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'Breaking Bad' recap: Ground control to Walter White

August 8, 2011 |  6:45 am

'Breaking Bad': Walt (Bryan Cranston) angrily explains to Saul (Bob Odenkirk) just how bad his situation has gotten.

For those of you who’ve been complaining that the first three episodes of “Breaking Bad’s” fourth season have been a little light on plot, what do you think now?

Sure, there was always the languid sense of pacing “Breaking Bad” has, present around every corner, but there was also a relentless forward momentum (maybe even too relentless). What started out as an episode about how Walter and Skyler were going to explain to Marie and especially Hank that they were buying a car wash without making Hank unduly suspicious shifted abruptly around the halfway point into an episode about whether Walter could find a way to keep Jesse Pinkman alive. The episode doesn’t even signal that this is going to happen. There’s one offhand mention from Hank, and we’re suddenly in the middle of a Jesse storyline, without much warning.

That’s one of the fun things about “Breaking Bad.” The stories can shift and change on a moment’s notice, and it’s never done in a way that feels cheap or unearned. Of course Walter’s major concern after finding out that Hank was doing some side investigations into the death of Gale would be whether the murder could be linked to Jesse. And of course Walter’s angry attempts to get Jesse to relive the night he shot Gale would cause Jesse to unravel all over again. (I don’t know how Aaron Paul plays so much of this without saying a word, but he’s certainly reminding everyone who watches this show just why he won that Emmy Award.) And of course Mike becomes aware of the problem – Mike always becomes aware of the problem – and gets Gus to give him the OK to do something about it. That something apparently involves a long drive off into the desert, perhaps into Mexico (if that yellow filter the show often uses to color-code Mexican side-trips has anything to say about it). Where are those two going? That’s not revealed, but it can’t be anywhere good.

This is also an episode that reminds us that, hey, Gus isn’t exactly having a good time running up against the cartel. In the opening sequence, utterly unconnected to anything else in the episode (outside of how Mike’s injured ear persists), two men with machine guns unload on the back of a Los Pollos Hermanos truck after killing the driver. Mike, all alone, sits in the back of the refrigerated truck, looking absolutely miserable, then looking even more angered when he has to hunch down behind a few boxes and wait out the onslaught of bullets before dispatching the two goons with a handful of shots. In the process, a bullet grazes his ear, and when he reaches up to stick the loose cartilage back in place and it flops right back down, the look on his face of utter irritation lets you know exactly how pleased he is with the whole situation.

But this also nicely sets up Mike as, once again, the most ultra-competent man in all of Albuquerque. In an episode that was rife with scenes where people tried to organize other people (often with “bullet points,” of course), Mike’s the guy who just hunkers down and does what needs to get done. It’s hard to imagine something in his life like that scene where Skyler lays out the script she’s written for Walt and her to reveal their car wash purchase to Hank and Marie or something like the scene where Walt tries to pressure Jesse into remembering the night of Gale’s death. There’s been lots of reflection this season on how the characters ratchet up the pressure for each other, without the added elements of crime, but that’s not really true for Mike. He just quietly does his job.

And even as the plot wheels were turning and turning, the episode was still pulling off some exquisite character scenes. I love that scene where Walt and Skyler talk through her script, with her constantly explaining her rationale for writing out Walt’s dialogue the way she does – he’s to say “terribly” twice when apologizing to seem truly contrite – or that wonderful moment where Walt delivers the apology Skyler’s always wanted to hear… and it turns out to be his idea for what he could say to apologize to his other family members. It was easy to assume that the act of getting involved in the criminal life together would bond Walt and Skyler more tightly, but it, instead, seems to have made her just another imposition on him getting to live the free and powerful life he’d dreamed of at the height of his Heisenberg persona. He’s boxed in at work; now, he’s boxed in in his major relationship, too.

If I have a quibble, here, it’s that the shift from Walt’s meeting with Hank (which concludes in a moment where he shows off Gale’s lab notes to Walt, and Walt has to improvise his way out of any suspicion Hank might have) to the larger storyline with Jesse. The Jesse stuff was absolutely compelling, but it felt like it had less room to breathe than some of the other story points. (That scene where Mike brings the problem of Jesse to Gus, in particular, felt like it could have used a little more space.) The second half of the episode is thrilling, no doubt, but it lacks some of the show’s terrific deliberateness, which is the quality that sets this show apart from other cable dramas of its quality level.

And yet this was an episode that used the whole cast well – with Gus’ first appearance since the terrifying box cutter scene in the premiere – and knit Season 4’s sprawling canvas together much more tightly. With Gus dealing with the cartel and Mike dealing with Jesse and Walt trying to let Hank continue believing Gale was Heisenberg, there are multiple problems advancing on multiple fronts. And there are no more escape routes, just an ever-increasing number of people trying to tell Walt what to do. It’s almost enough to make Saul’s offer to put him in touch with a man who can help him disappear so completely that no one would ever find him seem tempting. Almost.

But this is Walter White we’re talking about. And he has a fine habit of finding his way out of these situations with just enough breathing room to buy him more time to think. He’s not disappearing because, deep down, he’s hubristic enough to think this will always be true. Walt resents Skyler’s script for the same reason he resents that camera in the lab: He thinks he’ll always have the answer, right when he needs it.

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-- Todd VanDerWerff
Twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Walt (Bryan Cranston) angrily explains to Saul (Bob Odenkirk) just how bad his situation has gotten. Credit: AMC

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