This post contains spoilers through the Aug. 7 episode of Breaking Bad.
I’ve learned a lot of things about being a criminal from Breaking Bad, including “bring extra water if you’re going into the desert to cook meth,” and “you probably can’t maintain an addict’s sobriety if you’re going to put him in proximity to a large meth cooking operation.” Tonight’s lessons: don’t bring a machine gun to a fight with a man wearing a snow suit and with a considerable tolerance for pain, and your own karaoke performance of “Major Tom” is probably not actually the thing you want to leave for posterity. But in addition to those lessons (and the show’s Yglesias-friendly case for relaxing barbering regulations so Jesse can find alternate, if less lucrative, employment), this was, to me, the best episode this season in the way it pushed the awful emotional and plot momentum of the show forward.
The linchpin of these developments was Skylar’s decision to force Walt to deliver a plausible version of a story in which he won enough money gambling to buy the car wash — and secretly, so far, pay for Hank’s physical therapy (As Skylar tells Walt about Marie’s decision to keep their secret, “I seem to recall you’d rather sell drugs than take help.”). It’s a good remedy to the plausibility problems of the previous episode (though presumably Walt has to gamble somewhere — they’re not that good at thinking this through yet), and more importantly, it lets Walt and Skylar have it out over the terms in which Walt’s willing to apologize to Skylar for the events of the previous three seasons. “‘I’m terribly, terribly ashamed of my actions,’” Walt asks, reading through the script she’s written for him. “Two terriblies?” “It’s supposed to show contrition,” she snaps back, only to have Walt fall back on the same excuse he always falls back on “And why am I so ashamed?…I was, and am, providing for our family.” But Skylar’s ready to speak the brutal truth about her husband, and what it means to her to concoct this narrative, telling her husband: “For a fired school teacher who cooks crystal meth, I’d say you come out ahead.”
It’s a wrenching scene, but also a very funny one about how people write the fictions of their own lives. “We want to tell you the whole story,” Skylar tries out her lines on Walt. “It’s a doozy: so hang onto your hats.” Walt wants to rewrite his apology so he won’t have to say he’s terribly sorry, but he ends up reading Skylar’s lines, taking her cues, looking at the floor: he can’t resist the force of her more cinematic narrative, even as it forces him to confront emotional realities he’d prefer to justify away. Even in Saul’s office, Walt’s trying to differentiate himself from the people around him. “When did this stop being a business?” he demands. “Why am I the only person capable of behaving in a professional manner?”
But he’s not behaving in a professional manner. He’s acting like a crazy person, someone who rifles through his brother-in-law’s case files and only dumb luck gives him an excuse for leaving his finger prints all over them. When Hank points out that Gale’s file is dedicated to W.W., asking “Who do you figure that is? Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?” Walt bluffs through it, pointing out a Wordsworth poem in the floatsam and jetsam. In that moment, Hank jollies himself through about Walt’s superior intellect, calling him “you frickin’ brainiac. I must have skipped that day in school or something.” But the most emotionally interesting moment in the episode comes earlier in that awkward visit to Hank and Marie, when Hank’s explaining one of his minerals to Walter Jr., and Walt steals his thunder, giving a superior explanation of the chemistry. It’s poisonous, an example of Walt’s fatal, obsessive need to be utterly correct and confirmed in his correctness, and oh does it mean there will be a certain amount of satisfaction if Hank does manage to bring his condescending brother-in-law down.
And speaking of wrenching house visits, I wonder where Mike and Jesse are going on their road trip. It’s hard to believe that Jesse would be killed before the show ends, though episodes like this do demonstrate that a fully emotionally realized version of the show can exist essentially without him — but he’s not wearing a blindfold. As Mike points out, Jesse seems to see his world pretty clearly, and it’s not evident to Mike that Jesse sees something out there to live for.