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'Breaking Bad': 'Honesty is good, don't you think?'

April 5, 2010 |  9:01 am

Episode-3-Walt-760 A television show is at its best when the real drama occurs beneath the surface of the screen. That's exactly what is happening with this third season of "Breaking Bad," and the effect is marvelous. 

Remember the days of Bryan Cranston in his underpants, at the wheel of the speeding RV? The dissolved body crashing through the ceiling? The ATM crushing a man's head? That's what "Breaking Bad" once was, a louder show that occasionally had to scream in order to get our attention. And as a modestly budgeted new drama on a cable channel better known for showing old movies, you couldn't exactly fault the show for doing this. There's just so much else out there on the TV dial, and when you're part of such a crowded landscape the shock and awe is sometimes a must. 

But the brilliance of the third season thus far has been the subtlety, the pulling back. Especially in the wake of last season's plane crash, things have been so much quieter this season and yet so much more seems to be happening. This, I think, is the result of the writers taking full advantage of a successful television show's greatest asset: time. 

Think about it. In a film, you get maybe two hours to tell a story, to allow characters to develop and change before your eyes. In television, if you're both good and lucky enough, you get so much more time to do this, and the end result is a viewership that's far more invested in the characters, enough so to not only hear and see whatever it is that's happening on screen but also to feel whatever it is that's happening inside of these characters' hearts and minds. It's that beneath-the-surface element that makes shows such as "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" so much better than all the rest, and the people behind "Breaking Bad" have apparently gotten the same memo. 

On Sunday night we had one of the quietest episodes in the series' history, as well as one of the finest. As he repeatedly dialed up the voicemail of his dead ex-girlfriend, for example, we didn't need Jesse (Aaron Paul) to say much in order for us to know what he was feeling. The same went for Hank (Dean Norris), once he'd gotten the call that he was headed back to the brutal border. 

But at the epicenter of this episode was Skyler White, played wonderfully here by Anna Gunn. She knows The "secret" now -- Walt is a meth man -- but she still can't do anything about it because the blowback, as Saul Goodman predicted, would be far too much for her family to overcome. Knowing this, Walter (Cranston) essentially called her bluff and went all in -- moving back into the house and refusing to leave even in the face of her calling the police. 

"I will tell them everything," she told him. 

"Do what you have to, Skyler." 

What unfolded over the next 10 minutes was just sublime television. The officers on their way, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) showed up, so happy to see Dad back home. "How about a grilled cheese?" Dad asked him, as if nothing was happening. "Want one too?" he asked Skyler. 

Then the cops arrived. Skyler pleaded her case, or at least as much as she could: She was filing for divorce and didn't want him there. It wasn't enough; without a court order, Walter had every right to be there in his own home. Unless, of course, there was anything more she could tell them, any suspicion of other wrongdoing. Right about then the baby cried. "I got her, honey," Walt said, picking her up, then turning back to the cop. "I'm sorry, officer, where were we?" 

"Disagreements." 

"Yes, well, we've had our share of that. I haven't been the most attentive husband lately..." 

The whole thing was appalling. Evil. And strangely hilarious. Welcome to "Breaking Bad." 

Skyler, arms folded, was painfully powerless and could do nothing but watch. When the cops left and Walter Jr. yelled at her one more time for having created the stir, she went over to her husband, took their baby from his arms and said "Welcome home" with about as much venom as one can spit onto those two words. Never has Gunn been better, and I don't care what comes next, this is the episode "Breaking Bad" needs to send to Emmy voters on her behalf. 

Perhaps the same goes for Cranston, for his monologue that soon followed was about as good as it gets. 

It was the next morning. A bag of cash rested on the floor between Walter White, a dying man, and his wife. A long, illuminated hallway hovered in the background, dripping with symbolism; it was a beautiful shot. And here is what Walter had been waiting to tell Skyler for so long:

I've done a terrible thing. But I did it for a good reason. I did it for us. That ... is college tuition for Walter Jr. And Holly, 18 years down the road. There's health insurance for you and the kids. For Junior's physical therapy, his SAT tutor. It's money for groceries. Gas. For birthdays and graduation parties. Skyler, that money is for this roof over your head. The mortgage that you are not going to be able to afford on a part-time bookkeeper's salary when I'm gone. This money, I didn't steal it. It doesn't belong to anyone else. I earned it. The things I've ... done ... to earn it. The ... things I've had to do. I've got to live with them. Skyler, all that I've done, all the sacrifices that I've made for this family, all of that, would be for nothing if you don't accept what I've earned. Please. I'll be here when you get home from work. You can give me your answer then. 

Skyler just listened. And it's important to note here that for the duration of this series, Skyler has for the most part been the reactor rather than the instigator. The Good Wife. The Strong Mom. She's been all of this, in spite of the "lies on top of lies on top of lies." 

Well, enough. Though she couldn't say too much -- the whole of her feelings, as usual, instead bubbling more so beneath the surface -- the scene with the cops now appears to have been her breaking point. She went to work and slept with Ted. Skyler White, victim no more, manipulated no more. Skyler White, just as capable of an evil turn, of breaking bad. 

Unable beforehand to hurt Walt like he'd hurt her, now she had her answer. She returned home, Walt in the kitchen, preparing a big salad for a family dinner. 

"I just want to say that I feel really good about our talk this morning," Walt said. "Honesty is good, don't you think?"

It wasn't so much the words that would soon come from her mouth so much as how she seemed to savor them. She stepped in closer, picking up the salad. "I ... Ted," she said, before slowly walking away towards the dinner table. "Boys, dinner," she announced. "Iced tea? Now, I want both of you to eat your salad, OK?"

And now it was he who had no words, who just remained there in the kitchen, painfully powerless. 

Appalling. Evil. And strangely hilarious. Welcome again to "Breaking Bad." 

-- Josh Gajewski

Photo: Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in "Breaking Bad." Credit: AMC

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