Recap: "Breaking Bad" 4x3, "Open House"

In one of the show's best episodes ever, Walt's shadowy business acquires a new player -- his wife


Matt Zoller Seitz
August 1, 2011 10:30PM (UTC)

The most important moment in last night's "Breaking Bad" wasn't a scene or a line. It was a shot -- that closeup of the soap suds clustered in the bottom of Skyler White's sink after she finishes washing her baby bottles, has her "eureka" moment and realizes how to manipulate a reluctant car wash owner into selling his business.

On one level, the shot is just functional, expository. She's washing the baby bottles. She sees the water and suds going down the drain.

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She thinks about how liquids seep into the ground. And she hatches a complicated deception involving a phony EPA inspector who tells the car-wash owner that his property is contaminated, and that he has to close down for several weeks in order to fix the problem.

But like so many close-ups on "Breaking Bad," this one has a metaphoric dimension, too. It marks the moment when the remaining traces of Skyler's personal moral code went down the drain.

Skyler had previously been carrying her husband Walt's water, so to speak -- going to the car wash owner and trying to get him to sell his business so that Walter could use it to launder drug money. When the car-wash owner said no -- treating Skyler dismissively and insulting Walt's manhood -- she became obsessed with owning not any business, but that particular car wash. All of a sudden, acquiring that car wash became more about retribution than simple business -- and she deliberately drew Walt into her obsession by revealing the slur against him.

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After watching Skyler not just hire a guy to play a groundwater inspector, but feed him information through an earpiece a la "Cyrano de Bergerac," it's impossible to see her as an accessory-after-the-fact, as her divorce lawyer described her in season three. She's no longer just Walt's spouse, or employee, or accessory. She's his partner, hatching every detail of a scheme to help him launder drug money, and then talking to him as if she's a personal manager and he's a talented but impulsive client who needs mentoring.

Not for nothing did series creator Vince Gilligan and his writers make Skyler an accountant. She understands the bottom lines of both business and life.

"The devil is in the details," she tells Walt, in that marvelous, chilling scene in the kitchen, warning him that he needs to start keeping up the appearance of an unemployed schoolteacher and not be seen buying drug-dealer indulgences such as $320 bottles of champagne. As Saul put it, admiringly, "She's a keeper."

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If I could do my Top 10 list of "Breaking Bad" moments over again, I would include either the sink shot or that great sequence where Skyler feeds the phony inspector the details of contamination law through an earpiece. This episode, titled "Open House," was one of the series most dramatically pivotal; it was also one of its best overall, boasting one great scene after another.

Written by Sam Caitlin and directed by David Slade, the episode cemented the show's status as a parable of economic disillusionment. With the economy still in the dumper -- maybe permanently? -- and full-time jobs becoming as scarce as rain during a drought, huge percentages of Americans have had their (misplaced) faith in the American dream shaken. It's the perfect time for a series like "Breaking Bad," which paints the upper-middle-class consumerist lifestyle as a mirage for anybody who plays by the rules.

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Walt got his wake-up call in the pilot episode and started cooking meth, and now Skyler has officially joined him, becoming his literal partner-in-crime. Jesse was a cynic long before that -- a white boy who rebelled against his upper-middle-class parents' sanctimonious coldness and remade himself as a faux gangsta who was all about getting paid and laid. Skyler's sister Marie is a kleptomaniac who pretends to be shopping for new homes so that she can try out ridiculous stories about her supposed astronaut husband and steal things from open houses. And poor Hank is seeing what happens when you get injured on the job. He's spending most of the day in bed, fuming and beating off to porn. Nobody from his office ever seems to call or visit. Because he can't do his job, he ceases to exist as a human being. Even his friends appear to have forgotten about him.

"Breaking Bad" is, in its heart, the story of the supposedly respectable, white, upper-middle class becoming the Other. I don't think it's an accident that those quasi-mythic drawings of Walt in the guise of his porkpie-hatted alter ego, Heisenberg, resemble old Project Bluebook sketches of extraterrestrial visitors. Walt is becoming as much an alien -- an undesirable Other -- as the illegals who have periodically sneaked across the border throughout the show's run. The series is set in a state adjacent to Mexico, a country that American politicians habitually invoke as an example of what the U.S. should all be terrified of becoming -- a place where wages are pathetically small, decent citizens toil like slaves to pay for basic amenities, the police are openly corrupt, and rapacious criminal profiteers are unofficial partners in government.

There's no use dreading the de-evolution anymore; it's already happening. Where do the Whites live? In New Mexico. As Jesse would say, welcome to reality, bitches.

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Matt Zoller Seitz

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