit on his former partner. "I want what you do to be quick and painless…no suffering, no fear." Walter White, father figure. Always rationalizing. When Jack set the terms that Walt get back to cooking in exchange for the murder, Walt looked genuinely upset when he gave his final negotiation — "One cook, after the job is done"— as if this wasn’t something he secretly longed to do anyway, but an unpleasant necessity; as if he wasn’t Heisenberg the master cook anymore; as if those days were behind him.

Walt is always going too far and then wishing he could go back and undo whatever he’s done — or half-wishing, or wishing that he could half-wish. Are the unhappiness and wishy-washiness that have consumed Walter mere byproducts of his fear of getting caught, exposed and punished (or worse)? Or are they deeper, more authentic? Is he truly regretful? Is he starting to wish he’d never gone down this road? The cancer that has long seemed a metaphor for Walt’s metastasizing villainy — as well as a plot engine — now seems a signifier of shame or regret. When he climbed atop that ridge at the cash-burial site — one of many moments in this episode that reminded me of the end of Raoul Walsh’s classic crime thriller High Sierra — he wasn’t the criminal genius surveying the breadth of his empire, but a man on the verge of losing everything he’d schemed to amass, and it was at that moment that he began to cough. 

The ongoing Wile E. Coyote-Road Runner dynamic between Walter and Hank finally came to a head this week, with Hank proving yet again that, aside from the whole not-immediately-figuring-out-Walt-is-Heisenberg thing, he’s a crafty, ruthless cop. He put the screws to Saul’s henchman Huell in protective custody, planting seeds of fear that Walt was about to have him rubbed out, too — and perhaps Saul as well. "Goodman’s next on the chopping block if he doesn’t do what White says," Gomez told Huell. Hank showed Huell a phony photo of a "dead" Jesse, sprawled on Hank’s kitchen floor with butcher-shop blood and brains spread out behind his head, and the flipped-out Huell admitted to loading up "seven barrels’ worth" of money into a rented van, which Walter drove from his storage locker to an undisclosed location. "How long you gonna be?" Huell asked, as Hank and Gomez left to chase down the Walter’s loot. "As long as it takes to keep you safe," Hank replied, in his best Elliott Ness deadpan.

The masterstroke was Hank realizing that while the rented van didn’t have GPS on it, Walt might not know that, and would be so panicked at the prospect of losing it that he’d lead them to the money regardless. That’s exactly what happened, and the chain of events that led there showcased Breaking Bad’s character-based plotting at its most delightful. The cat-and-mouse action in this episode was superb, a series of clever failed or foiled strategies supplanted by better ones, and moments in which desired information did not materialize, but equally good data did. The faked "hit" on Jesse didn’t lead directly to Walter’s money, but it eventually led to the scheme that did lead to Walter’s money. Walter’s plan to flush Jesse out — visiting Andrea, mother of Brock, the child Walter poisoned in season four, and convincing her that Jesse had fallen off the grid and started using again — didn’t work because Hank intercepted Andrea’s message on the confiscated Hello Kitty phone ("Nice try, asshole"). That led to the GPS gambit, which led to the money and the arrest. Walter’s offer to buy a hit on Jesse led Jack to counter-propose Walter cooking for them instead, which gave Walter the juice to call Jack’s guys for backup in the desert (they weren’t helping a friend, they were protecting an investment). Screenwriting students looking for examples of first-rate character-driven action would do well to study this episode.

Even Walt's screaming "No!" at the gunmen felt right, because it tied back into the way Walter treats "family" as the reason or excuse for everything he does. He called those guys out thinking it was an opportunity to kill Jesse, and perhaps to prevent him from burning all of his money. Walt still has some affection for Jesse, but he's not family. Hank is, and it's Hank that he yelled "No!" for — well, that and the fact that he'd just turned himself in and didn't know if Hank had reported this to any other authorities. If he had any chance of protecting his family from the ramifications of his actions, he needed to end things by taking his punishment rather than having to go on the lam as a believed cop killer.

Getting back to Jack, I’m not crazy about him as a character; as adversaries go, he’s just not as memorable as the bug-eyed psycho Tuco or the Walter White doppleganger/aspirational figure Gus Fring. But he gets us where the show needs to be, serving as muscle, and maybe supervision, for Todd as he tries to bring Walter’s recipe up to Walter’s standards and satisfy the Germans backing Lydia.

Todd, however, is fascinating. The writing of his character reminds me of the killers in two classic suspense pictures, one of which inspired the other: Psycho and Halloween. Todd’s politeness and white-bread look (Norman Rockwell painted hundreds of Todd-types) always struck me as a bit Norman Batesian, but the comparison really came alive this week when he came onto Lydia, aw-shucks courting her while invading her personal space (to the tune of "Oh, Sherry," of all things). The subsequent shot of Todd studying Lydia’s lipstick stain on the edge of her coffee mug was chilling because we have yet to see any evidence that there’s a personality there at all, much less a fully-formed, grown man with desires; in this moment, and in many other Todd scenes, I’m reminded of what Dr. Loomis said about Michael Meyers in the original Halloween: "I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes... the devil's eyes."

Odds and ends

- Speaking of Todd, it’s hard to imagine how Jesse Plemons' performance could be any better. The writing of his dialogue has been superb as well — consistently thoughtful and exact, in the best Breaking Bad tradition. ("Yeah, kinda, if it catches the light just right I could see how you could think there’s a touch of blue, blue-green in there.") His chilling "Shit happens" during "Dead Freight" hinted at a straight-up psycho, but Todd’s not straight-up (like his uncle). He’s a twisted psycho — and every now and then we get touches that echo facets of Walter. The fact that he kept the spider belonging to poor Drew Sharp, the kid on a bike he killed, reminded me of Walter cutting the crusts off his sandwiches in unconscious homage to Krazy 8, and in later seasons, dressing and comporting himself like Gus Fring. Todd is, as I’ve written in other recaps, the "good" surrogate son to Jesse’s "bad" one — "good" from Walter’s perspective, in that he wants to emulate and obey Walter. He even refers to him as "Mr. White."

- Todd’s ringtone: "She Blinded Me With Science" It might be about Lydia (in this context, anyway) but it’s also about another great love, Walter White. ("Science!")

- The scene with Walt .Jr. recognizing Saul at the car wash gave an otherwise unrelenting episode a dose of levity. "I like your commercial, what happened to your face?" the teen asked, starstruck. "This is what you call an occupational hazard," Saul said, then delivered one of his best exit lines: "Don’t drink and drive, but if you do, call me."

- MacLaren's direction of the final shoot-out was a geometrically exact bit of action filmmaking that just built and built and built, then somehow managed to explode into chaos without losing track of where people were in relation to each other (a vanishing skill in modern cinema). My favorite touch was the series of dolly shots that pushed in on all the participants right before the bullets began to fly.

- Jesse is positioned within this story as a sweet but dumb and morally compromised young man, but over the run of the series he’s had a number of excellent ideas. If he’d paid attention in Walter’s science class and stayed off drugs, he might have been successful at whatever he decided to do. The giant magnet in "Live Free or Die," for example, was Jesse’s idea. And Walter’s arrest eventually came about because Jesse figured out that the loot was "evidence that greedy asshole would never destroy."

- Walter’s visit to Andrea’s house was unsettling. The devil was in the room. And we still don’t know exactly how Walter got Brock to swallow the poison — a conspicuous ellipsis for a show that’s otherwise good about showing us how things happened. "He’s pretty upset with me, and I’m hoping that’s the reason he hasn’t called me back," Walter told Andrea. Upset about what? Oh, nothing. Hi, Brock.

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC