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'Breaking Bad' recap: Who's pulling the strings?

August 15, 2011 |  7:00 am

'Breaking Bad's' Jesse (Aaron Paul) finds himself going on a trip with Mike to make pick-ups

One of the most interesting things about this season of “Breaking Bad” is that the character who’s most affecting the way the show is playing out is someone we’ve barely spent any time with. Gus Fring is carefully trying to turn the troubling situation he finds himself in to his own advantage, but he’s doing almost all of it off screen. It makes some of the actions the other characters take feel almost inexplicable, and I’m just waiting for a reveal like the one in last season’s eighth episode, where we abruptly realized that Gus was playing a much, much larger game than any of the other characters.

This is one of those things that becomes abundantly clear in “Shotgun,” an episode where it turns out that Mike hasn’t taken Jesse out into the desert to kill him but, rather, to bond with him (at Gus’ orders). It seems vaguely implausible until you start to think about it from Gus’ point of view: Walter White’s greatest weakness is Jesse. If Gus can somehow drive a wedge between the two of them, then he’ll have solved two problems with one solution. Jesse will become more loyal to Gus than Walter. And Walter will have no choice but to take on another assistant, perhaps one who can copy Walter’s formula more quickly. It’s kind of a desperation move on Gus’ part, but that’s what I’m assuming he’s up to.

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After all, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for Jesse to get his staged “hero” moment (a moment that could have, conceivably, killed a couple of Gus’ henchmen) unless Gus hopes to use him as a pawn in an even bigger game. Considering that Gus has never thought much of Jesse, and considering that he’s always been the one person in the show who can see just where all of the pieces sit, it mostly makes sense that he would be pushing for this unconventional solution. But, again, this all could have another explanation, or Gus could just be trying to shake things up randomly.

That’s the problem with having one character who controls so much of the story without really getting to see his point-of-view: It makes so much of what happens (and whether it works) dependent on the final reveal of what that character’s grand master plan was. There are plenty of ways to make this work well (again, I’d point you to that reveal of Gus’ ultimate plan last season). There are plenty of ways to undercut that sense (like when we learned Ben really didn’t know everything he said he knew on “Lost”). And there are lots of ways to make that reveal ultimately unsatisfying (as when the writers of “Veronica Mars” attempted to retcon two seasons' worth of plot developments into one super-villain-esque character).

Now, I have all the faith in the world that the “Breaking Bad” writers will make this work and work perfectly. They’ve done it before, after all. Yet at the same time, the show this season is showing the puppet strings the writers use to pull the characters around more than it ever has. This doesn’t mean the show is now bad. It’s still one of the two or three best shows on TV. (Really, for shows on the air this summer, only “Louie” comes close.) But “Breaking Bad” at its best comes up with insane plot twists that somehow still seem perfectly rooted in character. When, say, Walter came up with the plan to kill Gale to preserve his and Jesse’s lives, it felt exactly like the call that character would make in that moment. It was a great plot twist, but it was also a moment where you nodded your head and said, “Of course!”

Now there are plot twists where it’s much easier to feel the hand of the writers involved. Take, for instance, Walter’s declaration at the end of Sunday night’s episode -– the one that sends Hank back into the murder case file to discover the Los Pollos Hermanos bag in Gale’s apartment. I totally buy that Walter, a conceited, prideful man who wants everyone to acknowledge how great he is, would bristle at the notion of Hank calling Gale a genius for work Walter did. Even though he knows it would be suicide to say he’s Heisenberg, Walter comes as close to that as he possibly can, suggesting the real Heisenberg just might be out there still, lurking. Again, this is the sort of thing the character would do, but look at how much busy work the writers have to do to get him to that point: He has to be drunk. He has to be bristling with hurt pride from what Hank says. He has to be run down to one of his lowest points yet, thanks to Jesse now working with Mike. He has to be rather feeling like the low man on the totem pole again, at work and at home (Skyler hyper-scheduling his life; Walter Jr. drinking out of a Beneke mug, etc.). (However, he did fall back into bed with Skyler, thanks to that message he left for her when he was pretty sure he was going to die, so his week hasn’t been all bad.)

There’s nothing here that’s totally unbelievable. Indeed, all of these plot points follow pretty readily from what’s been happening this season. But at the same time, nearly all of them come, one after the other, in this very episode, once again giving the whole thing a bit of a breathless feel. The writers have to work a little too hard to get Walter into that position, and even though the moment is beautifully played by Bryan Cranston and nicely written and perfectly directed (with that little zoom in as we hear Hank go on about Gale’s genius), there’s still the sense that it’s something that wasn’t arrived at wholly naturally, that everybody was pushed into place to get there.

Then again, that’s probably a natural offshoot of the fact that one of this season’s most significant players has yet to show all of his cards. Once Gus lays his cards on the table, then we’ll know if all of the build-up to that moment has been worth it or if the show will float off into space. Either way, I can’t wait to get there.


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-- Todd VanDerWerff

Photo: Jesse (Aaron Paul) finds himself going on a trip with Mike to make pick-ups. Credit: AMC