"Breaking Bad" — "Cornered": Living on Muscle, Guts, and Luck
I've been thinking a lot about what draws me to "Breaking Bad." My wife's a devotee of crime thrillers and mysteries -- she's a big fan of everything from "Luther" and "Wire in the Blood" to "The First 48," and like everyone with their head on straight, she loves The Godfather -- but she can't take even a minute of "Breaking Bad." It's just too depressing and violent for her. And I'm the first to admit that the show is definitely both of those things. Yet I'm always fascinated by what draws certain people to certain movies or series, and I love examining what it is that makes me feel like watching five straight hours of "Breaking Bad" while someone like my wife doesn't want anything to do with it.
I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm consistently dazzled by the show's exploration of flawed, compelling, brazen characters doing increasingly dangerous and deadly things that are always somehow justifiable within a given moment. Through Walt, the show explores the consequences of abandoning the social mores and legal structure that defines our society and doing so because you tell yourself that you are special, or deserving, or bound by circumstance and fate to do something different than what people tell you you're supposed to do. This is not to say that there are no bad guys on the show. Viewers who think that characters with the capacity for good and evil are somehow neither are fooling themselves. Rather, what sets the show apart from almost everything else on TV -- what makes it great -- is the precision and honesty it brings to its stories of people choosing bit by bit to give themselves over to something they never would previously have imagined themselves doing.
This week's episode, "Cornered," was ostensibly about the way Walt lashes out at those around him when he loses control over his environment (or the illusion of control, which is probably a better way to think about his whole situation with Gus), plus the title was a nice pun for Skylar's coin-flipping attempt to maybe find a new state to live in and start a new life away from the madness in Albuquerque. But it was really, deep down, a look at how much Walt has changed. He got into meth manufacturing out of a desperate desire to leave his family some money after he died, but now his cancer's in remission and he's making millions. Everything should be better, but it's more complicated and draining than he'd ever imagined. He's a kingpin forced to live the life of a pauper to dodge the IRS, and his personality has never been one to shrink from a fight or let someone else take credit for his work. Walt's a caged animal, and it doesn't matter a bit that Skylar's advice and planning is sound and helpful. He's going to strike.
The pivotal moment of the episode -- in a way, one of the most defining moments of the series to date -- was their argument in the bedroom after Walt woke up from sleeping off his hangover from the dinner with Hank and Marie. Skylar, who remains the most insightful and emotionally perceptive character on the show, nailed every bit of Walt's fear and arrogance and insane hubris as she worriedly scolded him about his challenge to Hank, and that was all it took for Walt to wheel on her, growling about just how strong and dangerous he can be. Bryan Cranston continues to do amazing work as Walt thanks to astonishing nuance he brings to each episode, and he's never been quite as aggrieved or proactive as he is in this scene. Anna Gunn's body language was great, too, shrinking away just slightly in unconscious fear (a move she doubled at the end of the episode when she came back from her trip and Walt tried to coddle her with promises of protection). Four seasons ago, Walt was a weak-willed man with a flinty core capable of pushing himself to illicit behavior to save his family; now, he's a major criminal willing to angrily lecture his wife (and anyone else who will listen) about just how much further he's willing to go.
It's moments like that that keep me tuning in and writing about this show. "Cornered" was a sharp hour that dug into Walt's fragile emotional state and highlighted the consequences of his actions. Not to belabor the Godfather comparison I've made here before, but the show really does feel like a television counterpart to the film. They both deal with the slippery slope of choice and consequence, and the way that violence breeds cold indifference.
The rest of the episode was strong, too. The remnants of the Juarez drug cartel are not exactly forgiving men, and the way they sent a message to Gus via a pair of lowlife meth-heads was exactly like something Gus himself would do: Hit hard, save your skin, and use disposable intermediaries. Jesse's also starting to come into his own again, building on the lie of Gus' arranged stick-up to become an actual help to Mike in investigating the missing blue meth. Jesse's just as cornered as Walt is, but he's also willing to work within those limitations to find success. He knows enough to realize that his time with Mike started out as a babysitting gig, but he brushes off Walt's paranoid-sounding but totally accurate theory about the robbery being a fake because he actually wants to do well in his new role as Mike's assistant and apprentice-level fixer. Plus this time he actually pulls it off. He managed to use his experience manipulating meth-heads to trick his way into the dopers' house, then pure adrenaline and luck to disarm the shotgun-wielding psycho. Not bad for a character only a year past his days wearing oversized jackets and making crystal in his aunt's basement.
Only a few things "happened" in a big way in the episode, especially regarding Walt and Skylar's plan to slowly establish a legitimate front for the river of dirty cash flowing into their lives, but the hour was jammed with emotional moments that underscored just how much is at stake for everyone involved. A great episode.
• The cold open made me feel claustrophobic and out of breath. Great, tight work from director Michael Slovis, who also helmed last season's "Kafkaesque."
• "Was it the people you work for?" "Definitely not." Always the layers, the double meanings, the worming for new definitions.
• It took total strangers for Walt to finally realize just how dangerous he really is to people: He thought he was being clever or cute by hiring the women from the laundry to clean his lab, but all he did was ruin their lives and get them deported while angering Gus yet again. You had to know it wouldn't end well for the women Walt haltingly bribed into cleaning his lab. Hell, even he had to know it. Still, tough luck.
• Walt's brief scene with Bogdan was a great pissing contest. Bogdan's condescending advice that Heisenberg should learn how to get tough was hilarious.
• I think we need a web series about Mike's gruesome and occasionally comic misadventures as an operative for Gus. Or maybe some spinoff episodes in which he and Jesse team up, '80s style.
• I can't remember if I mentioned this before, but I think it's only been a few months in the story's chronology since Walt got the cautious OK from his physician about his cancer. I keep waiting for Vince Gilligan to let the other shoe drop and bring the disease back. Maybe that's how the show will end.
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. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.