Spoilers for Breaking Bad coming up:
One of the most fascinating dynamics on The Wire was the juxtaposition in season 3 of Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale and their approaches to running the drug business. Avon was old-school and driven by emotion and pride as well as money: you held your corners not just for the business, but because they were your corners. You got revenge not out of calculation but because it was deserved. Bell, on the other hand, tried to rationalize the business. You did what would maximize profit. You didn’t kill people just because you were pissed off. Nothing was personal; everything was business. The great thing about that season was how it showed the flaws in each approach. Barksdale’s approach led to hot-headed and often unnecessary bloodshed. Bell’s was theoretically more rational, but it could be crueler, it disrespected social codes (like no shooting on a Sunday morning), and it dispensed with loyalty.
In Breaking Bad, this has often been the dichotomy—though not as clear-cut—between Jesse (who acts out of agitation and passion) and Walter (who acts out of calculation, sometimes to the point of coldness). And at the end of “Half Measures,” Walter had to make a choice—in a big way.
The issue rises when Jesse comes to Walter, asking him to revive the ricin-assassination plan he had cooked up for Tuco, to get revenge on the men who had Combo murdered. “Tuco wanted to murder us,” Walter says. “These two guys don’t. Apples and oranges.” Jesse doesn’t buy it: “Combo was us. He was one of us. Does that mean nothing?” It’s not enough to move Walt: “Murder is not part of your 12 step program. It is not some amends that you have to make. This is pointless. It accomplishes nothing.”
Jesse can’t let it go, and in another of Aaron Paul’s fantastic performances this season, he shows us how the drive to get payback burns under his skin. Jesse doesn’t have Walt’s ability to compartmentalize; whether or not he knows the danger of the game he’s playing—and if he doesn’t by now, he must be denser even than he seemed—but to do otherwise, he believes, would just be wrong. Jesse is the longer-standing criminal of the pair, and yet, oddly, he’s much more motivated than Walt by morality, or, at least, by principle. (And in another echo of Stringer’s bloody reign on The Wire, we’ve seen that Jesse ultimately has a much harder time with killing, or being responsible for deaths, than Walt.)
Gus had already seen Jesse as a problem; with this run-in, it becomes increasingly clear that he is a problem that must be solved sooner rather than later. Mike sits Walt down to explain what Walt probably already knows is true: nothing is going to stop Jesse from taking a route that is unacceptable to Gus. And, as Mike explains starkly, everything that Walt has done to try to placate Jesse and bring him in, for his own good—cutting Gale loose and bringing on the far-less-qualified Jesse as a partner—is a “half measure.” And Mike, as he explains in a chilling monologue (something this season of Breaking Bad has had in spades), does not believe in half-measures; nor does his boss.
The message to Walt is clear, and he must know it: the most logical thing for him to do at this point, both from the standpoint of business and of self-preservation, is to cut Jesse loose. And after Jesse gets one more last chance from Gus, but is unable to hold himself back, Walt could do just that; he could leave Jesse to his own vengeance and, probably to get shot down on the street. But he can’t: in another jaw-dropping ending, Walt’s Aztek barrels into the two dealers, and he finishes the job that Jesse couldn’t by shooting one point-blank. He’s chosen loyalty to Jesse—and punishment for the murderers of both Combo and Combo’s young killer.
And now he has made himself a problem for Gus. What a gobsmacking setup for the finale of a great season. And now for the hail of bullets. Run:
* The big question that Walt’s cavalry appearance raises is: why? The obvious theory, as I set up at the top of this post, is that he finally found his point at which loyalty outweighed practicality. Deep down, he knows he has to make a choice, and he can’t choose these sleazeballs over Jesse. Practical or not, Jesse is “one of us.” But then again: it may also be that the rational Walt sees a practical reason that he has to cast his lot with Jesse. Jesse and he have a connection and history; they have loyalty. The coolly threatening Gus is the epitome of the Stringer Bell approach, and Walt must guess that his employment ends only one way: with a deadly pink slip. Emotion aside, Walt needs someone in all this who’s loyal, who is something approaching trustworthy, and for him that person, God help him, is Jesse.
* But there’s also the matter of little Tomas’ murder, one of the more chilling killings we’ve seen (or, at least, seen its aftermath) on Breaking Bad. It has seemed that there is not an innocent death that Walt cannot rationalize—he’s still anguished over the plane crash, which was much more enormous, but it’s not like that put him out of the drug business. Is the specific intentional murder of a specific child—by Gus’s employees if not on Gus’s direct orders—the one thing that Walt, a father, finally cannot tolerate?
* Conversely, speaking of Walt the family man, I was actually surprised that Walt didn’t react even more vehemently and explicitly to Skyler’s insistence on laundering his money. He has to worry for the safety of his family in his line of work to begin with. Keeping Skyler in the dark as much as possible must be about more than “plausible deniability,” or even keeping her out of jail; it’s about keeping her (and for that matter, his kids) alive, no?
* As I wrote last season, Breaking Bad is the king of the inventive pre-titles sequence, and this week’s was no exception. But this one—Jesse’s hooker friend going about her business to the tune of The Association’s “Windy”—had me at the verge of uncomfortability. It was dark-humored and ironically sad—and as usual, brilliantly visually imaginative—and what saved it for me was that I felt the show ultimately had sympathy for her depressing situation. But at times it bordered on flippant. How did you take it?