"Breaking Bad" — "Bullet Points": Nothing Left to Chance, All Is Working
"Breaking Bad" has always excelled at living in the tension of the layers between its characters. Sometimes these layers can be thought of vertically, as walls that keep people apart, but I find they're best imagined horizontally, one on top of the other, running between different characters like the strands of a web. The subtext of every situation, of every scene, is that certain members of a group believe one thing to be true while the other half of the room knows the opposite to be the case, and the conversation or action then becomes a dance in which each party tries to behave as innocently as possible while also second-guessing the moves of everyone else. A great example was when everyone was gathered at the hospital in the aftermath of Hank's shooting: Walt and Skylar presented one version of the truth to Marie, turning Walt's drug money into gambling winnings, while the three of them presented a wholly different front to Hank and Walt Jr., while on top of that Walt had to deal with the presence of Gus and the real truth of the situation. And it all happened at the same time in the same room.
This, it should go without saying, requires a staggering amount of emotional and mental gymnastics for the characters and is one hell of a thing to try and write, let alone stretch over four seasons. A screenwriter I used to know talked about "winding the bunny" when he talked about story engines. Setting up the plot is like winding up the key on the back of a toy bunny before watching it walk across the table; the tighter you wind the key, the farther the bunny goes, meaning the more energy and conflict and legitimate character tension you put into a story, the farther it will go under its own power. "Breaking Bad" broke the key and replaced it with rocket fuel. This week's episode, "Bullet Points," was masterful in the way it brought close characters who have spent so much time battling each other, only to leave them a hair's breadth from letting the truth spill out like blood from a wound. Every episode is great in one way or another -- Vince Gilligan and company are fiendishly consistent, quality-wise -- but even among giants, this was a standout.
One of the things that made the episode so riveting was the smart direction from Colin Bucksey and script attributed to Moira Walley-Beckett. (They're both series regulars: Bucksey directed the second season's "Phoenix" and the third's "I See You," while Walley-Beckett penned "Breakage," "Mas," and co-wrote the amazing bottle episode "Fly.") Specifically, two major scenes were allowed to play out to fantastic length, with the visuals working to complement the complex emotional storm in both. The first major set piece was Walt and Skylar's latest ten rounds about how to construct the lie they're living, which unfolded in a stunning nine-minute scene in the White living room. It's rare to get an uninterrupted scene of that length in a film, and on TV it's almost unthinkable, since it takes up about one-fifth of the episode's running time. (Though since AMC usually has these episodes running four or five minutes over, the percentages fluctuate a [very] little.) It was a wonderful scene that moved through so many complicated emotions reaching back through the series run, checking off major moments and heartaches as milestones that got our leads where they are now. Walt and Skylar are locked in something that's twisted and constricting and not at all a marriage; the look of cautious openness in her eyes when Walt said he was sorry that turned to stone when he revealed he was acting -- that was a moment of utter sadness and loss. It was riveting to watch these two characters fight through all this again out of some unusual brand of dependency and routine, some fucked-up type of love that makes itself known in brutal ways.
The other riveting scene came when Hank showed Walt the Lab Notes that Gale had so dutifully and foolishly recorded. That scene ran about four minutes, shorter than the living room scene but infinitely more intense. It's a testament to Walt's charm and duplicity that we're able to forget just how much hell he's brought down on Hank, from the blue meth that drove Hank off the professional deep end to the death of Tuco and the vendetta carried out by his cousins. Hank even had Walt pinned down in the RV, not knowing it was Walt inside, before Walt escaped. Seeing them sit there and discuss the notes, with Walt desperately trying to play it cool and actually throwing Hank off his scent by describing the "W.W." in Gale's notes as a tribute to Walt Whitman, was thrilling in a nauseating way. Here they are: the man doing the dirt, and the man trying to clean it, and only one knows what's really going on. Riveting, amazing work from Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris, as usual. Bucksley also played both scenes differently in terms of framing, frequently returning to a wide master shot in the living room scene with Walt and Skylar to underscore an emptiness in and around them, but keeping the camera tight on Walt and Hank in the bedroom to drive home the claustrophobia of the situation. Just some perfect TV from all involved.
Those moments probably best summarize the episode while also tying in with the series' overall themes of fabricated identities and what it means to betray those closest to you for reasons you deem worthy, but they don't even begin to capture every nuanced moment from a stellar hour. Jesse's fall from grace got darker and deeper, and he's so far past the point of caring that he didn't blink when a dope fiend ripped him off for $78,000 or when Mike tried to bluff him into straightening out. Jesse seems determined to test Tyler Durden's maxim: "It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything." It's amazing to think back -- four years for some viewers, only a year for the character's development -- and remember that Jesse used to be just some scared, stupid kid slinging dirty meth and trying to act as much as possible like what he thought tough street guys should be. Now, he's a cook on a regional/national scale with a family that'd rather forget him, no friends to speak of, a dead girlfriend on his mind, and blood on his hands. He's had to grow up so fast, and for all the wrong reasons.
The episode also did something only a very confident show could do well: it found a way to mix sorrow and humor without making one cancel out the other. Because let's face it, Gale singing "Major Tom (Coming Home)" on a karaoke DVD is weird and sad and a perfect detail from one lonely man's life, and in the context of Hank's investigation it would at best be a pathetic moment. But to have Walt sit there and watch it and be slapped again with the realization that he killed this sweet, unfortunate man just to cover his own ass: that was sorrow and pain like no other, right in the middle of a perfectly absurd moment. A balance like that is tricky, like Heisenberg's own blue crystal. It takes a real chemist to pull it off.
• Walt Jr. is alive! Also, still not that important. He's got a lot in common with Walt from "Lost": both grew up faster than their stories dictated they could, which resulted in less screen time in later seasons. Ah well. At least R.J. Mitte still gets screen credit and a paycheck.
• "Walter H. White, man of hidden talents." Honestly, Dean Norris has done amazing things with Hank, taking him from a one-note hotshot to a moody, complicated man.
• As I've mentioned, I came to the show a few months ago, so this is the first season I've watched in weekly installments. As such, it's the first time I've had to sit through the "Previously On" segments at the beginning of the episode, and as with most dramas, I find them both pointless and overly revealing. Pointless because I'd like to think that other viewers and I will remember enough of what's happened to follow the episode, or that the writers will do their job with subtle reminders. Overly revealing because those snippets always hit on things that will be brought up or referenced or expanded upon in the following hour, robbing certain moments of potential surprise. I think next week I'll give the DVR a bigger buffer and just fast-forward through them.
• Mike's eyeroll at his severed ear: amazing. It was a perfect way to underscore just how much of a pro he is. Walt and Skylar are trying to build the perfect fable for their meth money, Jesse's sliding into a drug-induced stupor, and Walt's growing increasingly paranoid, but Mike? Mike's the guy who does his job. Walt's starting to become the other guy.
• Great closing moments with Jesse riding with Mike, not caring where they go. The drama of these situations is never whether a major character like Jesse will die, but rather how far things will go before they're allowed to live or escape or change. And Jesse's been through quite a bit. As the show is fond of reminding viewers, sometimes staying alive is worse than getting killed.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He's also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.