Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: As the AMC show kicks off its fourth season, we look at the series' most powerful and unnerving scenes
10. “But it wasn’t the same.”
"Green Light." Season 3, Episode 4
It might seem odd to start this slide show of great moments from a suspenseful, often savagely violent series about a crystal meth dealer with a quiet scene involving a couple of supporting characters — Jesse and his girlfriend/landlady, Jane — sitting in a car talking about a gallery exhibition consisting entirely of paintings of doors. But I love this scene because it’s a rare example of a series finding a way to talk about itself as TV — and in a larger sense, about the entire process of making art, and the differences between television and movies — without being too precious about it. It’s the best such scene in the history of cable drama, and I have already quoted it to a couple of people who trotted out variations on that archaic “Movies are better than television because television is about characters who don’t change doing the same things over and over” argument.
Jesse: “I don’t get it. Why would anyone paint a picture of a door over and over again, like dozens of times?” Jane: “But it wasn’t the same.” Jesse: “Uh, yeah, it was.” Jane: “It was the same subject, but it was different every time. The light was different, her mood was different. She saw something new every time she painted it.” Jesse: “And that’s not psycho to you?” Jane: “Well, then, why should we do anything more than once? Should I just smoke this one cigarette. Maybe we should just have sex once, if it’s the same thing.” Jesse: “Whoa. No.”
9. “Is that it?”
"Down." Season 2, Episode 4
The perfectly judged argument boils Walt and Skyler’s relationship down to a few minutes. He presents himself as being coldly logical and completely in the right, but his furtive behavior and constant equivocation tell a different story. He knows he’s doing wrong on about 10 different levels and is willing to do or say whatever is necessary to avoid punishment. He apologizes to Skyler for being overly private and “emotionally unavailable” and admits that having cancer doesn’t excuse such behavior. “Is that it?” Skyler says cooly. Then Walt righteously denies having an affair, as if that were the main thing Skyler was worried about. When Skyler presses him for the truth of whatever it is he’s secretly doing, he responds by batting the question back into her court, phrasing each response in terms of what she is imagining. The argument goes nowhere, which is ultimately where Walt wants it to go, whether he consciously realizes it or not.
8. Mercury fulminate
"Crazy Handful o' Nothin'." Season 1, Episode 6
Wherein Walter confronts Tuco, and Tuco learns that when you assume to much, you make an ass out of U and me.
“Let me get this straight,” Tuco growls at Walt. “I steal your dough. I beat the piss out of your new boy. And then you walk in here and you bring me more meth?”
“You got one part of that wrong,” Walt says, picking up a tiny plastic package. It looks like crystal meth, but it actually contains mercury fulminate, a primary explosive highly sensitive to shock and friction. “This isn’t crystal meth.” And then he throws it.
7. “Look on the bright side.”
"No Mas." Season 3, Episode 1
A chain of associations puts Walt a couple of degrees removed from a large-scale disaster: Near the end of Season 2, Walt withheld a portion of Jesse’s drug money to pressure him to get off drugs; Jesse’s girlfriend and landlady, Jane, threatened to out Walt as a drug dealer if he didn’t hand over the money. When Walt went to Jesse’s to try to talk him into getting clean, he found Jane and Jesse passed out in bed after a binge, then pointedly refused to intervene while Jane choked to death on her own vomit. Jane’s grieving father, an air traffic controller, returned to work too early, and on his watch, two planes collided over Albuquerque, killing 167 people.
The entire city is traumatized, including Walt’s school, which calls an assembly to talk about grief and mourning issues. Earlier in the episode, Walt had discovered a human eyeball floating in his pool and had briefly flirted with burning his drug money. But when he reluctantly takes the microphone in the school gymnasium, it becomes clear that his conscience is not quite as troubled as we think. “I guess what I would want to say is: Look on the bright side,” Walt tells the students and teachers. “First of all, nobody on the ground was killed. An incident like this over a populated urban center? That right there, that’s gotta be some minor miracle. So … Plus, neither plane was full. You know, the 737 was what, uh, maybe two-thirds full, I believe? Right? Yes? Or maybe even three-quarters full? Well, at any rate, what you’re left with, casualty-wise, is just the 50th worst air disaster. Actually, tied for 50th.”
6. “I f—-d Ted.”
" I.F.T." Season 3, Episode 3
Walt and Skyler push toward a final resolution of 1) their marital problems and 2) Skyler’s dawning awareness of Walt’s criminal activity. Near the start of the episode, Walt confronts Skyler with a bag full of ill-gotten money, urging her to overcome whatever qualms she has about drug dealing and him personally and just accept the dough, because “this money, I didn’t steal it. It doesn’t belong to anyone else. I earned it. The things I’ve done to earn it … the things I’ve had to do … I’ve got to live with them. Skyler, all that I’ve done, all the sacrifices that I’ve made for this family, all of it will be for nothing if you don’t accept what I’ve earned. Please. I’ll be here when you get home from work. You can give me your answer then.”
It’s an agonizing scene because Walt is in full-on bullying teacher mode. The particulars of their situation leaves her no wiggle room. She has to say yes. But Walt has treated her terribly and she is entitled to act out, or lash out, and hurt him in return. So she goes to the office, where her boss, Ted (Christopher Cousins), has a crush on her. As Ted passes by her at the photocopier, she turns around and watches him go, and realizes the best way to hurt Walt. Later that evening she heads home. Walt is cooking dinner. She goes into the kitchen to talk to him. Actually, he does most of the talking, because he’s Walt.
Walt: “I feel really good about our talk this morning, and I’m really eager to hear what you’re thinking, about what we talked about. But whenever you’re ready, of course. Honesty is good, don’t you think?”
Skyler: “I fucked Ted.”
5. “I feel so sorry for you, Walt.”
"Peekaboo." Season 2, Episode 6
Walt previous told Skyler that his medical bills are being taken care of by his ex-girlfriend and lab partner, Gretchen, and her husband, Elliott, whose job offer Walt spurned in Season 1. Skyler calls Gretchen to belatedly thank her; Gretchen is caught off-guard but visits the White residence anyway, and Walter comes home just in time to see her leave in a somewhat nervous and confused state. Later in the episode, they get together in a restaurant, and Walt tells her the truth. But his explanation/apology is laced with anger and contempt for Gretchen and Elliott, whom he accuses of profiting off his research, cutting him out of millions in potential profits, and eventually driving him into the pathetic state he once was in before he started cooking meth.
This is one of the most painful scenes in the entire run of the show, because it links Walt to a long tradition of American fictional characters who have been ground up and spit out by the system and resent the world and hate themselves as a result. Walt is Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman” or Shelly “The Machine” Levine in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” except one day he decided to stop playing by the rules and make his own fortune. But he still can’t let go of the past. Everything he’s doing is driven by animosity over what other people did to him years ago.
“I feel so sorry for you, Walt,” Gretchen says, with tears in her eyes.
“Fuck you,” he says.
4. The tortoise and the head
"Negro Y Azul." Season 2, Episode 7
Tortuga, aka “The Tortoise,” was once a DEA informant in El Paso who had been passing American agents information on the inner workings of Mexican cartels. Hank sees what happens when the cartels discover an informer in their midst. As agents observe the site of what is supposed to be a meet, a tortoise slowly ambles onto the scene, his shell adorned with Tortuga’s severed head and the painted words, “Hola DEA.” Hank is so sickened by the image that he has a panic attack and staggers away. Good thing, too; when agents remove the head, it detonates explosives strapped to the tortoise, painting the desert red with blood.
There are many sequences on “Breaking Bad” that rival the tortoise bit, notably that marvelous extended sequence with Jesse and Walt trying to feed Tuco the poisoned burrito a couple of episodes earlier, and Tuco’s ancient uncle trying to signal the treachery the only way he can: by ringing a tiny bell. But they all pale in comparison to this one. It’s one of the most horrifying, surreal and sensational sequences I’ve seen in the 20-plus years I’ve been writing about TV and movies — a setup worthy of Luis Bu
3. “Stay out of my territory”
"Over." Season 2, Episode 10
At the local lumber superstore, Walt recognizes a fellow meth cooker’s cart, and leaves the checkout line to confront two would-be rivals in the store’s parking lot. “Stay out of my territory,” Walt growls at the men. They are so unnerved by his expression and tone of voice that they get in their vehicle and leave without another word.
It takes a second to register that just a few months and 17 episodes earlier, Walter White was a hapless beta male, beaten down by life and terrified by confrontations of any sort. How things change.
2. Jesse’s dilemma
"Full Measures." Season 3, Episode 13
In the final scene of the final episode of the third season, Jesse Pinkman turns a gun on Gale, at Walt’s request. The goal is to remove a potential replacement for Walt in Gus’ organization. It’s a clever solution to an employment problem. What’s beautiful about this scene isn’t just the cliffhanger aspect — which is brilliantly done — but the way that it pays off a character trait that was set up way back in Season 2, when Walt told Jesse he had to get revenge against a couple of meth-heads who robbed one of his guys or be thought soft. That episode started with a shot of Jesse on a street corner, staring down at a bug crawling across the pavement but declining to step on it. This moment of mercy foreshadowed an ensuing scene in the meth-heads’ house, where Jesse grew so enamored with their young, horribly neglected son that he departed from his mission and nearly got killed as a result. He doesn’t make that mistake here, even though his eyes fill with tears as he hears Gale beg for his life. Now he’s a murderer.
1. The Ballad of Heisenberg
"Negro Y Azul." Season 2, Episode 7
“Breaking Bad” is already legendary for its self-contained, often playfully abstract opening sequences, which have the eerie power of a song or poem. But the show’s creators really outdid themselves with the opening of the seventh episode of Season 2: an expository summary of the growing legend of Walter White’s drug-dealing alter ego, Heisenberg, told in the form of a music video for a song by Los Cuates de Sinaloa (the Sinaloa Twins).
This might be the most formally audacious opening of a drama series I’ve ever seen. The lyrics aren’t referring to anything that happens in the episode itself; it’s all meta-commentary on the show. The musicians are a Greek chorus with guitars and cowboy hats, commenting on (and perhaps foreshadowing the end of) the ongoing tragedy we’re obsessed with. Walter/Heisenberg lurks in the background, looking dashing, mysterious and troubled in his porkpie hat.
You can watch this demented, glorious work of art by clicking here.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.