"People move on. They just move on. And we will move on. We will get past this. Because that is what human beings do. We survive. We survive and we overcome." -WaltSeason two of "Breaking Bad" opened on a bit of macabre imagery (the eyeball floating in the pool) that we needed the whole season to fully understand. Season three's premiere (once again directed by Bryan Cranston, with the usual brilliant assistance from director of photography Michael Slovis) begins with another arresting image, only this time its meaning is apparent within minutes.
"You either run from things, or you face them, Mr. White... I learned it in rehab, it's all about accepting who you really are. I accept who I am." -Jesse
"And who are you?" -Walt
"I'm the bad guy." -Jesse
"You're a drug dealer." -Skyler
We head south of the border again to see an old Mexican man crawling desperately through the dirt. Is he injured? Dying of thirst? And why on earth won't anyone in this small village stop to help him, or even notice him? But then our angle changes, and we see that the old man is just one of many people crawling. (What. The. Hell? Is going on here? I asked myself as I watched this.) They're soon joined by two dangerous-looking men in shiny suits with skulls on their boots, who without comment get down on their bellys and inch their way towards a shrine in the desert, where they say a prayer and pin up a totem of the object of their prayer: a rough pencil sketch of the man the cartel knows as Heisenberg, and that we know as Walter White.
Many of you kept expecting the cartel to be responsible for the carnage at Walt's house and were surprised (and/or disappointed) when the plane crash was revealed. But it turns out the cartel was only delayed, and there is no way this can end especially well for Walt.
But up in Albuquerque, Walt has no idea these two fearsome men (referred to in the scripts as "the Cousins") are on their way. Instead, he and Jesse and Skyler are all grappling with the events from the end of last season: Jane's death, the crash it ultimately caused, and Skyler's astute decision to banish Walt from her life.
One hundred and sixty-seven people died in that crash, to be added to the butcher's bill after Jane, and Combo, and Spooge, and Tuco, and Krazy 8 and Emilio, and all the victims of the blue meth we never see. So many dead, so much pain caused, nearly all of it traced back to Walt's decision to enter the drug trade...
... and Walt still doesn't get it. He stands in front of that school assembly (in a scene that's just unbearable to get through, for all the right reasons) and makes everyone there feel horrible just to alleviate his own guilt. He tells Jesse to blame the government.
Even when he's not lying to others, he's lying to himself. In the riveting scene where Skyler confronts Walt about the drug-dealing - which, in that "Breaking Bad" way, becomes simultaneously hilarious because of how she keeps underestimating the depth of the situation (and because Bryan Cranston's reactions are priceless) - Walt has no choice but to finally lay everything out for her. But at the end of the confession, he assumes the honesty will finally start to repair things between them, when in fact it's only made things worse.
Jesse gets it. He comes out of rehab having accepted that he's the bad guy: that Jane would still be alive if she'd never crossed his path, and that in turn the planes wouldn't have crashed. And if he can't forgive himself, he can at least take the rehab counselor's advice to be "good enough to be okay with who and what you are." But Jesse can do this because he's never had Walt's capacity for self-deception, nor the obsessive pride that keeps Walt from opening up emotionally to others. Walt could never have the conversation that Jesse has with the counselor, nor could he have ever accepted the man's advice. His only method of coping is to deny and power through - to survive and overcome, no matter the emotional cost to those around him.
And if Walt's trying to escape his drug-dealing past (even refusing a "Godfather"-level offer Gus Frings couldn't have expected him to refuse), something tells me the Cousins (and whoever sent them) won't let him. And then survival becomes a very, very open question.
Some other thoughts on "No Mas":
• Vince Gilligan, who wrote this one, gave Cranston plenty of cool material to shoot with the Cousins (who very much come off like a silent pair of Anton Chigurhs from "No Country For Old Men"): not just the opening crawl, but them silently stealing the farmer's clothes (which surprisingly fit them, since they both look bigger than him), and then blowing up the coyote truck because that one poor bastard recognized what the skulls on their boots meant (and could therefore identify them later to law-enforcement). And speaking of which...
• The Cousins are played, in fact, by a pair of brothers, only one of whom had any acting experience: Luis Moncada (the actor) and his brother Daniel (the rookie). Basically, they loved Luis's audition and asked if he had any relatives who looked like him. Both have screen presence to burn, as well as the self-possession to not flinch when the truck blew up. I asked Gilligan about that scene, just to confirm my assumption that it was a practical special effect and not something created later by computers. Vince wrote:
No CG! That was definitely a practical effect, Alan -- the two Cousins were sixty feet from the truck when it blew up (although it looks like they were even closer than that due to the long lens which was used on the camera). All that flaming stuff you see raining down around them -- and even in FRONT of them, if you look closely enough -- was truly there, and not added in afterwards. I'm so proud of Luis and Daniel Moncada for the way they pulled that off. Bryan Cranston, their director, told them we'd get only one take at it, so they'd better not flinch... and by God, they didn't!• Between the matches Walt likes to light and then toss, the teddy bear and other airplane debris, and now the barbecue full of burning drug money, it seems like there's always something flaming landing in the White family pool, isn't there? Walt's guilt-ridden attempt to burn the money was one of his few moments of non-denial in the hour, but of course he wimped out, because burning the money would mean everything he did was for nothing.
• Loved Skyler's reaction when her new divorce lawyer tells her that spouses are adept at hiding all kinds of insane things from each other. If she only knew...
• Because Walt was so convincingly established at the start of this series as this milquetoast guy that no one would ever suspect of being a drug lord, we can have those occasional comic moments when he tells the absolute truth about himself to someone else (in this case, telling Hank that the duffel bag is full of cash) and have the other person laugh it off as Walt making a funny.
• Because this show is shot on a modest cable budget, I'm always amazed at the scope the directors and Slovis are able to create. I don't know if the school assembly scene was full of real students/extras, or if most of them were computer-generated, but it effectively conveyed how many people were affected by the airplane tragedy.
• That was Jere Burns as the rehab counselor. He's best-known as a sitcom actor. but like many comedy types, he can pretty easily make the transition to drama (see also the fella with two Emmys on his shelf for playing Walter White). The monologue about how he killed his daughter while hungry for cocaine was a very nice moment, and a reminder that Walt and Jesse aren't the only characters in this world to have caused pain, suffering and death for others.
• As Walt tried to tell Skyler, then Jesse, how complicated certain scenarios were ("there were many factors at play"), I got a real "Big Lebowski" vibe: "This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous."
What did everybody else think?