Tuned In

Breaking Bad Watch: When I Heard the Learn’d Meth Cooker

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SPOILER ALERT; Before you read this post, turn off that karaoke machine, grab some vegan s’mores and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.

It’s been a methodical and steady first few episodes for season four of Breaking Bad, starting with the excruciatingly patient showdown of “Box Cutter,” then two episodes that examined many of the characters largely in isolation from one another, dealing with the aftermath of what has happened the last few months of their lives: Jesse retreating into stoned guilt, Hank and Marie struggling with his recovery, Walt and Skyler trying to put their house in order, together or separately, Gus—well, where was Gus?

With “Bullet Points,” Breaking Bad brought those story threads back together, and is beginning to entangle them.

The episode played a bit like two half-hour episodes: one that brought the Walt and Hank stories back together—very uncomfortably—and one that returned Jesse to the company of some non drug-addled companions. The first began with Skyler coaching Walt on their backstory regarding him and his “gambling,” the ostensible source of their sudden wealth. But the conversation quickly shows itself to be about anything but blackjack.

For Skyler, the whole ruse—from the Gamblers’ Anonymous research to the purchase of the car wash—is not just practical protection but psychological. It’s a way of making the idea of accepting money from a drug dealer clean, manageable and relatively safe. As Walt says later in the episode, part of her may want to convince herself that he’s performing a safe, dull job in a lab coat, but it’s more than that: if she can make the cover watertight, rational and controlled, then her involvement can be too. (At one point in her talk with Walt, in fact, she has to remind herself that the gambling “confession” is a fiction.)

As for Walt, the idea of “apologizing” for gambling rankles, not just because of his pride—it probably hurts him to act ashamed even for an imaginary offense—but because he knows well that Skyler is really talking to him about his choice to sell drugs and the position it put her in. “I was, and am, providing for our family,” he says, and it’s not just the cards talking. Whereas Skyler answers that even in his fictional offense, he gets off easy: “At least you won at gambling. I’m just the bitch mom who wouldn’t cut you any slack.”

The scene at Hank and Marie’s meanwhile, which brings Walt back together with his brother-in-law, is a brilliant setpiece of things unsaid, with Walt unable to express either his guilt (at his culpability in putting Hank in a wheelchair) or his terror (at the realization that Hank not only knows about Gale but has known, for some time, about “Heisenberg”). The mixture of bathos and suspense here is brilliant, as Walt sweats under the possibility of being revealed, while Hank seems revitalized by the diversion and the chance to be back on the case. Walt deflects attention by getting Hank to consult with him and doing some quick thinking about Walt Whitman, and to Hank, it’s an amusing night of shop talk and showing off his minerals. But Walt—seeing things spiral out of control for him on every front—is worried that he’ll be under Hank’s magnifying glass next.

The second half of the episode makes explicit what the first three episodes strongly suggested: that Jesse’s guilty acting out is becoming a problem. Jesse has always had a reckless tendency, but his usual abandon, combined with a seeming deathwish, risks bringing the kind of attention Gus does not want. And you have to suspect, at this point, that he may be fully aware of that. Jesse’s acting out to distract himself from his guilt, but he’s not the idiot Jesse Pinkman was when he started out the series; as he shows in his confrontations with both Walt and Mike, if anything, he’s sharper, more savvy and focused than he ever was. He’s become very good at what he does, which is precisely why he’s working so hard to nullify himself.

Which makes me wonder, as he tells Mike he doesn’t want to know where they’re going: is he so calm because he knows again that Mike’s bluffing? Or because he’s certain that Mike is not?

Now for the hail of bullet… points:

* Several contenders for Breaking Bad Visual of the Week this week: the circles of daylight bursting on-screen as the cartel gunmen light up the refrigerated Pollos Hermanos truck with gunfire, a nervous Walt framed at the bottom of Jesse’s staircase, the blue ghost-tongue of smoke issuing from Mike’s mouth in the episode’s very first image. But I probably have no choice but to give it up for Gale’s karaoke performance of Peter Schilling’s ’80s hit “Major Tom,” which managed to be both hilarious and poignant. I have to remind myself that Gale, after all, was as complicit in making and dealing death as Walt, Gus or anyone; still, from the glimpses we’ve had of his life—the poetry, the vegan-s’mores recipe—he at least seemed like the one relatively pure heart involved in this business.

* I’ve said this before, but again I have to give credit to both the writers and Bob Odenkirk for making Saul a dramatic and comic-relief figure simultaneously; his delivery of “That perhaps sounded insensitive” was just priceless.

* I wonder if at some point, Walt will realize he should have skipped the whole meth-cooking scheme and actually gone and counted cards instead?