“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there’s some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld
Like the stacks of cash in Walter White’s storage locker from which it took its title, “Blood Money,” the first episode of the last episodes of Breaking Bad‘s time on television, piled up the known knowns fast and high. Hank knows Walt is Heisenberg. Walt discovers his telltale gift from Gale is missing, finds a tracking device on his car, and now he knows that Hank knows. Walt visits Hank at his house and confronts him about the tracking device, and now Hank knows that Walt knows that Hank knows. Elsewhere, his demurrals to the contrary, Jesse observes Walt’s lack of concern about reprisals for his jailhouse massacre and knows Walt has killed Mike. Skyler observes a strange woman taking her rental car for a wash and knows she’s one of Walt’s associates. Walt needs a way to throw Hank for a loop and so now Hank knows Walt’s cancer is back. And so on, and so on.
It’s thrilling to watch a show stampede through revelations that could have been pointlessly slow-footed – to instead see it approach terminal plot-mechanic velocity as it approaches its destination – not least because it means we’re observing characters being kept on their toes. Walt, Skyler, Hank and Jesse all think and act quickly in this episode, from longtime BB writer Peter Gould and director/star Bryan Cranston. Make the audience privy to too much information the characters they’re watching don’t have access to and the audience naturally condescends to them. “Blood Money” evened the playing field – now we’re all playing with the same cards, and we’ll have to keep up round for round.
Like most of the genuinely Great TV Dramas (as opposed to their relentlessly dour imitators), Breaking Bad remains a very funny show. Hank, of course, discovered that his beloved brother-in-law Walt was his white whale Heisenberg while taking a shit; this time out, he calls an end to the cat-and-mouse game and wordlessly announces his intention to confront his nemesis by . . . closing the garage door. There’s something kind of hilarious about watching some suburban dude hit his garage-door opener button with all the steely-eyed gravitas of one of Walder Frey’s goons shutting the banquet hall doors to begin the Red Wedding, you know?
But there’s a certain technique Breaking Bad employes for laughs that speaks to a larger virtue of the show – that ability to root us in the present moment and force us to constantly evaluate what’s gone before, based on new information. Take the two cameos from Carol, Walt’s neighbor. We first see her in the flash-forward opening, reacting to Walt’s (re)appearance with mute, slack-jawed, goggle-eyed, grocery-dropping horror. The next time we see her get a big “Hello, Carol” from Walt takes place before the unknown shit hit the mystery fan; this time she’s all smiles, and we in the audience get a knowing chuckle out of it. Compare it to the Jesse & Jane flashback from a few seasons ago, when the future unwitting Bon Scott/John Bonham impersonator told her boyfriend she just threw up in her mouth a little bit. We know now what they didn’t know then, and it’s mordantly funny.
This is the great skill of Vince Gilligan and the other Breaking Bad writers: They make each line of dialogue, each beat of a scene, a link in a long chain of constructed meaning. Here, for example, is the final line of the hour, delivered with a halting deliberation by Cranston’s Walt after Hank tells him he doesn’t know who he is anymore: “If that’s true. If you don’t know who I am. Then maybe your best course . . . ” At this point (unless you’re eyeing the clock and know this conversation probably can’t run much longer), Walt could resume the pleading, attempting to play off Hank’s sympathy for his family and his cancer, right? Wrong: ” . . . would be to tread lightly.” The final part of the sentence, the message it conveys, the chillingly threatening yet matter-of-fact way he says it (Gus Fring would be proud) – this retroactively colors how we read the words and tone of the rest of the sentence. Now his hesitation seems mocking rather than uncertain, his tone of concern revealed to be a tone of concern trolling. The writing, and the performance, forces us to hang on every word, their collective meaning hidden until all the pieces are in place.
Run-of-the-mill TV dialogue is inert by comparison – a strictly functional way to convey an idea, to get a plot from point A to point B, to bang out a few zingers. In this episode that kind of thing is relegated to banter that the characters who are privy to the truth either fake or ignore: the idle chit-chat among Walt, Skyler and Marie when Hank returns poolside from the bathroom in a daze; the bogus smiley customer-service speak Walt employs to cover up the real nature of his conversation with Lydia; the lengthy and ridiculous Star Trek story Badger concocts (worth it for Skinny Pete’s look of genuine shock and awe when Chekov’s guts are beamed into space, but still). Scenes like Walt’s visit to Jesse’s house are what Breaking Bad is really interested in doing: Time slows to a crawl, and every word, every glance, every repeated phrase (“I need you to believe me”), every turn of the head away from the man who was once your partner is weaponized, capable of changing, or even ending, lives.
Inanimate objects frequently take on that kind of weight, too, as they’ve done since the show’s pink teddy bear days. An empty swimming pool. A book of poetry. A folded towel underneath the knees of a vomiting man. (Shades of Gus Fring in Don Eladio’s bathroom while his enemies died from their poisoned tequila, there.) Stacks of hundred dollar bills. A tracking device. That garage-door opener. Pretty much anything that occupies time and space in an episode of Breaking Bad is invested with some terrible power. Like Walt himself, you can’t afford not to pay attention. The unknown unknowns will kill you.