[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.