This post contains spoilers through episode three of the fifth season of Breaking Bad.
“You’re looking at it wrong,” Jesse tells Walt, disgruntled over the costs of standing up a replacement to Gus’s meth operation, towards the end of this episode of Breaking Bad. “We maybe cleared less money, but we got a bigger piece of the pie. It’s like you said. We’re owners not employees.” I’ve talked a great deal this season about how chilling it is to see Walt twist the truth such that he’s a victim and his targets are cast in need of forgiveness, as he’s done with Skyler, and as he does again tonight. But there’s something even more unnerving at play. Walt doesn’t want to have to think about people other than himself, but he doesn’t like considering his own actions too closely either. He’s becoming what Michael Chabon in Summerland referred to as a Hollow Man, a person who gets so caught up in an infernal task and the sense of accomplishment it provides him, that he loses moral perspective and humanity, becoming a thinned-out facsimile of a person.
This was a largely expository episode of Breaking Bad, but even as it explains how Walt, Jesse, and Mike are setting about reestablishing their meth business, it sets up a battle between Mike and Walt that Mike wins. The hour begins with Mike laying down his terms for Markowski, one of his men who is incarcerated (it was very funny to see him pose as a paralegal). “The deal is the deal,” Mike tells him, encouraging the younger man to stay strong in prison. “You will be made whole.” Mike tells Walt, prior to their hunt for a new location to cook, that he needs absolute authority over their business affairs. It’s a canny play, one that lets him fulfill his promise to Markowski, and provides us with a terrific scene that lays out the operation of the new business and puts Jesse in a position to decide, once again, between Mike and Jesse. “Transportation is worth 20 percent? $275,000 worth of risk? What did Gus pay his mules?” Walt grouses about distribution costs, then complains of Mike’s men “What are they doing to further our interests? So we’re paying them why?” When Jesse offers to put up the money to forestall a fight, and because he appears to agree, at least to a certain extent, with Mike’s assessment that you pay “Because it’s what you do,” Walt steps up. But he’s forestalled the gunfight, not won it. “Listen, Walter. Just because you shot Jesse James don’t make you Jesse James,” Mike warns the man who’s tried to come after him before, without success.
With Skyler, Walt’s offering too little—and maybe even the opposite of “a little” in the form of Scarface and pizza—far too late, given that shaming your wife for an affair to distract from the fact that you manufacture and sell an exceedingly corrosive drug definitely counts as beyond any reasonable hour. When Skyler melts down after Marie lectures her, first about her occasional smoking, then about planning a celebration of the life of a man who’s making hers miserable, Marie tries to use Skyler’s distress to leverage some form of truth out of Walt. He, of course, sees it as an opportunity to make even more people see him as noble and put-upon. “It wasn’t ongoing or anything. Skyler and I have been trying to put things back together,” he tells Marie. “Then the accident happened and she got—I’m begging you, please. Keep this to yourself. I don’t want Hank to think less of her, or me.” Walter White may not ultimately prove to be a successful crime lord, but he’d make one hell of a terrific political campaign manager leaking things to the press to cause maximum damage.
I have to admit, this episode has me wondering if Skyler might die, not at the hands of Walt or his co-conspirators, but by her own. The vast grief in her eyes as she contemplates the damage she’s done to Ted, her fear in Walt’s bed, in Walt’s arms, which she can only be subjected to more as he moves back into their home, her frantic, overwhelmed reaction to Marie’s questions—this is a woman who increasingly seems unable to face the world, and whose attempts to make her lot livable have failed.
Jesse, who once seemed to have consigned himself to slow self-murder, is stronger today. But it’s deeply unnerving to watch him welcome Walt into his home, for a dinner or beer, leaving Walt alone on the couch with Brock, even more vulnerable than the still-fragile man who’s acting as his father. Walt nearly stole Brock’s life, and by the end of this episode, he’s stolen Jesse from him. I’m not sure if Walt intended to encourage Jesse to dump Andrea, but if so, his gambit to see if Jesse would choose Walt over Andrea was brilliant. “Jesse, I can’t pretend this doesn’t affet me. It does. But with everything we’ve been through, this has to be your decision. You’ve earned that,” Walt tells Jesse. “Secrets create barriers between people. Speaking from experience, believe me…If you choose to spend the rest of your life with this person, then you’ll have to decide how much you share with her.” But whether Walt recognizes the true damage of that distance, or believes that unlike Icarus, he can fly at a closely regulated, viable height above the earth but below the sun, is a question we probably won’t know until the series’ very end.