"Breaking Bad" 4x6, "Cornered"

Last night's episode conjures "The Godfather" -- and suggests a possible ending for the grim, great series


Matt Zoller Seitz
August 22, 2011 1:23PM (UTC)

If you think Season 4 of "Breaking Bad" has too much Skyler in it, that Skyler is way too involved in Walt's business affairs, that Skyler and her sister-in-law Marie are the least interesting characters on the show, and that almost any given minute spent in the presence of the show's women is a minute that could have been spent on something cool, then last night's episode likely made you ill. 

I kid, sort of. The "Skyler should shut up and butt out" chorus does seem to be growing online -- and as someone who applauds the idea of Skyler's involvement in the family business, if not necessarily the writers' execution of it, I was intrigued by how last night's episode accidentally baited this chorus, along with the stereotypical gender posturing that feeds it. The first Walt-Skyler scene courted comparisons between "Breaking Bad" and the most famous male-centered crime story of all, "The Godfather" saga. Ditto a bookend scene that happened later in the episode, with the "Godfather" gender roles reversed: Instead of Walt closing a literal door in Skyler's face and shutting her out, à la Michael and Kay, Skyler shuts a metaphorical door in Walt's face and traps him in the house -- leaves him standing alone in a dark hall, diminished by a wide shot, a man put firmly in his place. (Skyler to Walt: "Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.")

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Let's back up for a second, though, and talk about the scene at the start of the episode (which was appropriately titled "Cornered"). Skyler listens to the answering machine message that prompted her to jump Walt's bones last week -- the "I love you" message. She realizes what she should have realized last week, that the urgent tone in Walt's voice came not from ardor but terror. She goes into the bedroom, wakes Walt up and peppers him with questions. Are you in danger? Is the family in danger? Did you have anything do to with Gale's murder? If not, did you know the person who did it, and is there a chance he might do the same thing to you?

Walt takes a couple of minutes to shake the hangover from his brain; remember, about 12 hours ago he let drunken pride get the better of him and torpedoed Hank's theory that the murdered Gale was Heisenberg, Walt's alter ego, case closed, etc.  Then he grows increasingly agitated, especially (or so it seemed to me) by Skyler's contention that he's not "really" a killer or a criminal, and that if he or the family are in danger they should just chuck the whole enterprise and go to the police. "You're not some hardened criminal, Walt," she says. "You're in over your head here, that's what we tell them ..."

Then comes Walt's monologue:

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"Who are you talking to right now?  Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? Even if I told you, you wouldn't believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly-up, disappears. It ceases to exist without me! No, you clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!"

It's the final scene of "Godfather 1" as played by a couple who have a standard-issue, 21st century, middle-class white suburban marriage -- one that has nothing like the Old World-vs.-New dynamic that seduced poor Kay into the Corleone clan with glamour and wealth, then eventually made her Michael's prisoner, concubine, sow and fool.

Walt and Skyler don't fight. They have discussions.

In "The Godfather," Kay presses her husband to reveal whether he had anything to do with her brother-in-law's murder; after initial resistance, he relents and says, "This one time I'll let you ask me about my affairs." Kay asks.

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Michael lies to her face, then shuts a door in it. Buh-bye!

That's what the "Skyler should shut up and butt out" crowd desperately wants to see Walt do to his wife. Grow a pair. Make her shut up. Control your woman.

But Walt can't do that. He's not Michael Corleone. He's a guy who still cuts the crusts off his sandwiches. He's a guy who doesn't understand Gus' logic in making him and Jesse do everything in the lab, including the menial labor of cleaning. He doesn't view the menial aspects through the prism of security -- making sure only a handful of people get a good look at the place where the meth is cooked -- but as a barometer of intellectual and personal respect. Gus makes him feel at the Super Lab the way Bogdan made him feel at the car wash. So he hires three Guatemalan women off the factory floor, smirks at the surveillance camera to show that he's nobody's toady, and gets all three women sent home by Gus. It's a wonder Walt didn't get them killed.

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"The really important thing -- and not everyone knows this -- is to be tough," says Bogdan, as he hands the car wash over to its new owner, Walt. "Boss has to be tough. Has to say no to people. Has to make cashiers ... wipe down cars ... even if they don't want to."

He's not describing Walt. He's describing Gus. Walt is the other boss described by Bogdan, the one who puts his feet up. The kind of man who tough-guys a business' previous owner out of the first dollar he ever earned, uses it to buy a can of soda, and drinks it all by himself, with the self-satisfied look of somebody who just did something amazingly coldblooded.

This adventure in the drug trade cannot possibly end well for Walter White.  The best possible outcome is that he ends up in witness protection. The worst?  I'll get to that in a minute.

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When "Breaking Bad" premiered back in 2008, series creator Vince Gilligan half-joked that it would give viewers the chance to see James Thurber's daydreaming suburbanite Walter Mitty  turn into Scarface. But what has transpired suggests an academically gifted Willy Loman trying (and in all the important ways, failing) to turn himself into Michael Corleone. (He's always at risk of becoming Fredo!) Walt wants to be "the one who knocks" -- a death-dealing monster, a startling new version of one of an "Other" (black, brown, olive, redneck white).

As middle-class WASP fantasies go, "Breaking Bad" is as potent as Walt's blue meth.  And the show is torn between mocking and indulging Walt's fantasies (and the audience's). For every witty touch like the super-low-angled gunfighter shot of Walt walking to buy a can of soda with his vanquished ex-boss' first dollar, there's a creative choice that smacks of unironic wish-fulfillment, like the way that Mexico is always photographed, "Traffic"-style, through intense red-brown filters that make it look like the surface of Mars. (Mexico -- it's like another planet!) Each time Walt refuses to be intimidated by a Gus or a Mike or a Tuco, turns the tables on them and makes them squirm for a change, the show adds another panel to pop culture's gallery of beleaguered white guy fantasies -- a gallery that includes Dirty Harry's stare-downs with trembling black hoodlums and Christian Slater in "True Romance" confronting Gary Oldman's Drexel the Pimp (himself a white man doing a minstrel show version of black street swagger).

This can't go on forever, though. And for the most part the show errs on the side of wry criticism of Walt, so I doubt "Breaking Bad" will give Walt (or his cheering section at home) a super-macho blaze-of-glory exit. Walt isn't as cold and smooth as Michael, nor is he as gifted a mastermind. He's just a brilliant chemist with plenty of nerve and a few clever tricks up his sleeve. Beyond that, he's a mess, and from certain angles rather pathetic. Although he carries himself with a lot more confidence than he did before the cancer struck and unleashed his inner antihero, at times you look at Walt and see not Heisenberg, the dapper wraith, but Walter White, the guy who evangelized about carbon and winced whenever Hank reminded him of what a wimp he was. 

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Walt is at once overconfident and hopelessly neurotic. He remembers what it was like to be a white-collar enunch and beta-male punching bag and is terrified that he'll have to return to that place again. So he lets his pride eclipse his rationality and derail his self-preservation instinct. He's got that Willy Loman/Shelly "The Machine" Levine sense of desperation, that secret fear that everyone things him weak and useless, and that each time he opens his mouth he confirms the world's low estimate of his manliness.

Sometimes these fears come through even when Walt's coming on like a demonically terrifying alpha male, a Wonder Bread avenger. You can see it in the eyes of drug dealers and crime bosses. They flinch when he's up in their faces, but there's always a bit of bewilderment in their eyes, because no man who looks and sounds like Walt is supposed to be talking to them that way. The experience doesn't compute. Walt's secret weapon isn't that he's scary. It's that he's so weird that he puts truly scary men on the defensive.

I think Skyler was right when she accused Walt of secretly wanting to get caught, but she ascribed the wrong motive. Walt doesn't want to get caught to end the madness and be safe again. As I wrote last week, Walt wants to get caught so that the world will find out how amazing he is, and what a bizarre and dangerous secret life he's been living.

Skyler's onto him, though, even if she doesn't know it yet. She sees through his fire-breathing Bald White Badass routine. That's why she came back to New Mexico after two coin flips at the Four Corners monument told her to flee to Colorado. And it's why she had that intriguingly un-terrified look on her face after Walt delivered his monologue.  She didn't storm out of that room, he did. And then she took the baby and left.

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Do you think Kay Corleone left the family compound after Michael shut that door in her face? Not bloody likely.

So where is "Breaking Bad" headed? At the risk of veering too far into fan fiction territory -- as if I don't already do that every single week in these recaps! -- allow me to propose a possible series ending, based on what we've seen so far.

The two central characters on "Breaking Bad" are Walt and Jesse. And I'm guessing that the end of the series will come down to a confrontation between them. It's a confrontation Walt can't win.

Walt thinks he knows himself and has an excellent sense of his own strengths and weaknesses, but he's wrong; he doesn't know himself nearly as well as he thinks, and there's a huge, possibly fatal gap between the man he thinks he is and the man he truly is.  He thinks he's rational and meticulous, but he is actually driven by pettiness, greed, anger, class resentment and intellectual vanity. His success in the drug trade has been at least partly a fluke. Only the quality of his product sustains his reputation. In every other way that counts -- as a tactician and businessman -- he's a disaster. Skyler is doing the best she can to clean up after him -- the way Jesse and Walt have had to keep cleaning up the gore from various killings -- but she knows even less about the underworld than he does. The highest levels of the drug trade are no place for on-the-job training.

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Now look at what has happened to Jesse this season. He's been effectively taken out of Walt's orbit by Gus and Mike.  Their scheme is designed to 1) break Jesse of his drug habit and 2) give him a sense of self-worth, both of which will make Jesse feel loyal toward Mike and Gus (surrogate fathers replacing his old surrogate father, Walt). 

Jesse's growing confidence in these last couple of episodes is striking and quite credible. It is also -- speaking only for myself here; I know this may sound odd -- rather moving.

When we watch Walt's scenes, we are watching a deluded man sink ever more deeply into the swamp of his own self-flattering preconceptions. But when we watch Jesse, we're seeing a much less self-aware but considerably more open person engaged in a genuine journey of self-discovery.

Under the leathery wing of Mike -- a grandfather who seems to have a warm, genuine rapport with his own family -- Jesse is learning a new skill set. He's also learning to trust his instincts and put his own hard-earned knowledge ("I know meth heads") into practice, in ways that benefit Mike and Gus, and by extension Gus' organization.

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He's a company man in the making, something Walt can never be.

Pretty soon he won't need any validation from Walt. We're already seeing signs that Walt's bad daddy manipulations don't work on him anymore.

When Walt tried to torpedo Jesse's narrative of being groomed for a top slot in the corporation (a correct reading, by the way, fortified with a "Godfather" quote: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer"), how did Jesse respond? He walked away.

Jesse's murder of Gale didn't end the likelihood of Walt eventually getting sold out or snuffed out for being a pain-in-the-ass prima donna employee. It only delayed it. Sooner or later Gus might get a handle on the troubles plaguing his organization. Provided he's found somebody to replace Gale and Jesse as a trainee/future chief cook, Gus may decide yet again to cut Walt loose, by which I mean kill him.

If Mike is still around then, he'll do the deed. But if he's out of the picture -- in police custody, or dead -- who's next in line to succeed him? Mike's new protégé, Jesse.

And when Jesse gets that call -- as he very well might -- do you think he'll tremble and weep the way he did when he pointed a gun at Gale?

I doubt it. He's harder now. Meaner. More seasoned. On top of that, Walt has been nothing but trouble for him. He's manipulated him, tried to cheat him out of his rightful half of their money, pushed him into situations that caused him to be savagely beaten, and deliberately failed to save his girlfriend when she was dying of an overdose. (How long before the full, horrendous truth of that moment comes out, I wonder?)

I think Jesse is right about Gus and Mike. They're self-interested criminals, sure, but that doesn't mean they don't have sharp tactical minds and a good eye for loyal, talented underlings. They'll teach Jesse what he needs to know in order to be the next Mike. And when the call comes telling Jesse to put a bullet in his mentor's head, he'll feel sad about it, but he won't hesitate.

Jesse to Gus: "Why me?" 

Gus: "I like to think I see things in people."


Matt Zoller Seitz

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