Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: Breaking Bad (Season 2)


If Season One was the season of misdirection, Season Two is the season of apposition. Where the first season established, the second develops. All, mind you, while still acting primarily as an introduction. We are not dealt, as we are in countless lesser shows, a thousand trifling difficulties which have nothing to do but prolong a final conflict, nor are we given endless variations of the same problem, none greater or lesser, nor do we endure the most frustrating of development tactics, the endless tease. Instead we see established characters butting heads, their strengths and weaknesses bouncing off one another as they deal with the ongoing turmoil which into Walt's illness, and more so his radical drug-dealing solution to his financial burden, throws the family. 

The season opens with the conclusion previous season's mess, in which Walt and Jesse, seeking to increase their distribution, fall in with the Tuco Salamanca, a brutal drug lord whose savage streak is outmatched and magnified only by his murderous volatility. The denouement of the Season One cliffhanger, in which Walt and Jesse are holed up with Tuco and his uncle, on the lam in a desert hideaway, is a perfect transition from the small-scale antics of the last year to new, higher stakes. As the unlikely duo try to outsmart Tuco they run the risk of hurting more and more people by their scheme. First among the potential victims is Tuco's uncle who, mute, communicates with a bell. Will he take the poison intended for Tuco? Second, and more importantly, comes Hank, Walt's brother-in-law, now a higher up in the DEA. Will Hank get hurt when he's called into the scene?

The conclusion to the nail-biter is classic Season One: fulfilled in the unexpected way. Hank turns up and heroically saves the day as Walt and Jesse escape, but it is the lie Walt concocts which sets up the new season. Walt learns to lie, and in a colossal untruth pretends that he entered into a sleepwalking state in order to explain his absence. We have a foreshadowing of the season in their missing persons photos: it's the family he's trying to save which he is destroying.

Again we have the delicious parallels and contrasts in which I delight. Hank brews and bottles his own beer whereas Walt is an underground meth cooker. When Hank throws away a morbid token of his heroism–Tuco's gold teeth encased in glass–he rejects the violence which even he, Mr. "Indestructible" can't come to terms with, whereas when Walt throws away his cigarettes, he throws away a former venial vice, embracing a new, truly violent lifestyle. Walt adds a secret, violent world alongside his peaceful, domestic life, as Jesse adds a public business with Walt–so to speak and so it seems to others–to his former private hooliganism. These parallels are developed just enough, enriching by contrast without being so rigid that they make the drama predictable.

The biggest contrast, though, is how Walt's increasing absence, taken of course to support his family, hurts Skyler, who seeing only erratic moods and deceit, lets her boss Ted step in more and more to fill Walt's absence. Similarly, Skyler discovers that Ted's been cooking the books at work to help the employees in the rough economy, just as Walt's been breaking the law to help her and Walt Jr. These parallels don't drive the story or dictate the plot just to maintain the similarity, rather they create enriching contrast, so much in fact that the drug dealing shenanigans we expected to play a leading role sometimes become a mere backdrop.

Except in one episode, that is, and one in which Jesse's plot is set up for the season. When one of Jesse's dealers gets pinched by an addict, he has to make a show of force so he doesn't become known as a weakling whose dealers can get hoodwinked, and worse. When he traces the addict back to her house, he enters a surreal world of addiction and iniquity. When he breaks in to get his money and make a name for himself he finds a child living in lonely squalor. Prepared to take his money and run, Jesse can't, and preparing the kid a sandwich sets him in front of the television. We see Jesse's despair not only in remembering the loving suburban home he left, but realizing the erratic, unhealthy lifestyle of drugs which he entered in rejection of his family is the one into which this child was born without choice. When the couple, using the term couple loosely, returns home, their vicious sniping, irrational babbling, and stoned stupor take Jesse by surprise. The tenor rises as the couple bicker profanity at one another until the scene erupts in violence which scares Jesse straight.

There is something refreshing about a clear midpoint in a story. Here, it is also the low point for Walt and Jesse's so-called business. Badger, one of Jesse's dealers, has been arrested, and his plea deal will out everybody. Enter Saul Goodman, lawyer. His office is a hilarious exaggeration of patriotism and the law, with vast columns and flags, all belying his unscrupulous ways. Goodman's frankness about his ways is a stark contrast to Walt's typical shame, and his brutal realism is a contrast to Walt's hand-wringing attempts at moderation. Bob Odenkirk's fast-talking, articulate, and sarcastic performance brings also some welcome levity. Besides safeguarding their secret, though, Goodman hooks Walt and Jesse up with some distribution for a small fee. All they need is some more product.

The ensuing desert sojourn is one part buddy comedy and one part dramatic finale. On the one hand, their lives are on the line: they need to cook the drugs to score the deal, Walt's health is deteriorating, and now they need to pay Saul. On the other hand, the scene is a comedy of errors when the RV breaks down. Holding it all together, though, is the drama of their relationship.

We sympathize with Walt, trying to help his family, whom he fears he always disappoints, but Walt can also be cruel to Jesse, running him down whenever he makes a mistake. In contrast again, though, Walt starts to teach Jesse the craft and science of their project. It's a dark irony that Walt as a mild-mannered, academic teacher couldn't teach chemistry to Jesse when he was a student, but now the two are discussing and bonding while they cook meth in a Winnebago in the middle of the desert. When the episode ends, the two part with the meth cooked and money made. Walt is ready to die, but is given an unexpected, positive prognosis from the doctor. The coughed-up blood is just irritation from the chemotherapy. For now, he's better. In the final scene, Walt excuses himself from everyone's jubilation to the bathroom, where upon seeing his reflection in the metal towel dispenser, he punches it ferociously. It clicks for us that Walt was ready to die. More life means more lies, more risk, and more suffering for his family. He is simultaneously the cause for his family's joy and pain, their suffering and saving.

His return home episode is a brilliant coda to the apparent climax of the previous episode. Loaded with cash and time, Walt starts obsessively to gut and repair his house. He fixes leaks, updates the boiler, and firms up the foundation. About halfway through we realize Walt is doing this to avoid his family. He's fixing his physical house instead of the bonds with his family, which needs tending even more. We start to wonder whether he's ready to keep living and if his experience hasn't alienated him from his family. When he spots the telltale ingredients of meth-making in a wagon at the hardware store and he follows the guy outside and threatens him, urging him to get out of his territory, we call Walt's entire raison d'être into question. Does he cook and deal to save his family or because it gives him purpose and agency? Is he simply preserving his territory because he knows he'll need to start up again?

Walt's apparent refusal to return to normal relations with his family parallels the domestication of Jesse, who now has a furnished apartment and an ordinary, if not a admirable, lifestyle, excepting the worsening heroin addiction he can't quit. Still, he falls for his next-door neighbor, Jane, whom he tries to impress and woo. This, as is often so, has a salubrious and domesticating effect on Jesse, and all seems well for a while. Jesse's apartment gets neater and neater. He wants to meet her dad (played by a much underworked John de Lancie) and throws a little fit when she only introduces him as the tenant. When we learn that Jane is a recovering addict, though, we can see the writing on the wall, which everyone hits in what is perhaps the best television drama I've ever seen.

The finale is a masterful threading of every plot. First, Walt has to thread the needle of a new deal with a meticulous client. Second, he has to be ready for the imminent birth of his daughter. Third, Walt's son, now ominously having cast off his father's name and going by Flynn, starts an online charity website to raise money for his father's next surgery, just as Walt's recent score brings in nearly half a million dollars, dollars which Walt can't spend or explain, of course, a fact which more and more irritates Walt. He is sacrificing so much for his family and not only does it alienate them from him, he gets no credit. The ever-ingenious Saul schemes to get a bot-net of computers to transfer Walt's money through indirect means into his son's charity. So impressive is the seemingly wild success of Flynn's scheme to save his dad that a news crew comes to the house for what becomes a bizarre and brilliantly orchestrated, darkly comic scene: the media praises Flynn for raising the money, which in reality was raised by Walt, who goes on to praise his father not for what he actually did, raise the money, but for the old virtues of being kind and patient and good, virtues he's since abandoned to save them. To top it all off, the misplaced and untimely recognition risks exposing Walt, on national television of all places.

Meanwhile, Jesse is slipping deeper into addiction and taking Jane with him. When she finds out that Walter won't give Jesse his half of the million until he's clean, Jane sets up the climax by blackmailing Walt. After Walt shows up with the cash he tries to reason with Jesse, but Jane slams the door in his face. Despondent, and adding but one more white lie, Walt sneaks off to a bar where he runs into, unbeknownst to him, Jane's dad. They commiserate a bit, each talking about what they do and want to do for their kids. (Alas by now Walt is acting more like a father to Jesse than to Walt Jr. aka Flynn, whose receiving the credit for saving the family has driven a wedge between father and son.) The setup is obvious right? Jane's dad accidentally spurs Walt to go back and reason with Jesse, and in doing so accidentally saves his daughter.

As Walt stands over the intoxicated lovers, curled up like little children, we see a paternal Walt. His daughter has just been born, he's saving his family and foregoing esteem. Then Jane starts to vomit and choke from the drugs. Walt motions to turn the girl on her side, but pauses, and we realize as he looks on and lets her die, that he's turned a terrible corner. The turn is at once shocking yet in retrospect, inevitable, for every incident led to it: Walt's commitment to Jesse and to his own family, Jane falling for Jesse, Jane's father not giving up on her.

The parallelisms to which we're accustomed now grow terrible. Walt gently props his newborn daughter up in bed while he lets Jane die. He cradles his daughter as he does Jesse. He lays his daughter out on the bed to change her while Jane's father lays out the dress for his daughter's funeral. Jesse falls into torturous despair, blaming himself for Jane's death which is in some significant way Walt's fault too, while Walt's actual son gets credit for the good that Walt did.

Then the ultimate end for a season of tension and deceit. Walt's last was one too many lies, and Sklyer, with Walt's most recent surgery successful and having given birth to a healthy girl, leaves Walt, afraid of the truth behind his lies. Then as Jane's father, despondent over the loss of his daughter, fails at his air traffic control job, two planes collide over the city. By his own attempt to save his family, Walt has rained chaos, death, destruction, suffering, and dissolution down on everyone around him, and only, in the end, did he preserve himself, whom he was most ready to sacrifice.

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