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Breaking Bad Watch: ATM, Withdrawal

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Spoilers for last night’s Breaking Bad coming up after the jump:

It’s an irony for a man who has made a pile of cash exploiting other people’s drug addictions, but in Walter White’s out-of-control spiral in last night’s episode, I believe we are seeing him go through withdrawal. Withdrawal from being a family man. Withdrawal from the notion that, whatever moral compromises he made to earn his money, he was at least providing for his children and for a wife who loves him. And withdrawal from the feeling of purpose, power, and competence, however twisted, that being New Mexico’s primo cooker of crystal meth gave him.

So “Green Light” showed Walt acting out, trying to reclaim his marriage and his dignity and only further undercutting both. He’s put on “sabbatical” after a heart-to-heart with his principal turns into an awkward attempt to come on to her. He fires Saul and tries clumsily to beat him down after learning that the lawyer bugged his house. And he shows up at Skyler’s workplace, in a confrontation that shows off Breaking Bad‘s gift for combining drama and comedy, as he tries and fails to send a potted plant through what turns out to be a shatterproof window—a great metaphor for Walter as a man trying to lift beyond his weight, frustrated by invisible limitations, as well as being physical-comedy gold.

Speaking of comedy and drama in Breaking Bad, by the way, this is a good episode to appreciate what Bob Odenkirk has brought to the role of Saul. I was a little skeptical of the casting of someone I’m used to as a comic actor in such an important, drug-related role—but then, this is the show that made a badass killer of Malcolm’s dad. Odenkirk has managed to make Saul credible as an amoral leech who’s just savvy enough to be a danger to Walt if burned, but doesn’t lose the risible, Lionel Hutz side of his ambulance chaser / criminal fixer. It was a joy to hear him try to smooth-talk Walter down after getting busted for the bugging: “Let’s not get bogged down in the who, what and whens!”

Meanwhile, as Jesse tries to reassert himself and get back into the meth game, we see another old side of Walter: the arrogant, professionally frustrated chemist who has sublimated his career disappointments into a fixation with the quality of his work as a meth cooker. As he berates Jesse for the anemic size of his crystals—”This is very shoddy work, Pinkman. I am actually embarrassed for you”—he’s again the bitter, demanding chemistry teacher Jesse first met him as, but also, now, he’s a man trying to adjust to giving up his source of pride, and still unwilling to relinquish it to anyone else. This has been a flaw of Walter’s from the get-go: the way he’s able clinically detach himself from the consequences of making a substance that kills people, by turning it into a bloodless abstraction about “quality product.”

And while Walt butts heads with him on one side, Jesse unknowingly has Hank closing in on him from another side. Hank’s eureka moment at the gas station suggests where this is going (and I base this on no special advance knowledge): a setup in which Jesse gets busted, and comes under pressure to flip and give up “Heisenberg.”

In the meantime, give it up for Breaking Bad on one more level: on this show, even the ATM cameras capture amazing, bleak desert panoramas.