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Breaking Bad Watch: It’s Skyler’s Turn

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, stop surreptitiously watching that porn in your bed and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.

With the focus on the superlab, Gus’ business and Walt and Jesse’s status, the first couple of episodes of season four have been rather, well, male so far. The third, “Open House,” turns its attention to the women of Breaking Bad, as Marie reacts against having to clean Hank’s mess (and take his flak) and Skyler newly asserts herself in her effort to launder Walt’s money.

From the glimpses we’ve gotten of Walt and Skyler’s life, I get the impression that Skyler’s tendency has been to be more of an introvert—not a doormat, necessarily, but someone who tends to let others hold forth while her gears turn. (You get the sense, for instance, that Marie has always been the more, er, vocal of the two sisters.) And maybe partly because Anna Gunn plays her so well, this can mean she fades into the background at times. But as she proceeds with quiet determination to continue with her plan to buy the car wash as a cover business, then pursues it with understated but devastating thoroughness, she shows that being restrained and methodical can be just as effective as being loud and ruthless.

The means by which Skyler manages to con the owner into submission, intimidating him through a fake government inspector, is ingenious enough. But the really impressive moment, to me, was how she showed that she’s better at handling this negotiation than Walter. While Walt has shown the ability to think strategically in the moment, when dealing with drug thugs or trying to survive under Gus, it’s Skyler who thinks two moves ahead when it comes to the front business: she’s the one who, over Walt’s objections, returns with a lowball offer, not because it’s satisfying to her (it is) but because that is what someone in her ostensible situation–i.e., not shopping for a business with drug money–would do.

The way she calmly stares Walt down when they get the call back, and waits for the phone to ring four times before picking up, is a moment of quiet, firm mastery. She’s like the Walt Whisperer–as she also was in the meeting with Saul, when she “inadvertently” let slip the insult against Walt because she knew it would hurt his pride and make him want to buy out his old boss. She knows his triggers, vanities and his impetuousness–and thus knows the weaknesses she needs to protect him against. (As she does again when she warns him against doing things like blowing $320 on a bottle of champagne.) Walt originally went into the drug business to help provide for Skyler, but it may turn out that he badly needs Skyler–and the way she compensates for his faults–to stay afloat in the drug business.

The Marie subplot, meanwhile, shows Betsy Brandt doing an excellent job bringing out the humanity in what started out as an unsympathetic character. It’s fitting, then, that “Open House” finds Marie doing something we saw her do in the first season–acting out by stealing–but in a very different light. Whereas Skyler separated from Walt–then found herself willingly drawing herself back into a partnership with him, despite knowing about his crimes–Marie has supported Hank but finds herself unable to push back as he repays her by taking out his bitterness on her in spite. That she reverts to her sticky-fingered ways is only the half of it; the real heartbreaker is they way she invents a new life for her–kids, a career, a different sensibility–with each open house she visits. Losing herself in the stories, Brandt captures how the houses themselves are only a means to an end; the real escape is within her mind, into the fantasies that she’s able to briefly concoct.

Amid the focus on Skyler and Marie, the Gus-and-drugs stories take a breather in this one. (Aaron Paul is doing an unsurprisingly strong job depicting Jesse’s attempt to escape his guilt–literally driving in circles in the go-kart sequence–but I hope soon the season does something with Jesse beyond simply showing his increasingly despondency.) But it’s Marie’s stealing, and the resulting brush with the law, that brings Hank back into the action, as we find that the search of Gale’s house did indeed tip off the authorities to the existence of a “big-time” lab. This suggests there will be another element to the troubles in the superlab, and none too soon–if for no other reason than to get Hank off his back, and off Marie’s.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Breaking Bad Visual of the Week? I was initially inclined to go with the first image–the pane of hellish red that reveals the darkened doorway of the superlab. But I think I’ll have to go with the sequence with Jesse on the track, circling and circling, never getting anywhere.

* Though there was limited action in the superlab this week, I like how in small steps–like here with the introduction of the surveillance camera–each episode ratchets up the claustrophobia of that setting.

* I’d have taken the Fritos over Cheetos. But that’s just me.

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