Tuned In

Breaking Bad Watch: Learning from the Master

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Spoilers for last night’s Breaking Bad coming up after the jump:

Last night’s episode of Breaking Bad was anchored by three remarkable monologues, by Walt, Jesse and Skyler. Each was styled as a confession of sorts: one true, one containing a lie, and one false, but revealing an uncomfortable truth in the process.

First, Walt, whose sitdown with Gus forced him not only to air out what he suspected—really, knew—about Gus’s involvement with Hank’s shooting but also to admit an ugly truth about himself. “If this man had his own source of product on this side of the border, he would have the market to himself. The rewards would be enormous. We’re both adults. I can’t pretend I don’t know that person was you. … I know I owe you my life. And more than that. I respect the strategy. In your position, I would have done the same.” [My italics.]

It’s a horrible admission, briefly deflected by a matter of business, and self-preservation. Walt’s rational mind also knows that he could easily become a loose end himself, and asks Gus what happens to him when their deal ends. Like that, Gus extends Walt’s deal indefinitely, and gives him a raise, to $15 million a year. And all he had to do was tacitly condone the brutal assault on his own brother-in-law. Driving away, the guilt overcomes him, and he nearly drives his car into a semi truck. (Incidentally, you’d think that he might upgrade his car at this juncture, but there are few TV characters as closely identified with their wheels as Walt.)

Aaron Paul, meanwhile, has an equally fine moment remembering his days in shop class for his recovery group, recalling how he responded to a teacher who looked at his (deliberately) shoddy wooden box and asked, “Is that the best you can do?” The result shouldn’t be surprising, since Jesse is not used to people expecting that he has any better in him. “I dunno. Maybe it was the way he said it. But it he wasn’t exactly saying it sucked. He was just asking me honestly, ‘Is that all you got?’ For some reason, I thought to myself, yeah, man I can do better.” Which may be why, after he recounts building his work of beauty, he can’t at first admit the truth: that he followed that up by reverting to form again, and trading the box for weed.

The message being that no matter how clean he gets, no matter how much he accomplishes, he still doesn’t trust himself not to screw it up all over again. And sure enough, angry over his pay and having to launder his money and pay taxes, Jesse—poor stupid Jesse—lashes out and decides to skim meth to sling on his own, threatening to become a problem Gus will need to deal with.

Finally, Skyler took my breath with her own “confession” to Marie, that Walt had made a pile of illicit money with which they could help her and Hank—not through drugs, but illegal gambling. At first it seems as though she’s talking too much, extending the tale too far—making the amateur liar’s mistake of giving away too much detail to get tripped up in. But you can see there’s more at work: in telling the story, she’s working through an elaborate metaphor that she’s developing to allow herself to process (and excuse?) Walt’s having turned to crime in the face of his cancer diagnosis. She wants to believe it can be over: “No more gambling.”

And yet when Walt volunteers how much money he’s made–“into seven figures”–she’s visibly shocked at the enormity, not just of the money but of his transformation. Lest Walt believe that the story means that she understands and forgives him, though, she says she came up with the story because “I learned from the best. Somehow, something tells me that Hank is here because of you. And I’m not forgetting that.”

Skyler has learned to lie like Walt. Is she learning to see through his lies as well?