In last week’s season premiere, Gale’s body was found shot through his eye, Skyler discovered the teddy bear’s all-seeing eye, and CSI investigators diagrammed Gale’s crime-scene apartment, as Breaking Bad established surveillance as the season’s new theme. The first shot of this week’s episode hammers the message home: Walt — whose whole M.O. is hiding in plain sight — stares at a mirror reflection of himself, studying his own image, wondering if the Walt other people see gives any hint of what he’s carrying inside. The first line is so abstract it’s philosophical: “So, how’s it look?” Walt asks, and a man we’ve never seen before cryptically replies, “Meaning, do I see it?” After all Walt’s done, we see it. Who else will?
In a few seconds, it’s obvious that they’re talking about a pistol. The scene is all noir — shadows, cigarette smoke, mirroring, and hard-boiled phrases like “lawman,” “spray and pray,” “snubbie,” and “wheel gun.” The easy-to-conceal 38 snubnose “comes in polymer,” the dealer says, “I prefer the feel of leather. Old-school, I guess.” That fits Walt, or, rather, Heisenberg, with that throwback crime-flick fedora. “There’s really no substitute if you’re intent on fooling a vigilant eye,” the dealer says — and Walt is all about fooling eyes now, whether they belong to Gus, Skyler, the cops, that stuffed animal, or something like God. But he’s a terrible draw. He can hide the gun, but not the panic on his face, the nerves. “Are we strictly talking defense here?” Walt claims self-defense, which would be a whole lot more convincing if the serial number wasn’t filed off.
“This is the West, boss,” says the cowboy-booted dealer. “Some call [shooting to kill in self-defense] a moral right and I do include myself among that class.” Walt stares into that mirror again. “It’s for defense,” Walt says, then repeats himself, “Defense.” Walt isn’t looking at the man. He’s staring at himself, trying to convince himself that what he’s doing is right. Whatever that means anymore.
Over 35 episodes, the meaning of defense has evolved on Breaking Bad, as Walt’s self-justifying interpretation has been used to justify increasingly violent behavior. Was it self-defense in the first episode, when Walt and Jesse trapped Emilio in the R.V. and killed him? Sure. How about Krazy 8 in the basement? Well, he did have a shard of a plate in his hand. When Jane died? He just watched — but her death took care of a problem. And when Walt ran over two dealers in his SUV, then shot one in the head at point-blank distance? He was just defending Jesse — that is, after Jesse tried to kill them first.
And Gale? That murder was premeditated, sure, but Walt would argue that it was just an aggressive preemptive strike: Get him before they get you. Walt tells Mike he did it “purely out of self-defense.” Purely? Walt’s meth may be pure, but his motives aren’t. Mike sees right through his rationalizations, and sees that pistol on his right hip too. He kicks the shit out of him. When Walt walks up on Gus’s house, someone sees him there. He’s trying to hide, but he’s a sloppy draw: Gus’s team sees what he’s trying to do.
If The Sopranos was about the modernized, psychotherapized suburban gangster in a vast family, Breaking Bad has become more of a show about a loner who plays the angles. Walt’s a scientist but, as a man, he’s always been something of a throwback, reluctant to accept the support of others, so prideful his rapidly metastisizing ego has increasingly trumped logic. He’s got a bit of that paranoid, resentful Mike Hammer edge now. He’s like that private dick who should know better than to keep sticking his nose into things, who should “learn to take yes for an answer,” as Mike says, but just can’t. So Walt gets his face bashed in on the barroom floor and keeps coming. Like a Spillane character, he’s not backing down. The first three seasons have leaned heavily on Western motifs. Will the new season become more noir? Or, like Lone Star, mash up both aesthetics?
With so many watchful eyes in the mix, Walt isn’t the only one trying to clean up his image and hide his dirt. Nasty badass Mike notices a fleck of dried blood — more evidence — on his sleeve, and scratches it off. Skyler mentions the car wash over the phone and Walt freaks out about phone surveillance. The first shot of Jesse’s pimped-out party apartment introduces that hilarious Roomba (and, later, the awesome Roomba-cam!), pointlessly hoovering up a mess that keeps growing. Everyone’s a Lady Macbeth, scrubbing at those damned spots. Only, for Jesse, the Roomba feels like that little bit of his conscience that lingers around the edges of his attempt at blotting out the regret.
Jesse and Hank can’t stand the silence. Insomniac Hank, his whole masculine-provider identity upended, focuses on minerals instead of his rehab. Jesse, dealing with the aftermath of committing premeditated murder, can’t stand the quiet, so he cranks up an utterly meaningless Flava Flav jam on his “sonically neutral” speakers: The song’s all “bunga bunga” and his audiophile lingo is mumbo-jumbo. His boys start smoking and sniffing again while debating the finer points of zombie video games. (Badger’s right, by the way: Left 4 Dead clearly rules.) The last shot of the episode is Jesse’s head, framed by the speaker’s eighteen-inch cone: If he can’t fix what’s bothering his brain, he’ll try to blast it out. Whether it’s partying (Jesse), smoking up (the boys), or studying minerals (Hank), the fellas are all trying to blot out what bothers them most with some superficial obsession. And why not? Walt is the only one focused on the here and now, and he’s making a complete mess of things: Gus won’t see him and now, there’s a new henchman in the lab, and the meth is being weighed twice.
A few questions: What’s up with Hank’s obsession with minerals and where is it leading? Is Matt Jones, hilarious in this episode (“I’m turning into a Sleestak!”) a better Steve Zahn? Will Skyler, whose surveillance of the car wash resulted in a rejection, resign herself to a laser-tag arena?