“I am not in danger, Skyler, I am the danger,” Walt growls, in an electric shock of a scene that likely marks the beginning of a new phase of Breaking Bad. If this show has been the story of Walt’s deliberate, step-by-step descent into the bottom of some bleak moral valley, this is him charging madly downhill into darkness. “A guy opens his door and gets shot, you think that of me? No, I am the one who knocks.”
Damn. Did that scene freak everyone else out? Vince Gilligan has said this show is his grand experiment to see if he can “take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.” So one of the big questions hovering over this series has been: Can Gilligan really pull that off? How can Walt, schoolteacher with cancer (as Skyler notes/taunts), ever become a real Scarface-style crime boss? I’ve never thought the show would actually push Walt that far — but now that there are only 23 episodes left before the series ends (seven this season, then just sixteen more, per AMC), it seems like Gilligan is going for it.
Until now, it’s been easy to imagine Walt as a small-time player, a great meth cook, or even as Gus’s partner. But a crime boss? Sure, Walt has always had that perfectionist stick-to-it-iveness, but he’s never shown the kind of bloodthirsty, at-all-costs ambition and asshole egotism that generally motivates your common Godfather or kingpin. He’s always felt like an ambitious man in over his head. He hasn’t seemed like a flat-out, delusional, violent sociopath. Until this episode.
This week, madly screaming with ego-mad delusion that “all of this is about me,” it’s as if he’s checking off every psych-profile box for a diagnosis of sociopath: failure to conform to social norms (ha!); deception (lying about Gale); impulsiveness (dooming the Honduran women); aggressiveness (threatening Skyler); reckless disregard for safety of self (taunting Gus); callous unconcern for the feelings of others (berating Jesse); lack of remorse (that speech to Skyler). At the beginning of season one, Walt seemed nothing like Tony Soprano, who received a sociopathic personality disorder diagnosis from Dr. Melfi. Now he does.
The question is: Do you buy this transformation? For the most part, I do, since the show has tweaked Walt’s personality so gradually and deliberately, and since Walt is still that bungling, impulsive, error-prone, and panicked idiot he was in the series premiere, dancing about in his underwear by the side of the road. The show’s pushed him further into the darkness without making him too cool: At least Gilligan isn’t setting out to dress him up in a white suit on some Miami veranda. Walt’s tragic, but he’s also an utter mess. Still, one difference between Tony and Walt — and what has made his transition so difficult to buy on some basic level — is that we don’t have any sense that this behavior dates back to his youth. Maybe, as the series moves forward, we’ll get a better since of how he got here.
Whatever happens, this seems to be the episode in which Walt reaches for the brass ring — of car wash keys, at least. He declares himself the “one who knocks” just as he takes over the spray-and-wash business. “Being boss is tough,” Bogdan tells him. “You think you ready? … The real important thing is to be tough.” When Walt smashes the framed dollar bill and buys a Coke, it’s such an unnecessary act of pitiless, petty tyrannicalness, that it seems as if Walt might be tough enough to apply Bogdan’s lessons to his secret life too. Say Gus gets offed by the Mexican cartel: After this episode, it seems plausible, for the first time, that Walt could take over the business himself, perhaps with Mike and Jesse as his right and left hands, and Skyler tempering his most intemperate impulses.
“Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” Skyler says — and it’s only after her (honestly, overly dramatic, strangely on the nose) coin-tossing deliberation at the Four Corners has led her to decide to stick by her man, yet again. Skyler has seemingly made another deal with herself to go in deeper. She pushed Walt’s buttons by telling him that he was “not some hardened criminal,” that he was just some schoolteacher with cancer, in over his head — and she must have known it would provoke him. Walt’s hooked on that feeling of power, addicted to his own mojo, and while that drive makes him powerful, he’s been making terrible decisions, like buying off his son with that Dodge Challenger. She senses that he needs someone on his side to back him up. As this episode stresses, backup is very important.
In the stone-cold open, three Mexican badasses — twice as frightening because they have hair on their heads, unlike everyone else on Breaking Bald — snack on apples and potato chips while listening to Gus’s gunmen suffocate on exhaust fumes. Those two men die because they’re stuck in the truck alone, with nobody around to give them backup. And everybody needs backup, says Jesse, explaining to Walt why Mike needs him. Mike, interestingly enough, has Jesse’s back when the methhead seems like he might blow a hole in Jesse’s head — and maybe that’s a sign that they’ll be a good team and develop a bond that’s not entirely faked. Still, Mike is foremost watching Gus’s back, offering to take on the Mexican cartel.
Other crime dramas are about sprawling syndicates and families — that huge cast of kids working the corners in The Wire or the vast pasta-eating families of every mob drama. But Breaking Bad has been a more atomized, post-mob story, in which isolated people (like Gale, who had no backup) become very vulnerable. Jesse appears to be the most at-risk now, but his character’s craving for some connection is only becoming more interesting in light of his work with Mike. Rejected by his parents, he’s the classic kid who joins a gang because he doesn’t have a strong father figure at home. He’s always craved Walt’s approval. Now it seems like he needs Gus’s validation, too. Jesse’s character is defined by his unpredictable intelligence, though, so you can imagine that Walt’s ego-mad theory — that Jesse’s being played — might sink in on some level. But Walt isn’t looking out for Jesse. “It’s all about me,” he bleats. Jesse’s growing bond with Mike suggests it might not be.
This was one of my favorite episodes of the series, in large part because of the stand-out, go-for-it stand-alone scenes: guys-in-the-truck part deux; Walt’s rant; and that strange scene with Jesse and the shovel. Mike may know all that detective sit-in-the-car stuff, but Jesse says, “I know methheads.” He grabs a shovel, starts digging a hole, and the user can’t fight his curiosity. So he starts digging for him. I can’t help but feel that there’s a metaphor in there for cultish TV fandoms like this one. “What’s in there?” asks the fan, and the showrunner replies, “You know.” The mystery is so irresistible and the showrunner so convincing that the fan nods along, trusting that there’s something good down there, somewhere. So the fan picks up the shovel and and starts digging, on blind faith. With this episode of Breaking Bad, the show goes much deeper. But is there anything down there? If so, will we like what we discover?