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'Breaking Bad' Recap: Walt's Shocking Mistake

Posted: 08/27/2012 1:41 am

Breaking Bad Mike

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Note: Do not read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 7 of AMC's "Breaking Bad," entitled "Say My Name."

"It's bullsh*t every time!" -- Jesse

We all knew that the partnership between Walt White and Mike Ehrmantraut was never going to work. Mike always was a rare breed: The kind of second-in-command who really did know his place, who never tried to get over on the boss, who did his job cautiously, intelligently and professionally.

Put that kind of man in a pressure-cooker with the raging ego of Heisenberg, and that unstable mixture was always going to blow. I didn't expect things to explode this early, however. I doff my Heisenberg's cap to the show for sticking to its guns, as it were -- it made sense for Mike to die sooner rather than later, but I'm going to miss that grumpy face.

"Breaking Bad" has a tremendous capacity for creating memorable characters, but it doesn't keep them one minute longer than it has to. And what a death scene that was. You can't really top the explosive death of the Chicken Man, which will always be one of the most memorable exits of all time.

"Say My Name" went in the opposite direction, putting Mike on the banks of a peaceful river in a Buddha-like pose, a patient man having to listen to yet more yammering from the jackass who'd just shot him in the gut. Through it all, Mike kept his composure, and in contrast to the horrifically violent end of Gus Fring, Mike folded quietly into the foliage. Death was the only way he was ever going to get out of that partnership. I think, on some level, he knew that.

It's awful to contemplate Mike having to sit there in his last moments hearing Walt say that -- whoops! -- he'd just realized he didn't have to shoot Mike after all; he could have gotten the names from Lydia (a much easier potential extortion target). And you might think that if Mike had just walked away from Walt and not subjected Mr. White to that final tirade, he could have gotten away clean. Well, short several million dollars, but he could have gotten away in one piece.

But if you cut Mike, does he not bleed? Isn't he a human being? And Lord knows, Walter White has a genius for pushing people's buttons (cooking meth isn't his only skill -- if anything, he "the best" at manipulation and pushing buttons). Ironically enough, I don't think Walt was deliberately trying to make Mike enraged -- his comments were just an outgrowth of the kind of raging ego we saw at the start of the episode, when Walt made his new distribution guy figuratively bend the knee to him.

"You're welcome." Even Mike has a breaking point, and those two words represented Mike's. He should thank Walt for the fact that his bank account was drained twice? For the fact that that his life was in danger and he'd have to leave not just the city but the country? For the fact that all of his careful exit strategies had been undone? And worst of all, for the fact he had to abandon his beloved granddaughter in a public park in order to save himself?

That deserves gratitude? Mike's aria of hatred was beautifully delivered by Jonathan Banks; it reminded me of Marlo's "My name is my name!" outburst in "The Wire." Both Mike and Marlo were restrained, circumspect characters, always calculating the odds in their heads and fearsome in a fight, but not showily violent, not outwardly egotistical in the Walter White vein.

Yet to survive in their pitiless worlds, they both had to have serious stones, and the almost eternally patient Mike just couldn't tolerate the kind of nonsense that Walt was spewing. The disgust on Mike's face as he looked Walt up and down was priceless; it was the look of a man who'd taken full measure of what was before him, and it was wanting. Walt was deficient.

And that's why Walt shot Mike. It wasn't over the list of names. He didn't really think shooting Mike would be a great way to get the information he needed out of him. (If anything, Mike would be quite likely to shoot back, and Walt had to know that.) It simply infuriated Walter that someone called him on his b.s., that someone called him out on everything he'd screwed up. He's so deep into his Heisenberg megalomania that any perceived threat to that image had to be punished, had to be answered.

This has obvious implications for Jesse, who also called out Walt. And I'll get to that in a moment. But first, I want to note my one big reservation regarding this episode, which I otherwise enjoyed.

Why would Mike allow Walt to get his go bag, instead of Jesse? That decision stopped me cold. I didn't really buy it, honestly. You could make the argument that Mike actually likes Jesse and didn't want anything to happen to him in the course of delivering the bag. You could argue that Walter has no visibility with the cops, and is thus a safer courier. You could make a few different arguments, but I don't know that can quite buy any of them.

Disaster is always trailing along in Walt's wake; he's not only arrogant to the point of being delusional, he's always trying to get people back into his clutches. And now he's demanding complete allegiance from everyone around him -- Skyler, Jesse, Todd, the new distribution guy. Walt was always bad news, but he's more dangerous than ever, and Mike has said that out loud more than once. If I'm Mike, I'd rather anyone bring me that bag -- anyone but Walt. If I'm Mike (or Jesse), I'd never let him come close enough to start talking to me, let alone potentially attack me. Even unarmed, Walt's like the Devil: If you let him start spinning his word web, you're probably already done for.

As his longtime protege, it's too much of a blow to Walt's ego to think that Jesse could really be gone for good; I'm sure he thinks he'll come up with something to get him back. But Jesse is allegedly "out" -- though what that really means, I'm not quite sure.

If there was a scene in which my attention began to waver, it was when Jesse confronted Walt and tried to get his money. I thought, "Walt will pull out all his devilish mind games, he'll do all his Jedi tricks, he'll see an opening and get Jesse to waver and to eventually come back to the fold."

But Walt, despite trying all his usual gambits, failed. Jesse walked out, unpaid and done. He finally heeded Mike's warnings and looked squarely at the evidence in front of him. Of course more people were going to die! Of course nobody's safety could be assured! Walt's promises were as empty as those safe-deposit boxes were going to be in future.

Will Jesse's resolve last? I wonder. And to tell the truth, if Jesse falls back in line with Walt and there is more of the "Jesse leaves/Walt plays mind games/Jesse returns" round-robin, well, I have to wonder: How many more times can the show go to that very dark, deep well? Not really many. Or any, right?

But given how disciplined it's been about ending character arcs when they needed to end, given how realistic it's been about Walt's ability to alienate and then disgust the people around him, I wonder if the show is setting up an entirely different scenario for the end run of episodes that will arrive next year: A war between Jesse and Walt.

Think about it: Jesse hasn't been bought out. He's out all that money. He knows how to cook. Walter has a willing new recruit in Todd. And we saw Walt at the start of the season buying a very scary weapon. Not a ton of weapons, mind you; it looked as though Walt was about as alone as one man could be. He bought the biggest, baddest weapon a solo operator could carry.

As I said, Walt has turned everyone against him. Could Jesse be his next adversary? Especially after Jesse finds out how Mike died? Will Jesse ally himself with the new distribution crew and make a run at Walt's empire? Of course Walt will spin Mike's death into some kind of story for Jesse, but will the cold-blooded, clearly ego-driven murder of Mike be the thing that finally convinces Jesse that Mr. White is not only dangerous, but needs to be eliminated?

The upside of Jesse, in Walt's eyes, was that he knew his place. But maybe he'll learn a little too well from his mentor about how one deals with rivals to the throne.

A few final notes:

  • I liked the jazzy little touches that accompanied Mike's lawyer filling up the safety deposit boxes. "Breaking Bad" doesn't often go for the "fizzy heist movie" vibe, but it's certainly entitled to it, given the nature of the gang's business, and it's a nice change of pace when they can seamlessly weave it into the whole.
  • I predicted last week that Todd would not be long for this world, but I could be wrong about that. It was clear from the cook in "Say My Name" that Walt doesn't just need an assistant, he needs an audience. He loves nothing more than to engage in some pedantic lecturing. As the opening scene proved, it's not enough for him to be Heisenberg, he has to be seen as Heisenberg.
  • I don't think Todd got the reference to famous chemist Antoine Lavoisier. Just a guess.
  • Another question: If cops are sitting on Saul's office, wouldn't they have seen Walt and Jesse come in? And that makes me wonder further -- Saul has been on the radar of the authorities from time to time. Do the cops not have enough on him to wonder about his clientele? Presumably law-enforcement types have never thought much about how often Walt and Jesse are in and out of that office. And if a picture like that ever came across Hank's desk ...
  • As was the case this week, I won't be seeing "Breaking Bad's" mid-season finale in advance next week. I hope to have a review up by around 1 a.m. ET. Sunday night.
  • Once again, RIP Mike Ehrmantraut. You'll be missed.

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