If there’s a lesson the characters on “Breaking Bad” are doomed to learn and forget and learn again, it’s this: Nothing ever works out the way you think it will. Children are born with cerebral palsy; drug lords have to pay taxes; making meth is boring. Walt and Jesse have always lived as if the only two options they would ever face are life or death, and most of the time that’s been the case, whether they’ve been trying to escape kidnappers or stranded in the desert on a cook gone wrong. But the real hell of their current situation is only now being made clear to them. They’re trapped. Jesse even spelled it out for Walter in the previous episode, but the older man wouldn’t listen. Walt was still convinced he was in a high-stakes battle of wills with Gus that had paused but not resolved, when in reality, the battle’s over. Both men won and lost. Gus is down a cook and an enforcer, but he’s still got Heisenberg; Walt got to keep his status and income, but now he’s permanently owned by Gus. They’re stuck, just like everyone else.
In fact, “Thirty-Eight Snub” was largely a transitional episode that dealt with the challenges that will haunt our anti-heroes this season. It was written by George Mastras, who’s actually done similar work in other seasons: Among his credits are the second season’s second episode, “Grilled,” which saw Walt and Jesse escape Tuco after Hank gunned him down, as well as the third season’s third episode, “I.F.T.,” which saw Walt balk at Skylar’s divorce request and Skylar sleep with Ted Beneke. Mastras is great at these episodes that take the energy from the first or second hours and pivot into something much more challenging that will fuel the story for weeks to come. This time around, it was all about the way every major character is trapped, thwarted by forces they’ve unwittingly brought against themselves.
Skylar’s meeting with Bogdan was probably not going to go well to begin with — the man’s a tyrannical pig, and nothing on this show comes easy — but it went a whole lot worse simply because of the way Walt told Bogdan off and quit in dramatic fashion all those years ago. Similarly, Walt hit a huge wall when he backed the wrong horse and tried to get Mike on his side to help him take down Gus (or at least arrange a stand-off). Walt’s inherent hubris got the better of him once more, leaving him beaten for his efforts. He wasn’t even able to keep his new gun a secret, after all the work he’d gone to buying it, practicing his draw, and waiting for the chance to use it.
Jesse and Hank were even worse. Jesse’s blind partying is all he can think to do to keep himself distracted from remembering the awful things he’s had to do, and nothing was sadder than watching him try to act nonchalant while begging Badger and Skinny Pete to keep hanging out. He’s so totally alone: First his family, then Jane, then Andrea, now this mess with Gale. It’s all pushed him to a place where he’s stuck inside himself, summed up so beautifully and tragically with that final shot of him leaning against the subwoofer and praying for the music to drown out his memories.
Hank and Marie remain innocents in this whole thing — Hank’s injuries are a result of Walt’s actions and not his own — but they’re still exquisitely trapped in a relationship that will break under the strain of Hank’s anger if something doesn’t change. Marie is doing everything she can, but even when Hank’s recovery seems to be going well, she’s reminded by the physical therapist that all they can do is take things one day at a time. The look on her face when Hank’s yelling down to her about his minerals is amazing: She’s so close to cracking, but she’s terrified to do anything but offer the relentlessly upbeat feedback she believes Hank needs. And Hank’s so angry he’s become a monster to the one person who refuses to stop loving him. There’s a moment when he looks like he’s almost thinking about telling her something else — maybe how sorry he is, maybe just how tired he is — but then it’s gone. It’s staggering to see how far Hank’s fallen. Here’s hoping he gets back up again.
This is what’s going to be the real grind for Walt and everyone else: Sometimes it’s not somebody else who’s holding you back. Sometimes it’s you.
• Another doorway for Walter: He bought his gun illegally even though the (remarkably genteel) salesman tried to talk him out of it. Walt’s got a clean record, after all, and getting popped with a revolver with the serial number filed off isn’t going to endear him to law enforcement. But Walt kept repeating that it was “for defense,” just so he could reassure himself he wasn’t being crazy.
• That gun dealer, by the way, was played by Jim Beaver. He’s probably most recognizable for playing Whitney Ellsworth on “Deadwood” (or Bobby Singer on “Supernatural,” if that’s your thing), but the man’s had quite the career. He’s been a character actor in film and television since the late 1970s, often playing sheriffs or general law enforcement, but he’s also written multiple plays, short fiction, three nonfiction pieces (including a memoir and a biography of John Garfield), and a host of magazine articles. Jim Beaver: Renaissance gunslinger.
• This episode was directed by Michelle MacLaren, who’s helmed some of the most memorable installments in the series’ run. She directed “4 Days Out,” in which Walt and Jesse almost died in the desert; Mastras’ “I.F.T.”; “Abiquiu,” in which Jesse discovered the link between Tomas and Combo; and “One Minute,” which ends with what might be the most tense action sequence the show’s had to date. What ties all those episodes together, though, is what came shining through in “Thirty-Eight Snub”: a fantastic focus on character and nuance, and the way these people play off each other without even knowing it.
• Badger’s complaint about zombies vs. generically infected killers is a valid one, but Left 4 Dead is a pretty great game.
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.