Tuned In

Breaking Bad Watch: Self-Defense

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, turn off the videogame console, stop arguing the merits of slow- vs. fast-zombie shooters, and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.

As we left Walter White and Jesse Pinkman at the end of the Breaking Bad season premiere, they were both shaken, terrified—but still employed and alive. When we encounter them again, they are putting their spending cash to use, on very different purchases but each, in their way, devoted to self-defense. Or at least, self-defensiveness.

The teaser of “Thirty-Eight Snub,” from which the episode takes its name, is a classic of Breaking Bad form. It opens with a tight shot and an ambiguous quote (“Well? How does it look?”), that then pulls out and gives us more information until we slowly get our bearings.

And it ends with a lie. After a dialogue with the black-market gun dealer, which includes some terrific turns of phrase (“you’re going to want to practice your draw. If you’re all fingers, it might could be him keeping the peace instead of you”), the dealer vents his suspicions by saying that Walt could save himself time and risk by buying a gun legally—if all he wants it for is defense. Walt stares at himself in the mirror—as if to persuade himself as much as the dealer—and says, “It’s for defense. Defense. [pause] I’ll take it.”

It’s a lie; it’s the truth. It’s the truth to Walter, anyway. As becomes obvious, in his darkly euphemistic talk with Mike, he’s buying a gun, and practicing drawing while seated, with one intention: to get in a room with Gus and kill him. Of course, we know Walter well enough to know how his mind works: he believes, as he says to Mike, that all of his violence has been justifiable, and this is no different. Either he kills Gus or Gus will surely kill him (and Mike as well). And who knows—he may well be right.

Of course, it doesn’t come to that immediately. Mike, either because he doesn’t believe Walt or believes him too well, beats Walt down in the bar and stalks off. Of course, even if Mike was telling the truth—that Walt had won and should leave it be—by revealing his thinking to Gus’ muscle, Walt has surely made this a kill-or-be-killed situation if it was not already.

But Breaking Bad is going to take its time getting to such a showdown (if it ever comes). Instead, “Thirty-Eight Snub” shows us Walter in an act of transformation again: this time, consciously making himself from a reactor into an actor, from the guy who drive up in the Aztek and runs two men over to the man who premeditates and practices murder. It’s telling that, as he drives up (too openly and brashly) to Gus’s house, he squares himself and puts on the black hat. To do this, he needs to become Heisenberg, for good.

While Walter focuses himself on the task at hand, Jesse is spending his money doing anything he can to distract himself. (It’s interesting that, while Walt and Jesse are back working together, this episode shows them almost entirely apart, as if they’re coworkers with no greater bond outside the office.) He blows a wad on a sound system and loads up on drugs, fires up the Roomba, and sets out to throw an all-time party. Literally—he wishes it could last for all time, and as he exhausts his friends, his desperation at wanting to keep them around is palpable.

In a way, Jesse’s state at the beginning of the season is a familiar one—he’s distraught from trauma and going off the deep end. But where before he tried to shut out the world with drugs, or turned to therapy to get clean, now it’s like he wants to bring the whole world into his house, and drown out everything outside with light and noise. Some nice camera tricks here emphasize that sense—not just the amusing Roomba-vision, but the building visual chaos of the party, which starts off like a rap video then turns into some kind of distorted, jumpy tweak-vision, all the while with the focus centered on Jesse’s face, clearly still tortured and drained amid all the thumping bass.(He briefly emerges to talk to his ex-girlfriend, asking her to take his money and get her kid out of Dodge, and his emergence into the fresh air practically made me want to blink my eyes from the sunlight.)

As he faces the empty disorder of his house, he sees that he has not found a way out. And as Walter ends up, lying beaten on the barroom floor, he has not yet either—or, at least, he has some things to learn as he embraces the Heisenberg full-on and tries to become a dangerous man. He has not entirely changed. He is still telling himself, and Mike, that he is acting in self-defense for understandable reasons. But he has also come to the realization that the best defense is a good offense.

Now for the hail of hollow-point bullets:

* Unless I’ve misread it, I think I see Walt’s plan. On the other hand, what’s the plan? If we assume it’s Gus or Walt, and that he intends that it be Gus—what comes after that? Does he run? Does he become Gus? Is even Heisenberg up to that?(And I should mention that, although I have visited the set, this is a genuine question, not based on any of the limited things I’ve seen in advance.)

* This episode, like the last, didn’t spend a huge amount of time on Hank and Marie, but I liked how well the little we got conveyed Marie’s increasing isolation, as she throws herself into helping him recover, and her embittered husband pushes her away in favor of his rocks. Sorry, minerals.

* Skyler too is isolated in this episode—everyone is off acting on their own—but I liked her show of resolve, and business preparation, in facing down Walt’s old boss, who unsurprisingly still nurses a grudge.

* “Dude, you are so historically retarded! Nazi zombies don’t want to eat you just cause they’re craving the protein. They do it cause, they do it cause–they hate Americans, man. Talibans–they’re the Talibans of the zombie world!”

* I’ll just go ahead and make this an official weekly feature: what wins for Breaking Bad Visual of the Week? Pretty sure I have to give it to the Roomba-Cam, but I’m willing to be persuaded.