[EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece contains spoilers for "Breaking Bad," Season 4, Episode 5. Read at your own risk.]
Tonight's "Breaking Bad," titled "Shotgun," ended with a scene that did what TV drama does best: define characters so completely that you feel as if you know them as well as you know yourself.
The scene was a family dinner at Hank and Marie's house, with Walt, Skyler and their kids as guests. Earlier in the episode, Hank had convinced himself that the murdered Gale's lab notebook proved Gale was Heisenberg, Walt's alter ego -- which in turn meant that the DEA could stop looking for Heisenberg, and Walt could breathe easy, at least for a little while. Then Walt, who already seemed tipsy, excused himself to get more wine from the kitchen; the camera lingered on Walt in the foreground as he poured and drank a glass and then poured another one, his family's voices echoing in the background. Would Walt control himself and let his DEA brother-in-law continue to think that Gale was Heisenberg, thus ending or seriously delaying the investigation? Or would Walt give in to macho pride, or intellectual conceit -- the two are intertwined for him -- and hint that the real Heisenberg was still out there?
Walt just had to be Walt.
The chemist's Achilles' heels are intellectual vanity and a kind of beta male machismo. After living most of his life as a schnook, to quote Henry Hill at the end of "Goodfellas," he got a taste of what it's like to be rich, innovative and important (within his criminal circle, which is admittedly limited, and invisible to everyone who isn't already part of it). Dangerous, too; he's a killer now, remember? Now Walt wants to be treated like he's The Man. Whenever he's forced to bow, you can see how miserable and angry it makes him.
He doesn't like to hide his brilliance, either. More than once during "Breaking Bad" -- which just got renewed for a fifth and final 16-episode season -- he has behaved like a man who deep down wants to get caught. Not out of a sense of guilt (Walt has less of that by the day) but because getting caught will ensure that the rest of the world -- particularly the so-called respectable citizens who only know him as a schnook -- will find out what an amazing person he is. He looked bored out of his skull when Skyler was telling Walt and Marie about their purchase of the car wash and trying to reinforce his (very lame; so many holes!) cover story about being a recovering card counter and gambling addict. And wouldn't you be bored at that dinner if you were Walt? He's dissolved bodies in acid, talked his way out of death traps and killed dealers in cold blood. Card counting? That's not even violent! And Gale? A genius? Hah. More like a blobby genius-wannabe with a man-crush.
Walt's coded quasi-confession to Hank was foreshadowed by those earlier scenes at the lab, when you could see him getting angrier and angrier over being left to do everything himself because Jesse was off with Mike. The sequence culminated in Walt ranting to Tyrus about how "Jesse operates the forklift, not me!" Teachers know when they're being disrespected.
"He was a genius, plain and simple," Hank said of Gale, during a long, elegant zoom-in to a close-up of Walt's face as he wrestled with whether to swallow his pride along with those gulps of red wine. "Hank, not to tell you your business, but I'm not sure I agree," Walt finally said, with a trace of a smirk, then launched into a meandering argument about how the journal didn't suggest genius, but "simple, rote copying ... of someone's else's work." Walt's ill-advised soliloquy led Hank to open up the case files again, setting up one of the best cut-to-black-after-dialogue endings in the show's run: "Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?"
Other than that, this was a weak episode in a problematic season.
I wouldn't call "Shotgun" uneventful, exactly. There was plenty of action: Walt racing to "save" Jesse and leaving that phone message; Skyler misinterpreting it as a burst of affection and jumping his bones (a touch I didn't believe, by the way; Skyler's smart and a good listener; Walt didn't sound lovestruck on the tape, he sounded panicked); and all those scenes with Jesse and Mike driving around making pickups, the screenplay taking its sweet time letting Jesse (and us) figure out that Jesse wasn't really in danger.
Then there was that "attempted robbery" that wasn't. I thought the sequence felt hinky when it cut away without showing us how the pursuit ended. The subsequent scene with Gus and Mike confirmed my doubts. "Questions?" Gus asked. "More than a few, yeah, but I know better than to ask," Mike replied.
Mike's weary incredulity mirrored mine. I could see the warped logic at play: Gus was 1) trying to fill Jesse's days up with work to give him less time to get high, and 2) make him feel important, as if he had an identity apart from his connection to Walt and 3), related to 2, drive a wedge between Walt and Jesse, thus ruining their united front. But like so many fake-out plans devised by diabolical bad guys, the false robbery left too many things to chance. What if Jesse had accidentally run over one of the phony robbers with his car? What if he or the driver he was chasing hit a pedestrian during the chase?
I know, this is "refrigerator logic." Problem is, this season the "Hey, wait a minute ..." questions are popping into my head long before I take that post-episode trip to the fridge.
Which brings me to the meat of this week's recap -- a consideration of why, exactly, this season feels uneventful and slow compared to the others.
When you mess up in life, it takes time to undo the damage. On TV, though, characters have to pull themselves out of bad situations fast, otherwise viewers get antsy and start griping that the story's not going anywhere.
This is one of the central paradoxes of long-form TV storytelling: the nature of the medium lets filmmakers explore the details and texture of day-to-day problem solving, the very stuff of life, with scope and depth; and yet any show that seizes that opportunity risks boring its audience.
This conundrum has played out vividly during Season 4 of "Breaking Bad," which in many ways feels like a prolonged attempt to deal with fallout from Season 3 -- a long cleanup and recovery for all the major characters.
I've read complaints that this season isn't propulsive enough -- that by this point we should be further along in the season-long arc, whatever that turns out to be, and that there is no reason why there had to be so many protracted action sequences or dialogue sequences. Such sequences are always tricky. When they work, they're dazzling. When they don't, they just seem tedious. That agonizingly long buildup and ramp-down surrounding the "Box Cutter" killing seemed perfect to me -- showy in a good, Hitchcock-y way. But this episode's Jesse-and-Mike in the desert sequence is a much less defensible example. It surely could have been compressed, beyond the music montage, to get to the important part: Jesse shaking off his torpor and throwing himself into the new job he's been assigned.
"Breaking Bad" has specialized in spaghetti-strand action throughout its run. The drawn out, leisurely, one-damned-thing-after-another action sequence might even be this series' signature. Think of the second episode of Season 1, which was all about Walt and Jesse trying to figure out what to do with the two dealers they'd encountered in the desert, or the episode where they were being held hostage by the deranged Tuco.
Unfortunately, the longer a series is on the air, the more likely attentive viewers will get hip to the filmmakers' pet strategies. Over time, signatures become clichés and finally mannerisms. Early in the show's run, I had no idea that "Breaking Bad" had the cojones to let action sequences unfold at great length without tipping its hand as to where everything was going. It was exciting because it felt fresh, and there was rarely a moment where I thought, "Yeah, I get it, why are we still in this scene?" I have that reaction more often this season because by now I feel I know the show's filmmaking playbook and the psychology of its major characters; the surprise isn't in what happens, but in how things happen. (If the show proves me wrong on this point, I'll be happy to eat crow, believe me.)
On top of all that, there's the cleanup factor.
Season 3 was a destruction derby. The writers even whacked two major bad guys, the Diablo Twins, midway through the season, and spent the second half of the season focusing on another, tangentially related story, Gus' fortification of his criminal empire and his attempts to control Jesse and Walt in service of it. Plot twist was piled upon plot twist. The endings were cliffhangers jacked on adrenaline.
Season 4 is mainly about paying the bills that came due after Season 3, and 2 and 1, for that matter -- plus interest.
Gus' attempts to control his star chemist, Walt, and protect his turf against a Mexico-based rival led to the string of violent events that made the end of Season 3 so thrilling. But these same events backed the show's writers into such tight corners that they've had to spend much of this season figuring how to extricate their characters, and move forward without 1) giving up on plausibility (which has become much more of an issue this year, because the episodes' slow pace invites us to dwell on the fine points) or 2) just sort of waving their hands in the air and deciding the details don't matter because it's not that kind of show. (That was David Chase's approach on "The Sopranos" -- remember the disappearing Russian?)
The falling-out between Walt and Jesse was a byproduct of the pressure laid on them by their boss, Gus. Walt, a prima donna who was giving Gus agita, dealt with the likelihood of being replaced (i.e., killed) by plotting to murder his likely successor, Gale, then pressured Jesse to do the deed in his place. These events in turn led, in Season 4, to Gus' murder of an underling who got "made" by witnesses at the scene of Gale's death, Jesse's depression and relapse into drug use, more intense DEA scrutiny of the "blue meth" phenomenon, and increasingly arrogant, impulsive behavior by Walt, whose wife is now deeply involved in his business, and desperately trying to lower his profile and create a cover story for how he earned his fortune.
This all falls under the heading of defensive gamesmanship. Ditto Gus' weird maneuvers in "Shotgun" vis-à-vis Jesse. The major characters are mainly trying to rectify mistakes they made in the past or to deal with what's right in front of them.
There's intrigue and violence, but very little of it is forward-looking. Both the characters and the series are playing a defensive game. It sometimes seems as though half of Skyler and Walt's conversations are about covering tracks that Walt left in Seasons 1 through 3.
Cleanup/recovery is never as dramatically exciting as destruction. That's why suspense films usually end right after a blood bath, with the surviving characters sitting on the front porch while distant police sirens wail.
"Breaking Bad" might need to come to grips with the fact that it's not the same show now that it was when it began. It has a different energy and different obsessions. This might call for a more compressed narrative composed mostly of very short scenes, with the occasional spaghetti-strand action sequence being saved for special occasions, plus a willingness to get the cleanups out of the way quickly, the better to indulge in the surprising and forward-looking action that made the show a phenomenon in the first place.