"All that I've done, all the sacrifices that I have made for this family, all of that will be for nothing if you don't accept what I've earned." -WaltI didn't put a stopwatch on it, but I would guess that "I.F.T." (the title is an abbreviation for the bombshell Skyler drops on Walt) features the least screentime for Walt of any episode of the series. The only other contender I can think of is season two's Jesse-centric "Peekaboo," but even there, Walt had a prominent subplot with the return of Gretchen. Walt's not absent from "I.F.T.," but more often than not it seems like characters are talking about him rather than interacting with him.
And most of what they're saying about him is that they're waiting for him to be dead.
"I.F.T." lays out two possible outcomes for Walt: either the cancer comes back soon and kills him (which Skyler assumes, and is therefore reluctant to rat him out to the cops), or else Gus Frings finishes his business with Walt and lets the Cousins (here revealed to be actual cousins of Tuco, and nephews of Tio, who turns out to be a former druglord himself called Don Salamanca) do to him what they did to Tortuga(*).
(*) And if the show were, indeed, to end with Walt's decapitated head on top of an exploding tortoise? Instant Top 5 Most Memorable Series Finale Ever. Period.
When you start with a premise like this show has, neither a happy ending nor a long run (Vince Gilligan has said in the past he envisions four seasons) are likely. And if neither of these turn out to be the exact fate Walt suffers, his end will be ugly - and deserved.
Here, even in an episode where Walt largely takes a backseat to Skyler, and Jesse, and Hank, and the cartel, you still get to see the damage he's done to those around him. Once again, he completely checkmates Skyler and makes her the bad guy in their domestic drama. Jesse spends most of the hour doing nothing but calling into Jane's not-yet-deactivated voicemail so he can hear her voice again. And when the phone company finally cuts the line - taking away the last vestige of the woman Jesse loved, and Walt killed - he heads into the desert in the RV to cook on his own, using all the lessons Walt taught him. Tio is still raging over Tuco's death (even though Hank technically fired the killing shot, Tuco was in that situation because of Walt), and that in turn is going to cause all manner of pain and heartache for those associated with Walt. And, of course, Hank's PTSD problems (which here lead to him savagely beating on a pair of tough guys in a biker bar) began not with Tortuga's death, but with him killing Tuco, which only happened because Hank was out looking for Walt.
We talk all the time in these episode discussions about the brilliance of Bryan Cranston, which at this point practically goes without saying, and Aaron Paul did get a deserved Emmy nomination last year, but damn if Anna Gunn isn't kicking ass and taking names so far this season. "I.F.T." was a great showcase for her, between her panic and frustration at the cops' refusal to kick Walt out, then her resentment at how Walt has bended Walter Jr. to his side, then her nervous anticipation as she prepares to seduce Beneke as payback to Walt, then the matter-of-fact-ness of her three-word(**) destruction of Walt's hopes and dreams for their marriage. Walt has an amazing capacity for self-denial, but even he can't ignore anymore what his drug career has done to his family. (Then again, knowing Walt, he'll just put all the blame on Skyler and/or Beneke.)
(**) As we discussed last year when Walt hurled an F-bomb at Gretchen (in the aforementioned "Peekaboo"), that word is one of the few that you can't use even on basic cable, due to agreements the channels have with their advertisers and/or cable operators, and so in both cases the sound drops out for a moment during the word. But I admire AMC's willingness to let Gilligan use it at all, since there are certain scenes - particularly ones like these two, where one character is trying to be incredibly hurtful to another - where no other word would be as effective. And the unbleeped versions will live on forever on DVD.
And how about Dean Norris? It's been a while since we dealt with Hank's emotional problems, post-Tuco and then post-Tortuga, and it felt right that the issue should be revisited in an episode that brought Danny Trejo back to portray Tortuga's very bloody end (and to again establish the Cousins' lethal bonafides). This is a character type you don't often see in American crime fiction: a cop who's good at his job and tough enough to take on and beat two much bigger men by himself, but who can't cope when things rise to a more lethal level. It's unclear exactly what Hank is hoping to achieve here - prove his manhood? get too injured or in too much trouble to go back to El Paso? - but as played by Norris, it was scary to watch, and a problem that's not going away for Hank so long as he remains as in-denial as Walt.
Some other thoughts on "I.F.T.":
• This one was directed by Michelle MacLaren who (along with director of photography Michael Slovis) was responsible for season two's gorgeous desert misadventure "4 Days Out," and it felt right that she should be behind the camera for Jesse's return to both the RV and the desert. I also loved the shot of Gus's chicken facility with its hundreds upon thousands of birds all clustered in on top of each other.
• Mike tells Gus (or one of Gus's people) on the phone, "I'm assuming Saul Goodman doesn't need to know." So does that mean he's an independent operator? Or someone whose loyalty is more to Gus than to Saul (and, by extension, Walt)? Either way, that can't be good.
• What do you suppose the Cousins did to the old woman with the scooter and the wheelchair-accessible minivan? Or am I better off not asking?
• Going forward (assuming he appears in more episodes), do I refer to the character as Tio or Don Salamanca? I'm kind of partial to Tio, even if that's just Spanish for "Uncle."
• When Walt started peeing in the kitchen sink out of spite, I immediately thought of George Costanza's, "It's all pipes!" defense from the episode where he got caught going in the health club shower.
• This is two weeks in a row with a classic rock standard on the soundtrack, this time with ZZ Top's "Tush" playing as Hank has his biker bar showdown.
What did everybody else think?