Sunday, August 28, 2011

Breaking Bad: "Problem Dog"

Season 4, Episode 7
Attacking things head on – or not

“I don’t need the blow by blow; just tell me it’s done.”

 “He says he see something in me. Like what?”

When tasked with the relatively simple errand of returning Jr.’s new car to the dealership – a errand that will involve dealing with a persnickety owner and paying a restocking fee – Walt instead takes the car to an empty parking lot and starts doing donuts, causing great wear and tear on the tires. Soon the car ends up in a ditch, stuck, and after barely trying to get the vehicle upright, Walt sticks a roll of paper in the gas tank, lights it on fire using the car lighter, and calmly walks to the other side of the lot. He sits down, pulls out his phone, and calls a cab, finishing the conversation just as the car loudly blows up. The cab driver will have no trouble spotting him, he says to the person on the other end of the line.

That in essence is Walt’s new, post-cancer, meth-career inspired way of doing things. Sure, he could have returned the car to the dealership in the usual fashion and not risked calling attention to himself, but not only would that have been tedious and frustrating, it wouldn’t have been any fun. The drug trade has shown Walt that there’s another way to do things, a way outside of the usual societal norms, a ways that involves shortcuts and risk in equal measure.

It’s this predilection for taking the direct approach that seems to have gotten Walt in so much trouble over the past several weeks. The newest friction point for his way of doing things comes at the risk of the carwash. Walt has been in the drug business since day one as a way to provide for his family (or at least that’s what he keeps telling himself), and all of the money has able to rake in - $274,000 every two weeks, or 7+ million every year – is able to do just that. But that money also comes with a problem, as that much cash will undoubtedly attract unwarranted attention, but Walt doesn’t care. Though it may come in suspicious stacks of fifty dollar bills, his end is taken care of; the fact that this creates a near impossible amount of work for Skyler doesn’t seem to worry him. Instead, he finds it bothersome. She brought this trouble down on her own head by insisting on laundering the money, so why is she complaining to him about it?

Yet surprisingly Walt’s direct approach is effective with some people, thought considering that in this case “some people” means Jesse, that’s not much of a compliment on Walt’s negotiating skills. Even thought the speech he gave to Jesse was as pathetic, one-sided, and self-serving as ever, the young cook agreed to be the hit man to take out Gus, something that not even Saul wanted to be a part of. Jesse’s still in a pretty sorry state over his murder of Gale, and while it’s easy to see how he would take that job as a way to distract himself from his guilt, it’s also just as possible that he’s found some way to blame Gus for Gale’s fate.  

Unlike Walt, Jesse doesn’t like to do things directly; instead he prefers to cover things up if he can, or barring that do things in the most convoluted way possible, so as to distance himself from direct actions. When Walt tries to convince him to kills Gus he’s painting over the graffiti and stains from his multi-day parties, and prior to that we saw him playing a FPS in an attempt to excise the memory of when he shot Gale. The plan for killing Gus – poising his food with ricin – provides Jesse with a 36 hour buffer, and even then Jesse hides the vial inside one of his cigarettes. These are ostensibly measures for his safety, yet they must provide him with some comfort in the way that he hides the murder even from himself.

But even so, he still can’t do it. His hands shake when he has the opportunity to spike Gus’s coffee (and by default, everybody else coffee as well), and even though he seems to briefly contemplates using it, he bristles when Mike hands him a gun. (Tellingly, Jesse doesn’t even tell Walt that he ended seeing Gus at this meeting.) Even when he returns to the NA meetings, entering with a fairly passive-aggressive “I’ll come in if you want me to” kind of manner, he can’t bring himself to open up, not all the way. He masks his murder of Gale by casting him as a dog that had to be put down, and when he starts getting judged by a fellow addict, he spins it all around on the group leader, a move that allows him to delay the feelings of guilt for just a little longer.

What’s interesting about the way season four’s long-term narrative has been shaping up is that it been a much slower build than in the past. Whereas in the first three seasons it was readily apparent who or what Walt was going to be facing off with (even if the antagonists would die or change hands, as happened a few times in season three), season four has been slowly building up the Walt vs. Gus standoff. In a way it makes sense, given how Gus was the main antagonist at the end of last season, but given how the show seemed to wrap that up back in “Box Cutter”, it’s been able to make the return to this rivalry come across as something of a surprise.

Of course now the show has pulled another fast one on us, as it has thrown Hank into the mix. It’s another move that’s predictable in many ways, but comes as a bit of a revelation since Hank’s recovery has been very sudden over the past couple of episodes. (It helps that he wasn’t around last week.) In many ways, seeing a Gus-Hank showdown is far more dramatically exciting than seeing the drug kingpin go another round with Walt, and not just because it’s a new pairing. Gus and Hank share a similar character trait – they are both fairly direct men, as Gus was with his $50 million offer to the cartel representative, and Hank was when laying out his investigation to his former boss at the DEA. While Walt’s direct approach causes problems as it goes against the social code for someone in his standing, Gus and Hank are both free to be direct (though there are limits) given their standings within the community. Each man has a code of sorts, and it would be interesting to see those two play off of one another.

Of course, we would never get such a simple two-way antagonism, both because Breaking Bad is never a show to do things simply, and because Walter White is the kind of man to be the fly in everyone’s ointment. His direct, rule-breaking approach to problem solving makes him a wild card, and it should be interesting to see just how many lives other than his own he’s able to destroy before the season is out. With direct ties to Skyler, Jesse, Gus, and Hank, things are about to get messy.

Quotes and Other Thoughts:  

Generally I don’t see what the big deal is about Aaron Paul’s performance, mostly because the show hasn’t asked him to do as much as they have of the other actors, but his monologue at the NA meeting was fantastic. If he doesn’t win Best Supporting Actor at the 2012 Emmys, I’ll eat my hat. (And seeing as how I could say that for a few other elements of this show, I should probably stock up on my eating hats.)

Speaking of awesome monologues, apparently Dean Norris was able to give his in several one-takes on the day of filming. That dude should totally be nominated at the Emmys (though I have no idea if he ever actually submits himself or not).

Apparently Breaking Bad has new style element: Every episode must have at least one shot that from the POV of on inanimate object. While I usually like disorienting angels like this occasionally, the show has been using them so often - and without any thematic purpose – that there beginning to become annoying. They’re the kind of shots that call attention to themselves, and it’s starting to take me out of the episodes.

“Wrong answer. That’s what the kids call ‘epic fail’.”

Marie on the perks of throwing a grand opening party: “People get to know that they don’t have to face the Eyebrows of Doom when they come in.”

“Please, one homicidal maniac at a time.”

Hank’s boiler plate answer for his recovery: “Chalk it up to clean living and vitamin pills.” Even though he's fairly direct in most of his professional dealings, it's just like him to cover up any sort of personal pain with humor and emptying sayings, a trait that makes him more akin to Jesse than he might be comfortable with.  

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