You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Tuesday, 13 August 2013


  Looks like I'm going to need a new title for the site.



To compare Breaking Bad to a chemical reaction, as seems appropriate given the protagonist's forte and the changes he undergoes, it would have to be a gas explosion. It can seen that there's not much going on - Walt and Skyler work the car wash, Jesse zones out with his druggie mates - even as the show subtly builds tension - with glances, inferences, words unsaid - till it reaches saturation point. All it takes then is a single spark to unleash a reservoir of destruction. Like a gas explosion, too, you might know its coming but you can never predict the moment of its arrival or what might set it off.

Picking up on the cold open that started the season - a scrawny Walter White with a full head of hair purchases an M60 machinegun in the bathroom of a diner while under the alias of Lambert, Skyler's maiden name - we now see that journey take him to 308 Negro Arroyo Lane, the White family home. Except it no longer is. From the skaters shredding in the dried-out swimming pool - the image of which kicks the episode off - to the single word 'HEISENBERG' graffiti'd across the kitchen wall, its clear that something terrible has happened. 

Walt recovers the vial of Chekhov's ricin hidden in a plug socket in the master bedroom, concocted midway through Season 4 to vanquish the now long-dead Gus, only adding, it seems, to his already formidable arsenal. Might the poison be for him after he's accomplished this one final deed? In any case, given the dilapidated house and the terrified reaction of his neighbor Carol to his presence on the driveway, it seems Walt has achieved the fame or notoriety he secretly longed for. 

Which is strange when you consider the opening act of 'Blood Money' goes out of its way to establish Walt's effort to live a (semi-)normal life, micromanaging the car wash and suggesting to Skylar that they consider buying another: modest ambitions for a man who recently declared he was in the empire business. Still, though he appears content to fade into the background in wishing his customer's "an A1 day!", Mike's alter-ego coldly reasserts itself, refusing to help the hapless Lydia with her now-failing meth exportation business.

Though she implores him, offering him money and a return to the kingpin lifestyle, Walt, it seems, has no interest in returning to the drug trade. He has made his decision, and, as always, presents himself as a man in control of his own destiny. The tragedy of Walt, however, as we all know, is that he isn't, he never has been: we've watched over five seasons as a desperate scheme to cook up illicit substances to provide for his family in the wake of his it-seemed-then inevitable death has spiraled into murder and megalomania all because of Walt's ego, his sense of thwarted ambition.

On the other side of the toilet door, Hank finds himself confronted in hardback form by the likelihood of his brother-in-law's crimes. There's an extended track-in on said door and before it opens Hank has become a changed man. He can't stomach dinner with the family, making hurried excuses as to illness, let alone look Walter in the eye. His disorientation spins off into a full-blown panic attack while driving, which Dean Norris, one of the cast's less-praised members, sells completely. We buy his determined sense of industry as he sorts through the Heisenberg case file. 
Instead of Breaking Bad's usual time-lapse style of montage, this sequence - set to Jim White's Wordmule - takes place in "real time", capturing every moment of Hank's reinvestigation as inspects documents and photographs through wiser, more focused eyes. A blurry CCTV capture of Walt and Jesse stealing the barrel of methylamine all the way back in the finale of Season 1 coheres so that we can almost imagine that Hank could almost recognize his ski-masked brother-in-law. As if a handwriting analysis with Gale's notebook hadn't already confirmed Walt's connection to Gale's "other favorite" W.W. Hank is through the looking-glass now and cannot choose to look away.

After so much of a slow burn - five seasons, fifty-four episodes to uncover the truth - that Walt precipitates the conflict is a testament to his that same tragic flaw, but also to the tremendous ability of the whole writing team, in this case Peter Gould, that it could seem so shocking and yet so inevitable. 

Before 'Blood Money' gets to that point, however, there remains the small matter of Jesse Pinkman. For Walt, self-awareness remains ever elusive - or indeed, illusive: in the bedroom mirror of his trashed family home, his reflection is refracted, as though, after everything, he still can't quite see himself for who he really is. For Jesse, however, his understanding of and sense of accountability for the sins he has committed is all-too real. 

As such, we find Jesse in a similar place physically as many times before, hanging out with Skinny Pete and Badger in his pad. Though Jesse may be "present" for Badger's telling of a hilariously cheesy and unexpectedly gory piece of Star Trek fan fiction, as well as Skinny Pete's technically accurate explanation of the transport system - "It's science, bitch!" - safe to say that Jesse is not all there. That is till Walt makes an unexpected appearance.

Summoned by Jesse's attempt to offload his meth riches to worthy causes, including the family of the murdered kid from "Dead Freight", via Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk on cheerfully immoral form, though lamenting the death of a lawyer in Walt's murder spree in the mid-season finale), Walt confronts him with supposed understanding. Through transparent lies about Mike's well-being and generally unwanted logic, Pinkman can do nothing but sit in disgust and self-loathing and play along. 

Walt's hollow plea for trust shows how lost his former protege is to him: after all, as Walt himself once said in a fit of pique, the meth money is blood money and with it comes guilt over all those who shed that blood. Jesse's ridding himself off that money, tossing it in bundles from a moving vehicle, shows his desperate need to be free of it all. As the saying goes, Jesse is in blood stepp'd in so far, that should he wade no more... In short, he's trapped, haunted and unraveling. 

In Jesse's puffy, bleary-eyed face, however, I thought I saw a glimpse of the same weary contempt that Mike once embodied. For the distinct threat to Walt's security that Hank's become, the possibility of danger from the direction of Lydia and her dissatisfied clients, could Walt's downfall lie in his student who paid for his education with his piece of mind and perhaps his very soul?

The whole episode builds to a head when Walt casually approaches Hank with the tracking device Walt found attached to his car, which he recognizes as Hank's from their joint stake out of Gus Fring. Having paid a friendly visit to the ostensibly ill Hank - the DEA agent could hardly reveal the real reason for his car accident - Walt's pride will not let him let it lie. 

Walt's need to impress with his own canniness, his intractability could be mistaken for a panicked gambit - after all, he has reason to believe Hank has discovered that incriminating copy of Leaves of Grass, so arrogantly left as bathroom reading - but Bryan Cranston's calculated performance makes his motives perfectly clear. He’s halfway out the garage door and you can see the wheels turning in his head when he turns and asks the question. After all he's been through, perhaps more so since his abrupt exit from the empire business, Walt has to be seen as the cleverest man in the room.

Then the long-awaited yet strangely unexpected explosion arrives: Hank hits him, hits Walt, the man he once so fondly referred to as a brainiac, a geek. Always a fragile, impossible state of affairs, it's a miracle Walt's deception lasted as long as it did, but Hank has paid for it. "Heisenberg? Heisenberg. You lying, two-faced sack of shit", he practically snarls at Walt, gripping him by the collar. Walt delicately fends him off, playing the conciliator, warning him about the harm he could cause with "wild accusations". 

Even having shown his true colors, Walt remains unpredictable, moving briskly from eliciting sympathy - his cancer's back, he's on chemo, he's fighting like hell - to bald rationalizations - even if Hank could convince anyone, Walt'll be dead before he can be jailed. Recriminatory yet strangely resigned, Hank makes a gesture - "Have Skyler bring the kids here then we'll talk" - at which point Walt reveals that other face: the cold, almost serpentine gaze of Heisenberg. "That's not going to happen."

Hank's "I don't even know who you are" is heartbreaking, the realization that this man whom he has cared for and supported is a monster - a monster who drove into oncoming traffic to keep them away from Gus' lab; Walt's response, that perhaps Hank should "tread lightly" says it all. Walt has gone from a man intimidated by Hank's firearm to one willing, albeit implicitly, to threaten his brother-in-law's life. Would Walt kill Hank? We don't know - anything is terrifyingly possible with the almost outright villain Walt's become.

As such, the return of Walt’s cancer feels inevitable, less divine punishment than an almost Nietzschean feeling of “this is how life goes”. Ironic, perhaps, that the thing that consumed him, physically and psychologically, in the first season, that provided the impetus for the whole show, has now almost been pinched out of the plot: a spate of vomiting may have uncovered the loss of Gale's gift, but - given his hair has returned by the time of the cold open - we cannot honestly believe that it's cancer that will ultimately bring Walt's machinations to an end. 

Still, even as Walt tries to weasel out of paying his dues, we finds ourselves strangely back where we began: Jesse, the self-loathing addict (ultimately, to what is Jesse addicted if not guilt?"; Skyler, the self-possessed matriarch of the White household; and though Walt may have millions at his disposal, how can he lavish himself while laundering his money at $14.95 a pop? He may have spoken in self-preservation, but Walt's words rings true: for now he is just a dying man running a car wash. Nothing has changed yet, of course, everything has: Walt's cancer diagnosis may, we suppose, have curtailed his dream of running an empire, but the desire remains untouched. The nebbish has become a supervillain and there's no going back. 

There are no moral forces at play here, just chemistry: the change has occurred and cannot be undone. All of the incidents we've seen so far - Gus' removal, the deaths of twelve would-be informants, the skirmish with Hank - are all just gas pockets en route to the final cataclysm: these are all just small parts of what Breaking Bad is truly about. Mr. Chips may not have become Scarface as showrunner Vince Gilligan promised - not quite yet at least - but Walt has a bloody big gun and the world that once, however briefly was his, is coming for him. 

One thing's for certain: his name will be remembered.

Seven episodes to go. Here's the promo for the next:

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