"Breaking Bad": New depths

Things go from very bad to much, much worse

By Erik Nelson
Published August 27, 2012 1:29PM (EDT)

I’m not sure if this extends to the rest of the country, but my cable provider still lists “Breaking Bad” as a “Comedy-Drama.” They might want to take another look at that. It is hard at this point to see where any comedy, black or otherwise, is going to emerge from these characters, caught in this ongoing death spiral.

“Say My Name” is another massive dose of rancid, as the curdled dreams of Walter White drag a major character into dignified oblivion. How “Breaking Bad” is going to go for nine more hours, without a mass suicide of its loyal viewers is beyond me, but I’m here for the ride.

Few series do desert standoffs better than “Breaking Bad.” The gang that argues too much to shoot straight meets their rivals in yet another tense face-off. And in this episode teaser, we get one of the most fantastic yet illogical confrontations ever. That is, if you think, as I did, that Walter’s argument about the purity and excellence of his product is reason enough for a network to program – wait – sorry – for a rival gang to distribute it.

Walter’s passion for the quality and originality of his product, and his absolute conviction that this quality and originality will win out, is charming, naive and implausible. But apparently it’s persuasive enough for the idealistic meth business. Anyone who has watched “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” might argue its opposite when it comes to the more bloodthirsty, Darwinian World of Television. I can imagine the creators of “Breaking Bad” have felt just like Walter among the development executives who finance their dreams. It is a joy to see this scene play out like the fantasy they must know it is. Walter getting them to recognize his genius seems to parallel their secret desires for the upcoming Emmy awards.

Following this teaser, we watch Walter’s highly developed reality distortion field in full operation. He’s fine with Mike quitting, but he’s not about to let Jesse out of his clutches. And as for his wife, the World’s Worst Marriage does not even inspire a decent cover story. There is no division now between work and home, and their temporarily shuttered car wash is now as much a front as Vamonos Pests. Jesse is still trying to pretend that “Mrs. White” doesn’t hold her husband against him. She certainly doesn’t hold Walter anywhere near her, so Jesse’s touching politeness will remain unrequited.

Next up, we meet Mike’s chipper frontman, Dan Wachsberger, and learn the secret of good service at a local bank. Who could possibly resist a tasty bacon banana cookie? This leads to a classic “Breaking Bad” POV  montage as Dan does everything but whistle while he works. Meanwhile Hank’s Milton Berle-like hard-on for Mike remains unrequited, when he effortlessly covers his tracks just ahead of a search warrant. Then, Walter and Jesse lock horns, in the latest excruciating sequence this season. Walter’s reality distortion field is turned past “11,” as he tries every trick in his dog-eared book to get Jesse to keep cooking with him. If flattery doesn’t work, then he’ll try pride. “It’s what we do.” Nada. Then, he tries to play the father figure card. Nope. Then, he gets insulting about the parameters of Jesse’s life. “Video games, and go-carts.” Finally, he goes for all-out, soul-searing Faustian corruption: He threatens to see Jesse in hell, and begs him to have some fun on the way down. The scene ends with a bravura “I’m Charles Foster Kane!” declaration of hubris, as Jesse escapes, his soul still his. For the moment. And speaking of “Citizen Kane,” is it just me, or does every meal Walter has with Skyler feel like the last shot of the famous “disintegrating marriage” breakfast montage? Even Walter, as he unwraps another in a series of frozen dinners, seems about ready to throw in the small talk towel.

Next, we see why Walter needs Jesse so badly. Cooking without Jesse is like Woody Allen cooking the second lobster with the humorless date in “Annie Hall.” No magic. Despite a sprightly montage, this time scored to the Monkees’ “Goin’ Down” (and people say we monkey around), Todd is just no Jesse, even though he is clearly the student Walter dreamed of having during his long, lost teaching days.

Meanwhile, Hank still chases his white whale. After being rebuked through the miracle of videoconferencing, he grabs one last harpoon. And this time, he gets lucky. No cake pops with little faces can save Dan Wachsberger from going down, and rolling over. Walter pulls off the bug heist in reverse in Hank’s office, but this time he at least asks Hank for coffee, almost excusing a vital bit of plot-propelling exposition where he overhears Gomez telling Hank that Mike is about to be arrested. Mike has made numerous phone calls warning of impending doom. Now he gets one, and the hunter becomes the hunted.

This sequence, where Mike’s world falls apart, is heartbreaking for his character, and for us, who have bonded with him over what seems to be a lifetime together. As he watches the most precious thing in his life, his granddaughter playing in the park, two police cars pull out. At first, I thought he was going to commit suicide by cop, but I underestimated him. I’d like to know how he got away from the park, and still allowed his granddaughter to finish her play date, but I’ll assume he had this exit strategy mapped, too.

There are few sounds in “Breaking Bad” more ominous than a vibrating phone, and this trope is acknowledged by the impressive collection that Saul Goodman keeps in his drawer. Saul is too jittery to deliver Mike’s “get out of jail” escape kit, Jesse too much a part of Mike’s family. That leaves only one man standing.

And just when we think Walter has touched bottom, he finds a new depth. Mike is so close to driving away, but Walter’s ego and rage simply cannot allow him to accept the reality he has so distorted and contorted. “You’re welcome,” snarls Walter in a self-pitying aside, and everything just falls apart.

Mike Ehrmantraut, we hardly knew ye, and we wish we could have known you better. In a scene reminiscent of Slim Pickens’ death by the river in Sam Peckinpah’s secret masterpiece “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” Walter stands over the man he has killed.

“Shut the fuck up, and let me die in peace,” Mike says, and then does just that. The river flows, and flows to the sea, wherever that river flows, is where he wants to be.

There has been and will continue to be a lot of speculation as to who kills who in the remaining nine episodes of “Breaking Bad.” “Say My Name” should save us the speculation. By now, everyone is already dead, and like Mike Ehrmantraut, they should just be allowed to die in peace.

They, and we, aren’t going to be that lucky.

Random notes and other observations....

* Walter’s reference to “Classic Coke” being the real thing in his quality control lecture.

* Wiretapped Hank trying to recruit a new whale for the DEA sponsored “Fun Run.” Say what you will about him, Gus Fring even provided the chicken.

* That lingering shot of the cake pops, with their grim little faces on a spike. I’ll call it a “Game of Thrones” shout-out, but I would be wrong.

* Saul’s outraged pride that Mike would work with a member of the law firm of “Moe, Larry and Shemp.” Not even Curly made partner, apparently.

* Was the river where Mike breathed his last the same river where Hank threw Tuco’s dental “grill”? Looks like it.

Erik Nelson

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