One of the best things about “Breaking Bad” is its narrative awareness of the effects of the passage of time. We’re almost done with the fourth season, but the story itself has only progressed about one calendar year, and as such, each episode is at pains to live in the world of the previous ones. Sometimes this shows up in expected ways: Walt and Jesse’s recent fight is all over their faces, even if they don’t talk about their injuries, and of course story lines carry over from one hour to the next. But there are also some wonderfully subtle cues, like Saul’s manipulative lapel ribbon in memory of the crash of Flight 515 at the end of the second season. This cause-effect obsessions isn’t that surprising, given the show’s brilliant exploration of the chaotic repercussions of one man’s actions, but it’s always nice to remember that “Breaking Bad” is working on levels we’re not always totally conscious of in the moment. The series regularly returns to ideas of penance and punishment, of debts incurred and mercy barely granted, and every moment is a chance to remember the one that came before. You can’t outrun your shadow.
“Salud” was all about settling old debts, or trying to. We saw Gus’ shaky start in the drug world a couple weeks back in “Hermanos,” and now here he is again at the home of Don Eladio, staring down at the pool where he once watched his partner’s blood and brains drift in the breeze. His journey to Mexico with Mike and Jesse was a tense one, and I kept wondering just what kind of trick Gus would pull to get them out of it. After all, once they had Jesse and Walter’s formula, why not just kill Jesse? Gus would probably get to live so that he and the cartel could keep the peace, but Pinkman was surely a goner, right? Things looked even grimmer when the cartel claimed Jesse like a piece of property. But then Gus quietly took a mysterious pill whose purpose became clear when he brought out some tequila as a gift for Don Eladio. Even with the endgame in sight, it was a fantastically tense sequence, and watching Gus stride through the horror he’d created —stepping over dead bodies, threatening the few remaining guests and thugs — was awe-inspiring. He even got his one little moment of revenge, meeting Don Eladio’s eyes one last time before the cartel man plunged to his death in, appropriately, the pool. Gus is not a man to forget; he will not just move on or get over something as serious as what Don Eladio did. He waited, he got strong, and he fought back. It makes me wonder how many more times Walt can cross him before things get really nasty.
We got to see Jesse come into his own a little, too. He’s had what could charitably be described as a really shitty year — he’s seen friends and lovers die, and he’s also killed a man in cold blood — and he’s been pushed to the limit by Walt’s overbearing and paranoia. Watching him slap around the cartel’s chemists and techs was, well, a thing of pure beauty. He didn’t shrink or mince words, he just took charge. He’s reacting to everything that’s come before, and he’s growing up a little. This was my favorite exchange:
Jesse (to Gus): Tell this asshole that if he wants to learn how to make my product, he’s gotta do it my. The right way. Chemist: I speak English. Jesse: So you understand what “asshole” means. Now go get me my phenylacetic acid, asshole. […] Chemist: Who do you think you are? Jesse: I’m the guy your boss brought here to show you how it’s done. And if this is how you run your lab, no wonder. You’re lucky he hasn’t fired your ass. Now if you don’t want that to happen, I suggest you stop whining like a little bitch and do what I say.
The action back in Albuquerque was nicely split up between pairs working through their own issues, too, and dealing with the fallout from their behavior. Walt’s speech to his son about not wanting to be remembered as a wreck was nice, though Walt Jr.’s retort felt a bit too punch and rushed, and the scene ended a few beats too early. Still, it was nice to see them having a father-son episode again, after years without one. (I’m also glad Walt Jr. had the presence of mind to be nice to his dad after receiving a brand new car and then complaining about it. Show some respect, kid. You didn’t want a PT Cruiser? Tough. You get a free car anyway. Learn to adjust.)
And damn if Skylar didn’t learn a lesson, too. I wrote last week that “if Skylar even thinks about bailing Ted out with the drug money, she’s an idiot.” Obviously, she was going to, and maybe she even had to: She’s not lying when she says she can’t afford to get audited. Still, you just knew Ted would be a dick about it, the same greedy, insecure, idiotic dick he’s been all along. He really is Lester Diamond. He’s the guy with a story and an excuse, but never a plan or an apology. He’s a schmuck. I imagine she’ll use the story of Walt’s gambling as cover for the $600k she threw Ted’s way — it’s a pretty good cover and comes in handy all the time — but I just hope she can get him to lock it up and get his act together. He’s reckless enough to burn them all down. Though there would be a kind of poetry to that. You never know just how or when, but your past will always come back to get you.
• AMC’s selection of promo photos for this week’s “Breaking Bad” was horrendous. I couldn’t find a single good image of Gus, or really anyone, so I went with Casual Weekend Jesse.
• Seriously, I was ready to shake Walt by the shoulders. I know he wanted the sports car, boo hoo, now he has to settle for another free, brand new car from his parents. Good grief. Drive it for a couple years and then sell it in college, kid. Quit your whining.
• I love that I’m with Saul Goodman on Skylar’s plan to help Ted. Any day I can side with Saul is a special one.
• The Mexico trip felt like Michael Mann’s The Darjeeling Limited: self-discovery, bonding, and gang-on-gang murder.
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.