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'Breaking Bad' recap: Mirror images

September 19, 2011 |  6:30 am

Breaking Bad

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that, even as Walter White reaches what might be his lowest ebb around the midpoint of tonight’s episode, Gus Fring has finally had his ultimate triumph as the episode ends. These are two men who’ve always been running as rough mirror images of each other, even as this season has turned them, for the most part, into parallel lines, only intersecting when Gus allows it. And so as Gus finally triumphs over Don Eladio and the cartel — poisoning them in a scheme roughly similar to the one Walter was going to use to poison Gus — Walter spends all day in bed, painkillers washed down with beer keeping him there, and his son devastates him without even knowing he’s laid his dad low.

“Salud” packs enough plot twists and narrative momentum into its 47 minutes for a whole season of most other shows, which makes it kind of remarkable that this is only the 10th episode of this season. Granted, “Breaking Bad” has always had slightly unusual structure, but one character finally defeating his worst enemy while the other realizes just how far he’s fallen? That’s the stuff of season finales, and “Breaking Bad” is giving it to us with three episodes to go. That means even crazier stuff has to be waiting in the wings. That, or we’re going to watch Walter sink even lower into his morass and Jesse grow ever closer to Gus and Skyler inadvertently doom herself even more, and we’re going to wonder just where this show can possibly go in a final season. Would anyone be surprised if that were the case?

Let’s start with the last person in that trio, Skyler White. If anything, tonight’s episode should show yet another reason she and Walter have been drawn back together. Like her husband, Skyler just can’t resist taking credit for the things she’s done — in this case, giving Ted Beneke exactly as much money as he needs to pay off his debts to the IRS. Of course, Skyler’s reasons for doing all of this are far more practical than Walt’s might have been. For one, her name is all over the Beneke books, which means if the IRS starts digging, they might start digging into her records (something she really doesn’t need). For another, once Ted gets the money, he interprets it as a sign from some force in the universe (there’s that idea again) that he’s on the right track and should get back to owning a Mercedes and operating his business at full capacity. So she sort of needs to scare the love of God into him, and lecturing him on being responsible isn’t doing the trick. That means taking credit for giving him the money (something she did via Saul and a crazy fiction about a deceased aunt Birgid) and opening the door to Ted wondering just where she got that cash.

This illustrates something that’s always been important in the world of “Breaking Bad” — and probably the real world as well: In general, people will believe what they want to if you give them the opportunity. Everybody confronts this fact tonight. Skyler believes Ted will do the right thing. Ted believes he’s been forgiven by the universe. Don Eladio believes Gus is back in the fold. Walter believes he’s an all-powerful force of darkness but somehow still a good family man, and he doesn’t believe that his son can see anything different in him since he first started cooking meth. The only regular presence on the show who doesn’t seem flattered by self-deception this season is Jesse. He knows he’s a murderer and an addict. He knows he’s scum. And that, somehow, makes him even more effective, makes him the kind of guy Gus can mold into a vital part of his operation. (Paradoxically, his lack of self-deception makes him less valuable to Walter, who’s always played on that self-deception to make Jesse do what he wanted.)

We don’t really know what Gus is deluding himself about because, well, we don’t really know Gus all that well yet. But, again, as the polar opposite of Walter, he’s very good at sussing out just what someone might be able to be tricked into believing, then exploiting that weakness. And that’s what he does during the trip to Mexico, unleashing a bold plan to poison the entire cartel leadership by first seeming to capitulate to the organization’s every demand, then poisoning himself with a slow-acting poison (though seemingly giving himself an antidote in pill form beforehand), then managing to poison everybody else and sparing Jesse with a few brief words that Don Eladio immediately understands. (“He’s an addict.”) Gus heads to the bathroom to throw up the poison, the cartel heads begin to fall and, as Don Eladio stumbles toward him, then into the pool where Gus’ friend Max fell, Gus finally allows himself a moment of emotion. And what emotion do we see? Unrestrained, prideful rage. Yeah, I’m not sure how much more we want to get to see Gus. (How does Gus escape? It's all thanks to everybody's favorite hired gun, Jesse, who truly proves himself the kind of guy Gus could use in his organization completely and thoroughly, by helping his woozy boss into the car, then taking out the guy who shoots and injures Mike.)

Who else do we see have a moment of unfiltered emotion? Walter White, of course, who spends the entire episode in the apartment he rented during his separation with Skyler. Walter Jr., celebrating his birthday, drops by to make sure that everything’s OK, after his dad missed the festivities. And what he finds when he gets there is that Walter’s a mess after his fight with Jesse. Walter’s just coherent enough to keep Walter Jr. from telling Skyler, making up a lie about how he was gambling and got into a fight, but then he begins weeping, telling Walter Jr. that he’s made a horrible mistake. His son hugs him and gets him into bed, and it’s the most nakedly emotional we’ve seen Walter in the entire series. (As his son leaves, he calls Walter Jr. “Jesse,” which will almost certainly come back, I would think.)

The next morning, Walter finds that his son has sacked out on the couch. After telling him a lengthy story about Walt’s own father, who died of Huntington’s when Walt was only 6, Walt Jr. lays his dad low without even knowing it when he says that he wouldn’t mind having his strongest memory of his dad being the night before, when he was weeping. At least in that moment, Walter was real. At least in that moment, he was genuine. Not like he’s been the last year, something Walt Jr. attributes to Walter’s diagnosis. And as Walter sends his son off in the new car he got for his birthday, the camera closes on the haunted look in his eyes. Gus can feel only triumph today. Walter only feels anything but.

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-- Todd VanDerWerff

Twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Jesse (Aaron Paul) doesn't have to stay in Mexico after Gus kills the men who would keep him there. Credit: AMC.

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