This post contains spoilers through the Sept. 25 episode of Breaking Bad, “Crawl Space.”
It was almost impossible to imagine how Breaking Bad would up the ante after Gus decimated the cartel at the possible cost of his and Mike’s lives. But this episode was, if anything, operating at a higher key for a longer time. And in both its range of emotions and cinematography, “Crawl Space” is one of the most movie-like episodes of television I’ve ever seen, particularly in its exploration of two key themes: the darkness of Gus’ full emergence as supervillain, and the dark, terrible humor of Ted’s death.
We’ve always known that Gus was a mastermind. But there’s something interesting about the show’s decision to kick his deviousness up a notch, to show us that not only is he capable of taking out an entire cartel via poison, but that he has a full-on medical lab standing by, including enough blood to save Jesse, Mike, and himself under any circumstances. The man knows Jesse as Jesse doesn’t even know himself, down to Jesse’s blood type. It’s impressive, but it’s also fairly terrifying. As is the fact that he gets up from a poisoning to tell Jesse, “There are many good ways south. Unfortunately, only one good way North. It’s six miles to Texas. I have a man there,” and starts walking back to America. The coldness of that confidence, the conviction that he won’t get caught walking back into the country, is startling. He can’t be killed by drugs or constrained by borders, Chilean, American, or otherwise. There’s a real power in that, a non-white immigrant who is essentially unafraid of the law, who’s even tamed the very institutions that might shut him down for being not just a drug dealer but a drug dealer who hides behind the facade of American small business to peddle a wily and destructively addictive drug.
It doesn’t, however, mean he’s immune from gloating. And in two monologues, he defines his reach, sets his own boundaries. First, he delivers Don Eladio’s pendant to Don Salamanca, explaining that he’s destroyed Don Salamanca’s entire family in retaliation for that killing all those years ago. And he gives some of the credit to Jesse, explaining that “This young man. Do you remember him? That young man shot Joaquim to death while I made my escape. I believe you have met him before. It was just you and Joaquim. He was the only family you had left. Now, the Salamanca name dies with you. Will you look at me now? Look at me, Hector. Look at me.” There’s an impressive cruelty in that (and some very impressive acting by Mark Margolis, who shows us every ounce of the pain he’s feeling without uttering a word).
And it’s impressive to see the show, after several weeks of building up Gus as a sympathetic character, remind us of who he is. Because we’ve been so fully reminded of Walt’s weakness, it’s thrilling to watch these two repellent men go head-to-head with each other as a cloud casts a shadow over the New Mexican desert in an effect that feels totally over-the-top and simultaneously totally earned. “Stay away from Pinkman, or else you’ll do what?” Walt spits at Gus, fueled by contempt and perhaps a mad hope that bravado will save him. “Kill me? If you could kill me, I’d already be dead. But you can’t. You can’t kill me. Because Jesse wouldn’t cook for you if you did. That’s it, isn’t it? No matter how hard you try to turn him against me, to screw with his head so that he would hate my guts, and he still won’t let you do it.” And Gus responds with extreme confidence, warning Walt that his reprieve is only temporary, especially in the face of Gus’s infinite, terrible patience. “For now,” he tells his now-former employee. “But he’ll come around. In the mean time, there’s the matter of your brother-in-law. He is a problem that you promised to resolve. You have failed. Now it is left to me to deal with him. If you try to interfere, this becomes a much simpler matter. I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.”
That would be enough if we hadn’t seen the other half of this episode come together around it. Ted, predictably, is screwing Skyler, refusing to take her money on the ground that paying his debt with gambling money feels wrong (though not, apparently, leasing a Mercedes with it). “If they audit my business, find out Walt and I paid for it in close to a million dollars in untaxed gambling winnings, we will go to prison,” Skyler panics. “Where you will already be…Oh, my God. How are you not following me?” Convinced he’s blackmailing her, she tries to come up with more money, but also calls in Saul to send in a few goons to help him along in writing a check to the IRS. “Huell, you happy?” asks one of them. “Reasonably,” Huell replies, suggesting that would make him happier is “This little motherfucker doing as he’s told.” It’s the blackest of comedy seeing Ted run from Saul’s men, trip, and kill himself by slamming head first into his blank, expensive wall. I still can’t decide if it’s too grotesque for the show, just too much considering the show’s often considerable mundanity. But there is something wonderfully horrible about it. “Check’s in the mail, at least,” one of the goons tells Saul, afterwards.
But that doesn’t actually make things better, as events spiral out of control. Walt prepares to flee, except the departure of that check means he doesn’t have the money to pay the people he believes could save his family. Skyler’s face, horrified at the point of illness at everything that’s happening to her and the sight of Walt’s hysteria in the crawl space, and Walt’s maniacal laugh drifting to the rafters are both dreadful. This is an actual horror movie, much more terrifying than it might be otherwise for its awful possibility.