I’ve thought a lot this season of “Breaking Bad” about the price Walter White is paying for getting what he wants. There’s no magical transformation, no sign marking the end of his road. He didn’t game the system, or win his freedom. He got the power and riches he sought, and they turned out to be so much more complicated and awful than he had dared to imagine them being. That idea — that achieving your dreams can actually be pretty horrible — is a potent one, and creator Vince Gilligan has deftly explored it at every turn. But like Walt’s own relentless progression, Gilligan hasn’t rested on that one realization. Rather, he’s continued to build on that concept, to refine it, and it’s brought us now to this: When getting what you want doesn’t look like what you’d pictured, you find yourself wanting more. One more chance, one more deal, one more paycheck. Walt’s worked his way up the drug chain and felt empty and disillusioned at every step, and it only got worse when he reached the big leagues. Connecting himself to Gus should have been the move that set him up for life, but he’s unable to stop reaching for more, even when he shouldn’t. And now, as had to happen, Walt’s actions are once again catching up to him.
“Crawl Space” was a fantastic, nerve-wracking hour of television that packed a stunning amount of plot into just one episode. (It’s probably safe to say that all bets are totally off for the final two episodes of the season.) What made it so stunning was the graceful way every story thread was tied to the others, and how every problem that’s bearing down on the White family is tragically connected. Walt’s greed and paranoia put him on the outs with Gus, and his anger and control severed him from Jesse. Meanwhile, Skylar’s complicity with Ted meant that the IRS could conceivably start looking into her and Walt’s affairs if the government didn’t get paid off. Walt needed a stack of cash to try and disappear with Saul’s version of witness protection; Sky needed the same money to float Ted to cover his debts and keep the feds off her back. Each problem feeds the other, and solving one means succumbing to the other. There’s no way out.
I only started watching the show over the summer, so I’ve been blissfully unaware of some of the negative comments hurled at the show’s characters, specifically Skylar. There’s apparently a whole faction out there of people who’ve despised her and her actions since the first season, as if she was somehow acting unreasonably when she got angry with her husband after he disappeared for days at a time, abandoned his family, forgot how to be loving, lost his job, and performed what amounted to sexual assault on her on the kitchen. Last night on Facebook, a friend of a friend wrote, “Once again, Skylar fucked up shit.” (He declined to elaborate further, but I’ll do him the favor here of responding to his blurb as if he’d made a lucid argument.) Skylar found herself involved in Ted Beneke’s shady business and made her mistakes, and now she’s trying to clean it up as quickly as possible. The money had to come from somewhere. Ted wasn’t going to suddenly wise up or go legit. Forcing him to take it was her best play.
That’s what’s so tragic, see? I don’t mean merely sad or unfortunate, either; I mean full-on tragic, in the Aristotelian sense. These men and women are making mistakes that bring about total reversals of fortune, often rooted in the act of attaining what they’d most desired. This is gorgeous, stunning stuff, and it’s what makes the series so moving. This isn’t just bad things happening to reckless people, and it’s sure no dark comedy. It’s a brilliantly conceived drama about the cost of greed and the illusion of control.
From another narrative standpoint, Skylar got off easy. Gilligan and crew are very careful to only let the Whites break bad in baby steps. Walt ordered Gale’s death, but it was Jesse that pulled the trigger. This time around, Skylar just wanted Ted to be scared into action, nothing more. It was his own panic and the fickle hand of fate that killed him. This was a nice complication (and a handy way to get rid of a character that could have caused some serious trouble for the Whites), but it was also a safety net for Skylar. She got to solve her problem permanently without actually having to order Ted’s murder. That’s a nice out, but I’m curious how many times she and Walt will get to use it.
That’s the other lesson of “Crawl Space”: at a certain point, struggling only makes things worse. Walt’s been desperately trying to keep Hank away from Gus’ laundry facilities, and this time he actually drove them into oncoming traffic rather than get near the lab, and he only bought himself a week, tops. He’s more banged up than ever, and Hank’s road to recovery is now longer, but Hank’s got a specially outfitted SUV on the way that will let him do all the recon he wants without Walt’s help. Walt’s extreme actions did nothing. Those terrifying final moments with Walt flying around and trying to buy his family’s freedom, first at Saul’s office and then in his own home, were riveting because you knew Walt wouldn’t get anywhere. He was kicking and screaming, but it wasn’t doing any good. His mad laughter was the scariest thing of all. He’s so used to wanting more — and getting it — that it broke him to realize that things might come to an end a lot sooner than he ever thought possible. Whatever happens next, it’s going to be big.
• My brother-in-law and I both thought that Gus’ angry “Look at me!” to Hector channeled the Joker a little bit.
• While I watched the episode, my wife read and listened to music in another room. As a result, the scene between Walt and Saul in Saul’s office had opera playing softly in the background, which just made the whole interchange that much more grand and terrifying. Happy accident.
• “When did ‘wrong’ suddenly become a problem for you?” Ted was always a dick, but not even Lester Diamond deserves to get killed by a freak accident in his own home. Still, you can’t say writers Sam Catlin and George Mastras didn’t warn us. They followed Chekhov’s gun to a T. When Ted first tripped over that rug, his fate was sealed.
• I loved how Gus’ plan to include Jesse in his strike against the cartel had another major benefit: He got to show Hector one more way that Hector’s own deeds were coming back on him. Gus got his revenge, but he also wanted Hector to know that Jesse had been involved, too. That’s amazing.
• At the same time: Poor Hector. Alone and broken in a home, unable to speak, and with no one left in the world. The game got him.
• I couldn’t decide which awful joke to go with, so you get both. (1) They should’ve called this episode “I.K.T.” (2) Ted Beneke, more like Ted BREAK-NECK-y, amirite?
• It’s really late at night right now.
• Gorgeous master shot of the confrontation between Walt and Gus in the desert. I loved seeing the shadows play on the ground as the clouds passed over. Nice choice from director Scott Winant (who previously helmed last season’s “Green Light”).
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.