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'Breaking Bad' recap: Listen to the voice

August 22, 2011 |  6:30 am
'Breaking Bad' recap

The world of “Breaking Bad” has… not a god, exactly, but definitely some sort of moral force, something that ties everybody together and deals out rewards and punishments. The way that force works is occasionally mysterious and subtle. It can bring Walter White together with the man whose daughter is Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend for a drink in a bar, the two men launching into a conversation that indirectly leads to that daughter’s death at Walter’s hands. It can also work in completely loud and obvious ways that the characters just tune out, as when it kicked off a chain of events that ended with two airliners colliding directly over Walter’s house. The message was clear: “Many will die if you keep this up, Walter.” But he ignored it completely.

Sometimes, the moral force rewards. After Hank chooses to do the right thing in the wake of beating Jesse within an inch of his life, he survives an attempt on his life by the murderous twins. But it doesn’t punish, not right away. It seems to save all of that up for just the right moment, as in last week’s final scenes, when Walter’s self-serving monologue about how Gale was not a genius eventually led to Hank discovering the first tiny flaw in Gus Fring’s giant empire. Gus brings Walter on board his operation so he can make better, more addictive meth, and eventually, Walter says the very thing that just might bring Gus down. There’s a cold calculus to it, and even if none of these characters know that force is watching, we at home can see the ways it waits, to reward or punish.

It’s hard to read what just might be the pivotal scene in “Cornered” in any other way. Skyler is running from her husband, having realized – abruptly, after inviting him back into her home – that he’s in way over his head. (His bragging about how Gale could never be Heisenberg led her quite rightly to assume that if Gale was copying someone’s work, he was copying Walter’s, and that could mean Walter’s death at any minute.) Walter angrily lets her know that he’s not some chump. He’s the key to this whole operation! And if she’s worried about someone knocking on the door, intent on killing him and his family, well, she shouldn’t, because he is “the one who knocks.” Whoa. He realizes he’s overstepped his bounds, but by the time he gets out of the shower, she’s disappeared, not saying where she’s going.

Where she ends up (after the first half of the episode hardly even features her) is the Four Corners. Taking out a quarter, she flips it once, to see which state it lands in. Colorado. She flips it again, just to be sure. Colorado again. Someone, somewhere, is trying to tell her something. Get out while you still can. The deeper you dig in, the more this becomes your crime as well as your husband’s crime. Does she heed the warning? Of course not. Latching on to Walter’s new life has reinvigorated her sense of purpose and her marriage. She sticks her foot out and drags that quarter into New Mexico, where she thinks it belongs.

“Breaking Bad,” of course, has always been about people who willfully misinterpret the message or just don’t get it to begin with. But it’s also about people who figure out what’s going on but do so in a way that isolates those around them. Think of how Walter’s outburst sends his wife off on her road trip. Or think of how he figures out that Gus is sending Jesse off with Mike to drive a wedge between Jesse and Walter. He’s absolutely correct, of course, but the way he says it – asserting that it’s all about him – so thoroughly disgusts Jesse that he’s right to just walk away. Walter can get inside the head of Gus – he might be the only one who can – but he’s so self-involved that he’ll be lucky if he can get his (perhaps former) partner to listen at all.

For his part, Jesse seems to be flourishing under the tutelage of Mike, who brings him along to recover a stolen shipment of the blue meth – a shipment taken by cartel members who hook up a delivery truck’s exhaust to the truck’s trailer, aiming to suffocate the guards inside, in a terrifying opening sequence. Mike’s going to just wait for the methheads who’ve gotten a hold of the drugs to leave the house so he can rough them up a bit, but Jesse comes up with an ingenious plan to infiltrate the house and get it back, one that involves using the shovel in Mike’s trunk to get one of the addicts to start digging a hole to nowhere while he goes and talks to the other addict face to face. Jesse gets a gun pulled on him, but he also gets the job done, and the cartel’s message that it wants to sit down for a chat with Gus, delivered with the stolen meth, is delivered. (Gus, for his part, takes notice, paying Jesse the briefest of compliments, which means a lot coming from him.)

It eventually all comes back to Walter, though. Feeling, well, cornered, he spends most of the episode looking for ways to assert his authority. He refuses to let Bogdan take the first dollar he made running his car wash (after Bogdan asks if he’ll know when to have the cashiers wipe down the cars – a great callback to Walter’s frustrations at the car wash in Season 1), then uses that dollar to buy a soda after Bogdan leaves. He adopts Bogdan’s strategy, co-opting some of Gus’ laundry staff to clean up the lab (despite their considerable protests) and earns them a one-way ticket to Honduras, courtesy of Mr. Fring. And when Skyler disappears, he tries to buy his own son’s love, purchasing him a too flashy, too expensive car, one that will surely raise eyebrows. Skyler makes him make Walter Jr., take it back, saying someone needs to protect the family from the man who protects the family, and it’s like the final nail in the coffin of Walter’s swagger. He started this with what he thought were good intentions, but it quickly fed a need for recognition and praise deep inside of him, a dark desire he can no longer turn off but no longer feed, either. And no matter how much the cosmos tries to tell him he’s on the wrong path, the longer he’s without it, the stupider he becomes in trying to get it. He’s like an addict, really, digging a hole to nowhere.

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--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Walter White (Bryan Cranston, right) tries to win his son (RJ Mitte) over by buying him a flashy car. Credit: AMC

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