.

'Breaking Bad' Recap: Breaking Down

Things fall apart as a major character loses his magic touch

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman and Jonathan Banks as Mike in 'Breaking Bad.'
Ursula Coyote/AMC
August 27, 2012 9:30 AM ET

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, or so the saying goes. Breaking Bad seems determined to prove the inverse: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same results.

Which is ironic: After all, doing the same thing over and over with the same results is the basis of you're-goddamn-right-I'm-Heisenberg's venture into "the empire business." Given the right formula, the right ingredients and the right working conditions, Walt will produce a superior product every single time. That's correct, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go any farther than the four walls of a makeshift meth lab.

Written and directed by Thomas Schnauz, "Say My Name" saw the tried and true methods of Walt and his confederates fail where they'd succeeded in the past, time and time again. Walt pulled a fast one on Jesse during their tense desert negotiation with Declan over the methylamine, convinced he could persuade the kid to stay on board and take his money later on with the usual combination of ego-stroking, empathy bullshitting ("I am just as upset as you are") and emotional Achilles-heel-slashing. It's worked a dozen times before, right? Not this time. To Walt's disbelief – and he hasn't looked as ridiculous as he did in that moment of disbelief, standing in his bright orange coveralls and garden-gnome workboots, yelling at an empty room, since his tighty-whitey days – Jesse has a limit, and he's reached it. No carrot can persuade him, no stick can coerce him. Man, what a cathartic moment, to see Jesse leave the money and run.

Diminishing returns are a recurring problem, or problem-to-be, for Walt throughout the episode. He does his umpteenth tough-guy bluster routine to face down a dangerous druglord in a gorgeously golden desert, and indeed appears to do better than he did in similar past run-ins with Tuco or Gus, but his master plan has a Jesse-sized hole in it. He goes through the desperate house husband routine in Hank's office again and retrieves the bug he'd planted effortlessly, but only catches wind of Mike's impending arrest through sheer dumb luck. Skyler, of course, reached her Jesse point with Walt a few episodes ago, and now doesn't even bother to say a word when she departs from his grotesque simulacrum of the daily dinner routine. I wonder if Mike's death will be the Jesse point for Walt's remaining "YEAH WALT'S A BADASS WOOO" fans in the audience, too.

And the less said about apprentice-hungry Walt taking Todd under his wing as a new Jesse, the better. The old Walt surely would have been able to see that you run, not walk, away from a guy who views taking detailed notes, refusing payment until his skill set has been mastered and murdering a child as functionally interchangeable aspects of Doing a Job Well Done. But Walt has a routine, and if Tarantula Todd is what it takes to keep that routine going, so be it. The sickly green lighting of that sequence says all you need to know about what a poisonous idea this is.

Mike's lawyer/bagman Dan Wachsberger had a routine that had worked time and time again, too, right up until it didn't. Not even the bank employee's readily apparent, suspension-of-belief-defying lack of enthusiasm for Dan's gift of cake pops – seriously, I don't care if the DEA has just told you they're about to arrest a guy you've been friendly with forever, cake pops are delicious – tipped him off that something was wrong.

And you know, it's kind of tough to blame old Dan, who seems like no one's idea of a criminal mastermind. The blame must ultimately be pinned on Mike for leaving the undotted "i" of Dan's involvement with every Fring associate except him out there for a pattern-detecting brain like Hank's to pick up on. (The audio as Hank focuses on Mike's photos during the teleconference, blotting out all other external input, should be familiar to anyone who experiences attention deficit disorder as an almost superhuman ability to lock in on one thing and one thing only.)

Last week I found Mike's series of unfortunate decisions regarding Walt difficult to swallow. Now I wonder if Mike isn't simply too exhausted to be the flawless Mr. Fix-It he once was. Physically exhausted, yes, in the case of last week's episode, during which he pulled an all-nighter prior to his half-assed incarceration attempt with Walt; and perhaps in general, given that he is, as the marvelously grinning Gomie put it this week, a sad old man.

But it's the "sad" that's the kicker. Mike's just done, mentally and emotionally, and you can see it on his face. Chalk that up to Jonathan Banks's simply marvelous performance this season, particularly the two times when he was at the park with his granddaughter and realized the cops were there with him. His face cracked but didn't fall apart, his eyes watered but never quite teared up and overflowed, as if his years staying one step ahead of both the law and other criminals burned out his ability to have a good emotional breakdown. In this light, his hugely stupid decision to allow Walt to deliver his gun-laden go-bag instead of Jesse is the product of a mind running too hot for too long. He died as perhaps he'd prefer to have lived, sitting down, looking out at a lazy river, his last request just for some peace and quiet.

My concern is that what's true within the show is true of the show itself. Perhaps it's the necessarily brusque pacing of an eight-episode mini-season, but while it is of course completely goddamn rotten to see Mike go, I can't say that it stunned me, with surprise or with emotional power, the way the death scenes for Tuco, Jane, the Cousins, Gus or the boy on his bike did. This is a road we've been down, and this time around the signage was ample and clear, from this ep's position as the penultimate one in the penultimate season (a guaranteed spot for fireworks in today's prestige-drama era) to Mike's emergence with Skyler as the protagonists pitted against Walt's antagonist figure this year. That's a two-men-enter, one-man-leaves situation if ever there was one, and no matter how well the show misdirected during the scene itself – I absolutely thought Mike was getting out of there, with all the chances Walt had to pull a gun on him but didn't – it's tough to make the inevitable shocking.

Then again, maybe the show isn't trying to do the same thing it used to do over again. Maybe that air of exhausted inevitability is the only way a story like Walt's can end.

Last episode: The Aftermath Doesn't Add Up

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