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'Breaking Bad': The naked lie and waiting to die

March 22, 2009 | 11:01 pm

This episode of “Breaking Bad” contained vulgarity that wasn’t easy on the eyes or ears -– a prostitute with meth-ravaged teeth, a DEA agent who peppered some lewd sexual references into his interrogations, and a man who defecated onto the floor of the interrogation room, just to prove a point. But it was the more tempered, steady brilliance of Bryan Cranston that again made it impossible for us to look away. Along with his bare bum.

“It’s a bold plan, Mr. White,” the young Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) said to Cranston’s Walter White at the start of the episode, the two of them on the side of a desert road, ready to separate after running away from Tuco’s blood-spattered hideout. “You sure it’s the way to go?” Walt nodded and so it began, the camera cutting to a supermarket later in the day, focusing on a worker there who picked up an oddly placed shoe that kept an automatic door from closing. Inside the store she then found a belt and some socks, and then there was underwear –- those familiar tighty-whiteys -– on the floor of the soda aisle. She looked up and there he stood –- before her, before us -– fully naked and staring at nothing in particular, proving that Walter White will do anything to keep his cover (so to speak) and that Cranston as an actor will do anything for this role.

In this case, the character’s plan was to fake dementia. How to explain having gone missing and ultimately ending up in the desert, miles away from your Albuquerque home? Don’t. Say you don’t remember anything. It must have been all the pills from the cancer treatment, some weird reaction to so much medication. And how do you fully sell the dementia bit? Get discovered sleepwalking through a grocery store, naked, because only someone not all the way there would do such a thing –- especially someone like the buttoned-up Walter White.

But where the plan hit a wrinkle was where the show reached television gold. Doctors couldn’t explain the event and told Walt that they couldn’t let him out of the hospital until they could; after all, if this happened again, he or someone else could get hurt. And so he was stuck for further evaluation, especially the psychiatric kind. Enter a psychiatrist, and the episode’s best scene.

The shrink kept asking his questions and Walt continued to play dumb. “Look, doctor, I don’t mean to be rude, but where is this going exactly?” he finally asked. “We’re starting a process,” he was told, “An ongoing process. Do you prefer Walt or Walter?” “I’m going for how long.” “We could be talking about days, weeks, months….” When an annoyed Walt realized this I-really-don’t-remember-anything bit would mean remaining stuck in a hospital gown, Walt leaned back in his chair and the scene turned. “Would you tell me about patient confidentiality?” The doctor then calmly explained that whatever was shared couldn’t be told to his family, the police, anyone except for someone whose life might be in danger. “And you as a medical practitioner, you abide by these strictures absolutely?” “Yes,” said the doc, at which point Cranston stared at him, studying his face, his eyes, gauging if he could trust him. It was one of those moments where Cranston again conveyed so much with only his face –- in much the same way that last week’s scenes among Walt, Jesse and Tuco’s mute uncle popped off the screen as the three of them stared at one another, exchanging so much without any words. And then:

“All right. I remember everything. The truth is,” he said, lying, “I couldn’t stand to spend another second in that house. I just had to get out. And so I left. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. I walked for a long time and when I couldn’t walk anymore I hitchhiked. I got as far as Gallup, and then I was just … it was time to come home.”
“So being found naked in a supermarket -- that was your way of giving credibility to a lie? Of avoiding questions of your disappearance?”
Walt nodded.
“Why run away? What did you feel you had to run from?”
He almost smiled. “Doctor, my wife is seven months pregnant with a child we didn’t intend. My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable and in 18 months I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?”

Meanwhile, Jesse too was getting grilled but wasn’t doing as well as his partner in crime. Sitting in Hank’s interrogation room, he sweated and yelled through the questions, through his own lies. And then the bell tolled. Tuco’s uncle had arrived. The witness that had it in him to bring down the house of cards.

But what happened next was a bit of a letdown. I felt that as an audience, we were right there with Jesse, in that tight little room, nowhere to go, staring at the man who had the ability to crush everything with the simple tap of that little bell. “Was this man in your house yesterday?” Gomez asked the man. Nothing. “Was he doing business with your nephew, Tuco?” Hank pressed. The finger didn’t move. Instead, the man leaned over in his wheelchair and defecated. “I guess that’s a no,” Hank said.

“Old-school Mexicans don’t help the feds,” Gomez later told Hank, explaining that Tuco’s uncle had spent 17 years in prison and never ratted anyone out, never helped the feds. But even now? With these two guys –- Walt and Jesse? He wouldn’t turn on even them, for his dead nephew? Was he really so scared of the ramifications, scared for his own safety? I’m not an expert in these things, but to me it just felt like too easy of an out to what before the commercial break seemed like an impossible situation. In an odd way I really wanted his finger to fall on the bell one more time, just to see what would have come next.

The only other moment of the episode that gave me pause, however slight, was Walt managing to sneak out of the hospital long enough to visit home (taking the bus, no less) and getting away with it, though the sequence did provide us with one of this series’ more poignant scenes –- Walt spying the future, his family without him, a glimmer of what will inevitably be. Again, Cranston did so much without uttering a word. Only a look -– one eye peering in to his loved ones from behind a door. We knew what he was feeling just by the look on his face, as we did when he glimpsed both the leftover “Have you seen this man?” flier of himself at the bus stop, along with the painting in his hospital room of a man in a rowboat, drifting away from his family.

Welcome to the life and death of Walter White.

-- Josh Gajewski