This post contains spoilers through the Aug. 14 episode of Breaking Bad.
For an episode without a lot of dialogue, a lot happened in the world of Breaking Bad this week. I don’t know that this was my favorite episode this season — I go back and forth between “38 Snub” and “Bullet Points” — but it’s part of a trend of the show picking up momentum and filling in continuity and plausibility holes in a way I find really gratifying.
This week started with Walt in one kind of panic and ended with him in another. With Jesse missing, he careened down the street, telling Saul breathlessly “Every dollar. If you don’t hear from me in 24 hours, I want you to give her every last dollar. I don’t care if you have to stuff it trash bags, just make sure she gets everything.” But once the danger’s gone, and he and Skylar have celebrated their purchase of the car wash by sleeping together, an event that’s prompted by Walt’s phone message telling Skylar he loves her, it’s as if another kind of noose is tightening on him. Skylar tells Walter Jr., though not Walt, that he’ll be moving back in on Tuesday. She’s designed the narrative that they’re using to explain their sudden riches to Hank, Marie, and the world. It’s as if Skylar’s embrace of their charade is a little too enthusiastic. Walt may tell himself and Skylar that by cooking meth, he’s providing for his family, but I’m not sure he’s comfortable with his family taking on its old shape and its old dynamics. It’s not just Skylar who’s changed, it’s Walter Jr., who comes down for breakfast and asks him for coffee instead of orange juice. “I didn’t know you started drinking coffee,” Walt tells his son, who he’s been distant from since he started cooking. “I also started tying my own shoelaces too, all by myself,” Walter Jr. tells his dad. When Walt left his family to go off into the unknown and start cooking, he assumed everything would be the same. But now that he’s back, Walt may be providing for his family but he’s not in control of it.
And that need for control of something, if not his family, his narrative, may prove to be Walt’s undoing. When Hank tells the families over dinner about his work on Gale’s murder, Walt can’t resist telling him that his evil genius might not be dead. “If he’d applied that big brain of his to something good, I don’t know, who knows what he could’ve, he could’ve helped humanity,” Hank muses about the man he thinks is Gale, who is actually Walt. “I mean how many actual geniuses are there in the world? If he could have taken his life in a different direction, who knows.” Such a direct cut at the fact that Walt could have avoided blowing things up with Grey Matter, that he could have found his way to something other than teaching before he found his way to meth, is a narrative Walt can’t let stand. “Hank, not to tell me your business, but I’m not sure I agree…from what I saw on the papers, genius? Not so much,” he says. “All this genius looks like rote copying of someone else’s work…This genius of yours, maybe he’s still out there.”
Walt’s loss of control is evident not just at home but at the lab. With Jesse gone, Walt starts making mistakes on the part of the cook he isn’t familiar with, like moving barrels with a forklift without dropping them, and he’s haunted by the surveillance Gus has him under, whether in the lab or at Los Pollos Hermanos. “It’s unacceptable,” he ranted at the goon Gus sent to help him. “It’s dangerous, and it’s counterproductive. Jesse operates the forklift, not me.” Walt is going to great lengths to justify his need for an assistant, but he doesn’t particularly have a case for why that assistant should be Jesse — and he doesn’t have a sense that Jesse might be capable of other things, too.
Jesse’s road trip with Mike was my favorite part of the episode, and I like what it portends for the future of the show. If Walt has been Jesse’s dysfunctional, emotionally abusive father, Mike has the quality of a frustrated uncle out for a drive with his wayward nephew. He doesn’t want Jesse to smoke in the car, he grabs Jesse’s phone out of the air when he starts flipping it around, he glares at him when Jesse uses the seatbelt as a blindfold, and he snaps at him, when Jesse gets pretentious to actual functionality, “you are not the guy. You’re not capable of being the guy. I had a guy but now I don’t. You are not the guy.” Except when, in a plot that turns out to have been orchestrated by Gus to test his confidence or to give it to him, Jesse steps up. When he sees a man with a shotgun advancing in his rearview mirror, he slides into the driver’s seat and engineers his and Mike’s escape. It’s still not clear what Gus wants Jesse to feel, or to become, but as Hank takes his first step towards finding a mastermind in his labyrinth with the discovery of the Los Pollos Hermanos flyer and the question “Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?” Gus is engineering dynamic changes of his own.