Monday, July 18, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: How Pure Can Pure Be?

"At least now . . . we're all on the same page . . . the one that says, 'If I can't kill you, you'll sure as shit wish you were dead.'"   --Jesse

I told myself I had neither the time nor the inclination to recap Breaking Bad for the blog and thus delve deeper -- emotionally, psychologically -- into this world than I already have just by watching and being entranced by it over the past three seasons. But I guess I'll have to find the time because the fourth season premiere has just delivered the inclination; there's too damn much to say about this show in a way that internal rumination just isn't going to cut it.

It's funny how I find myself writing simultaneously about two shows so similar in premise, yet so vastly different in tone, depth, and creative reach. Both Weeds and Breaking Bad feature straight protagonists going crooked for the sake of their families, but where the former has developed into an increasingly darker comedy sprinkled with dramatic moments (and hit a bit of a slump around Season 5), the latter kicked off in a dark place right off the bat (the first fatality occurs in the pilot episode), yet the powers that be have managed to keep the plot moving steadily and meaningfully forward and to add new layers of characterization season after season. Breaking Bad is a show devoid of wasted, or pointless, scenes; actions have ramifications that range from the personally tragic to the catastrophic, and each episode has me walking away with a sense of wonder, whether it's caused by a skilfully shot cliffhanger, a tense action sequence, a character-revealing scene, or a moment of particular poignancy. The amount of time I spend arguing back and forth with myself about a character's virtue (or lack thereof), possible justification (or lack thereof), and/or redeemability (or lack thereof), is a testament to how well crafted and psychologically fascinating this show is. It is a highly suspenseful, plot-packed one, to be sure, but make no mistake: character begets action every time on Breaking Bad. And they say television is an inferior form of storytelling.

Last season ended with a conflicted (and tragically lucid) Jesse being forced to carry out Walt's plan for preserving both of their lives: killing Gale, the only other person who could provide Walt's services to the cartel and arguably the most harmless player in Breaking Bad's complicated web of meth production. We are aware of Gale's relative innocence because the show takes deliberate pains to humanize him as a character mere minutes before Jesse shows up to tremulously raise a gun to his head. Fans of the show have been dying to slake their curiosity regarding Gale's fate -- Did the camera merely pan to the side or did Jesse shift aim before shooting? -- and tonight's episode, aptly titled "Box Cutter," reveals it: Gale is indeed dead (along with Jesse's innocence), found by his neighbors and later by Victor, the young goon from the lab -- "Splattered all over," he says. Victor soon stumbles upon a stupefied, nearly catatonic Jesse and delivers him back at the lab, where Mike and Walt are each anxiously awaiting him for entirely different reasons.

The rest of the episode is almost a study in silent acting: Marie in the car, summoning up her inner strength before going inside to deal with a still-immobile Hank (whom she loves but whose mulish machismo makes him a difficult patient); Marie again, struggling to infuse some dignity into helping Hank with the inherently undignified task of defecating into a bedpan; Mike and Walt staring each other down, while Jesse and Victor show up, pointedly revealing Gale's outcome without exchanging a single word. The piece de resistance, of course, is the scene in which Gus, seething with suppressed rage, wordlessly slashes Victor's throat mere feet away from Walt and Jesse's horrified faces, as if to say, "See what you made me do?"

The show is no stranger to graphic, stylish violence, but tonight's gore was little more than a massacre made possible by the titular box cutter -- the same one we earlier saw in a flashback, being wielded by Gale for the purpose of unpacking the lab equipment; one man's device of scientific revelation is another man's instrument of unspeakable brutality. We always knew Gus was a callous bastard, but this was the first time we've seen him act in a way that involved getting his hands dirty -- and how! -- and it was chilling to behold. Even  consummate professional "cleaner" Mike was taken aback by the gruesome display.  Gus, multitasking pro that he is, kills Victor as a means to both tie a loose end and deliver a message to Walt and Jesse, who look on in abject terror. With the exception of Walt's panicked rationalizations and prattling on about his and Jesse's worth, it is nearly ten minutes of a wordless Gus painstakingly suiting up in the hazmat suit, then just as carefully cleaning up after the suit's purpose is served. "Get back to work," he finally says upon leaving. I suddenly have a much easier time believing Gus capable of ordering the murder of the 11-year-old boy from Season 3.

One of the most interesting aspects of this show is in observing the ways in which Walt and Jesse struggle to operate within two frameworks: the real world with its clear, albeit varied, definitions of morality and the chaotic crime world where the regular rules don't apply. Some of the pivotal events of the last season occurred as a direct result of either Walt or Jesse muddying the line between the two worlds, and even though attempting to operate with a semblance of honor in a world run by criminals is inadvisable and more than a little hypocritical, it is also impossible not to admire the intent. In spite of the dark, dark themes, Breaking Bad is a joy to watch perhaps because of its lack of concern with portraying their characters in a sympathetic light. The show takes an almost anthropological approach, wherein it casts no judgment on the characters and thus prohibits the audience from doing so, either. I'm not saying Breaking Bad is a perfect depiction of moral ambiguity, but let's say it's 96% pure.

Other memorable moments this week:
  • Walt worrying about the toxic fumes from Victor's cook, then desperately trying to convince Jesse (and himself) that Victor would screw it up somehow; Walt's rule-following personality and his penchant for rationalization are recurring motifs on the show.
  • The entire hilarious scene involving Saul, his bodyguard, and his new-found paranoia; "You've got a passport, right?"
  • Skyler conning the locksmith into letting her into Walt's apartment; she is always so good in a crisis and in many ways, much cooler under pressure than either Walt or Jesse. 
  • Walt verbalizing responsibility for Gale and thus absolving Jesse, at least symbolically, of the blame: "I'd shoot him again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that."
  • Jesse telling Mike to "Trust us." when the latter expresses doubt about the chemicals used to dispose of Victor's corpse; Jesse and Walt have prior experience dissolving bodies in acid. 
  • Walt and Jesse at the diner, discussing the previous night's events; Walt finally treats Jesse as an equal partner, asking him for ideas on how to proceed, while Jesse copes with what's transpired in the quintessential Jesse way: aloof flippancy. 
  • The final shot of the episode echoing the beginning flashback; Gale's fastidiousness in keeping around a folder entitled "lab notes" for the cops to find may have been his final, accidental act of revenge on the people who killed him.
    As I said: no filler scenes on this show.

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