Tuned In

Breaking Bad Watch: …Don’t Come a-Knockin’

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

“Name one thing in this world that is not negotiable.”

It’s almost too easy, right? There is one thing in this world that is not negotiable, and it is continuing to advance from Mexico, slowly and implacably, like some northbound glacier, in the persons of the brothers. I’m not the first to make this comparison, but Breaking Bad‘s poker-faced, vengeance-minded killers make Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh seem downright compassionate (and chatty-mouthed) by comparison. And this week they continued to add No Country for Old Men overtones to this series, both through their action, and their inaction.

The action first: the horrific, and strikingly staged, opening scene in which they struck down the cop investigating a disappearance-turned murder. BB regularly turns in some of the finest bravura opening scenes on TV, and this—with Bro #2 moving up, out of camera focus, on the cop as Bro #1 stood impassively eating a piece of fruit in the doorway—was no exception. But their inaction was as terrifying, or more, as they sat in a booth in Gus’ place, waiting stoically for an audience. Because they show no more emotion when killing than doing anything else, every move the brothers make is potentially deadly, and thus filled with tension. (Did everyone else cringe when the woman with her child walked up to ask if they were done with their table?)

If death is not negotiable, however, it turns out that its terms, and its targets, are. And so when Gus met the bothers at sunset and gave them the go-ahead to kill Hank—Tuco’s actual killer—in Walter’s stead, the trail of death turned closer to Walter’s family than it has yet.

Also getting closer on the trail: Hank himself, who not only tracked down the RV and Jesse, but unknowingly was a thin sheet of metal away from discovering his brother-in-law’s huge secret. (He also approached Walt’s drug connection more glancingly earlier, sheepishly guessing that Walt might have bought pot from Jesse once, a guess that—like Skyler’s, when Walt first confessed his dealing—was poignant for its relative innocence.)

The showdown and near-miss in that lot showed that, as much as he might try to sever ties and move into his new (likely doomed) role as high-tech meth cooker for Gus, Walt is inextricably entangled with Jesse, and with the various low-level numbnuts to whom Jesse, left on his own, has to turn. Thus Walt’s dash to the RV (itself panicky and not too well thought-out) led to a phone call and the arrival of Jesse, with Hank in tow. This set up the tense, claustrophobic standoff with Hank, which was both nail-biting and hilarious as it unfolded, with Walt briefly stepping again into the paternal role, feeding him lines Cyrano-style to put Hank off. (“This is my own private domicile and I will not be harassed! Bitch!”)

But it’s just a brief encore regrouping of the duo. When Walt and Jesse have the RV ripped apart and compacted, it is as if Walt is trying to physically and finally unsever himself from Jesse, to destroy their past without a trace. Good luck doing that, however: Hank—now more pissed-off than ever—is still on Jesse’s trail, and Jesse still knows things about Walt that I am guessing he will not hesitate to give up if it saves him a lifetime in jail.

For the moment, though, the destruction of the RV represents the end of an era in Walt and Jesse’s relationship and in their respective drug-dealing careers. And, it should be said, there was something distinctively, gorgeously Breaking Bad about that scene, in which a forklift pierced the vehicle’s metal skin like it were paper and shakily deposited it in the maws of the crusher. BB is a show in love with industrial processes, with the powerful movements of heavy machinery, metal doing violence to metal, the tang of gasoline and chemicals spilling on the ground.

This is a wonderful show—unlike any other I can think of—at showing the visual beauty of physics and chemistry in action. But close by, and getting closer, the processes of biology grind menacingly on.