"You can never trust a drug addict." -GusThree times in "Mandala," a character (first Jane, then Skyler, then Walt) is faced with a decision between what is right and what will feed their craving (for Jane, using drugs; for Skyler, Ted Beneke; for Walt, the chance to keep dealing drugs and making money). Three times, that character closes their eyes for a moment and tries to convince him or herself to resist temptation and do the right thing.
And three times, they give in.
Jane walks back to Jesse's bedroom, smokes some crystal with him, and eventually introduces him to the joys of heroin. Skyler gets out of her car and returns to work at Beneke. Walt ignores Skyler's text about going into labor, hoists a garbage bag full of meth, and goes to meet the mysterious Gus for the biggest sale of his career.
Drug dealers prey on human weakness, and in becoming a dealer, Walt has inadvertently attacked the weaknesses of the people all around him. He pushed Jesse into expanding their territory, which led to a rival drug gang murdering Jesse's buddy Combo, which led to Jesse wanting to get lost smoking meth -- and, after dragging Jane down with him, shooting up. He made Skyler feel so alienated that she would seek out Ted Beneke's company, even though she doesn't want to cheat on her husband, and even though she doesn't want to work for a man who cheats on his bookkeeping. And for Walt, the dealing itself has become like a drug, one that makes him feel more powerful and alive than he has in years, if ever, and so he's even willing to choose a drug deal over witnessing the birth of his daughter.
It would seem impossible for anyone within the circle of influence of this drug world to make smart, careful choices -- or, it would, if in the same episode we weren't also introduced to the mysterious Gus.
Played by Giancarlo Esposito, Gus (aka Gustavo) appears to be everything Walt aspires to be: a careful, successful drug lord who not only acts like a legitimate businessman, but owns a series of legitimate businesses. (This week in "The Wire"-to-"Breaking Bad" translation would have Gus as the best parts of Stringer Bell and Prop Joe.) Walt believes he and Gus are kindred spirits, but Gus knows better, telling him, "I don't think we're alike at all, Mr. White." Between Walt's ignorance of the drug game, his reliance on Jesse and his own stubborn pride and need to make money as fast as possible, Walt has repeatedly made the kind of mistakes that could end a career -- or a life. He may be careful and have a plan when he cooks the blue meth, but the rest of the time, he's improvising -- and usually badly.
It's curious, I thought, that after Gus decided to do business with Walt, he would give him a first assignment with such a tight time window that it would make nearly any man get sloppy. Maybe the idea is that only a man as careful and organized as Gus would be able to get his hands on that much supply so quickly. Or is there a chance this is all a set-up -- that Gus has determined Walt is a man he can get over on, and get ahold of a large supply of quality meth for nothing? (I'm guessing not; seems like too much potential risk for a relatively small reward.)
We're reaching a point with this series where it feels like praising the actors is almost unnecessary -- that the brilliance of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and the rest is so obvious that it can go without saying. But one of the trickiest things an actor can do is to simply show the audience what their character is thinking, and in "Mandala," the cast -- Cranston in the kitchen, Paul while Jesse is floating above his bedroom while high on dope, Anna Gunn in the car, and Krysten Ritter at the doorway -- all nailed those moments. (Ritter in particular, since we have so little to work with on Jane and she still told me a very long story during that pause.)
Even if Walt somehow pulls off this deal, I think we all know things are falling apart -- and would know it even without the Teddy Bear of Doom imagery. As Walt himself finally admits to Saul Goodman, "This entire process has been so... it's always been one step forward, and two steps back." And so long as each character is consumed with feeding his or her addiction, no real progress can be made.
Some other thoughts on "Mandala":
• I like that Skyler is, yet again, drawn to a man who commits a crime for what he claims to be a selfless reason, though at least she knows about it in Ted's case. And her performance of Marilyn Monroe's version of "Happy Birthday" -- reprising something she did the last time she worked for Beneke -- provides even more evidence that what went on wasn't sexual harassment, but some kind of mutual-consent flirtation, if not a full-blown affair.
• Dazzling work on the entire heroin sequence, with Jesse appearing to float up to the ceiling of his bedroom, as "Enchanted" by The Platters plays. Check that look of pure bliss (and relief) on Aaron Paul's face and you can see that Jesse is not going to want to stop doing this anytime soon.
• Shows like "House" and "Six Feet Under" (where the victim was never who it seemed to be at first) have conditioned me to look for twists in pre-credits sequences, but I have to admit to being completely suckered in by this one. I thought for sure that all the shots of the little boy on his bike meant he was going to be collateral damage in the hit on Combo, but instead, he was the killer. Nicely done.
• Now that Walt has told Skyler that Gretchen and Elliot have cut off the money tap, how does he intend to explain his ability to pay for the $200,000 surgery? Also, note how the roles have now reversed: where before it was Skyler who had to push Walt to get any kind of treatment, now he's the one aggressively pursuing it while she wants to at least think. Now that Walt knows he has a chance to live -- and has accepted that he can live as a drug dealer -- he's embracing it.
• The surgeon was played by veteran character actor Sam McMurray -- who, coincidentally or not, played Uncle Junior's brilliant oncologist (named John Kennedy) in a latter-era "Sopranos" episode.
• Saul Goodman's helpfulness proves to not be unlimited here -- he needs to reach out to "a guy who knows a guy who... knows another guy" to get ahold of Gus, and he has no Plan B when that meeting fails -- but he's still funny, telling a bickering Walt and Jesse, "Who do I look like, Maury Povich? I Am not your marriage counselor."
• Would the reveal that the fast food manager was really Walt and Jesse's contact have worked better with a less recognizable actor? Or was the point supposed to be that we identified the guy but it took Walt longer to do so?
What did everybody else think?