"How can you suggest that we kill a man and you can't even open the gun? It's not that easy, is it?" -Walt"Breaking Bad" is a show about a chemist, and so it stays faithful to a good scientist's need to go step-by-step through every experiment. You don't just start pouring together compounds without a plan, without some idea of what you're doing and what the result might be. You figure out one stage, then the next, and then the next, and only after that do you get to the fun stuff. Anything less than that will blow up in your face.
"Hey man, well, you did it." -Jesse
"Breaking Bad" proceeds at Walt's pace. It takes its time showing all the work that comes from disposing of a body, or acquiring the raw materials to cook crystal meth, or all the other logistical headaches of Walt's new profession. It took me a while to get used to that, to see that what I often saw as things getting in the way of the story were the story. As the show's creator Vince Gilligan put it in our interview, "Breaking Bad" is a show about the in-between moments of most traditional crime stories:
We've all seen so many TV shows and movies over our lifetimes where the murder is kind of a given, and the aftermath is kind of clean and pain-free and kind of skipped over, and it's on to the next plot point. There's plenty of movies that follow that pattern that I love, but I, as a viewer have found my mind wandering and find myself thinking as I'm watching a crime movie, 'How would you go about killing someone?' The mechanics of it, or the minutiae of it, is oddly interesting to a lay-person, to a non-criminal, as is the minutiae of just about any interesting job. What's it like to be a space shuttle pilot, a brain surgeon, a criminal? These are all interesting fields. Hopefully none of us aspire to be criminals, we instead aspire to be space shuttle astronauts. But the minutiae is interesting nonetheless.And so season two picks up right where season one left off, with Walt and Jesse realizing they've made a grievous, probably fatal, error in associating themselves with Tuco, and with the two partners trying to talk their way through a lethal solution to the problem. In one of my two favorite scenes of the premiere, Jesse proposes getting a gun and shooting Tuco, and Walt the teacher backs him up and insists that Jesse the ex-student walk him through every detail of this plan, only to realize that Jesse has no plan at all. Most crime shows, maybe all of them, don't even bother with the minutiae, but it's what "Breaking Bad" is about. And once you adjust to that frequency, it's almost shocking how engaging it is to watch an average man(*) slowly but surely puzzle out how to be a criminal.
Those kind of scenes are fun to write, because I think we idly wonder, from time to time, 'If I had to commit the perfect crime, how would I pull it off?" Talking through it, A to B to C, step-by-step, is interesting to me personally, and I figured it might be interesting to an audience.
(*) Relatively, of course. Average men don't know how to make ricin out of castor beans, or cook the finest crystal meth anyone in Albuquerque's sampled in a long time, nor do they have Walt's epic self-destructive streak. And, of course, average men aren't played by the sublime Bryan Cranston, who does double-duty in this episode as its director.
It's amazing how those Jesse and Walt scenes can be so funny and yet so desperate at the same time. They're rightly fearful for their lives, at a loss as to what to do, and yet they have such a different approach to these things, and so get on each other's nerves, that it makes me laugh even as I'm scared for them.
With the cliffhanger of Tuco holding the two at gunpoint and forcing Jesse to drive off into the darkness, "Seven Thirty-Seven" in some ways plays like it could have been the finale of the strike-truncated season one, but Gilligan said at the Television Critics Association press tour that the strike actually forced him to change his plans for this storyline -- and for the better of the show:
The strike was an awful, terrible thing. And yet, the one silver lining for us, for me personally is that if we had done our last two episodes of season one, you know, and the strike had not interrupted them, I was anxious about how the show would be received. And I wanted to have a big slam-bang season ender that would have been too much too soon plot-wise. So we did not pick up where we would have left off. I sort of took a breath and realized that I wanted to slow things down a little. And so the answer is no. In fact, the strike saved us from — from, you know, doing too much too soon.I won't say what's coming over the next few weeks (I've seen through episode three), but obviously it's not what Gilligan was going to do, and it makes me darned curious about where he's planning to take this season (which will have the promised slam-bang season ender) now.
Walt's fear of Tuco's wrath also leads to my other favorite scene from the episode, and the one that's maybe the most amazing when you consider that Cranston had to both direct and act in it. We saw throughout the first season that Walt's cancer diagnosis and his new criminal career had woken him up from a long emotional slumber, and that included his libido as well as his mind. So when Walt tried to have sex with Skyler in the kitchen after coming home from the junkyard encounter with Tuco, I at first took it for another case of him converting his fear of death into sexual energy. But no -- it was something much uglier, and much more terrifying. It may have started out as that, but when Skyler (covered in a mud mask, unprepared and not yet in the mood) tried to slow him down, it turned into Walt trying to prove his dominance over someone, and poor Skyler happened to be the only person handy. When Skyler accuses him of taking his fear of death out on her, she has no idea how right she is -- of how close Walt thinks he is to death.
Even for a show about a dying man who becomes a drug dealer, even for a show that's spent so many different episodes dealing with murder and the disposal of human remains, this is incredibly dark, risky territory to take your main character, and it's a credit to Cranston, and to Anna Gunn, that they were willing to play it as real and raw as they did. It's by no means pleasant to watch -- really, calling it a "favorite" scene doesn't feel right -- but it also doesn't feel like something just there for shock value. It feels like what this man who we've slowly come to know over the previous seven hours would do under these circumstances, awful though it is. And the look of absolute horror and shame on his face when Skyler finally forces him away shows that he's not a monster, even though he sometimes goes to that monstrous place.
Great to have this show back, and I hope the Emmy win and the added publicity for this season (due to the strike, it got minimal promotion last year) brings some new viewers to AMC, and to our weekly discussions.
Some other thoughts:
• Another one in the sick-but-funny category: Hank having himself a good laugh at the sight of Gonzo's arm snapping off in the stack of junked cars. For that matter, I loved seeing Hank and his partner watch the surveillance footage of Jesse and Walt stealing the methylamine from the warehouse last season, and coming really really close to figuring out what these two new criminal masterminds are about.
• It's important to the overall story that Walt's brother-in-law is a DEA agent, but I have as little patience for Hank's wife as Skyler does. The scene where Skyler chewed out Hank for suggesting that Skyler -- Skyler, the one with the dying husband, disabled son, surprise pregnancy, etc., etc. -- needed to be more understanding of Marie gave Anna Gunn a strong and welcome rant (and Dean Norris a nice comic moment where he sheepishly offered to look at the water heater), but I could do without Marie herself except where absolutely necessary to other characters' stories.
• One thing I didn't get to include from the interview: Cranston and Gilligan confirmed that Tuco is, as I assumed, named after the Eli Wallach character from "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly."
What did everyone else think?