So much for picking up where we left off.
Last week's Breaking Bad was so breathless, its final moments so shocking, that the desire to put the world on pause until 10 p.m. the following Sunday and start up again from the very next second was almost physical. Instead, the show presented us with a fait accompli. No desert, no train track, no immediate follow-up. No last-ditch effort to save the young eyewitness's life. No arguments over how to cover up the evidence. No screaming by Jesse, no rationalizations by Walt, no retaliatory execution of the murderous Todd by Mike.
Nope, "Buyout" (directed by Colin Bucksey from a Gennifer Hutchison script) begins with a wordless sequence in which the gang, Todd included, methodically dismantle and dissolve the kid's dirtbike – and then, implicitly, the kid. Sure, Jesse gets a lick in, and Todd gets a chance to plead his case, but the key decisions were all already made: Even in Todd's case, Jesse has no desire to kill someone if it can be avoided in any way, and even in the case of a dead child, Walt is willing to whistle past any grave on his way to an empire. It's a gutsy move to deliver a moment that shocking, then immediately remove us from that moment and show us how little has changed because of it. (Todd still hangs on to his telltale tarantula and everything, the dunce.) That kind of confidence in the audience's willingness to accept the unexpected is, well, what you expect from Breaking Bad. Other elements of this episode . . . weren't.
Last week's episode came in for some criticism over the plausibility of Walt and company's great train robbery, criticism I find misguided. After all, it's hardly the first, or even the most, outlandish scheme these characters have concocted. Gus Fring's pool party at Don Eladio's house, Walt's "fugue state" alibi, the magnet raid, and the entire chain of events that led from Walt spotting the Lily of the Valley plant in his backyard to Tio Salamanca's nursing-home suicide bombing all required the same uncanny combination of skill, timing, foresight and massive amounts of luck to pull off as the methylamine routine. It's easy, and I'd say correct, not to nitpick the details as long as the result is compelling drama in which everyone involved acts in character and within the bounds of recognizable, reasonable human behavior.
That's where "Buyout" stumbles. Do you buy that a pro like Mike, after confirming his suspicions that Walt might try to pull a fast one and then babysitting the guy all night, gun at the ready, would turn around and go "Hey, look at the time, I gotta go take care of something, sit tight"? Or that the extent of his precautions upon leaving a man he believes to be both a genius and a ticking time bomb alone with the key to his entire future would be cuffing the guy to the radiator? The shakiness of this storyline even had me questioning – well, OK, shouting "oh COME ON" at the screen – Mike's decision not to pull the trigger at the end of the episode. It took a while for me to reflect that if Mike wanted his methylamine, his money, the continued loyalty of his guys and the future security of his granddaughter, he had no other choice. Aside from that, though, Mike's uncharacteristically careless behavior was the first time in a long time I've felt like the writers of Breaking Bad made something happen because they needed it to, not because it needed to.
I had a similar problem with Walt's Gray Matter speech, or as we'd call it in the superhero comics business, "The Secret Origin of Walter White." It's perfectly plausible that Walt's failure to get in on the ground floor with the multi-billion-dollar corporation he co-founded is the Big Mistake he's been trying to correct by proxy with his meth operation all along, particularly if he feels the circumstances of his departure from the partnership were unjust, since he obviously loves feeling wronged. (Although from the sound of his final conversation with Gretchen a few seasons back, Walt left both her and the company, not the other way around.)
But making this an explicit motivation five seasons in, while Walt is in full supervillain mode and ranting about being in "the empire business," feels tidy in a way that life itself rarely does. It's a bit like the old origin for Lex Luthor, in which he becomes Superman's arch-nemesis because he thinks the hero blew away his hair while saving him from a laboratory fire. (Which, don't get me wrong, is the best possible origin for Lex Luthor, but not for Walter White.) I preferred when the Gray Matter situation was part of a stew of resentments and failures that made Walt into what he is, rather than a "Want to know how I got these scars?" speech.
Actually, the best thing about the Joker's origin story from The Dark Knight was that there were two of them, directly contradicting each other, with an implied plethora in reserve. It gave lie to the entire notion that you can pinpoint a person's development to a single formative moment. I'm not saying such moments can't happen, that single decisions or events can't radically reorder your life – just that getting from point A to point B is rarely a single straight line. Even now, when Walt's life has been peppered with points of no return (the decision to cook meth, the killing of Krazy-8 and Jane and Gale, the crawlspace crackup, poisoning Brock and killing Gus), it's both inadvisable and impossible to point to just one and say "Well, that explains it," but that's what the positioning of this speech under these circumstances tries to do.
Still, so much of the pleasure of Breaking Bad is found in isolated moments of power in its cast's performances that it's hard to come away from this episode thinking it's a total loss. Mike sitting on the park bench, watching his granddaughter, being watched by the DEA, no doubt thinking of the child whose body he destroyed the night before, his craggy face and wet eyes conveying an army of conflicting emotions that combine to form a Voltron of weariness. Skyler finding out that Walt ratted out her infidelity to Marie, a smile of pure "You've got to be shitting me" dark humor flitting across her face before she takes the opportunity it provides her to avoid confessing her true crimes, then later throwing it in Walt's face in front of his adoring apprentice. Jesse juxtaposed with Todd as they stand around smoking, two handsome young criminals, one completely gutted, the other feeling nothing more severe then "Jeez, I guess I should say something." Jesse juxtaposed with Skyler as they eat a joyless dinner, a person who suspects that something has really gone wrong with Mr. White but still puts on a brave face and a person who knows it for a certainty and can no longer be bothered to pretend otherwise. Mike and Jesse's tense standoff with Declan, quietly haggling over 666 gallons of methyalmine – the precursor of the beast. And Walt himself, resplendently malignant in a living room with lighting from the Gordon Willis Collection, slumped self-pityingly in his upholstered throne, muttering "This business is all I have left now," never understanding that this business is why this business is all he has left now.
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