Breaking Bad: "Salud"

Think back to when we first met Walter White. Before meth and ricin, before the porkpie hat and the Aztec, before Tuco and Jane and Gale. What first drew us to invest in Walter White, to root for his success, wasn’t any particular nobility or skill or charisma; it was his frailty. Life was straight-up wrecking this man. The sins we’ve watched him nurture, watched fester, watched atrophy everyone around him—every one of those sins has grown out of the self-loathing that resulted from that pitiful stretch of existence.

Could it have gone another way? Watching his utter breakdown in “Salud,” you can’t help but wonder, even after a season of near-constant vile behavior. He’s wondering himself, with the accumulated guilt of his year-plus (in the show’s timeline) as a violent criminal leaking out through the cracks left by his confrontation with Jesse. Indirectly confessing to his biological son the sins he visited on his surrogate one, he finally admits (if only for a moment) that he’s never actually overcome his central weakness of character. Instead it’s been masquerading as strength, driving his pathological need for control, his hubris, his misplaced rage, every rotten decision he’s made. The question is, is Walter White capable of doing anything with this bit of self-awareness?

Walter pouring out his soul tapped into a reserve of sympathy for the man that I didn’t realize I still had. It’s of course a huge testimony to Bryan Cranston, as if we had any doubt that he’s one of the most devastatingly precise screen actors on the planet. But in addition, the scene twists the knife in the audience by showing it to us through the still-innocent eyes of Walter, Jr. The poor kid is in for a world of hurt sometime soon, and every ounce of it will be his father’s own fault. At the moment, though, all we see is a young man ready to start paying back a parent for all those years of protection and care. It’s a powerful, heartbreaking scene, and all credit to RJ Mitte, writers Gennifer Hutchison and Peter Gould, and director Michelle MacLaren, along with Mr. Triple-Emmy.

In light of his old partner’s rapid erosion, Jesse’s decision to hitch his wagon to the Chicken Man’s van is looking smarter and smarter. Sure, it gets him into some hot water down Mexico way, where he’s aghast to learn that the cartel doesn’t want him as a meth-cooking instructor so much as a meth-cooking indentured servant. But with Gus in the lead and Mike covering his rear, Jesse’s able to to find depths of strength and intelligence that he doesn’t always realize he has. Last week, my friend Julia and I talked in the comments about how Jesse’s self-perception is so strongly influenced by who he’s interacting with. Around his paternalistic but ever-belittling chemistry teacher, he reverts to a hapless student. Around Gus and Mike, he can envision himself as the hardened, capable criminal they’re molding him to be.

Just look at the way he takes charge in the lab, reading the posturing of the cartel’s head chemist despite the language barrier, and improvising an effective (and damn entertaining) burst of bravado to establish the upper hand. If Jesse’s more used to playing down to his competition, he’s equally capable of playing up to it.

Hello....helloooo....helloooooo.... HELLO!

While Jesse gets to steal a scene, and to come through during the the getaway, the Mexico field trip is Gus Fring’s show from start to finish. Everything you need to know about the man is summed up in Don Eladio’s bathroom. Knowing he’s moments away from a quick and ugly death, Gus still moves with unflappably proper precision to prepare for his life-saving purge. (Folding his clothes so primly was a nice callback to his box-cutter coup de grace in the season opener.) That is the mark of a man with the nerves of titanium needed to orchestrate a revenge/mass murder plan that involves calmly swallowing a shot of poison. Last week I mentioned how Walter’s immorality didn’t grate on me this year nearly as much as his futility. Well, Gus is no moral paragon, but he’s the epitome of getting shit done—and that is fun to watch.

This is why I adore Breaking Bad so consistently. For every warm yet fatalistic moment, like Junior helping Senior stoke a dying ember of his humanity, it also delivers a pulse-pounding set-piece that compels you to cheer on a trio of stone cold bad guys. After the series resolves itself in whatever bleak and bloody way it shall, I hope Gus, Mike, and Jesse are still around to load up a Los Pollos Hermanos delivery van and hire themselves out as good-humored mercenaries.

On the domestic front, I must add a quick word about how much I’m enjoying Anna Gunn’s recent scenes dealing with the shambling tower of ineptitude that is Ted Beneke. She’s so great at choking back all of Skyler’s palpable rage with this oily buffoon who she somehow once viewed as a savior of sorts. Every second in his presence is a rare moment when Skyler has all the power, and is just barely able to not to unleash all the fear and hate and anxiety that’s been building up for months onto this very deserving and very harmless target. And her scheme to slip the doofus enough money to get the IRS off both their backs was worth the price of admission for generating some terrific Saul Goodman exasperation.

A terrific episode from start to finish, and probably my favorite of the season so far.

Other notes: 

  • A car AND breakfast? That scene is the Platonic ideal of Walt Jr.
  • “Who’s the chemist?”
  • “So you understand what asshole means.”
  • “Celebrities have to get their cars washed just like everybody else.”
  • “I promise you this: Either we’re all going home, or none of us are.” Seriously, you wouldn’t rather have Mike on your side than Walter at this point?

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