SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, pick up some green beans from the deli counter and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.
Most of “Buyout,” the third-to-last episode of the first half of Breaking Bad‘s final season, was concerned with setting up the “how” of the story as it approaches its midseason finale. How will the crew, especially Jesse, deal with the hangover from the murder of a child? How will Mike, if at all, get out from under Hank’s magnifying glass? How will Walt become the bedraggled man, driving back from New Hampshire, buying a machine gun?
“Buyout” takes steps toward each of these “how” questions, setting up another situation in which Walt seeks to finesse a problem—”Everybody wins”—by getting Mike and Jesse their payday while keeping his methylamine. But the core of the episode deals with a more essential question:
Why does Walt want to keep cooking? Why risk his life? Why destroy his marriage? Why live without his kids? Why pass on an offer that, as Jesse points out, gives him his original “number” many times over? (Recall that, only a few episodes ago—mere days in the Breaking Bad universe, I believe—Walt told Saul Goodman that he needed to keep cooking to pay off debts and recoup the $600K and change he lost to Ted.)
It turns out none of his past reasons were really it. Or they were, but there were always layers beneath. Peel away the cancer, peel away Skyler and the kids, peel away the need to make money, ever again, in his life; at the core—or is it the core?—there’s pride. Pride, and bitterness, and regret, and the desire to make back what he could have made had he stuck at Gray Matter: “Billions, with a B.” We knew, vaguely, the back story of Walt’s leaving his business, but never exactly how much he lost, or how much he could have gotten. Behind his final refusal is a simple, primal urge to power, to vindication, to never be sold short again. He’s Esau, consumed by the desire to trade back his mess of pottage for his birthright.
If “Buyout” was not a top-tier episode, for starters it’s because it gave us this information by, well, giving us the information—having Walt explain his thinking to Jesse in a big download about Gray Matter. (Which, correct me if I’m wrong, still leaves the question of why exactly he left the company—though it’s been implied that it had to do with his breakup with Gretchen.) It may be that there was really no better way to get the information across, though the show has gone the flashback route with Gray Matter before, but as character revelations go, the show has done better before than have someone ask “Why are you doing this?” and someone recite the answer. (Or, at least, the version of the answer that Walt wants to give.)
Second, the episode moved past the repercussions of Todd’s murdering the boy rather easily. The opening sequence—silent except for a moody soundtrack—was deeply chilling. But after we’ve seen Jesse fall apart over Gale’s killing, Brock’s poisoning, the murder of children, it’s surprising to see him (after punching out Todd) relatively calmly come to the decision to leave the business. Perhaps it’s a sign that he’s mastered his emotions better, or just grown cold, but it also made the story feel compressed.
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But that was all just about worth it for the most excruciatingly awkward dinner scene on Breaking Bad since, well, at least the last one. It is a bad idea to invite Jesse to dinner, an unkind one and, Walt knows well, another violation toward Skyler, who never so much as wanted Jesse in her house. He’s not even insisting that Skyler play-act happiness for Jesse—she won’t, and he knows exactly that.
Jesse is unnerved by the Edward Albee play that, had he ever paid attention in English class, he would have known he had walked into. And his nervous efforts to make conversation—which turn hilarious into a rant about “scabby” frozen lasagna cheese—are the only relief from the oppressive gloom that is Walt’s home life now: hatred, spite and unveiled contempt, with a side of green beans. “See?” he says to Jesse (and indeed, this moment of showing-not-telling is stronger dramatically than his Gray Matter monologue, as well as Bryan Cranston delivered it).
How can this possibly be the dream for Walt? How can it be an acceptable price? As many despicable things as Walt has done, he at least once claimed—on some level, it seemed, sincerely—to be doing what he did out of concern and love for his family. He’s lost him while he’s still alive, and, perhaps, accepted it.
One explanation is that Walt has changed, he’s become Heisenberg, he’s moved beyond sympathetic motivation, he’s truly broken bad. Maybe—or maybe, as his raising of Gray Matter suggests, what we see manifest in him now was latent in him when we first met him, indeed, long before. The bitterness, the vanity, the entitlement, the anger and hunger for vindication. In another life, under another set of circumstances, it might have expressed itself in sarcasm toward his high school students and the occasional dark mood. Instead, one bout of cancer and drug career later, here he is, commanding a dinner to prove his wife hates him, saying that his commitment to a deadly career is not about money or family or safety—it’s just about him.
Walt is not out of this until he’s made whole. Does anyone out there believe that there is any number that will accomplish that?
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Breaking Bad Visual of the Week: again goes to the cold-open sequence. And ugh–that hand.
* “Teenagers. Some days you just want to strangle them.” The first thing I thought: I hope to God that is not foreshadowing. And yet it’s striking how much of this show has concerned the safety of, and failure to protect, children.
* Didn’t spent a lot of time this week on plot mechanics, so I’ll throw it open to you. For starters, with the introduction of Mike’s connection with the methylene jones and the reference to Todd’s menacing uncle in prison, we have a couple more candidates for a future nemesis/threat to Walt in the series’ endgame. Care to lay odds on either of them?
* Speaking of mechanics: burning through a bracelet with a live electrical wire? Seriously? Look, I am entirely sure the writers did their research and this move was entirely scientifically possible. But we are getting dangerously close to MacGyver territory here.
* Best Saul Goodman line? “Schrader’s hard-on for you just reached Uncle Milty proportions.” Or: “Your client looks fine to me.” “Well, some hurts only show on the inside.”