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'Breaking Bad' recap: A man works

July 25, 2011 |  8:00 am


As "Breaking Bad" has gone on, one of the things I've really liked is how it portrays Walter White's sense of entitlement, his sense that he worked hard to earn this money and he shouldn't have to be boxed in like everybody else. He should be free to be Walter White: crime boss, and everybody else should just get with the program. But the longer he keeps at his new business, the more it starts to seem like, well, a business. He's got hours he has to keep. He's got the equivalent of a boss checking in on him every so often. His actual boss is someone he wants to literally kill (and who can't identify with that?). He has to keep making the money, so he can keep his wife and brother-in-law fully funded going forward, even though the former no longer wishes to be married to him.

To that end, there's a lot of great stuff about masculinity in "Breaking Bad," about how so much of the myth of the American male is tied up in the idea that guys work to make money, and without a job that makes them money, they're somehow just not measuring up. But that idea -– which only gets stronger as guys get married and have kids -– often ends up pinning these generic men down, which is where we get all of those stories about midlife crises (like this one). Walter escaped a job with a boss he hated -– a boss who just so happens to turn up again this week when Walter desperately wants to kill his new boss -– but he ended up right back where he started, pulling long shifts and having to deal with all kinds of middle management. (In this way, "Breaking Bad" ends up being the canniest show on TV at dealing with the impact the recession has had on men, in particular, because jobs that traditionally employed men have seen more layoffs than other jobs. And that's all without ever once mentioning any of these facts.)

This is probably the most clever move Season 4 of "Breaking Bad" has made. It's fairly easy to believe that Walter is right, that he's earned that money and should just get to keep it. But the show is very smart about showing us not just the process of getting that money but the process of how it all gets spent, until Walt's working and working and working, never finding a way to take a break. He continues to attempt his transformation into a crime lord -– in this episode by buying a small pistol and practicing drawing it quickly -– but he's laughed out of the room by people who are wiser and more experienced at this stuff than he is. He even gets beat up by Mike in a bar fight. "Breaking Bad" is very consciously reducing Walter once again to the position he was in back in Season 1, only this time, it will be very, very hard to outsmart his opponents (if he even can).

What's interesting is that although doing these very bad things seems to have unlocked deep reservoirs of resentment and entitlement within Walter, reservoirs that only seem to fill the more bad things he does, doing very bad things has seemingly decimated Jesse, who spends this episode hanging around his house, listening to loud music until Badger and Skinny Pete drop by. He persuades them to start using again (as he himself is doing), and they start rambling on about video games -- until Jesse declares that it's time for a party. And the party stretches on for days and days, the only sober participant a Roomba (with a camera attached in one of the episode's showiest shots). Jesse is trying to forget what he did to Gale, and he sobers up long enough to tell his ex-girlfriend that she should take the money he gave her and take her son far away. Where Walter sees the door that shut away his darker self opening and gleefully reaches for the doorknob, Jesse is trying to squeeze all of the darkness back behind that door and failing miserably. The episode ends with him trying to keep the party going on his own, and it's easily the most chilling thing so far this season.

Ideas of masculinity also permeate the Hank story line, wherein everybody's favorite DEA agent is clearly feeling depressed (and perhaps emasculated) by the fact that just walking down a hallway at a pace slower than a toddler is now treated as a kind of major victory. With every moment that his wife wants to celebrate, he pulls even further away from her (even as he shares a high-five with his physical therapist). Marie, desperate for any kind of attention, asks the therapist to move in, but he just looks at her like she's lost it. Meanwhile, Hank, who's always had an obsessive quality when pursuing a case, is tossing all of that obsession into the minerals he keeps ordering. The men of "Breaking Bad" (save Jesse, maybe, as he's much better at just floating) are at their best when they have some sort of goal or job to do. Even Saul tends to kick it up a notch when he needs to help Walter avoid criminal charges one way or another. Hank, for right now, has no goal, and that's turned him into a bitter and miserable person, particularly toward the one person who cares for him most.

But this show clearly isn't all about the guys -– even if it's a guy-centric show. Skyler White, with her little "zip-up" binder and perfect figures for buying the car wash, is probably the person who accomplishes the most in this episode. While Walt, Jesse, and Hank struggle fruitlessly to change their situations, Skyler simply steps into the car wash and asks Walt's old boss if she can buy it -– and he tells her no, insulting her by calling her Walter's "woman." But when you see the look of determination in her eyes, you know that "no" isn't going to last as an answer for long. There's a stubbornness in Skyler, a stubbornness that unites her with her husband, his boss, and her brother-in-law, and if things end up turning out all right for Walter, I'll bet you anything Skyler is a big part of the reason why.

Now, not a lot happens in this episode if you just take a cursory look at "Thirty-Eight Snub," but that doesn't really matter. Everything that's growing more tense this season is happening on the inside of these characters, and it's an interesting new dynamic for the show to explore. (It's not like "Breaking Bad" didn't have psychological character arcs before, but the show also tended to have physical manifestations of the danger Walt was in, like the Cousins hanging around.) Will Jesse fall apart and disappear back into addiction? Will Walter kill Gus or convince Mike that, yeah, the two of them should be running the show? Will he ever get over his sense that the world "owes" him all of this somehow? Will Skyler find her stubbornness to be enough? And will Hank's and Marie’s marriage survive his bedridden state? These questions drive the series now, and the great thing about them is that you never know when any one of them will explode or gradually ease off.


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-- Todd VanDerWerff

Photo: Walter White (Bryan Cranston, right) buys a gun from a black market gun dealer (Jim Beaver). Credit: AMC