That pesky blubber. If it wasn't for that, he'd be Superman.

Binging Late (S2:E12) – Fireworks on the Train

by dougiedigital

Walter White laid it all bare in this episode.  Saul’s money laundering scheme was smart, but Walt could barely stomach the idea of not receiving credit for the money he “earned.”  He became even more irritated as Flynn grew excited with the money coming in.  And when the television news got interested in the story of a palsy-afflicted teenager crowd-funding his father’s cancer surgery through a feel-good website, it was almost too much for Walt.  If there was ever any doubt before – which there should not have been – Walter’s transformation into Heisenberg is not about the money, it’s not about securing his inadequately insured family, and it’s not about the thrill of the chase.  It’s about Walt living up to his megalomaniacal self-image and proving to the world that he’s every bit as smart as his classmate-turned-millionaire Elliott Schwartz.

Landlady Jane’s death was too tragic for me to really write much about.  I was impressed with the meticulous ambiguity the writers laid around Walt’s role in it.  Perhaps I never really got over the trauma of discussing Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. ad nauseam in my law school torts class, but there’s an awful lot to ponder surrounding the concept of cause in Jane’s retching death.  Did Walt cause her death by the act of rolling her over, or perhaps by omitting to help when it became clear she was choking on her own vomit?  Did Jesse cause her death by leading a known addict back to drug use?  Did Jane’s father cause her death by leaving her in a known drug den, with a known drug user, when he must have known she intended to go on one last bender before checking into rehab the next day?  Or did Jane simply cause her own death by administering her own overdose?

There’s plenty of blame to go around (though in a court of law, I suspect one would have a difficult time pinning either Jesse or Walt with liability).  I feel for Jane’s father, who will undoubtedly struggle to avoid blaming himself.  The same goes for Jesse.  Does Walt have enough humanity left to appreciate his own culpability?

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

Walt murdered Jane. After many re-watches and lots of time and endless discussions with other BrBd fans, that’s my take. That doesn’t foreclose the chance that he murdered her to save Jesse, rather than just to save himself. It’s unlikely, given what we know about Walt that it had anything to do with Jesse other than offering Walt another means of manipulating him. The more often and more ruthlessly he can break Jesse down, the easier Jesse is to knead into shape. He didn’t walk into the room with the intent of killing Jane (so first-degree murder is out) but he relished the chance when it presented itself.

The “Daddy did that for you” line was weird and sick when it happened a few months into this thing. It gets even more noxious as time goes on and Walt’s “it’s all about my family” excuse evaporates. I do like how it echoes the 1950s-ish male-as-breadwinner stereotype that continues to excuse legal-but-criminal behavior in the name of providing for a family.


Binging Late (S2:E11) – Dr. Feelgood

by dougiedigital

Watching Combo take one from a lil’ hopper, it was hard not to think back to Omar’s unbefitting demise on The Wire.  The parallels end with the unlikeliness of their juvenile assailants, so I won’t stretch it, but that teaser did take me back.

Remember back in Season One, when I wrote about the perils of cheering for villains who inevitably fail?  If there’s one set of characters even more frustrating to have an interest in, it has to be drug addicts.  As predictable as Landlady Jane’s relapse was once she identified herself as 18 months clean, and as understandable as Jesse’s turning to the needle was in light of Combo’s murder, watching their mutual descent into the black tar was excruciating.  In some ways, Jesse meeting Jane seemed like a very positive development for him: she made him happy, encouraged his creativity, and engaged his self-confidence.  Now that they’ve turned to enabling one another, there’s no way this ends well.

I feel compelled to toot my horn a little bit for nailing Walt’s rationale for keeping a clumsy lackey like Jesse around for as long as he has.  Giancarlo Esposito (does he have a name at this point?) brought it out, with Walt squarely admitting he put up with Jesse because he was obedient, and because he could be trusted.  Giancarlo Esposito also planted a hell of a seed, though, when he seared into all of our consciousness: “You can never trust a drug addict.”  Oops—looks like Walt wasn’t quite as smart as he thought he was.  Again.

RickBlainUSA’s Take:

Breaking Bad is full of moments where Walt is in a good position to call it quits and leave the path of death and destruction that his cooking has already wrought in the past. And by ‘good position,’ I mean that he achieved his original goal from the enterprise—he could (and should) quit regardless.

And so this episode leaves off at a place where Walter is on the verge of being in the most ideal place for doing so. I can’t remember what I wanted at the end of this episode. If Walt makes the score, then he should be done, right? What possible reason could he have to continue if he gets paid for his 42-lbs of meth?

It doesn’t seem that Doug is experiencing the same problem that the rest of the audience has throughout the series: The desire to root for Walt even as he makes decision after horrible decision, revealing his narcissism and disregard for anyone else in his life. I remember watching this episode and wanting him to make the drop and get his scrilla. But I certainly didn’t want the show to end, nor the swirling devolution of Walter White.

Binging Late (S2:E10) – Up In The Air

by dougiedigital

Walter White hit a new low in this episode with the stunt he pulled pressuring Flynn, against Hank’s objection, to get drunk on tequila before making an ass out of himself erupting during the party being thrown in his honor.  Meanwhile, Landlady’s Jane’s stunt of her own – pretending to barely know Jesse when her father stopped by and then blowing Jesse off when he called her on it – dropped her several notches in my book, as well.  Unlike Walt, Jane at least felt some compunction about what she did, and offered an olive branch in the form of “Apology Girl.”

Walter’s obviously up to something, and probably something related to concealing his alter ego as a meth manufacturer, with his efforts to treat the “rot” underneath the White home.  Skyler’s obviously up to something, and probably something related to compensating for the love and affection she isn’t getting from her husband, with her efforts to appeal to Ted Beneke’s soft heart.  And Landlady Jane’s obviously up to something, and probably something related to her trepidation as a recovering addict getting involved with a drug pusher, with her blowing hot and cold towards Jesse.  There are a lot of open plot lines at this point; we must be building towards a dramatic end to the season.  I hope it explains the creepy pink teddy bear that keeps showing up in the flash-forward teasers at the beginning of these episodes.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

“Skyler, there’s rot!” Breaking Bad isn’t a show that I associate with being quite so on the nose. Even another (like last week) perfectly executed Jesse-and-Walt-alone episode in the 4th season which stretches a metaphor about as far as it can go didn’t feel like pandering to the symbolism spotters among us. But Walt cutting into that rot certainly did: “Hey guys, it’s Walt that’s rotting. Get it?”

There’s a moment in a future episode when Walt takes a look at this reflection in that bend paper-towel dispenser he hammered with his fist after his doc told him the cancer was gone in “4 Days.” [Reflections are on-the-nose symbolism throughout, I guess.] Walt reacts in such a fascinating way to his clean bill of health. He punches that thing; then, at the party this episode, he says that ‘Why me?’ bit about the cancer and the remission; then he plies his son and himself with tequila; Jesse is as excited as a teenager for the release of the new Call of Duty and Walt is apathetic. Why is he so unhappy about not dying?

Death was liberating for Walt, I get it. But he does love his family, right? And didn’t he liberate himself by discovering—believing that he had only a few days left—that he could be the fucking best meth cook on earth? That should be the same now that he’s going to live. I suppose his excuse for cooking is gone with the erasure of the death sentence, which means that he will have to now confront his true motivations for doing so. And in the brief time period between cooking up tons of shit+finding out his cancer is gone+quitting the meth game and getting back in it, Walt is stuck in a netherworld where he’s tasted the power [“Stay out of my territory.”] and excitement but has had his excuse for doing so ripped out from under him.

“We’ve got rot. And it’s on a rampage.”

Binging Late (S2:E9) – Time Warp

by dougiedigital

This was a difficult episode for me.  It centered around Walt waiting for the results of his cancer tests, and the multi-day meth cooking-binge-turned-fiasco he undertook with Jesse in the desert in the meantime.  Because I’ve come to really despise Walter White, it was difficult for me to muster up any feeling over the results of his tests, one way or another.  It’s not so much that I want him to die as it is that I really don’t care what happens to him as long as he stops hurting other people, which does not seem likely.  His health really doesn’t concern me in the least.

One thing I did begin to realize during this episode is that I feel like I’ve lost track of time with this show.  How much time has elapsed from the date of the first episode, when Walt first got his cancer diagnosis, until now?  Six weeks?  Six months?  A year?  Any of these answers seems plausible.  I’m not sure it really matters a lot, in that the characters and the narrative hold up regardless, but it feels strange to me to have invested 16 episodes worth of viewing now into a story while having this little sense of how much time those 16 episodes cover.  My method of watching these shows – binge-watching episodes that would have originally aired over the course of two seasons in the span of two weeks – probably exacerbates this.

Does anyone know the answer, by the way?

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

[The time-stretching is one of the most remarkable parts of the show, and the source of great consternation late in the game when months are glossed over. At this point, I’m thinking we’re just a few months into things (after Walt’s 50th birthday and cancer diagnosis) but I haven’t done the math.]

This episode is up in the BrBd Hall of Fame. It might be the episode I’d hand over if I had to pick one that embodies the best the show has to offer. Like usual, I didn’t re-watch for this response, but I can see the gorgeous visuals of the RV in the middle of nowhere and feel the excitement, then panic, then resignation, then thrill that those guys experience over four days.

And as Jesse and Walt go through more and more shit together, and you wonder how and why Jesse keeps agreeing to work with Walt, and why Walt insists on Jesse as his partner, you can watch this episode again and be reminded what each means to the other. It’s full of brilliant nuggets—”All the lies. I can’t even keep them straight in my head anymore.” “A robot. A dune buggy.”—and a MacGyver escape. But really it’s just that they are out there, alone, desperately making meth as team, with Walt the father/teacher and Jesse the son/student. The comedy and tragedy of the whole series is in there.

Sidenote: If you hated Walt when he was making meth in the middle of the desert when he thought he was about to die and just trying to break off a nest egg for his family, I cannot begin to imagine how much you’ll hate him as you progress through this series.

Binging Late (S2:E8) – A Criminal Lawyer

by dougiedigital

We met Saul Goodman in this episode. Oh, what a character.  Or, should I say, caricature.  What is it with TV and movie depictions of lawyers?  Given the complexity of other characters on the show, I really expected more from Breaking Bad than it delivered on this one.  One episode in, the piñata-for-the-legal-profession that is Saul Goodman has all the typical trappings: the under-produced, cheesy TV commercial; the rhyming slogan; the grotesque, gaudy suit; the comb-over; the shady references to ethical scriptures; the unflinching willingness to violate those scriptures behind the guise of smart-sounding [but incorrect] technical premises; the obnoxious jokes about Jews and the legal profession.

It’s not so much that I take this personally.  I don’t take any particular pride in being a lawyer, nor do I take any particular shame in it.  It’s my job; not my identity.  But I’m nonetheless curious why TV producers do this, and why audiences seem to eat it up.  Since I undertook my legal career over ten years ago, I’ve met hundreds, and probably thousands, of attorneys—and I can’t remember one of them that is remotely like Saul Goodman.  There are certainly generalizations of lawyers, many of them unpleasant, that are rooted in reality: many of us are conflict-seekers; many aren’t very good listeners; many have “Type A” personalities.  There’s plenty of material for TV writers to work with if they want to stereotype lawyers, and plenty to do so disparagingly.  Yet, instead of working with this material, TV invariably reverts to other perceptions of lawyers that are probably no more true than they are with respect to the population-at-large (or certainly with respect to other professions that are not as cartoonishly depicted): dishonest, vain, supercilious.

Oh well.  I did, at least, appreciate that this episode managed to reference two of the greatest films in American history: Apocalypse Now and The Godfather.  Go figure that with Tom Hagen, Mario Puzo managed to craft a “criminal lawyer” without resorting to trope.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

Saul is a caricature, to be sure. But you currently live in a town that has (by my rough estimate) 450 billboards, bus signs, bus-stop signs, and other means of advertising the same “Call Attorney ___”, including, as my spouse and I discovered last night, two such billboards side-by-side along University between Texas and Park going west. Is there any more lame stereotype brought to life than that?

But the criticisms of Saul from a reality perspective are legit, and are a good reminder that this show isn’t a portrait of reality. As I beat to death in my post about the finale, Breaking Bad has never operated in the realm of realism, or pretended to. It’s a ridiculous fantasy world only grounded by its methodical plot, characterization, and incredible acting, which Bob Odenkirk provides for Saul. (No doubt injecting more humor in addition to Badger and Skinny Pete made Saul so popular. In a show that is plumbing the darkest of the dark lurking human motivations and emotions, it’s nice to have another guy to laugh at.)

He also bridges Walt to the world that he isn’t prepared for and hardly appreciates exists. That’s the running theme of most of Season 2, and even, to some extent, the entire series. (Saul is also a convenient god in the machine for a few plot devices, to varying degrees of success.)

Binging Late (S2:E7) – Bonds

by dougiedigital

To those of us who watched it, the scene inside Gretchen and Spooge’s den of despair drove home the humanity and empathy that separate Jesse from Walt.  To those who heard about it on the streets, it apparently drove home that Jesse is a bad dude not to be messed with.  I’d expect that this kind of reputation comes with a host of undesirable trappings, including amplified police attention and challenges from rival toughguys.  For now, at least, it seems to be all upside for Jesse and his rag-tag army of pushers.

A few episodes back, Jesse finally stood up to Walt.  Even at the time it felt a turning point in their relationship.  It took getting kicked out of his house, falling into a porta-potty, and enduring more of Walter’s abuse to get there, but Jesse finally reached his breaking point and physically demonstrated to his “partner” he wasn’t going to take it anymore.  While Walt was his typical detached dick self when he first heard of all Jesse endured in order to “take care of it,” he seemed to take on at least some degree of respect and appreciation for Jesse’s efforts when he learned the streets is watching.  Hopefully all of this signifies a trend for them both, as between Jesse’s spinelessness and Walter’s opposite condition, I was starting to lose interest in what happened to either one of them.

On the subject of Walter’s condition, I’m not really sure yet what to call it.  What’s the right phrase for someone who recently learned he is prematurely dying of terminal lung cancer, and yet behaves like such a self-pitying, self-destructive, self-absorbed asshole that you can scarcely muster an ounce of pity?  “Narcissist” lets him off too easy, and only partially acknowledges the depth of Walter’s raging anti-social behavior.  “Asshole” is way too generic.  For now, I’m going with “human paraquat,” with a nod to Jeffrey Lebowski.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

I never thought this show played Hank’s PTSD quite right. In some ways, it was just difficult for the show to create a character as rich as Hank was meant to be in a world with Jesse, Walt, and [upcoming big bad]. Those guys sucked up so much oxygen that Hank’s story got lost (like Marie’s) even though the show ostensibly paid attention to it.

This episode, where so much of Hank is revealed and developed—his narrow view of the enemy, his political ineptitude, his PTSD—felt like an afterthought, a one-time dump of character exposition that served primarily to contrast the dangerous world Walt and Jesse are entering with their newfound confidence. Hank can seem as though his character only exists as it does because his cluelessness of Walt has to be explained somehow. And what better way to show that than the way he mocks his new crew for appreciating that the cartel prays to the same god they do.

Binging Late (S2:E6) – Beetle Juice

by dougiedigital

No one will ever accuse this show of not being sufficiently raw.  As if just the scene of the junkies’ shooting gallery of a home wasn’t distressing enough, and as if their mutually toxic treatment of one another wasn’t even more disgusting, the preceding horrors were all tame by comparison to the graphic atrocity we observed when Gretchen spooged Spooge’s head by dropping an ATM on it.  Then, just to add another level of fiendishness to the scene, all of this goes on with 3-year old boy in the house, and the boy just happens to have red hair, pale skin, and freckles?!  That ginger now haunts me, as it must haunt Jesse.  Linking this imagery back to the beetle Skinny Pete smooshed during the teaser makes it all the more mortifying.

Just when I think my esteem for Walter White cannot sink any lower, he goes and surprises me with his profane send-off to Gretchen.  Aside from being a repugnant way to treat someone who has tried only to help, it’s also a terrible way to cajole her cooperation in his lie.  In an episode in which we saw a woman crush her husband’s head with a cash machine for calling her a skank, Walter’s rage was probably the rawest thing of all.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

“That’s your excuse to build your empire on my work?” You identify that lunch scene as the rawest thing in an episode that depicts the ravages of meth use, and it is. Walt’s rage about the status of his life compared to his old friends is concretely established in that scene. He believes that he was used by them, and his work and research that launched Gray Matter. In retrospect, I think that scene–and its importance to the way Walter operates and his never-ending quest for more–was lost in this episode because the stuff with Jesse and the little ginger and the crushed head was so graphic, and disturbing, and memorable. As far as importance to the rest of the series, the Gretchen-Walt revelations undergird everything that follows, while the ATM tragedy isn’t much more than a brief reminder of the final victims of Walt & Jesse’s cooking.

Since the episode contrasted lives on opposite sides of the social and economic spectrum (a Bentley is as far to the 0.1% as it gets), I think it’s a fair time to renew my argument that a just-below-surface, subversive theme of the show is the deleterious consequences of the post-bust economic stratification. The show makes it explicit in both Walt (who is employed at a government job) needing someone to pay for his medical bills, and that there are individuals who have so much wealth that paying for those bills is nothing more than leaving a tip. Walt’s desperation leads him to cook meth, which finds its way to other people similarly fucked by America’s love for tax breaks instead of social services and financial bailouts instead of health care.

Binging Late (S2:E5) – A Fugue State

by dougiedigital

Jesse slipped back in to bitch mode in this episode, limping off with his tail between his legs when Walter responded to his “breakage” analysis by drawing inspiration from Tuco’s preferred means of loss-prevention and later instructing him to “handle it.”  Some regression was inevitable, I suppose, and shouldn’t overshadow the significant steps Jesse took in the previous episode towards putting his pushy partner in his place.

Whatever disappointment I might have felt in Jesse sliding into old habits, Skyler more than made up for.  It took her a while, but she’s finally giving Walter the shut-down treatment he deserves and mirroring his own withholding ways.  Walt would probably be smart to view this as an opportunity to cut back on all the butt kissing, with there now having emerged a full-fledged “fight” he can hide behind and to which he can attribute ignoring his wife.  But as smart as he seems to be when it comes to chemistry and analytic problem solving, Mr. White is just as big a dolt in the realm of human relationships and reading social cues.  (In many ways, Jesse is his obverse in this regard.)  So, Walt doubles down on the sycophantic favors, like flipping up flapjacks for breakfast, stupidly unaware why they aren’t working.

I was a bit disappointed Walter seemed to buy into Skyler’s claim that she smoked only three-and-a-half cigarettes before tossing the pack.  Nicotine’s addictive nature is common knowledge, and it’s not at all plausible that someone would take up smoking during pregnancy, no matter how unnerved and stressed out she is.  Even more to the point, the link between smoking during pregnancy and cerebral palsy is well understood, and the last I checked, Walter Jr. . . .  This one is so obvious that I can only assume the show’s writers are setting us up for some drama down the line.  It’s just not plausible that a mind as sharp as Walter’s would have missed it.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

I wonder if it’s the difference between reading the episode recap in 3 minutes vs. watching 48 minutes of action that makes me see connections in episodes that I don’t remember appreciating at the time.  This project would probably make more sense if I watched the episodes too, especially since I could comment on the visuals (although I do remember a lot of them, like the grill from the start and finish of this episode). Anyway: the contrast between Hank suffering dramatically from being forced to kill Tuco and Walt forcing Jesse to take a gun to some random meth-heads never resonated quite so much.  Walt keeping his distance from the real ugliness of his chosen profession, while Hank is ‘promoted’ into getting knee-deep in some real shit.

It would be fun, and sad, to just collect Jesse’s offhand comments about how badly Walt fucked his life up.  We’re barely into things, and he’s already recognizing how simple and easy his life was before Heisenberg showed up (“I sure as hell didn’t find myself locked in a trunk or on my knees with a gun to my head before your greedy old ass came along. You need me more than I need you.”).  In the end, everything is K-Mart breakage to Walt’s plans.

Binging Late (S2:E4) – A Good Time to Talk

by dougiedigital

I was so hopeful, when Jesse cornered Skyler into a sit-down, that he was finally going to come clean.  With all that he’s up against trying to cover his lie from an increasingly skeptical wife and son, and with his claimed motive being to bestow them with riches anyway, what has Walt really got to lose spilling the beans to his spouse at this point?  It’s not like Sklyer is likely to go run and tell the law (Hank notwithstanding) if her cancer-ridden husband admits to a secret life as a meth chef, is it?  And even if she were, Walt was clever enough to understand the doctor-patient privilege; hasn’t he heard of the spousal communications privilege?

At this point, as a viewer, the whole double-life thing feels like it’s just getting in the way of Walter’s passion-du-jour.  RickBlaineUSA made an interesting comparison with respect to the S1:E5 entry, remarking that The Sopranos was a family drama, while in many ways Breaking Bad is just the opposite.  The most salient difference, from my perspective, is that unlike Walter White, Tony Soprano let his family in on his criminality.  He didn’t exactly wallow in it in front of his kids, but Tony allowed Carmela into his world in a way that seems anathema to Walt.

Mr. White could learn a thing or two from his New Jersey counterpart.  He’s digging his hole deeper with every missed opportunity to come clean, exacerbating his own angst and increasing the possibility his increasingly estranged wife sells him out in the process.  For a guy that fancies himself a scientific genius, and a Machiavellian mastermind, Walter White sure is a social nincompoop.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

I hadn’t appreciated this episode’s theme of partnership until now.  Jesse wants his portion of the money (“50-50 partners”); Skyler wants Walt to tell the truth (“Shut up and say something that isn’t complete bullshit”); Jesse’s parents just want him to get clean; Jesse’s buddy is okay with him staying, but his spouse isn’t.  The necessity of give and take in partnership, along with absolutely honesty and open communication, is impossible for Walt.  He wants everything to be like chemistry: He makes the decisions and sets things into motion, and everything falls in line. Much later in the series, Walt explains how he knows a plan worked by saying “Because I said so.”  It was ridiculous comment at the time, revealing how drunk on his own powers he had become.  But isn’t that his basic approach to Skyler and Jesse?

Binging Late (S2:E3) – Clever Tales

by dougiedigital

After being abducted from in front of our homes by a meth-addled maniac toting an M-16, most of us would be relieved to have made it out of the situation alive.  For Walter and Jesse, surviving such an ordeal was only half the fun, as we learned in this episode.  Now they have to explain where they were, and how Jesse’s car arrived on the scene.

As clever as their respective lies were, they’re both lucky that they worked as they did.  Tio could have rolled over on them in an instant had he been so inclined.  Both must have fingerprints all over the place.  The police should easily ascertain that two others were at the home from the extra plates left on the table.  It’s not like Walt and Jesse really did a bang-up job loosely burying their handgun 2 inches deep a short distance away from the house.  And I’m still baffled that Hank and his partner didn’t think about checking the trash in Jesse’s hotel room for Funion and Hot Pocket wrappers.

The improbable efficacy of their lies notwithstanding, this episode let me feeling irritated, and pissed off.  Jesse’s story was straightforward, and harmless enough.  But Walter’s tale managed to take what should have been a relief for his family (his return after mysteriously disappearing) and turn it into something even more stressful for them (an inexplicable mental break).  At this point, Walt is just torturing them.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

I remember Walt’s cover-up bothering me for being completely implausible.  A fugue state? I don’t think I’d heard of that before this episode, and certainly not since.

But maybe that was the point. Walt’s character is essentially defined by the lies he’s willing to tell about the things he’s willing to do.  Skyler’s character is essentially defined by her willingness to accept those lies (and, later, her reaction to the truth).  Hank’s character is essentially defined by is inability to see through those lies.  So the fugue state is the first hyper-absurd story that Walt concocts, and that these characters are asked to swallow.  It sets the precedent for Walt’s M.O. going forward: he will use his preternatural ability to lie to his advantage with his family, Hank, Jesse, and his business partners/rivals.