Whereas other prestige shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos have gone maximalist with novelistic ensembles of talented actors and interweaving story lines, Breaking Bad has been lean and mean by comparison. Some of the show’s best scenes have been oppressively claustrophobic two-handers: Walt and Jesse alone in the R.V., Walt and Jesse with a corpse, Walt and Jesse in the lab, and, when things get really crazy, Walt and Jesse with a couple of bad dudes. Largely, the show has been about men and manhood, and men have swallowed up most of the screen time — which makes this week’s focus on Marie and Skyler all the more fascinating, especially at a time when the masculinity of both Walt and Hank has never been more threatened.
The opening scene confirms Walt’s fear of being watched — and he takes offense at the notion that he should be under surveillance, flipping off the security cam. Offended, he tells Jesse that it violates the sanctity of his workplace. The real issue is that Walt prizes his manly independence and wants to remain lord over his super-lab dominion (remember how much he resented working at that car wash?). Jesse just shrugs and it’s clear the two have grown further apart. Walt won’t explain his black eye or ride go-carts with Jesse, and Jesse won’t talk about his feelings. “Getting the shit kicked out of you?” Jesse says, trying to help Walt adjust to some new, emasculated notion of powerlessness. “You do kind of get used to it.”
Gus’s new henchman sits in his car and stakes out Jesse’s home. Jesse’s rager has evolved from a wild house party into some kind of exaggerated, mythic Sodom where the Seven Deadly Sins throw down: Sloth is passed out on the floor, next to where Lust is humping, Wrath is fist-fighting, and Gluttony is shooting up. Jesse tosses his cash in the air, and Envy and Greed scramble for dollars. At one point last season, Jesse embraced being a bad guy. Then he dialed it back. Now he’s entered an utterly nihilistic phase: Wracked with guilt, he’s disgusted by everyone around him, and himself.
Jesse is usually a motormouth on this show (Bitch!), but Aaron Paul hasn’t been given much dialogue this season. Even without words, Paul is phenomenal in this episode. The shot of him screaming in a go-cart as the engine roars is chilling. When he returns home, his puffy red eyes and horrified soul-dead stare are raw as open wounds. Jesse was often comic relief in the earlier seasons, but now Paul really forces you to feel for him. How long can he last? If you were Gus, who has a long-standing policy against working with junkies, wouldn’t you off Jesse now that his life is spiraling out of control? How much does Gus really fear that he’d lose Walt?
Peril aside, the boys are just the backdrop for the ladies. Skyler’s getting wiser, but she’s still almost comically oblivious to how deep Walt’s corruption runs. “You got into a bar fight?!” Skyler yells, shocked after Walt tells her that he “had an argument with a co-worker.” She doesn’t know the half of it. Of course, neither did Walt when he started out, but Skyler seems like a very quick learner, though she trusts Walt too much. When she asks Walt to tell her when they’re in real danger, he says he will but says nothing of the current situation. Still, Skyler knows how to play Walt too. When he steers the discussion toward purchasing another car wash, she casually mentions that the owner accused Walt of not being “man enough to face him.” She knows Walt will help her go to war after that, and she’s right.
The environmental-impact ruse proves Skyler to be even more resourceful than previously imagined, as she reads legal citations to an actor over a Bluetooth earpiece. Motivated more by pride than logic, like Walt, she also proves herself to be a natural partner. She saves Walt by shooting down Saul’s most clownish ideas and is such a hard-nosed negotiator she makes Walt look like a bungling dweeb by comparison. This is quite a transition for Skyler, who, not so long ago, was disgusted by Walt. I’m not entirely buying her transformation — or her willful ignorance of how deep down the rabbit hole she’s going. Skyler’s embrace of Walt’s criminality was rooted in her panicked, desperate desire to provide for and protect both her and Marie’s families. Does she seem a bit too cool here? Walt’s transition from chemistry teacher to meth dealer was sudden, too, but do you buy Skyler’s turn to the dark side? Is the Champagne named after Winston Churchill a tribute to Skyler’s deal-making brinkmanship or a hint at her potential?
Marie has struggled and sacrificed to take care of Hank, but his injuries have inverted their caretaker relationship. He clearly can’t stand for her to see him that way and tries to maintain control by bitching about the fantasy-league football magazine she brings him, or whether he asked for Cheetos or Fritos. Still, Marie must care for him, and there’s nothing she can do to make Hank feel like he’s more of a man when he’s being mothered by his own wife. So perky Marie escapes their home. In Marie, Betsy Brandt has one of the toughest parts on the show: To play Marie is to play a fake and a bad liar. It’s sometimes hard to pick between Marie’s put-on persona and Brandt’s performance. But here, it’s clear that Marie is becoming unraveled and that her happy-go-lucky fakery is just papering over her distress over Hank.
At the open house, Marie lies and improvises, inventing fake names and children and husbands. She asks about the spoon collection on the wall, and as soon as the real-estate agent turns her back, she snags one (it’s missing when the agent turns back to hand Marie the pamphlet). Jittery and compulsive, Marie rattles open kitchen drawers, inspects silverware, and otherwise acts like a maniac as she trips over convoluted, unnecessary lies. Her ruse isn’t exactly subtle. Likely, on some subconscious level, Marie wants to be saved by Hank again because she understands that he needs to feel like he’s in control. After all, it’s only after Hank bails Marie out that he can focus on Gale’s Lab Notes file. If Hank applies half the obsessive attention to Gale’s notes about a “methamphetamine superlab” as he did to his precious collection of minerals, Gus, Walt, and Jesse may be in very big trouble.