Do not read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 6 of AMC's "Breaking Bad, entitled "Buyout."
Elements of this storyline may continue into next year, but I think we now know the general terrain of the first half of "Breaking Bad's" final season: These first six episodes have concerned the formation and the fragility of the drug-dealing partnership of Walt, Jesse and Mike. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I can't see this trio continuing as business partners much beyond the next couple of episodes (and if I were the ambitious Todd, I wouldn't make any long-term plans about joining forces with Team Heisenberg).
This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if next year's eight episodes will consist of Walter going to war with Mike -- and possibly Jesse? Mr. White was dining solo at that restaurant on his 52nd birthday, after all, and I wonder if Walt needed the heavy firepower he purchased in the season premiere because he's fighting a war on two or three fronts. It can't be long, after all, before DEA bigshot Hank Schrader starts making deductions that Walt really doesn't want him to make.
As we know, things don't get easier for Walt, but that's what happens when you get in the empire-building business. There aren't many emperors in history who shared the throne with anyone else, and those who reach that high on any food chain are generally surrounded by people who'd love nothing more than to take them down.
Walt's now moved far, far beyond wanting to stow away a few hundred grand for his family, a fantasy that Jesse, being Jesse, still somehow clings to. The hubris that was always in Walt is in full flower, and he's never forgotten the galling impotence he felt after he was bought out by his first company for a pittance. It's time for Walter White to get paid, by any means necessary. Surely Mike and Jesse have to know by now that "everybody wins" actually means "Walter White wins."
It's doubtful, though, that Jesse will ever see that Walt is the poison, Walt is the danger, Walt is ultimately the one who got the kid on the dirt bike killed. Everything can be traced back to his increasingly elaborate schemes to make money, to be the boss, to be the emperor.
Mike says he's never seen someone work so hard to not make $5 million, but Walt and Jesse have worked far harder to not learn key lessons and not to see truths that are often right in front of them. Walt will never see that, no, he hasn't thought of everything. The train heist may have worked, but an innocent kid died in the process -- and that's just the latest example of his refusal to see that mistakes and loose ends and arrogance constantly have tripped him up and will continue to do so. Walt prides himself on his ability to slither out of tough corners -- as he did in "Buyout" -- but he continually fails to see that it's his own actions that have put him and Jesse in those impossible situations.
Gus had as nimble a mind and less arrogance than Walt, but he still died, because it's simply not possible to always think of everything. He was as careful as any person could be -- unlike the bullying, narcissistic Walt -- but that didn't save him in the end. Walt has been more reprehensible as he has become less capable of any kind of humility. And the reason Jesse's plight is heartbreaking is because his delusion revolves around seeing goodness and decency in Walt that simply aren't there. He ascribes qualities to his former teacher that Walt wants to think he has, but those are qualities that Walt left behind a long time ago.
In this episode, however, Jesse finally begins to see Walt for who he really is: He's a man who can whistle while he works not long after a member of the crew murdered an innocent child. Nothing could chill Jesse more; he himself is a wounded, abandoned little boy, and the plight of unfortunate and/or dead kids has always struck to the core of his being and sent him off the rails. But two things have kept his partnership with Walt going: Walt is capable of ingenious Jedi mind tricks, and Jesse is predisposed to fall for them because he wants to believe Walt is, on some level, a worthwhile human being.
Hence the darkly funny "Who's Afraid of Skyler White" dinner party, in which Skyler, deep into her Big Carl wineglass, made her contempt for her husband clear. Walt once again manipulated information to make himself look like the victim, and Jesse sat between them like a deeply uncomfortable adopted son (which, on some level, he is, at least for Walt).
I'm going to presume that Jesse has no idea that Skyler knows Walt's real business; if I'm wrong about that, do let me know in comments. But to my recollection, it's been a very long time since Jesse and Skyler interacted, and I don't recall Walt telling Jesse what his wife does and doesn't know. In any event, Walt's well-calibrated guilt trip depends on Jesse seeing Walt as the beleaguered victim of a vindictive wife, who has ruined his home life and wants him to die.
Of course that selective framing of the facts hits Jesse, the ultimate Lost Boy, in his soft spot: Poor Walt, alone and abandoned! How could Jesse be so cruel as to take the man's business away from him?
It was yet another con calculated precisely by Walter White; after all this time, Walt has the Let's Trick Jesse formula down pat. Speaking of formulas, Walt even got a chance to break out his science knowledge after Mike chained him to a radiator. (Sidebar: Anybody else wonder whether it made sense for Mike to 1) Leave Walt alone, for any length of time, for any reason or 2) Use a plastic restraint and tie him to a part of the office with lots of possibly useful things in Walt's vicinity? I'm not crying foul necessarily on Walt's breakout, but I tend to think Mike's more careful than that, and/or more of a fan of old-school handcuffs. But maybe that's just me.)
One way or another, Walt wriggled out of another couple of traps in this hour, and the Heisenberg spider kept on spinning his web. But, like the spider in the jar that Todd found, isn't Walter ultimately as trapped as anyone else?
His inability to see that will be his downfall, but he's not out of the game yet.
A few more notes:
- I was out of town last week when the "Breaking Bad" Great Train Job episode aired, and I generally loved the hour. Given the show's Western setting and its outstanding cinematography, it felt like a natural place for "Breaking Bad" to go, and the suspense was expertly created and very enjoyable.
As for the cold open of the kid finding the spider, I forgot all about that -- as I was meant to -- until the very end of the episode; no show does misdirection better than "Breaking Bad," and the thrill of watching the crew score (despite Walt's recklessness) was quickly replaced by shock and whole host of queasy emotions. "Breaking Bad" is able to manipulate our reactions just as Walt plays Jesse like a fine-tuned violin, and as twisted as it sounds, I mean that as praise for the show. I've seen some people question whether the crew would have been able to assemble the equipment they needed and grab the chemical from the train as flawlessly as they did, but I figured any crew that can set up a variety of mobile and stationary meth labs is going to be able to figure out the literal nuts and bolts of how train transportation works.
My only quibble is this: Lydia obviously fed them the information about which train car to rob, but how could they have been sure that that car would stop on or around the trestle? Perhaps there was an explanation of that and I missed it. [Update: I know that Jesse measured 800 or so feet from the road crossing, where the front of the train would be, to the trestle. My questions is this: How did he know that chemical tanker would be about 800 feet from the front of the train? Are we to assume Lydia gave him that information? That seems like an awfully specific thing for her to know. Yes, I know that she called Walt to give him the chemical tanker's ID number. But 1) that was after Jesse measured the track and 2) that still doesn't explain why they, early in the planning process, they thought the chemical tanker would be about 800 feet behind the locomotive.] All things considered though, it was an excellent hour, and one that beautifully set up yet another series of consequences that will no doubt reverberate and make life tricky for Walt for some time to come.
- Anyone else wonder if that kid's fingerprints are on the spider jar? And whether that will serve as some kind of leverage, should Todd try to extort more money or a partnership from Walt, Jesse and Mike?
- Jesse is often seen as the moral center of the show, but, as we've seen, he's often railroaded (!) into acquiescence and passivity by Walt. Mike certainly has a lot of blood on his hands, but, weirdly enough, he's begun to turn into something of a moral arbiter within this universe, for me, anyway. I liked James Poniewozik's comparison to Mike as "the general who believes that when you go to war, you do it with overwhelming force -- and when you can avoid it, you don't do it at all." And that is among the reasons I wanted Mike to weigh in on the death of the kid on the bike, and felt somewhat stymied when he didn't say whether Todd's action had been right or wrong. Of course, Mike is the ultimate pragmatist: To him, it probably doesn't matter whether Todd should or should not have shot him; the kid's death is a fact on the ground Mike has to deal with, and hypotheticals about what could have or should have been done are a waste of time. But it's a testament to "Breaking Bad's" ability to create and examine morality -- even within this deeply corrupt universe -- that had me wondering about whether Mike would have done the same thing. As Vince Gilligan discussed in this recent interview, "Breaking Bad" trains its relentless eye on where people draw moral lines, and unlike Walt, I don't think Mike would ever kill out of pure vengeance or self-preservation. Would Mike have killed the kid? Could he? It's something I've been pondering since watching the episode. I'm not exactly sure where Mike draws his lines, but I'm pretty sure they're in a better place than Walt's.