Breaking Bad Watch: Doing Stuff and Nothing Happens

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, smoke that lucky cigarette, set your car on fire and watch the latest episode of Breaking Bad.

Greetings to the Tuned In faithful! While James Poniewozik is away establishing Time’s Costa Rica bureau, I’ll be recapping Breaking Bad from my battened hatch in Brooklyn’s Zone C, my observations fueled by packaged snacks and a bathtub full of batteries.

We begin this week with dual black-comic portraits of tormented men taking refuge in high-tech adolescent escapism. Jesse is playing the first-person shooter game “Rage,” set in a dank sewer-system labyrinth strewn with graffiti and lurching, deadly zombies. Which is to say, it’s set in a close approximation of Jesse’s apartment of late, complete with subliminal flashes of Gale getting his head blown off. It’s as if Jesse had chosen to flee his own mind into a simulacrum of his own mind. Elsewhere Walt, on compassionate leave from the Pontiac Aztec and steamed about taking orders from Skyler and Gus, is doing donuts—to the Pretenders!—in what was briefly Walter Jr.’s car. (Well, no, actually, “doing donuts” is a high-school sport staged in the parking lot of a Tim Horton’s. In Walt’s version, you drive your Dodge Challenger through the donut factory’s front window, throw some mercury fulminate at the deep-fryer, and are later found some 30 yards from the explosion, dazed but unharmed in a congealing pool of maple glaze, a bear claw in each fist and a Bavarian Cream hanging from your teeth.)

The donut binge is only his latest pointless provocation, and his recklessness points up the fascinating—and, yes, rather adolescent—contradiction of Walter White: he is both a sneering fatalist (“He will see me dead,” he says of Gus, “and there’s nothing I can do about it—all that’s left is to wait”) and an egomaniac who perceives himself as invincible, defying the predations not only of stage IV cancer but the entire methamphetamine distribution community of the American southwest and Mexico. It doesn’t help matters that he can all but print money. This Waltian combustion results in bad driving, breaches of Pollos Hermanos etiquette, getting nice laundresses deported, getting drunk and mouthy around DEA agents (and didn’t Hank make a lot of progress this week, both physically and procedurally!), spending $52,000 to blow up a car and, with depressing frequency, hissing pages of cruel exposition at Jesse.

Then again, torturing Jesse has, ostensibly, given Walt what he wanted. “Drop the sales pitch—I’ll do it,” Jesse says in the big “GAHH!!!” moment of “Problem Dog.” (The small “GAHH!!!” moment: Gus suggesting to Walter Jr. that he work at Pollos Hermanos, moments before delivering his fingerprints to Hank.) The prospect of Jesse offing Gus doesn’t solve a whole lot of Walt and Jesse’s long-term problems—if the cartel will turn down $50 million in lieu of vengeance, it’s hard to believe they’ll make their peace with a White-Pinkman start-up just because Gus is out of the picture. (Giancarlo Esposito brilliantly conveyed Gus’ subcutaneous panic when he realizes the cartel has sent just a solitary, young-ish representative to not negotiate with him—a wicked slap in the face of a man fixated on keeping up macho appearances.)

But Jesse’s blood offering shows he is accepting his role as a cold, calculating killer. Nobody has suffered the way Jesse has on Breaking Bad—his family’s rejection, beatings bad enough to put him in the hospital, the death of Jane, the ravages of drug addiction, the murders of Combo and Tomas—and Gale’s killing pushed him one step further toward becoming a zombie assassin, numbed and pliant. It’s a measure of Breaking Bad’s granular brilliance that this zombie assassin-in-training spends part of this episode fixing coffee, carting around a supermarket veggie tray, and not beating his head against the car window when Mike admires his “loyalty.”

There’s still a will and a conscience thrashing around in there—Jesse’s clean, he’s painting the apartment, he shows up for an NA meeting—but it’s fighting for life. (Aaron Paul has done an astonishing job of charting Jesse’s transformation from callow punk to guilt-strangled wraith.) Once, not so long ago, Walt determined out loud the exact moment that he should have died; Jesse, for his part, wants a Judgment Day for an existence leached of meaning, one where the recovering addict/dealer/killer is forced to dwell on those “problem dogs” who might otherwise inconvenience his rehabilitation. The meth fumes of the opening credits now reek of existential nausea. “If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean?” Jesse asks. “What’s the point?”

Breaking Bad’s writers might be asking themselves the same question. That’s not to say that the bleakly gorgeous cinematography, supernatural acting, and perfectly calibrated plot engineering aren’t reasons enough to revel in the show. But one of the reasons The Sopranos should have foregone a sixth season is that, once Tony had killed cousin Tony and once Chris had complied with Adriana’s death and once Carmela had accepted her role as mob wife-for-hire with open eyes, there was no place further we were willing to go with these characters, no pivotal choices left for them to make; they had made their beds and would die in them. Chances are that the viewer has already seen Walt cross that threshold (Jane’s death at the end of season two might have torn it). Skyler’s chosen her side, too, and all the unbreakable $50s that go with it. But Jesse is, as Mr. Poniewozik has pointed out in TIME, Breaking Bad’s “moral center.” If—and it’s a huge if—and when Jesse makes a clean break with the viewer’s empathy, what will it all mean? What will be the point?

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