Tuned In

Breaking Bad Watch: Thin-Ice Road Truckers

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, get off Google Earth and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.

There have been a couple of mysteries hanging over the last few episodes of Breaking Bad. First: what does Gus hope to gain by cultivating Jesse and separating him from Walt? Second: what are Gus and the cartel fighting about, and what do they want from him? Does Gus want to drive a wedge between the two partners and pit them against each other? Does the cartel want Walt dead, or Jesse, or both?

We got some answers in “Bug,” and they were not what you might have thought. Or maybe they were exactly what you might have thought–in effect, if not in intention.

On the literal level, we learned what Gus wants from Jesse (whether or not it was the reason he separated him from Walt in the first place): to go to Mexico and teach the cartel to cook blue meth. Through which we learned what the cartel wanted from Gus: half his business, in the person of half his cooking team.

But the way these two purposes played out in “Bug” put Walt and Jesse at each other’s throats–literally–more furiously than Gus or anyone could have designed it.

The two partners have been at an uneasy detente this entire season, as we saw in their chilly encounter early in the episode, in which Walt’s confrontational attempt at small talk turns into a discussion of Ice Road Truckers, which Jesse describes with standoffish economy: “Guys drive on ice.”

Sound like anyone you know? Walt and Jesse are barely in control of the tailspin that their partnership with Gus has gone into, and they should have every reason to make common cause. As Walt says, after all, “We’re both dead men.” But instead of trying to steer into the skid together, they end up fighting over the wheel.

Walt’s mistrust of Jesse’s willingness to get the job done is compounded by his lying about his access to Gus. And while that mistrust is justified, somewhat–it’s not true that Jesse never wanted to kill Gus, though he couldn’t/wouldn’t risk it in the end–Walt’s frustration and anger leads him to cross a line and express his contempt for Jesse in a way that is in neither of their interests. And this after, unbeknownst to Walt, Jesse put his neck on the line arguing for “Mr. White’s” life (and even Hank’s, though Jesse still hates him).

Walt sees Jesse’s lying about Gus as an unforgivable betrayal; Jesse, Walt’s GPS-bugging of his car as the final slap in the face. Breaking Bad has taken them, and us, through several familiar crime/mob movie arcs, and with “Bug,” it tried on another: the stage at which the duo of criminals, having pulled off the heist, destroy themselves because they’re incapable of trust. Or at least Walt is. At the very moment when Jesse, freaked out by an assignment in Mexico he knows he’ll fail at probably fatally, turns to him for help, Walt responds with anger and insults.

It’s specific to the situation–“You killed me! You want my advice? Go to Mexico and screw up, like I know you will, and end up in a barrel somewhere!” But you can also draw a line from Walt’s ugly words right back to the beginning of the series, when we saw his contempt for his lazy students, for his boss, for anyone he saw as lesser than himself.

So they fight–wearily, stupidly, clumsily. And Jesse kicks the older man’s ass, in every sense except that, as they’ve both acknowledged, he is very possibly going to exit Mexico via barrel. But the fight isn’t as brutal as his final words: “Can you walk?” “Yeah.” “Then get the ___ out of here and never come back.” (I had to go back and check if Breaking Bad had ever used a bleeped “fuck” before–they have, but I can’t recall one that was as striking, or necessary.)

Forget bullets, barrels and ricin cigarettes. It’s hard to see Walt and Jesse doing themselves as much damage as they’ve managed to with their words.

Now the hail of bullets:

* Excellent episode for Aaron Paul, especially the way he conveys how scared and in-over-his-head Jesse feels at the news about Mexico. He’s a killer now, but he’s also still, on some level, a kid. And how adorable that he still–after all this time and experience–calls Walt “Mr. White.”

* Breaking Bad visual of the week: That has hands down got to go to Walt’s face smashing into the glass coffee table, as seen from below. Internet, I command you to provide me an animated GIF of it!

* Another arresting visual: Gus’ “Terminator” move in striding out of the building and daring the sniper to take him out–a gesture that, like the flashback in “Hermanos,” underscored that he is to the cartel as Walt is to him, a problem they can’t afford to terminate.

* The subplot: holy cow at the Marilyn Monroe getup that Anna Gunn was sporting at the audit! I think I picked the wrong episode to do a set visit on, knowwhatImean? Seriously, though: I can buy the ruse through which Skyler fooled the auditor into believing that she was an ignoramus who had her job through other-than-usual “qualifications”–barely, the same way I bought the scam through which she bought out the car wash. But the exaggerated bubble-blond act took the scene a little to far in the direction of a sitcom twist, from where I was sitting. Not that her con wasn’t amusing: “It is the best. It’s like having a calculator on your computer!”

* That was Thomas Dolby’s “Hyperactive” playing in the car wash when Ted came in to plead with Skyler, and I am proud to say I was able to name that tune in about three notes.

* “A guy this clean’s got to be dirty.” For about the thousandth time, I had to wonder what Hank’s reaction will be when–if, but I have to guess when, before this series ends–he learns that Walt is Heisenberg.