Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 4

I wrote notes down after each episode this season to make my work flow a little easier for this review. So much happens over the course of a season that by the time you get to the end, your comments about the stuff at the beginning start to become irrelevant. But by the end of the season, I kept coming out of each episode just speechless, without words to describe what I was seeing (at least not right away, before I had a chance to take some time and process the events). But let's just go through this episode by episode, and I'll copy down my notes, and add some thoughts as necessary.

Spoiler Warning: This post is going to discuss - and therefore contain major spoilers from - the fourth season of Breaking Bad.

S4:E1 "Box Cutter"

Let me just start with this: I can't believe Jesse actually did it. I mean, I believe it - this is Breaking Bad, after all. But, damn. The theme of this season is definitely "speechless".

It was fascinating to see behind the scenes some of the earlier interactions between Gale and Gus, explaining why Gus was so insistent on working with Walt, after he'd obviously kept fumbling about with his early dealings with Gus. On the other hand, it reveals that Gus was never interested in doing fair business with Walt - he only intended to keep him around long enough for Gale to learn a few things and perfect his own cooking game. Gus is a character I wanted to like - he's professional, calm under pressure (notwithstanding the incident with the box cutter - although even that was a calculated move, as it turns out). After dealing with Tuco, who was always on the verge of losing it and going postal, Gus seemed like a guy Walt could trust. But now it's back to dealing with your enemies, always having to watch your back. I thought Walt was just being paranoid last season when he kept hinting that Gus wanted to kill him. But I guess he was right all along. (Walt's a lot of things, but "sucker" isn't one of them).

Gotta say (I'm trying to replace a lot of the swears I have in my notes - but that goes to show how affecting this series is), that scene in the lab was intense. I didn't even realize it until the end, but Gus didn't say a single thing through it all, until the very end. Yet he made quite an impression. I was sure he was going to kill Jesse to retaliate (because he can't very well kill Walt), but I guess that goes to show that Walt really does have the collateral in this exchange. It's clear from later episodes that Gus was tying up loose ends with this act, but I wouldn't be surprised if part of it was also him letting out some frustration over Gale's fate, as well as instilling some healthy fear in Jesse and Walt (it worked!). It's episodes like these that make me realize that this show is as much a horror as anything else. It really shows the dark underbelly of humanity sometimes.

S4:E2 "Thirty-Eight Snub"

I worry about Jesse. The thing he did for the girl he met in rehab, who had the kid that was killed by the drug dealers - that was nice. Really hammers home the fact that he's a "good" person, in spite of the way his life has gone. I'm starting to wonder what's going to happen to him at the end of all of this. I fully anticipate Walt not surviving the series, seeing as the initial premise started out with him having terminal cancer and all. But I'd like to believe that there's some kind of happy ending for Jesse, in spite of how deeply Walt is dragging him into the abyss. Like witness protection or something. It's frustrating that he's squandering his potential for goodness on a life of drug production, dealing, and consumption. I mean, he's responsible for a lot of those choices, I guess, and that should factor in to whatever fate he deserves, but... I just wonder where he'll be after the dust settles, if he's even still around at all.

S4:E3 "Open House"

I feel like there's a lot of tension building up. Sooner or later, it's going to blow - and I'm sure it'll be exciting.

The whole "Jesse takes drugs to deal with stress" thing is a lot like last season (two seasons ago?) when his friend was killed dealing (I guess it's a pattern for him), but I didn't really sympathize with Jesse then. But I do now. After Gale...

Really glad to see Hank back on the case!

At the beginning of this episode, I was kinda perturbed that Skyler was getting all up in Walt's business, stressing the cockamamie car wash plan. Like, bringing her in to all of this is dangerous - what if she's a weak link, and somehow blows Walt's cover? But then, by the end of the episode, she almost seems paranoid in terms of constructing a consistent story, even accusing Walt of being too lax (buying an expensive bottle of champagne after Skyler manages to buy the car wash), and I'm thinking, what if she's right? All that effort she's putting in to this, she might just be an asset after all.

S4:E4 "Bullet Points"

A couple things I liked about this episode (bullet points, if you will :p): the scene between Hank and Walt with Gale's Lab Notes, and the W.W. initials. This series has had a few scenes like that, where Hank gets so close to busting Walt. Walt's pretty good at keeping his cool, although I have to say I can tell every time he starts to clam up. (I'm sure this is 100% intentional on Bryan Cranston's part). Also, the scene between Jesse and Mike, with the thief, and the blindfold - hot damn, Jesse totally pwned Mike on that one!

And, they took Jesse. You know, I was actually thinking that they were going to do something to him. I know Walt insisted on the fact that the two of them are a package deal, but the only thing keeping them alive is their ability to cook that perfect meth. Walt can try to leverage Jesse's life, but what is he going to do if they kill him anyway? Stop cooking? Then he's as good as dead. I don't think they'll kill Jesse, just because he's a lead on this show, but I wonder now what's going to go down, and if Walt will be able to stop it in time.

S4:E5 "Shotgun"

I don't have a lot of notes for this episode - I'm thinking the show is in a building phase now. Jesse and Mike, and Gus. Walt and Skyler. Gus definitely has something planned for Jesse - he's totally got his psychology pegged, needing to feel like a hero/the good guy. I'm just glad he seems to be rediscovering a purpose for his life.

Oh, man. The dinner scene. Hank was ready to give up the chase, thinking that Gale was Heisenberg. But then Walt, with his pride (and a little bit of alcohol), had to go and egg him on. Total self-destructive behavior. And now Hank's on to the Los Pollos Hermanos connection!

S4:E6 "Cornered"

I was thinking that Gus would have those cleaning ladies killed after Walt brought them in to the lab. (For their sake, I hope they're only being deported). How long can Gus and Walt keep pissing each other off until one of them cracks?

I wonder if Gus' plan for Jesse is to get him feeling overconfident, and then put him in danger, so he'll go and eventually get himself killed.

"Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family."

In previous seasons, I've identified the way this story has been chronicling Walt's reinvention as a libidinal creature (if not in an overly sexual manner) - driven by an instinctual desire for power and significance, and the ability to "protect" his family in an oversimplified context, in which insane sums of money are more than enough to balance the perils of delving wholesale into an illicit and illegal drug trade populated by hardened criminals.

And while in these past two seasons Skyler has dragged herself into the midst of this madness - ostensibly in order to maintain her son's illusion of having a great father - instead of taking the advisable course and getting as far away from Walt's criminal enterprise as possible, we're seeing a definite difference here where she's willing to suppress her ego, and be "the bitch mother", if that's what it takes to actually protect the family unit (at this point, from being outed).

It could be looked at in different ways - e.g., taking on the mantle of suffering, a form of self-sacrifice, for the greater "good" - but I can see a point formulating out of this comparison, that seems to suggest that what makes a man feel good and what makes a man a good person are not necessarily the same thing. Which I guess has been the point of this show all along. Walt has been seduced by the dark side - the lure of power. He wants to believe that being a good person (as Gus manipulatively put it - "providing" for his family) is as simple as that - doing whatever it takes to secure their futures. This is easy. It's instinctual. We want to believe it. But it's not true.

And as much as I am loathe to reference religion, it reminds me of that one part of Jesus' message: the meek shall inherit the Earth. I think that, itself, is an idealistic fantasy - the meek will never inherit the Earth. Walt the drug lord bought that car wash. Walt the struggling cancer patient would never have been able to do that. Walt the struggling cancer patient may have been a more righteous person (and that's why, in spite of the decisions he made, he was so sympathetic in the first season), but yet, we, being libidinal creatures ourselves to some extent, can't help also sympathizing with Walt the drug lord. Because even if he's a bad person - damn, but doesn't power feel good? Why can't it be that simple?

"I am not in danger; I am the danger."

S4:E7 "Problem Dog"

Boy, Walt just keeps pressing Jesse's buttons, bringing up the crap he's had to go through, and it almost seems like he doesn't realize what it does to him, although surely he must know.

Is Jesse turning into a hardened killer now? This doesn't look good. Sucks to be in therapy and not be able to talk about what's really bothering you - to have to dance around the issue...

"If you just do stuff, and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point?"

Interesting. What Jesse needs is not self-acceptance, but to accept that he did something wrong (and for others to recognize that). Where does that put therapy? Maybe it's just not the right (or a universal) approach.

Oh, Gus - schmoozing with the DEA agent once again. That was really suave on Hank's part, getting Gus' fingerprints. He really is an investigative genius - notwithstanding Walt sneaking around right under his nose (but he's biased in that case, and can't see Walt for who he truly is). I really appreciate seeing someone for whom a passion for their work gives them a driving purpose in life. His myopic focus on the blue meth case has been a little irritating in the past, getting in the way of his career advancement and all, but it's really starting to pay off now (finally). I think, in the end - if he survives - this will demonstrate what a great agent Hank really is, that he even turned down a promotion in order to put the work first, before any kind of honor and prestige (I know a lot of that was actually Hank's negative response to the stress and trauma, but I could totally see it being interpreted in this positive way when everything's said and done).

I'm starting to wonder, though, now, if Hank is going to end up being the one to take care of "the Gus problem" for Walt and Jesse (without realizing he's helping them out) - not entirely unlike what he did to the Bruiser Brothers last season. All the more fuel to add to the fire of betrayal when Hank eventually finds out what Walt's been up to all this time. (For a while there, after the hospitalization, and with Skyler taking a different direction than I expected her to, by getting involved in Walt's business, I was starting to wonder if maybe Hank was going to drop out of the race, after all. But no, his part is too important in all of this. I just hope I'm not hyping up the inevitable confrontation between Hank and Walt in my mind too much, to the point that when it actually happens, it fails to live up to my expectations. Ah well, from my experience so far, I trust this show's creators to get the drama and pacing down perfectly).

S4:E8 "Pollos Hermanos"

Finally, Walt's cancer is mentioned again! He kind of started out being a dick to that other guy in the waiting room, but then by the end, he actually seemed to have some good advice about not giving up control, and how every life has a death sentence. I mean, any advice Walt gives has to be tempered by the fact that he's a drug lord, but still, it sounds nice. Which I guess is Walt's whole thing. Go for the ego, not the moral superiority.

Gus has always been the picture of total zen calmness. (I mean, he was pretty pissed after the Gale thing, but even as he killed that guy, he was in total control). It's interesting to see him now in the hot seat, with the detectives closing in on him. He's such a professional and all - how could he make a mistake? (Of course, it's Walt's fault, ultimately - he should have known better than to get greedy and hire him, knowing from the start that Walt was sloppy; I guess this might just end up being his downfall).

Good story, though - I wonder if it's a lie. Kinda hammers home how difficult it must be to make up a credible story. Whether it's partly true or not, I'm sure Gus had it all together beforehand. He's smart enough to have put the pieces together and known what he was being brought in for. I know some people are better at lying than others, but you gotta be smooth as molasses to throw a story together on the spot that a group of professional investigators can't immediately see through. But then, Gus is a pro.

Ah, we see the origin of Gus' feud with the Mexican cartel (also the "hermanos" in Los Pollos Hermanos). But I wonder who he was in Chile...

S4:E9 "Bug"

"A guy this clean's gotta be dirty."

Will the IRS ultimately be Walt's downfall? All because of Skyler's involvement in Ted Beneke's tax fraud? I was disappointed to discover that Skyler was inflating her own sales at the car wash, but I guess with the experience she's had with Ted, in addition to Walt's "side" business - if he's doing so well by breaking the law, why can't she? Especially now that she's caught up in it, too. Skyler's dumb secretary act is hilarious. She's a pretty good liar - but, as she herself has said, she learned from the best. Don't tell me Ted Beneke is going to come under the umbrella of Walt's finances now, though. That would be seriously dangerous. He's an okay enough guy, but not someone I would trust with something like this.

And the episode ends with Walt and Jesse's "spat". My original notes, in full, simply contain the phrase, "no words...". Looking back on it now, that's just a devastating scene. It's a long time coming, and serves as a bit of a catharsis, with all the conflict between these two characters. But to see them actually going at each other like that - it's heartbreaking.

S4:E10 "Salud"

The look on Jesse's face before he gets in that helicopter... Aaron Paul is not such a bad actor. Maybe it's hard standing in the shadow of Bryan Cranston, or maybe that causes you to bring your A game. But I really like Aaron Paul in this role.

I know Gus is in a tight spot and all, but trusting Jesse in such an important position? I wonder if he intends to use him as some kind of sacrifice (you know, like a gambit in chess). To temporarily assuage the cartel and deflect their attention, before making some kind of definitive strike, in which Jesse will become collateral damage.

Jesse totally pwned that cartel chemist... Amazing how you can see the pride and satisfaction in Gus' face, considering that he barely moves his facial muscles (good, subtle acting work there). It's reassuring to learn that Walt's boast last season that Jesse's cook was good was true after all, and not just a manipulative compliment (although it could have been both).

Wow, Ted's a real piece of shit. (I'm guessing this was the scene where he used Skyler's money to buy a Mercedes instead of paying off the IRS). My respect for him just plummeted.

The cartel party...oh my god, what is with this show and episode endings leaving me speechless?! (In hindsight, the cartel hit was definitely one of the highlights of this season, and the series on the whole. Great scene).

S4:E11 "Crawl Space"

Oh my god, this Ted Beneke situation is getting entirely out of hand...

Walt's feelings for Jesse are finally brimming to the surface, and he's finally beginning to get his comeuppance, as Jesse finally comes into his own, and has a leg to stand on. I hope it makes Walt learn to treat Jesse with some more respect.

And, this is the third episode in a row that has left me speechless at the ending...

S4:E12 "End Times"

I feel like everything's hanging together by a fine thread now. I know there's a whole 'nother season after this one, but it really feels like things are progressing to a climax. Either the status quo is about to switch up majorly, or the writers have done a great job making it genuinely feel like that's possible.

Good to see Walt and Jesse working together again, though. I think Walt's character improves through his feelings for Jesse, when it becomes clear that he actually cares for/about him, and not just as a punching bag. (Assuming he didn't manipulate the poisoning of Brock after all).

S4:E13 "Face Off" (literally)

This is it! The season finale! The emotion and excitement of the last parts of this season have consistently defied analysis for me. But I guess the real issue on anyone's mind at this point in the series is the relationship between Walt and Jesse. I really thought it was finally straightening itself out. But then we learn about the Lily of the Valley. I swear to God. I knew it in the back of my mind. But I wasn't sure. I had this creeping suspicion that I couldn't shake. But I didn't want to believe it. That Walt was responsible. I didn't want to believe that Gus was responsible either - turns out some of his most despicable moves weren't even his own (although it really didn't help his case when he threatened to kill Walt's family). Walt doing it is entirely in keeping with his character. And yet, it completely destroys what I thought was going to be a long time coming reconciliation between him and Jesse! That's why this is such a great series, though. (Well, one of the reasons). It's not afraid to punch you in the gut.

Now for a few quick afterthoughts, before I head in to the next season.

I was thinking that with Gus out of the way, this would be the perfect opportunity for Walt to finally step up and be the big drug lord I always wanted to see him be. I mean, like, between Gus' operation, and the Mexican cartel, Walt is pretty much the last man standing (though I wonder how Mike is going to respond to all of this). But now I'm thinking that maybe that's not in the cards - this series hasn't quite gone the direction I expected it to, in a number of ways, when I started watching it in the first season. (Speaking of which, still no further word on the cancer...). It seems like now might be the perfect opportunity instead for Walt to actually walk away from it all, and possibly get off scot-free.

Yeah, right. After all that Walt's been through, could he go back to a normal life even if he tried? Seems to me that he's a changed man. It would be poetic if he had the opportunity here to get out clean and free, but got embroiled back into the madness, and eventually got caught (or killed), all because of his insatiable greed and hunger for power. Because he couldn't just let things alone when the time was right. He couldn't walk away. I don't know what the final season is going to be like, but I'm sure it'll be good. I can't wait to find out how it all ends, although I'll also be sad for it to be over.


  1. Great read! Nothing to add. Looking forward to the next season review.

  2. Well, not watching along with you, I get confused about timelines, and when I should talk about what. I think we must have finally passed my favorite scene now... I can't remember where it happens, though. Junior finds Walt in a real beat up shape and thinks he fell because of his cancer. And junior enjoys taking care of him. But when Walt gets up, he tells Junior about how his dad died, smelling like shit in a hospital room, and about how Walt doesn't want that to be his fate. He doesn't want Junior to remember Walt the way that Walt remembers his father. But Junior tells him, essentially, it doesn't matter if Walt's weak. He wouldn't mind seeing him that way. All Junior wants is his (bleep)ing father. All he wants is for them to be close, for Walt to be honest and real with him.

    I consider it one of the most important scenes of the series. It highlights the thread that we've seen since the beginning, where Walt wants to go out in style, but Junior sees things in a much more traditional (and people other than me would consider much more rational) way. He'd rather have a dying dad than a dead dad. That's the core of Junior as a character, he is the true (and only) voice of reason in the entire show. He's the only one who is incorruptible, the one who wouldn't break bad.

    This is also the scene that hits me hardest of all. Not only does it remind me of my dad, and his steadfast strength. It also reminds me of me, and why Walter White is someone I relate to so much. I don't have a lot of things in this world, but I have my pride. It's my textbook tragic flaw, as it is with Walt's. I pretend to be strong, I pretend to be in control, I pretend to be aloof, and in doing so I push away everyone who might have helped me survive. I push out my family, I don't want them to see my darkside. I push out my friends, I'm too worried that they don't respect me. I push out any girl who might have been able to love me, I armor myself with a slimey persona to defend against the inevitable blow of rejection. The world burns while I sit on my throne with my pride, unwilling or unable to give in. Walt's doing the same thing with his son, and family is supposed to be the whole reason that he's doing this in the first place!

  3. Also I'll say -- when you finished the last season and thought Jesse didn't shoot Gale... Not that it matters but back when this episode originally aired, we all thought that as well. Vince actually had to come out and state, long before Season 4 started, that the camera trick was unintentional and that Jesse was intended to have been interpreted as shooting Gale.

    I don't know if I believe him that it was unintentional, though. ;)

  4. Haha, that's more like it. :p You have a good point about timelines though.

    Yes! I remember that scene. You know, you left a comment in my other review about Walt viewing Jesse as a surrogate son, and when that scene came up, that's immediately what I thought of - when Walt, in a delirious state, refers to Junior, who's been taking care of him, as "Jesse". It's right after their big spat, too. I also liked what Junior said to him. You're thinking (or at least I was), that he would be jealous or whatever that here he is taking care of his own father, and he's thinking about someone else. But then he goes and says that the way he was that night (and the following morning) is better than he's been in the past however many weeks - because at least he was real. (After all the lying he's been doing and all). That was great.

    P.S. Wow, Bryan Cranston spent the last half of this season in tons of facial bruising makeup. It's almost ridiculous!

    Re: Jesse and the gun. He definitely appears to point the gun to the side before firing (like, we're supposed to believe the gun wasn't actually pointed at Gale that whole time?). But then you find out Gale was shot right through the eye. So maybe Aaron Paul's "to the side" motion was a bit over-exaggerated. I don't know. You could also take it as a psychological experiment about how much viewers *want* to believe that Jesse wouldn't do it...