SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, get any necessary bathroom breaks out of the way and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.
The previous episode of Breaking Bad opened a rift between Walt and Jesse that’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to close anytime soon. So it follows that “Salud” was two very different, separate stories, Walt’s and Jesse’s.
I’ll start with Walt’s, the more action-light but emotion-heavy of the two—featuring, on the night of an Emmys for which he was ineligible, Bryan Cranston delivering a harrowing monologue as if to tell Hamm, Buscemi and the rest that they were simply borrowing an award that he could take back any time he wanted to.
Walt’s bedside talk with Walt Jr.—a little-used character this season—returned him to one of the series’ original questions: What does Walt want to get from his life of crime? Or rather, what does he want to leave from it, to his family, before he dies? The original, obvious answer, of course, was the money, but Walt long ago made his number and yet kept on in the business. The obvious answer to that was that Walt wanted something for himself: pride, success, a feeling of bigness and accomplishment and control.
All of which may very well be true, but it turns out there’s still something that Walt wants to leave his heirs. A feeling, an image, an impression. After Jr. comes to his apartment and finds him after his beatdown by Jesse, Walt finds himself leaning on his son like a child, in his underwear, shaken and sobbing, as Jr. puts him to bed. When he wakes up, he’s mortified that his son should have that memory of him, and to explain why, he tells Jr. about how his own father died of crippling Huntington’s when he was only six years old.
Jesus, that monologue: I could just sit here and quote the entire thing: the recollection of the (ironically, chemical) hospital smell, “like they didn’t want you smelling the sick people”; his memory of how people would tell stories of his father, “and I always pretended that was who I saw, too, who I remembered”; and his last, horrific memory of his father’s dying breath—”This, this rattling sound,like if you were shaking an empty spray paint can. Like there was nothing in it.” But my lingering memory of Cranston’s speech is less his words than his face when he gives it; you can see him going away in his mind, back to his father’s bedside, as if he’s not even in the room with Walt Jr. anymore.
His formative memory of his dad is weakness, so the memory Walt wants to leave Walt Jr. with is one of strength, honor, wholeness—that’s why he’s so mortified that Jr. should have come across him in his truly unsettling state, beaten, bloody and sobbing over his mistakes. But Walt Jr.’s response is, in its way, sadder in its implications than Walt’s bloodied face or his childhood memories. He likes the dad he saw the night before better than the one that Walt has been the entire time that he’s been working to leave his legacy. “At least last night, you were–you were real, you know?”
I doubt that Walt Jr. has any inkling of the scope of Walt’s lies. But like a son and a teenager can, he can sniff out inauthenticity. His father smells of it as badly as any patient smells of illness in a hospital. And with this, Walt must face the possibility that, by the very acts he has taken to preserve his children’s memories of him, he may have ruined them.
Jesse’s story is very different, but it returns to the awful (for Walt, anyway) implication that the very acts he has taken to try to preserve himself may have destroyed him. Because Jesse’s desperado trip with Mike and Gus doesn’t just defeat Don Eliado and the cartel. It seems to have done exactly everything that Walt in his darkest fears thought Gus was aiming for—and Walt, in his desperation to avoid it and his anger at Jesse, may have pretty ended up ensuring that it will happen.
Think of the implications, beyond the dead bodies around Eliado’s pool. Walt was afraid that Gus meant to drive a wedge between him and Jesse. Whether Gus intended it or not, Walt effectively placed that wedge and—with his contemptuous insults of Jesse—slammed it through with a sledgehammer. Walt was afraid that Jesse was a screw-up, who couldn’t be trusted to cook or to kill. Now Jesse is newly confident, having pulled off Walt’s own cook under pressure, after Walt (and he himself) believed he was too stupid to do it. Walt was afraid Jesse would turn to Mike and Gus. Now he’s bonded to them by surviving a shootout together—and by the fact that they trusted him in a way that Mr. White never could.
Oh, yeah: and Walt was afraid that Gus would find another cook who could do his job, alone, rendering him expendable. Now it seems he has. And whereas just recently that cook had angrily sworn to Gus that he would never help him kill Walt, thanks to Walt, Jesse does not seem to care whether Walt lives or dies.
It’s hard to imagine Walt being more isolated or in a bleaker situation than at the end of Gus and Jesse’s triumph in “Salud,” and he largely has himself to blame. Walt is the one who knocks, all right. Apparently, at his own damn door.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* I am neither a doctor nor a chemist, so I will put it to anyone who cares to field it: is there in fact a toxin whose lethal effects one can avoid by inducing vomiting, seconds before everyone else who ingested it drops dead? (Granted, Gus is still feeling the effects of the poison, and we don’t yet know how badly, so we’ll have to see how that plays out.) That said, the scheme did make for a badass and tense resolution, especially when Eladio offered Gus a toast—since I’m assuming that the Don was thinking exactly what we were all thinking about that bottle of añejo as well.
* In any case, interesting how “Salud” continues to play up the Walt/Gus parallels in that scene—not simply in his use of poison as a weapon, but also his playing with matches poolside.
* Breaking Bad visual of the week: Hm, tough one this week. I may have to go with Don Eladio falling into the pool.The long shot opening of the three men in the field was nice also, but reminded me of similar long shots the show has used memorably in the past.
* “I get my phenylacetic acid from the barrel with the bee on it. That’s what I know how to do it.” Funny line, and yet stunning how the scene turns as Jesse finds the inner steel to bluff his way through the situation. (Perceptively, he knows the way to get through this is to pivot from his own failings to the chemist’s—without which, after all, Jesse would not be there in the first place.) How much does he sound like Walt as he lectures the cartel chemist about his lab’s cleanliness? As he tells the man to get him his acid and “stop whining like a little bitch,” you can see Gus and Mike look at him with—what is that?—respect.
* I’ve heard complaints about the show’s neglect of R.J. Mitte this season, and I understand them, but I like how he performed and was used in this episode. Jr. is, in the end, still a teenage kid—sulky about his sports car being replaced by a sensible PT Cruiser, alternately frightened by and annoyed with his dad—and I like that Breaking Bad doesn’t expect his character to be more than a kid. I’m still scared of where this is all going for him, though; even if he doesn’t come to harm, I dread the episode when (and if) he finds out the truth about his father.
* As for the Skyler-Ted-Saul subplot: “Bad idea.” Um, yeah, in pretty much exactly the way Saul guesses—and more, as Skyler, with un-Skyler-like recklessness, reveals herself as the source of the money. Someone want to explain how this scenario plays out without Ted ending up dead?