"Sometimes, it doesn't hurt to have someone watching your back." -Mike"Breaking Bad" has tried to walk a fine line between black comedy and straight drama, and as Walt's heart has gotten darker, so has the show. This season has had its funny moments (roof pizza!) and of course promoted Bob Odenkirk to regular cast status, but on the whole it's felt more serious than before - not less interesting, because Cranston, Paul and company play both sides equally well, but with its feet more firmly planted on one side than the other.
With "Green Light," the funny returns in greater doses. Saul is more at the forefront, Walt is more pathetic than monstrous for most of the hour(*), and the comedy duo of White and Pinkman briefly reunited.
(*) I found it a particularly nice touch that we only heard Walt and Skyler's argument as Mike and Saul were listening to the tape of it in Saul's office. Had we watched it unfold in the White family kitchen, it would have been as ugly as much of the Walt/Skyler interaction has been this year. Seen through Saul and Mike's eyes, though, Walt's a clown with no impulse control.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the show took a darker turn after Jesse turned to heroin, not only because there's not a lot that's funny about that situation, but because it drove a wedge between him and Walt. So much of this show's comedy, even in otherwise bleak episodes like the one at Tuco's house or the one in the desert, comes from seeing these two characters drive each other crazy as they try to solve their latest potentially-fatal problem. And since Jane's death, they've been at peace with each other, but that was largely because neither was cooking meth at the time. No professional friction, just a surrogate father-son dynamic - note Walt telling Jesse, "You're good at a lot of things, son" while trying to talk him out of cooking.
But as soon as Jesse takes out that bag of blue Heisenberg meth, all paternal instincts go out the window. Walt the mentor is overtaken by Walt the aggrieved party, the man whose entire life can be blamed on others, whose stubborn pride eventually poisons every part of his life. Walt should have been proud that he had ultimately turned out to be a good teacher to Jesse - that he had taken the idiotic Cap'n Cook and turned him into an effective Heisenberg substitute. But of course he had just blown up his teaching career by hitting on the principal, and all he could see with that blue bag was that Jesse had stolen from him, in the same way that Gretchen and Elliott made their fortune on his work, and it made Walt go ballistic - and very, very funny.
Cranston's comedy bonafides got a workout in this one, not only in arguing with Jesse, but the whole scene outside Ted Beneke's office (where he assures Skyler everything's fine even as he's hunched over the potted plant he's trying to hurl through Ted's window), his lame brawl with Saul (with Mike picking up Walt like a father might pick up a child throwing a tantrum) and his disastrous attempt to seduce Principal Carmen.
But if Walt was a clown in this episode, he was the sad clown. He's lost his marriage, lost his teaching job, alienated the closest thing he has to a friend in Jesse, and even fired his counsel and money launderer. He's got nothing and no one, and something tells me Gus Frings will never have to tell him about the Cousins (even as the Cousins leave another warning on Walt's street) to get him to resume cooking. Heisenberg is the only thing Walt has left.
Jesse, meanwhile, continues to embrace his inner bad guy, potentially ruining the life of that poor girl at the gas station with his testimonial about the awesome splendor of crystal meth, just because he didn't think to check his wallet before filling up the RV. Aaron Paul has been a revelation as this dead-inside, unapologetic villainous Jesse - we knew he could act, but to be able to take the character to such a different place while still seeming clearly Jesse is no small thing.
And the gas station deal (another one of the show's marvelous short-story-as-teasers) looks like it's going to blow back on Jesse after Hank uses the return of the blue meth as an excuse to get out of his terrifying reassignment to El Paso. Hank struts through the episode being just as self-sabotaging as Walt (talking to Gomey in a similar manner to how Walt treats Jesse), because he's been to the border, and south of it, and he can't do that again - just as he can't admit to that until cornered by his boss(**). He doesn't quite wreck his career the way Walt does, but he's killed any real chance of upward mobility. (And, not that Hank realizes it, but catching Heisenberg won't do him much good, since putting the bracelets on the brother-in-law you didn't realize was the area's most notorious supplier isn't a great resume item.)
(**) Loved the moment where Hank's supervisor forces him to leave aside the macho bluster and confess that he can't go back to El Paso... and how, after a moment, Hank's personality reboots and he tries to act like the confession never even happened.
Walt's got no one, Hank's got no future prospects, Jesse's got no soul, and Skyler may as well put on a scarlet letter at Beneke after Walt's outburst. Not a good place for any of these characters to be, even if "Breaking Bad" rediscovered its sick funny bone while putting them all there.
Some other thoughts:
• What a great addition Jonathan Banks has been as Mike, whose loyalty is again confirmed as to Gus first and everyone else a distant second. His unflappable, completely professional demeanor stands in stark contrast to the excitable, bumbling amateurism of Walt, Jesse, and even Saul, who's only slightly less in-over-his-head than his two favorite clients.
• Is it any surprise that Jane's father would attempt suicide after all he's been through (and caused) over the last few months?
• And is it any surprise that, while Mr. Margolis would respond to the Flight 515 tragedy by trying to kill himself, Saul would try to make a buck off of it?
• Very nice transition between Skyler standing over the copy machine, realizing how much all the women at Beneke hate her, followed by the copy machine's whine intersecting with Skyler and Ted's moans during sex as the camera passes over pictures of Ted's kids.
• A mark of how effective the teaser was: I was actually relieved when Hank went to the gas station and it turned out the girl gave the meth away after sampling a little. On the other hand, it does metaphorically take Jesse off the hook for what he just did. If there's one area the series has shied away from, it's showing the effect of Walt and Jesse's product on its users (unless we count Skank and Spooge). We get to see how their behavior destroys the people immediately around them, but are kept from having to confront the broader destruction they cause. The users of the blue meth are as abstract as the people on the plane.
What did everybody else think?