‘Breaking Bad’ Season Four: “Shotgun” & “Cornered”

(Continuing my assessment of Breaking Bad‘s fourth season. Find the first installment here.)

5. “SHOTGUN”

“Walter!!”

That’s me, screaming at my TV set in fury at the end of “Shotgun,” which contains the most jaw-dropping “I can’t believe he just did that!” moment of the season to date. And it’s not a violent life-or-death situation, like when Walt let Jane die in Season Two or ran over Jesse’s nemesis in Season Three. It’s just Walt getting drunk and loose-lipped. But that’s what’s so good about this show — the most indelible moments are often the quietest, most everyday occurrences. (Or, sometimes, a plane crash.)

But before we get there, “Shotgun” gets off to an appropriately propulsive start with Walt driving recklessly through town in frantic pursuit of Jesse, whom he (and we) assume has been marked for death because he’s become a liability with his sloppiness. Obviously, we know Jesse’s not going to die in this episode (though, this being Breaking Bad, I guess anything is fair game), but there’s every reason to believe that whatever reason Mike has for taking him out to the desert, it’s not going to be for laughter and hugs. Will they scare Jesse straight? Torture him? Leave him to die? As befits Breaking Bad, none of the most obvious answers turn out to be the right ones. (Let me reiterate my mild disappointment with season premiere “Box Cutter” — it was one of very few moments of this show that I saw coming from a mile away. But bygones.)

We learn fairly early on that Mike isn’t planning to kill or even harm Jesse, though there’s some well-played tension before that reveal (especially when Mike stops the car and removes a shovel from the trunk, leaving Jesse to agonize over what he thinks is coming — but isn’t). It turns out Mike doesn’t even know why Gus wants Jesse to ride along (“shotgun” — get it?), but Jesse has had to confront his mortality anyway and we discover that his apathy from the past few episodes isn’t too deep-seeded. Jesse does care whether he lives or dies, and in fact, greatly prefers the former. Though from his typically obnoxious behavior in this episode (reminiscent of the Jesse of Season One), we sure bet Mike wishes he could kill him.

Meanwhile, big things are happening for Walt, too. First he goes to confront Gus one-on-one at Los Hermanos Pollos; it’s an all-balls, no-brains move, because Gus clearly has the upper hand. (Lucky for Walt, he’s not even there.) It’s a nail-biter, and a curious way to begin an episode that ends up taking its sweet time to get to the point. From that suspenseful opening, we expect major developments to unravel in “Shotgun,” and they do — but they happen on the domestic front, not the business end. Walt’s hasty “I love you” message to Skyler when he thinks he may not returns home winds up getting played at an awkward moment, leading Walt and Skyler to rekindle their love. (With sex.)

I can’t say I saw that coming. I was enjoying the new Walt/Skyler dynamic brought on by the car wash; I like seeing them getting along on some level, whether it’s romantically or not. I’m surprised the series put them back together so fast (one of several ways in which this episode feels like a season finale, only five episodes in). I’m not against it; I’d rather it be done this way than in a long, tedious “will they or won’t they?” tease. This show has more important matters on its mind, and on a character level, it makes sense. At this point, how would either Walt or Skyler find themselves in a romance with anyone else? It’s hard to imagine.

The simplicity of Walt’s desperation to save Jesse in the beginning is well-intended and feels like old Walt; so does his reunion with Skyler. It’s the second half of this episode that brings something darker and more complex to light. First, Gus comes up with a highly unconventional way to get Jesse back on track — by having him play the hero. It’s telling that it’s Gus, not Walt, who comes up with a brilliant, bloodless, psychology-based solution to this problem; Walt still isn’t aware that there was a problem. Walt should know Jesse better than anyone, but despite his willingness to risk his life to save him, he has completely misread the situation and failed to intervene before Gus had to. Sloppy, Walt. Very sloppy. Despite what we saw in “Box Cutter,” here we learn that Gus prefers more creative outs when they’re available, which makes me wonder if Jesse’s loyalties will be tested and he’ll be seduced into serving as Gus’ protege instead of Walt’s. Regardless, it’s just one of several ways Walt has fucked up this season. In fact, he’s done pretty much nothing else.

And on that note… “Walter!!”

The end of “Shotgun” is confounding and exasperating in the most compelling of ways. First, there’s an extraordinarily long sequence of Walt enjoying a glass of wine in the kitchen, away from the rest of his family. We get that he’s isolated from the others and needs a peaceable, inebriated moment to himself, especially after all the excitement earlier. But still — it goes on for a looong time. It’s only once Walt returns to the table and Hank mentions that he’s giving up the hunt for Heisenberg, the manufacturer of the perfect meth — he thinks it’s Gale, who’s now dead — that we understand just what a bad state Walt is in. Hank is about to end his hunt for the criminal who is right under his nose, but Walt can’t resist luring him back in. He suggests that Gale isn’t Heisenberg, and in fact is still out there.

Walter!!

I don’t for a second believe Walt is just drunk and slipping up. Breaking Bad is too complex a show for it to be that simple. On some level, at least, Walt knows exactly what he’s doing, like the serial killers who leave clues for the cops (in fiction, anyway), supposedly because they want to be caught. Does Walt? I imagine this stems from his guilt; he knows what he’s doing his wrong, and some lapsed desire for justice won’t let himself get away with all this. It’s a side of Walt I don’t think we’ve seen before — we’ve witnessed him fight and kill for self-preservation, but the self-destruction has always been incidental, not intentional. This is plain sabotage, pure and simple. There’s no reason for Walt to reveal this to Hank except, paradoxically, pride and shame — he wants “credit” for his brilliant meth, but also hates himself so much by now that he wants it to stop. Not at the hands of the bad guys, but at the hands of the good — because deep down, perhaps Walt’s moral compass is still pointing in the right direction, despite a number of deviations along the way.

Initially I thought the big deal at this dinner scene would be Skyler’s realization that Walt is involved with Gale’s death. That’s in there, too; the scene is a doozy all around, a turning point for Hank, Walt, and Skyler. At the end of “Shotgun,” I wanted to reach through the TV screen and clamp my hand over his mouth; instead, Walt has spoken, and I’ll just have to wait and see what the consequences will be.

Not good, I gather.

Grade: A

6. “CORNERED”

Well, Season Four, we aren’t wasting any time, are we?

It’s been said elsewhere that Breaking Bad is slow-paced — and that’s true, in a sense. It’s not Alias. On the one hand, the Gus and Walt showdown hasn’t seen a whole lot of action, and we only get glimpses at what’s going on with the cartel. Breaking Bad unfolds at the speed of life, where things take time to come to a head (but when it rains, it pours). But on the other hand, in nearly every episode I’ve been surprised by a major development I thought would take a span of several episodes to get around to, only to have Breaking Bad cut right to the chase.

“Cornered” begins almost exactly the same way as “Bullet Points,” except it’s not Mike in the back of the truck, so we suspect these two lackeys won’t be quite as efficient as getting out alive. (Correct.) From there, we deal directly with the fallout of Walt’s drunken rambling at Hank and Marie’s dinner table. I expected Skyler would quietly grapple with her suspicions for awhile, a la Carmela Soprano, maybe bring them out in a few episodes. Nope! Right away, she says what’s on her mind — suggesting a trip to the police station that we sure as hell know her hubby won’t go for — and Walt comes right out and tells her he’s a bad guy. Huh. All this time he’s been minimizing the damage, hiding as much as possible from Skyler, and now he’s gone out of his way to do just the opposite.

I thought I was being pretty astute in the analysis I did of “Shotgun,” but then Skyler and Walt came right out and said exactly what I did about his motivations. And I think I liked it better when they didn’t have to. “Cornered” feels like the episode that’s meant to catch less discerning viewers up on what the rest of us are already thinking; as such, a lot of the dialogue feels more on the nose than usual. I hate to complain about Breaking Bad, because at its worst, it’s still in the top 1% of all television ever. “Cornered” is far from a bad episode of television; it’s not even a bad episode of Breaking Bad. (I don’t think there has yet been such a thing.) It’s entertaining and moves a few key pieces of the plot forward. But I do think it spelled things out more broadly than was necessary. “Cornered” is about as subtle as the bright red sports car Walt buys for his son. Not at all.

“Cornered” contains two brilliant lines of dialogue sandwiching an episode that is otherwise frustrating. Walt tells his wife: “I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!” He’s essentially confessing to Gale’s murder right there, sending Skyler off on a vision quest to the “four corners” (“cornered” — get it?), where the fates tell her to get the hell out of dodge and move to Colorado. Naturally, Skyler decides not to listen. Maybe that’s not the best decision, but it’s not the worst one made in this episode. This episode should be called “Stupid Choices.” (Or maybe the entire series should be.)

Before getting to the truly egregious ones, let’s talk about Jesse, who is in the unlikely position of being cooler-headed and more professional than Walt this season (at least, now that he is presumably no longer hosting a 24/7 meth party). Walt begins questioning Gus’ reason for bringing Jesse on collections in the same way I did, except, again, I wonder if it was stated too bluntly. Walt may be right, but if Gus is trying to drive a wedge between the two, Walt’s actions are only lending Gus a helping hand in yanking Jesse over to the dark(er) side. Again, Walt has totally failed to understand Jesse’s psychology and is going about this in entirely the wrong way. In one of few touches that remain subtle this week, “Cornered” is all about Walt giving his real son a lavish gift that he really shouldn’t in order to get closer to him, while ignoring the much more pressing needs of his surrogate son, thus effectively driving him away. We know Walt cares about Jesse, as “Shotgun” made crystal (ha!) clear, but he’s doing a really shitty job of it at the moment.

Which is what makes Jesse’s storyline in “Cornered” crackle. Impatient Jesse can’t be bothered to wait with Mike as instructed, so he does something we think is pretty stupid and just walks into a potentially deadly situation, pretending to be an addict. (Well, not so much pretending.) We assume Jesse will get in trouble and Mike will come to the rescue, but Jesse’s stupid idea ends up working, more or less — to the extent that both Mike and Gus are pleased with how he handled himself. Score one more for Jesse. I also liked the little glimpse we got at Jesse in withdrawal, since I’d been wondering how he functions so well with all that recreational drug use. Unlike many, Jesse seems to be able to turn his addiction on and off. It was nice to see him facing some of the consequences.

On that note, Gus’ entrance into the diner in this episode was suitably chilling, highlighting how wonderfully this season has managed to make Fring — who, in Season Three, was more mysterious than menacing — a real A-plus threat. And if Walt is right about Gus’ motives, it doesn’t show — when Gus tells Jesse he sees potential in him, I believe it. (Though I don’t think that means Jesse is safe if Gus decides he’s no longer of use to him.)

But “Cornered” belongs to Walt, and that’s where it falters a bit. After wringing my hands and screaming “Walter!” at the TV in “Shotgun,” “Cornered” had me cringing and rolling my eyes. (There’s a fine line between a character doing something stupid brilliantly, and doing something stupid stupidly.) Last week’s self-destructive denouement was shocking and fantastic, but it also felt so true; I wasn’t so on board with these, which were just inexplicable. First Walt buys Walter Jr. a flashy car this after Skyler freaked out about indulging in one bottle of expensive champagne. In one sense, Walt is being petty, trying to buy his son’s love, while at the same time getting back at Skyler for walking out on him. Except, as Skyler points out later, this is a colossally dim-witted move I have a hard time accepting from Walt  he’s totally unraveling. He mocks Skyler when she suggests he secretly wants Hank to catch him (as I also surmised), but what other result is possible with this car added into the mix? He’s all but begging to be found out.

Which brings us to Stupid Walt Decision #2 — he lets some Honduran maids in to clean his meth lab. He’s obviously doing it to rile Gus — then he’s surprised when it works, which results in three nice ladies getting deported. (Better than killed, at least.) What did he expect? Does he think he can let anyone walk in and out of Gus’ lab and there won’t be consequences? Where is careful Walt from the first three seasons, who agonized over every decision he made and always came out just a fraction ahead?

“A boss needs to be tough,” Walt’s former employer tells him as he passes off the keys to the car wash. (Another moment I felt was hammered home too squarely.) Walt wants to believe he is, but he’s never been softer, stupider, or less sure of himself. He tries to bargain for the Honduran women; he’s taking Walter Jr.’s car back. He makes brash decisions but then can’t stick with them. But I find this more fascinating and complex and involving to think about now than I did while Walt was making these moves.

Like I said, “Cornered” was too obvious for me to savor the way I enjoyed the past few episodes, though not actively “bad” or totally unbelievable. If Walt making incredibly poor choices is a part of his character arc, then maybe it all makes sense. But it may just be too stupid too fast. In “Cornered,” he’s just one disaster after another, making such rookie mistakes you’d think he’d be well past by now — which may be the point, but I didn’t enjoy watching Walt bumble through this episode. At the end of “Thirty-Eight Snub,” I was gritting my teeth as Walt naively walked toward Gus’ house, knowing this was a much-too-conspicuous attack; and last week: “Walter!!” “Cornered,” on the other hand, didn’t really add much to what I’d already gleaned after that gripping closing to “Shotgun.” Coupled with that on-the-nose dialogue, it felt more like weak writing than intentional frustration.

Skyler, on the other hand, is on top of the ball. “Someone needs to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” is her final, biting line, which leaves me curious as to just what lengths she’ll go if Walt continues down this path toward getting caught or killed. Just a few episodes ago, it was Jesse careening toward self-destruction, but Walt’s self-paved road to hell is less direct and all the more damning for it. It’s hard to see such an easy out for Walt as Gus managed to find for Jesse.

Grade: B-

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