Watching Too Much Television 28/8/12: “Billions. With a B.”
“Finally, we have everything we need, and no one to answer to except ourselves.”
That’s how Walt attempts to coax Jesse out of his grief over the shattering events of the previous episode. But who among the characters answers to themselves, and how they do so, is as always a question of degrees.
In Breaking Bad, as in life, rock bottom isn’t the end. There is always the matter of clearing up after the latest disaster. The silent montage of the dirt bike being broken up into its constituent parts is a reminder of how the aftermath of Todd shooting the kid is another toxic strain running through the relationships between the characters, just one more thing they have to live with. (Mike’s look of dejection mingled with disgust is a brilliant bit of acting, saying so much with so little.)
After a supremely well-deserved punch from Jesse, Todd is called onto the carpet to explain himself to Walt and Mike. In a show which has created a bunch of memorably terrifying villains – Tuco, the cousins, Gus effing Fring – Todd’s bland sociopathy is disturbing in an entirely different way. His use of good corporate citizen-speak while defending himself (“I want to be a real part of this … I’m motivated”) is another reminder of how Walt’s independent operation sickly echoes the regular practices of straight capitalism.
Elsewhere, Mike is still being tailed by the DEA. Combined no doubt with the kid’s shooting, it compels him to take a stand. Arriving back at the pest control office after his conversation with Jesse, Walt discovers his protégé and Mike waiting for him with an offer: buy out their share of the methylamine and sell it wholesale. “Pennies on the dollar,” Walt snarls at Jesse, raging at the idea that someone will take away not just his business, but also his power.
The wrinkle in the deal comes as Mike’s contact reveals he wants all the methylamine, in order to take Heisenberg’s blue meth off the streets. And when Jesse visits Walt’s house to try and convince him to give up his share, two revelations occur.
The first is that Walt’s blinders have finally fallen away. He tells Jesse (in typical self-pitying fashion) how his family have turned against him, ending with “this business is all I have left.” Throughout the series, Walt’s family-man self-image has been the justification for his crimes. The fallout from Gray Matter, that part-hidden iceberg in Walt’s backstory, turns up again as he explains how he once walked away from something he built, and will never do so again. We knew Walt’s determination to continue was about ego, and now he admits that to himself, confessing/boasting “I’m in the empire business”. It’s the most honest he’s been in a long time.
The second concerns Jesse – for so long Walt’s dupe and convenient punchbag. Walt tries all his usual disapproving-teacher tricks on Jesse, only for him to shrug them off, quietly insistent that would rather quit cooking than be responsible for another death. Almost unnoticeably, Jesse’s become his own man, that small moral core inside him something Walt can’t bulldoze.
The argument building between them is cut short when Skyler enters. Walt pulls a man of the house move and insists Jesse stay for what must be the most awkward dinner scene yet in a show full of them. As Skyler rapidly goes full Cersei Lannister, cradling a giant glass of wine and icily staring down Walt across the table, Jesse babbles on, trying to maintain some semblance of normality (the shot of his reaction to Skyler’s idle mention of her affair is the funniest thing the show’s done in ages).
But we don’t quite realise the degree to which Walt has sunk until Mike discovers him in the office, preparing to sabotage the methylamine deal. Walt ends up zip-cuffed to a radiator in the same room where Todd’s fate was decided, in a shot that replicates that same discussion. Except Walt is in Jesse’s position now – the subordinate, the one at the back of the room.
Walt, of course, has a science trick getaway up his sleeve, but it’s not borne of ingenuity so much as desperation. You can practically smell the burning flesh during the truly horrifying closeup of him burning through the plastic with a shorted out wire. This is what he is now; a man so damaged every move towards his goals only damages him further.
Even with Mike’s gun to his head, Walt only grins devilishly, tempting Mike and Jesse away from their clean break with a promise that “everybody wins”. But where empires are concerned, there are always losers as well as winners.