All season, the characters in Breaking Bad have been trying to accept dire circumstances. Hank, forced to adjust to his disability. Skyler, forced to learn the trade of a white-collar criminal both as a means of profiting off her husband's career and of maintaining an illusion of order. Gus, forced to put up with his lunatic meth chef until he can scrounge up another Plan B.
Jesse, on the other hand, wants no part of acceptance—not his own, and not that of others. His loyalty may be fractured by the competing pull of Walt’s ingrained paternalism and Gus’s avuncular encouragement—on some level, Jesse must know how cynical both tactics are—but whichever way he turns he finds someone who thinks nothing of asking him to kill again. Jesse’s sick with guilt, driven to re-enact his crime via a sensory-assaulting video game in some sort of warped PTSD coping strategy (another in a line of firearm-centric cold opens this season). But everywhere he turns, he finds the source of that guilt being rewarded, valued.
So in another 180-degree reversal of typically healthy behavior, he returns to the addict support group seeking not acceptance but punishment. The group leader emphasizes “no judgment,” but judgment is precisely what Jesse craves, and feels he deserves: “If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean?” It’s a gripping performance from Aaron Paul, teetering on the edge of countless scrambled emotions without quite succumbing to any of them. As is the cold open, where he looks like he’s straining to physically burst out of his own skin just to escape his pain. The episode might as well have come with “Emmy submission reel” stamped on the front.
When we first met Jesse Pinkman, he had mastered the life of the small-time hood, content to coast through life on drugs, nihilism, and some ill-gotten profits. Four years later, he’s the only characters on Breaking Bad who remains remotely troubled by the evil he’s allowed in, and who isn’t lying to himself about it. Which is why we desperately want some small measure of redemption for Jesse, if no one else, by the end of the series. It’s taken him slowly, violently losing his soul for him to discover he even had one.
Hank, too, has come a long way in our eyes since his beginnings as a jolly lout. In season one, he sometimes came across as a caricature of TV-law-enforcement machismo. His skill as a detective has since emerged several times, but never more satisfyingly than this week in a pair of masterful tricks of investigative judo. At first blush, Hank gives the impression of being, well, a bit dim. But like a burly, foul-mouthed Columbo, he uses people's underestimation to his advantage.
First he soaks up Gus’s overly-ingratiating customer service (and his “friend to law enforcement” persona), only to flip it against the Chicken Man by cannily procuring a key piece of evidence. Then, regaling his former DEA colleagues with his elaborate theory of the Gus-Heisenberg connection, he allows them to dismiss it as the sort of wide-eyed nuttery he knows it’ll sound like…before dropping the aforementioned key piece of evidence on them. As Saul would say the kids would say: Epic ownage.
As for the unflappable Chicken Man, he’s under the gun for the first time, facing an unknown threat to go along with the known threat of the cartel. Hank is so close to breaking a major part of his longtime case that the show, at this point, needs to give him some kind of notch on his belt, in order to keep the character a credible threat through the final season. Is it conceivable that the quiet proprietor of Los Pollos Hermanos might not make it to the end of this story? And if so, could that mean a promotion for Heisenberg?
- The man can wreck a car in a vacant parking lot. Such is the immense destructive capacity of Walter White, Sr.
- In my Justified reviews, I include a regular "Raylan Givens Badassery of the Week." For Breaking Bad, I may have to start including "Walter White's Assholery of the Week." Destroying the sports car would have claimed that honor hands down this week, if not for a few minutes later when he invokes Andrea's dead brother in his guilt trip of Jesse. Cold. Blooded.
- Speaking of Justified, when Jere Burns popped up again this week as the head of the support group, I was momentarily freaked the hell out before I realized that he is not, in fact, Wynn Duffy when he's in the ABQ.
- “No, I’m sure he’ll see me.”
- “That’s what the kids call: epic fail.”
- “How close were you to him?” “Closer than you and me right now.”
- “Please. One homicidal maniac at a time.”
- “If I had to put it in a word, I’d guess, loyalty… Only maybe you’ve got it for the wrong guy.”
Filed under: Breaking Bad