This post contains spoilers through the Sept. 11 episode of Breaking Bad, Bug.
One of my relatives always wears the same kinds of shoes that Walter White wears, those ultimate Dad shoes, and so there was something particularly shocking about the sight of blood on them tonight. Breaking Bad can be precious — I was supremely irritated by both the teddy bear in the pool and the absurdity of the second-season events that lead up to it — but tonight, the episode was both a masterwork of the menace of the everyday, and proof of deeply impressive long-range planning.
We’ve all seen a reckoning stalking towards Walt, but I’m not sure I saw anything coming for Skyler. It would have been enough if Ted was Skyler’s revenge affair, the weak man she took up with when her husband went through the first stage of his increasingly unnerving transformation. But there’s something magnificent about his reappearance at the moment when she’s faking transactions to launder drug money, down to the level of a faux-cheery, “Thank you. Please give this to your car care professional,” with every faked receipt. The man who gave her the respite from her husband when she needed it and the skills to join Walt’s criminal enterprise is now reaching out to pull her back to — and down with — him.
From the show’s perspective, there’s always been something pathetic about Skyler’s optimism, and tonight’s episode emphasized that more than ever. When she calls Walt to tell him “Business is good. Really good. So good I’m thinking maybe you don’t even need to work your second job….All of this to say maybe you could start thinking about an exit strategy?” we know that he has no intent of extricating himself. Quite the reverse, he’s continuing to work towards Gus’ murder, or rather, always the coward, to hope that Jesse is working toward’s Gus’ murder. There’s even an innocence in what she thinks of as her schemes. There’s a stroke of genius in her Bookkeeper Erin Brockovich routine, the flashy gold jewelry, the exposed bra and expanse of bosom, the girlish way she tells the IRS auditor out for Ted’s head that “When I input everything into the Quicken, nothing flashed red, so that’s got to mean everything’s okay, right?…It is the best, it’s like having a calculator on your computer, right?” when she tells him she’s not managing accounts at other businesses, “I’m a cashier at a car wash.” She doesn’t imagine a scenario where Ted can’t extricate himself from his fraud, just as she can’t imagine that Walt won’t give up being a kingpin for her. Her world is so much smaller and less terrible than the one Vince Gilligan forces us to acknowledge every week.
But what’s interesting about this episode is that it doesn’t quite reward Walt’s dark vision either, the one where he is a visionary and Jesse is his pawn. Jesse is too decent to kill Gus, he still believes in a world where he, Walt, and their deadly employer all can live. There’s something moving about his panic attack after Gus announces that he intends to ship Jesse to Mexico to teach the cartel to cook blue in exchange for an end to the war, a decision he reached after an attack that was one of the best-choreographed action sequences I’ve ever seen on television.
“What if I go to the jungle or whatever? And say they got actual chemists, like cartel chemists, asking me chemistry stuff that I don’t know how to answer because I’m not you?” Jesse asks, breathless, for a moment the same kid who declared “Yay Mr. White! Yay science!” all those episodes ago, all those months before the fall. “And what if all the equipment is in Mexican instead of English? You know, I don’t know, I don’t know. If I mess this up, I am dead. All of us. Mr. White. Look, I need your help. Maybe you could coach me or something. Or you can give me some notes. Mr. White?”
But Walt is not the same man. He is, I think, irredeemable. And instead of trying to work towards a solution, he attacks Jesse for deviating from his plan, spitting at him “You killed me is what you’ve done. You’ve signed my death warrant. And now you want advice? I’ll give you advice. Go to Mexico and screw up like I know you will, and end up in a barrel somewhere.” How fast our allies, our dark Virgils, become our bitterest enemies. When Jesse throws Walt out of the home that he destroyed, rebuilt, and that Walt’s wrecked again, telling him, “Can you walk? They get the fuck out of here and never come back,” we know Jesse sees Walt more clearly than anyone else on the show, the stunted but still capable thing his one-time employer has become. Whether that clarity will save Jesse, or anyone else, from Walt. But then, it might not be Walt who knocks. Mr. White’s been certain about death, but it seems that he, and Skyler, have forgotten about the certainty of taxes.