"Breaking Bad" recap: A betrayal for Hank, a breakdown for Jesse

Jesse connects the dots, but for now, Walt seems more in control than ever

Published August 26, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

                   (Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

First let’s catch our breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Check the pulse.

All good? Great.

Now that we’ve semi-recovered from yet another intense “Breaking Bad” episode -- one whose side effects may have included heart palpitations, dry mouth, an aversion to table-side guacamole, excessive weeping and prolonged periods of gasping -- let’s calmly discuss Jesse Pinkman, the ricin cigarette and the crazed dumping of the gasoline.

Jesse’s arc in this hour of “Breaking Bad” was less an arc than a jittery, conflicted zig-zag. First he protected Walt by giving up absolutely no useful information to Hank during the interrogation scene foreshadowed in last week’s episode. “Why don’t you try and beat it out of me?” Jesse wryly asked, referring both to Hank’s previous Pinkman assault and the Walt-implicating confession the DEA man clearly wanted but didn’t get. “That’s your thing, right?”

Then, upon meeting with Walt in the desert, the borderline catatonic Jesse finally cracked, blew up and broke down, first trying to get his one-time meth mentor to “stop working” him, then crumbling in that same mentor’s embrace like a little boy desperate for a father’s love. At that point, the bond between Jesse and Walt seemed sealed, as did Jesse’s fate. The guilt-ridden young man formerly known as Cap’n Cook would do as Daddy suggested: with an assist from Saul’s mystery aide, Jesse would slink off to Alaska, assume a new identity and hit the reset button on his life, thereby saving himself and Walt from any trouble with the law.

In one of several well-chosen wide shots, we subsequently saw Jesse standing on the side of the highway in front of a row of concrete slabs that resembled tombstones, just waiting for Saul’s helper to show up with his new persona. Between that visual cemetery allusion and Saul’s previous recommendation that Jesse move to Florida so he could “swim with the dolphins,” it seemed clear that Jesse Pinkman was about to die, at least in name only. And that’s when the ricin revelation happened.

There was some confusion on social media when Jesse looked into that cigarette box, clearly had an “Aha” moment, then dashed back to Saul Goodman’s to give the lawyer a piece of his mind and his fist. (“Better maul Saul!”) For those whose memories of season four are fuzzy, here’s the short explanation of what led to Jesse’s realization: back in that fourth season, Walt gave Jesse a ricin cigarette with the intent of having him use it to kill Gus Fring. Jesse didn’t, and then the cigarette went missing, prompting Jesse to accuse Walt of using it to poison Brock, the hospitalized son of his then-girlfriend Andrea. Walt convinced Jesse it was actually Gus who had taken the cigarette and tried to murder little Brock with it when, actually, Walt was guilty of poisoning the boy using the berries from a lily of the valley plant. Meanwhile, Huell clandestinely snatched the cigarette back from Jesse at Walt’s request, and, in part one of season five, Walt placed a fake ricin cigarette in Jesse’s vacuum. Jesse found it and concluded he was responsible for losing it all along. Problem rather complicatedly solved.

So in this week’s episode, when Jesse happened to be looking at his pack of cigarettes when he realized that Huell had picked his pocket of his pot stash, he connected a whole bunch of dots and finally realized the ricin cigarette had never gone missing at all. He suddenly knew that Walt had convinced Saul (and Huell) to get it back, and that Walt probably really did poison Brock. And that was the piece of information that finally sent Jesse into a blind rage of betrayal, prompting him to speed to Walt’s house, break in and proceed to dump the gasoline of white-hot fury all over the White living room carpet. The previous flash forward provides reassuring proof that the place won’t burn down, but what Jesse has done could still cause a lot of damage, both to the interior of that house and to Walt’s attempt to lay low and not draw attention to himself. The use of gasoline, like so much in this episode, also took us back to season one, when Walt used a different form of gas, as in phosphine, to snuff out Emilio and Krazy 8 in the RV out in the desert. With five episodes left, it’s all coming full circle, just like a spinning Pinkman on a playground merry-go-round.

This week, as always, Aaron Paul conveyed all those points on Jesse’s emotional pendulum with a mix of brokenness and anger that was palpable, heartbreaking and ultimately really scary. The kid’s a wild card now, which means that the aforementioned tombstone symbolism may foreshadow an actual death for Jesse Pinkman. Walt did seem prepared to use his special gun, the one he keeps in the A1 Car Wash soda machine. That’s another thing: the angle used in the car wash scenes in this episode also harkened back to the same car wash camera perspective from the first season, back when Walt was a mere cancer-stricken employee who completely lost his shit with his boss. Now Walt’s the boss, but he still has cancer and, with that gun in his possession and Jesse totally out of his head, he seems poised to lose his shit in a completely new context.

Then again, Walt has been remarkably poised so far, even when confronted with Hank’s fierce commitment to burying his son-of-a-bitch brother-in-law. Walt’s lying to everyone -- his own son, Jesse, anyone who’s willing to listen to his video-recorded confession -- with real persuasiveness and a sense of calm that suggests he’s either flipped his soul entirely to the dark side, become so certain of his mortality that he finds morality irrelevant or both.

“There’s only one solution: Step up, be a man and admit what you’ve done,” Hank advised Walt during their disastrous attempt at a Mexican-dinner double date with their respective spouses. “That’s it. There is no other option.” Uh: wrong. With Walter White, there is always another option, which is why Walt stepped up, acted like a man and recorded a confession in which he credited Hank with masterminding the major criminal acts -- including the meth business and the plot to murder Gus Fring  -- in which Walt was involved. God, it was just so devious, so brilliantly Machiavellian and so stunningly out of nowhere that, much like Hank and Marie, many “Breaking Bad” fans probably needed a crow bar to pry their chins off the floor during Walt’s elaborately conceived, convincingly delivered alibi.

Thanks to that alibi, if Hank produces any physical evidence that links Walt to cook sites or Gale Boetticher or the bomb that blew up that nursing home, Walt can admit that he was involved, but blame Hank for all of it with the comforting knowledge that it’s ultimately one dying chemistry teacher’s word against a once-suspended DEA agent’s. Of course, there are some obvious potential problems with this plan, including the possibility that either Jesse could turn on Walt -- which, by episode’s end, seemed very likely -- or that Marie could march down to DEA headquarters and tell Hank’s colleagues what her husband is too afraid to say about his brother-in-law. Given Marie’s guilt over paying for Hank’s medical bills with tainted White money as well as her general tendency to butt in, it seems quite conceivable that she’ll blab before Hank gets a chance to do so himself. But again, unless there’s physical evidence or corroborating testimony to back up the Walt=Heisenberg case, it’s going to be difficult to prove, which could mean that a Marie disclosure will only result in ending Hank’s career. It would be reverse poetic justice and totally in keeping with the spirit of “Breaking Bad” if Hank’s the one who ultimately is brought down while Walt walks away under an assumed identity but still free and blameless.

Astute viewers may have noticed during the aforementioned Mexican meal that came to a screeching halt before Trent the waiter could even take a margarita order, the Whites were again both dressed in beige, as they have been before this season. That color first reared its khaki head several seasons back, when Skyler and Walt attended that splashy party at Gretchen and Elliott’s house where seemingly every champagne sipper was decked out in beige and white. The fact that Walt and Skyler are both wearing those colors so much this season suggests that their goals are finally aligned and that, like Gretchen and Elliott’s party attendees, they’re finally winners in life. The flashing of the beige in that dinner scene -- particularly when Walt whipped his jacked off his chair and retrieved that damning DVD from its pocket -- telegraphed that the Whites are eight steps ahead of Hank and Marie. Walt may not be able to outlast everyone due to his cancer, but he will outwit and outsmart until he takes his final breath.

And he may have more outwitting and outsmarting to do thanks to Todd’s plans to keep cooking. After the insanity that went down involving Jesse’s implosion and Walt’s confession, it was easy to forget what happened in the opening scene of this week’s episode. That’s when we saw Todd reassure his Uncle Jack that he’s ready to start cooking. And we heard Uncle Jack say to Todd, “Let’s make some money then,” much as Tuco Salamanca and Lydia once said to Walt, “We’re going to make a lot of money together.” And we watched Uncle Jack and Kenny complain about how non-smoking laws and bicycle helmets prove that our national fixation on precaution -- something that, for the record, Walter White has always focused on meticulously -- is sending America straight to hell. And then we watched as all three of these guys headed into the land of enchantment, determined, as last week’s recap suggested they might be, to prove there’s a new Heisenberg in town.

By Jen Chaney

Jen Chaney is a pop culture writer whose work appears regularly in The Washington Post, New York Magazine’s Vulture and The Dissolve. She’s currently working on a book about the movie “Clueless,” to be published next year by Touchstone.

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