This post contains spoilers through the Sept. 18 episode of Breaking Bad. And are they ever spoilers.
Before I get to the more general discussion of this week’s episode, can I just say one word? Wow.
OK, let’s proceed. Breaking Bad is a lot like life as most of us experience it: mostly drab, intercut with occasional vivid, almost hallucinatory moments of extreme emotion. And this episode was at the extremes of both of those tendencies as Walt, his sheets stuck to his face by blood from his fight with Jesse, forgets Walter Junior’s birthday and fakes his way through a confession of gambling; Skyler has it out with Ted after her attempt to finance his way out of IRS debt goes horribly wrong; and then, holy God, in a bravura sequence, Gus assassinates the entire cartel — and maybe takes himself out in the process.
I’m assuming at this point that Walt’s cancer is back. After getting his PT Cruiser, the world’s biggest disappointment after the sports car Walt burned to the ground, Walter Junior drives over to his father’s condo and threatens to call 911 if he won’t answer the door. Father and son have a depressing sleepover (including a season-one flashback to Walt’s tighty-whities) after which Walt attempts to make things better by talking to Walter Junior about his experiences with his own father. “There was nothing in him,” he says of the man he knows only through others’ reminiscences. “Anyway. That is the only real memory that I have of my father. I don’t want you to think of me the way I was last night. I don’t want that to be the memory you have of me when I’m gone.” It’s hard to imagine that Walt would get this contemplative unless he was seriously considering his own end.
In an awful moment, though, Walter Junior tells his father that “The bad way to remember you would be the way you’ve been this whole last year. At least last night you were real, you know?” Except it’s hard to believe that Walt’s tears the night before were genuine contrition for the way he’s messed things up with Jesse. We know Walt deserves everything he’s getting. But I don’t know that Walt does.
Then, there’s the matter of Skyler, who did what we all knew she would do, making the assumption we all knew she would make, and thinking that of course Ted would move to pay back the IRS, gives him the money through a fake Luxemborgian aunt. Saul, bless him, runs Ted’s credit reports and finds out he’s raced to the Mercedes dealership rather than the government, and far from begging for mercy, is giving himself a gift and justifying it by telling Skyler that he has to look good to get the business up and running again. “Well, my priority is getting my business back and putting my employees back on the payroll so they can pay their mortgages,” he pontificates. And just as Walt can’t resist nudging Hank to consider if there’s another genius he should be looking out for, Skyler can’t resist telling Ted where his money came from.
Then, there’s Mike, Gus, and Jesse’s trip down Mexico way, which in some way is the showiest, most obvious part of the episode, but still manages to be beautifully, luridly realized. Jesse’s terrified about his lack of expertise during the cook, but he pulls it off beautifully, producing at a purity that immediately dethrones Don Eladio’s handler. His reward is the news that he’s been sold to the cartel, a prospect that terrifies him, though Mike promises, “Either we’re all going home or none of us are.” In a way, what this sequence tells us most about is Mike’s relationship to Gus. He goes South with him fully prepared to commit mass murder or to die terribly, and he does so with astonishing composure. Jesse’s certainly the Breaking Bad character I’m most invested in, but I might be most interested in Mike.
And while this may be a horrible thing to say, the whole assassination sequence is just delightful. Jesse gets literally flattened into smoking a Cuban cigar. Gus very calmly goes to the bathroom to make himself vomit up the poisoned tequila, stepping over a stupid henchman’s body on the way. Girls in colorful heels and tiny bikinis run for luxury cars trailing bills that flutter in the breeze. And Jesse finally shows his spurs in a situation that’s neither a setup nor the cause of a moral crisis. Gus’ triumph is Jesse’s tragedy, his full emergence as a professional killer, a man who’s fit to pick up Mike when he’s fallen.
My friend Seth Colter Walls points out to me that of the people who wanted to kill by poison this season, only Gus was willing to commit his body to the task. I also think this lends credence to some people’s theory that Gus’s original Pollos Hermanos partner was also his lover. He’s willing to die to kill the people who killed him.
And another thought I had last night: what does this mean for the Mexican meth market? The cartel’s business isn’t just going to disappear because Don Eladio has. Is Gus going to run it all from Albuquerque? That seems like a scale that will be hard to keep low-profile.