“Breaking Bad” 4×9, “Bug”

A shocking and pivotal "Breaking Bad" episode shows just how far Walter White's protege has come

Topics: Breaking Bad, Television,

"Breaking Bad" 4x9, "Bug"

[Note: The following contains spoilers for "Breaking Bad" Season 4, Episode 9. Read at your own risk.]

If there were any doubt that “Breaking Bad” was an amazingly confident series, the first sequence of tonight’s episode sealed it. Clocking in at 37 seconds, and boasting just seven shots, I’m pretty sure it’s the shortest of the AMC drama’s stylish teaser openings. It was brilliant not just for the anticipatory questions it pr0vokes — Did Walt get beaten up? Did he murder someone? Where is he? — but for its economy.

The rest of the episode was written, directed and acted in the same spirit. It was terse but never felt rushed. Not a scene, line or frame was wasted. And throughout, there were little stylistic flourishes that linked the episode’s main story to the teaser, particularly the shots with foreground elements in focus and the background blurry (the cactus framing Walt’s vehicle as he and Hank drove; the flower in Skyler’s office at the car wash). The script, by Moira Walley-Beckett and Thomas Schnauz, was a model of classical structure. A leads to B leads inevitably to C, yet always leaves room (in next week’s episode, or in the season finale, or perhaps in the fifth and last season) for some presumably horrendous final reckoning.

For instance, Walt’s off-the-books surveillance adventures with his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank lead to Walt’s discovery that Tyrus is tailing him, which leads to Walt calling the cops on Tyrus, which sets up that great scene where it seems as though Walt expects to be thanked for tipping off Mike about the possible raid on the processing plant and instead gets reamed out for calling the cops on Tyrus, and is warned that if anything like that every happens again, he’ll end up in a barrel of acid. Walt’s rounds with Hank also lead to him filching the bug and putting it on Jesse’s car, which in turn sets up that powerful final confrontation: Walt haranguing Jesse for not using the poisoned cigarette to kill Gus, and then lying about not having the opportunity — a lie Walter exposed because he’d put the tracer on Jesse’s car. This leads to Jesse’s realizing he’s been suveilled by Walt (“Two hours … and 18 minutes“) and touches off their fight — a mano-a-mano that ranks with the Captain vs. Dan Dority in Season 3 of “Deadwood” and Tony vs. Ralphie in Season 4 of “The Sopranos,” even though the combatants were unskilled and the fight itself was more pathetic than horrifying.

By the end, all the questions posed by the opening teaser were answered, including whether anyone died (no), whose blood dripped on the floor (Walt’s) and who broke Walt’s glasses (Jesse).

Skyler’s phone call to Walt informing him that he could “quit” his “second job” set up a similarly complex line of action. Skyler called to tell Walt that because the car wash is doing so well, he could quit his “second job,” which is to say his first job, cooking crystal meth. That scene set up the montage of Skyler artificially inflating the car wash’s receipts by ringing up nonexistent purchases — a scene capped by the arrival of her ex-boss and one-time extramarital fling, Ted, who asks Skyler to help him with an IRS audit. Realizing that her name is on the books and that she could be interrogated and implicated in a back taxes investigation — which in turn could expose the White family’s money laundering and drug manufacturing — Skyler gets dolled up and pretends to be a ditz who doesn’t understand the tax code. (I like when Anna Gunn gets to show us Skyler’s actressy side, as in the scene earlier in the season where she plays the mommy-in-distress card to talk a locksmith into letting her enter Walt’s condo.) Skyler’s gambit a) temporarily takes some of the IRS heat off Ted, b) makes Skyler even more acutely aware of the dangerous game she and Walt are playing, and c) sets up an inevitable and almost certainly disastrous reappearance later in the series by Ted, who took Skyler’s  improvisation for granted, and seemed awfully blasé about Skyler’s plea that he settle the company’s tax bill.

For all its breadth and concision, though, I came away from this episode thinking mainly about Walt and Jesse — specifically Jesse in relation to Walt.

Jesse has grown apart from the man who was, in the first three seasons, a kind of screwed-up alternate father to him; in the middle part of the season, we saw Gus try to drive a wedge between Walt and Jesse (it appears that he succeeded, though the separation probably would have happened eventually).

More striking still is Jesse’s growing cyncism, resilience and sense of self-worth, and determination to act in his own rational (often cold) self-interest.

Consider this terrific scene between Jesse and Mike, which occurs while Jesse is cleaning trace chemicals off the warehouse floor in anticipation of a DEA raid:

Jesse: “Well, is he gonna kill him?”

Mike: “Is who gonna kill who?”

Jesse: “Gus. Is he gonna kill Mr. White’s brother-in-law? I mean, he’s the reason for all this here, right? ‘Cause it’s only logical for him to … off the dude. A-hole DEA agent poking around in your junk. Who needs that, right? Makes sense to get rid of him … for good. But … kill a cop … I don’t know. Could look suspicious if the dude who’s investigating this suddenly up and dies. And there’s Mr. White, who would be even more apeshit if you had family getting murdered. He’d never cook for Gus again. I guess there’s a lotta angles to … consider.”

Mike: “If something were to happen to the man, would you have a problem with that?”

Jesse: “Who really cares what I think?”

Five or six episodes ago, Jesse would never have talked to Mike that way — in a calm, insinuating tone, laying out relevant facts in language that suggested an internal monologue that might occur inside Mike’s head, subtly steering Mike (and by extension Gus) toward the correct conclusion, which was to leave Hank alone for fear of guaranteeing law enforcement scrutiny and losing their chief cook, Walt.  (Screenwriting cause-and-effect came into play here, too; Jesse’s statements to Mike surely led Gus to ask himself, What would we do if Walt decided to stop cooking for us?, which led in turn to the dinner between Gus and Jesse at which Gus proposed sending Jesse to Mexico.)

The Jesse-Mike scene in “Bug” is pivotal. It shows Jesse behaving not like an employee or a scared kid, but like a leader — surveying a situation, visualizing a possible outcome, then making it happen by saying the right things to the right person at the right time.

Jesse would never have been capable of such behavior at the start of Season 4. He showed tremendous confidence in the Mike/Jesse warehouse scene, and even more in the subsequent scene where he visited Gus at his home (an act which in itself took major cojones) and to his surprise, found Gus proposing that he go to Mexico and teach the rival cartel how to cook Gus’ recipe as a peace offering.

For me, the two most interesting aspects of the Gus/Jesse dinner were the shot of Jesse realizing they’d be eating from a common pot, which meant he could not poison Gus, and the moment when it became clear that Jesse wasn’t going to reject Gus’ offer.

Gus: “Can you produce his formula alone? Without any help?”

Jesse: “No.” (Pause.) “Why?”

Jesse’s subsequent recap of the conversation to Walt was an exercise in roundabout confession. He was basically telling Walt that he was going to Mexico, and asking for Walt’s help in learning the formula before he went. But he phrased it in terms of how much he didn’t know, why it was a bad idea, etc. Ultimately he wasn’t asking Walt to shoot the idea down; he was asking Walt to help him learn what he needed to know in order to do the job well. “Mr. White, I need your help,” he said. “Maybe you could coach me.” (A side note: Have you noticed that whenever Aaron Paul delivers a long and complicated monologue, the filmmakers always stay on Jesse as long as possible, never cutting away unless they absolutely have to?  It’s a sign of respect.)

Even though Jesse emphatically told Gus, “You kill Mr. White, you’re gonna have to kill me, too,” that’s not where their scene ended. It ended with Gus telling Jesse, “I need you to help prevent an all-out war. Now … Answer the question.” The episode’s director, Terry McDonough, ended the scene on a closeup of Jesse thinking about it, then cut to black before he could answer.

But it seemed obvious that even before Walt barged into his house and provoked their fight, Jesse was already leaning toward saying yes. Walt’s steamroller boorishness and secret surveillance just made the “yes” emphatic, and put the heat of anger behind it.

That reaction shot of Jesse glancing at Gus’ stewpot is significant. Jesse seemed more relieved than panicked. I don’t think he went to Gus’ house with the intention of poisoning him. I think he went there looking for reasons not to.

From the instant Walt pressed Jesse into committing another killing on his behalf, I never believed Jesse would go through with it, not because he wasn’t capable of murder (clearly he was, and is) but because he is a different person now than he was at the end of last season.

He sees through Walt’s manipulations and understands that Walt is a raging narcissist. He’s starting to think not about what’s best for their partnership, but what’s best for Jesse.

What’s best for Jesse is to become a head chef like Walt, even if means exposing his scientific ignorance to the cartel, and even if accepting Gus’ offer seals Walt’s downfall, or his doom.

That closing shot of Walt leaving Jesse’s house — hunched over in pain, diminished at the far end of a wide frame — suggested the final exit of a man who had been defeated not just physically, but psychologically. So long, Daddy. Junior doesn’t need you anymore. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>