The gamblers of Breaking Bad aren’t counting chips anymore. No longer is the show about the size of any one person’s bet, or any one person’s personal exposure. Everyone is all-in. When Skyler and Walt hash out the principles of 21 in order to ground his cover story, they never talk money at all: It’s all about staying put or doubling down, hitting or standing. How far do you go? How bold can you be? Hold ’em or fold ’em, as Walt’s T-shirt buddy Kenny Rogers sings. There’s no going back. Each player has to decide whether to charge ahead or wait and see what the others do.
Jesse remains immovable in his debauchery, unfazed by robberies and threats. He grabs a hot girl in knee-high socks and they hit the bed. Is he moving on to another lover? No, they just zone out with goofy video games. He’s going to stay put and watch the other players put their cards down. Walt keeps asking for another card and going bust: He’s not in command anymore. Gus, the dealer, is studying the table, tipping Mike off and moving his pieces. As Walt finds out in his few sample hands with Skyler, you can do everything right — follow your own mathematical adaptation of the Kelly Criterion, a formula favored by gamblers and Warren Buffett, all you want — and still get your ass handed to you.
And so we return to karaoke star and Far Side fan Gale’s very favorite Walt Whitman poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” about the limits of logic. Gale absurdly believed that, like Whitman’s narrator, he could commune with some deeper cosmic meaning removed from the earthbound mathematics and blathering of the “lecture-room.” Up in space like Major Tom (what an amazing video), he’d float above it all. Only, he got shot. Ever his foil, Walt is convinced that there is a logical solution to each problem — only, he gets lost in the math, too, lecturing Skyler or Saul about his approach instead of just playing his cards. “Why am I the only person capable of behaving in a professional manner?” Walt yells. Ironically, this is just after he complains about how Skyler thinks he just goes to work and fulfills his contract — and he mirrors her anal, overspecific advice when he hectors Jesse. He’s more like Skyler than he thinks. Professional manner? Walt still hasn’t adjusted to the reality that everyone else has moved on to a whole other game, but he won’t consider Saul’s suggestion that he step away from the table.
From the season premiere, it’s become obvious that surveillance was going to be the season’s dominant theme — and now we even get a shout-out to William Friedkin’s stakeout masterpiece The French Connection. Walt points out that Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) never got his man, at least in the original French Connection. But in The French Connection 2, which Walt hasn’t seen, Popeye shot the dapper drug kingpin dead, twice through the chest. Walt needs to be more careful about drawing conclusions based on limited evidence. For now, Walt is hiding in plain sight. Jesse is under suspicion, tracked by Gus’s security cam, potentially traceable by the shells left on Gale’s floor. With Mike out of town with Jesse (where?), Walt should be able to move about more freely. Will he gamble more boldly now that Jesse’s not around? The way Walt’s been playing his cards, that can’t be a good thing.
The last few episodes have rejiggered the show, moving the action away from Gus and into some new movement. This episode felt like a transition more than a self-contained capsule, but, God, was it gorgeous. Is there any other contemporary show that looks this good? As Skyler would say, the opening shot — or, rather, fusillade of shots — was a doozy. That first, eerie look at Mike bundled up in the refrigerated Pollos Hermanos truck is filmed beautifully: those streaks of light shooting through the bullet holes, the corpses’ balletic arcs out of the truck and onto the ground. The sound design keeps getting better — with the wet thunk-thunk-thunk of the bullets kerplunking the plastic chicken tubs and the glug-glug of liquid slopping out of them. Then there’s the nasty bullet-rip through Mike’s ear and the frost on his insulated jumpsuit: Mike is cool, even in the hottest situations, a thus-far flawless fixer who often solves problems with brilliant economy. In other words, he’d fit in on the Breaking Bad production team.
But who were those Spanish-speaking men anyway? Is the cartel looking to avenge the death of the Cousins? And when Mike stared at that Xacto knife on Gus’s desk, was he thinking of killing himself? Or Gus?