SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, open another bottle of wine and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.
As TV dramas advance in years, they tend to get crowded. There are more characters, more storylines and often an intense race to up the stakes to keep the viewers’ interest. This applies to good dramas as well as bad: shows like Six Feet Under and The Shield often piled incident upon incident.
Another thing that distinguishes Breaking Bad from many dramas is that it doesn’t act like it needs to continually add on twists or pick up the pace to keep the viewer’s attention; it assumes it already has your attention. And rather than building drama by packing in more, it does the opposite: it slows things down, knowing that the slowing-down itself, and the subsequent focus on small details, will keep you staring.
This was certainly the case as Mike took Jesse on a long drive into the desert for… what?
Now, I suspect most of you did not think Jesse was actually going to die in “Shotgun.” That’s not to say that you could rule it out, nor that something else terrible could not happen. And the whole sequence involved in the pair’s first stop was a perfect example of how Breaking Bad’s deliberate pace works to its advantage. A killer stops in the desert, has someone get out of a car, and–taking his damn time–gets a shovel out of the trunk: you are going to want to know what is about to happen.
Likewise with the opening sequence involving Walt. It began with uncharacteristic speed for Breaking Bad—the POV of a car hurtling through traffic, revealed to be Walt’s Aztek—then quickly came to a halt as Walt went into Pollos Hermanos to confront Gus. Again: a desperate man walking into a restaurant and demanding a meeting, then sitting down with a concealed gun in his pocket. And waiting. And waiting. What more do you need?
Having said that, I will say that the episode became less compelling for me once it became clear that Mike was simply taking Jesse along for a ride. Though Mike protested that he had no idea why he was chauffeuring the kid around, we knew that Mike had gone to Gus to complain that Jesse was a problem; it seemed fairly plain that there was some kind of lesson intended. (The thought briefly crossed my mind that Gus might have sent the shotgun “robber” to actually kill Jesse and make it look like holdup or a rival gang hit, but it quickly left, since it doesn’t square with Gus’ past behavior that he would want to hide his involvement were he to order Jesse dead.) And it beats me how Gus believes Jesse’s attitude will be adjusted by believing he was the “hero” for one day, though I liked that, gauging by his reaction, Mike shares my puzzlement.
But it’s clearly a setup for something, in an episode that largely seemed setup, along with Walt’s sudden make-up with Skyler and his drunken, prideful decision to persuade Hank that Gale was not Heisenberg. Skyler’s impassioned decision to take Walt back felt sudden—maybe Walt agreed, judging from his hesitant reaction at getting what he seemingly had longed for—and his blabbering to Hank felt foolhardy even after several glasses of wine, but I have to wonder if they’re not related.
That is, as much as Walt has yearned to have his family back, he’s also become accustomed to being on the outside, alone, endangered and dangerous. Can he so easily go back to being a family man? And can he so easily accept escaping the attention of the law (for a while anyway; presumably someone would notice the reappearance of blue meth), if it means allowing the legend of Heisenberg to be taken from him and to die with Gale? Hearing someone else called a genius for his work—and hearing the suggestion that “If he had applied that big brain of his to something good, he might have helped humanity”—is too much for Walt, facing a new cover life as a meek former gambler and car-wash owner.
In vino veritas, and in this case the truth about Walt may be: he’d rather be respected than safe. We’ll see if he gets his wish.
Now for the hail of buckshot:
* Breaking Bad Visual of the Week: it may not be a visual per se, but I’m still going to go with the long, patient scene of Mike sauntering over to the trunk, getting the shovel, and brushing by Jesse.
* I advanced my theory above about why Walt seemed so disconcerted at the idea of moving back in with Skyler, but I recognize I may be reading him wrong or missing something. (He also might, for instance, simply not want to be moving in with his family at a time when he still believes himself to be in particular danger.) How did you read it?
* “It’s like Scarface had sex with Mister Rogers”: Hank comes very close to uttering Vince Gilligan’s pitch for the show, which of course is about turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.
* I shrugged at this above, so I’ll put it to you: what’s Gus’s plan with Jesse?
* Finally, I’m going to be on vacation as of the beginning of next week, so your guest blogger for the next two episodes of Breaking Bad will be TIME culture editor (and Breaking Bad devotee) Jessica Winter. Be kind to her, and I won’t have to have Mike take you out for a ride.