Nothing stops this train
So, Skylar’s slow burn finally paid off this week. And in wonderful fashion. Round 1 didn’t really have a winner; it mostly just had both sides laying all the cards on the table (analogy 1: cards/poker). Skylar openly admits that her best plan is to suffer through Walt’s mania, trying to keep the kids as far from him as possible, and waiting for Walt’s cancer to resurface and kill or debilitate him. Her strategy is to take as many blows for as many rounds as possible and then strike when her opponent is too weak to retaliate like Muhammad Ali (analogy 2: boxing). This is a terrible thought to Walt because cancer must seem like something that could actually slow him down. But, he sure does seem confident that no other person could threaten his reign as Lord White of Downton Crystal. He believes that he is always a move ahead of his competitor, calling all of Skylar’s potential, future moves (analogy 3: chess).
While Skylar’s plan of walking into the meth-colored swimming pool was very intriguing (although not as well planned as Walt’s best plans), I would like to talk more about the recurring theme of freedom this season.
The cold open this week has the mechanic delivering the line, “Nothing beats free.” It is a call back to the season’s cold open in Denny’s (see also: bacon) when the waitress said, “Free is good.” The season premiere was also titled “Live Free or Die.” More and more, we see that Walt feels that his new wealth and power are not worth anything if he can’t live the way he wants to (which happens to mean buying American. It’s the Olympics, and if you buy a Toyota, you are rooting for the enemy).
Walt thinks that beating Gus was the only thing keeping him from being able to live his life completely free. He can’t understand that Skylar wouldn’t see that “We have never been more safe.” While Skylar is the only real voice of reason. She seems to understand the unpredictability of the meth business in a way that Walt just can’t seem to. Also, she has pulled out the only real moral hard line of the show being that murder and threatening people and meth dealing can’t be called “shit happens.” This is really the first time that Walt has had someone outright question his moral ideology of “anything you do to protect your family is fair game.” And Walt’s response to being told that his moral ideology might not be perfect, is to try and threaten Skylar into believing that he is right. He tells the story of Jesse going from trying to murder him to bestowing birthday gifts at the foot of the king. He thinks that he just has to wait for Skylar to finally come around. This is where this episode’s theme of time passing and counting down to something big. It is visually paid off with the watch that Jesse gives Walt.
For me the theme of waiting also works for the audience. We are waiting to see what happens in the next year (which will be a rapidly accelerated timeline for the show) that causes Walt to be alone in Denny’s buying automatic weapons. We are waiting to see what will go wrong with the 4 Amigos new plan (the set-up being that getting Methlymine is going to cause some problems). We are waiting to see how Skylar can keep own stalling game going with the children at Hank and Marie’s (if breakfast takes a dip in quality, we are definitely going to hear from Walt Jr.).
What am I missing? I’ll let you talk about Lydia’s story and Hank’s promotion. Also, I would love to hear your thoughts on the line of the week, courtesy of Mike, “That’s what I get for being sexist.” I am very excited about where things are going, and I also have no idea what that is.
A handful of other things:
- Great work, Rian Johnson, director of this episode. He also directed “The Fly,” which is easily my least favorite episode of the series, but he did a fantastic job with this one. Very beautifully shot.
- Brilliant details: Sklyar tightening the floss around her finger, trying to feel something new. Walt’s nightstand had Walt Whitman on it (call back to Gail Boetticher’s journal). Lydia, “I don’t know if you’re one of those undercover cops their sending into high schools.” Even though the real world timeline doesn’t match up with the Breaking Bad timeline at this point, that was a fun Jump 21 Street reference (and yes, I know this summer’s movie was a remake, but it seems obvious that they would be referencing the current pop culture thing). And, Walt cutting himself shaving. The King can bleed.
Great insights on this episode, especially the way the theme of freedom is building in layers throughout. I’ve been re-watching season 1 because I am working on a longer essay on Breaking Bad and just got to the point where Walt decides to start cooking again. As a refresher: after he and Jesse cook their first batch and end up killing Emilio and Crazy 8 and disposing of their bodies in awful ways, Walt shuts down their shop. In the midst of this, Walt finally confesses to his family that he has cancer and refuses treatment and his ex-chemistry-partner’s offer to foot the bill. When confronted by Skyler, Marie, Hank, and Walt Jr. (this is the scene involving the “talking pillow” that Walt refers to so nostalgically in his “oh what a year it’s been” speech while Skyler prepares for her pool stunt), he explains his decision by saying that it is all about having a choice. His whole life, he says, seems to have passed him by without him really making any choices, and this is the last one he can make: how to spend his last few weeks/months/years. But upon waking the next morning, he relents, tells Skyler he’ll do the treatment and take Elliot’s money. The next thing we know he is back at Jesse’s, opening shop again.
I bring up all this season 1 back story because: 1) Walt put me in a reminiscing mood; and 2) I think we see the theme of freedom start building all the way back at that decision. In many ways, going back to meth was Walt’s first real decision, his choice to take control of his life. Even there we see that what motivates Walt is not just pride (though he has that in abundance), but a desire to be in control, to take the reigns in his own life. What he learns along the way is that he is capable of more than he thought – in many ways – and also that “the rules” he so carefully lived by may not actually apply. He seems drunk out of his mind on this realization and eager to encourage everyone else to jump on board (“don’t worry Skyler, these feelings of guilt at ruining another man’s life will pass. They are just the momentary signs of weakness”).
“Out of his mind” being the key descriptor since he actually thinks killing Fringe clears the path to a violence-free, danger-free reign as king of ABQ’s meth production. What, does he really think there are no other players out there who might take an interest in his business or perceive him as weak and unguarded? Besides the DEA (which, um, is really not beside the point at all), what about the cartel? other meth producers? the unforeseen difficulties of securing his precursors? To harp again on season 1 parallels, the penultimate episode (“Crazy Handful of Nothin'”) opens with interspersed scenes of Walt laying down the new ground rules with Jesse – “no more violence. No more killing” – and Walt walking away from the bomb scene that will close the season. If Walt doesn’t remember, we surely should: every time he insists he has it under control or that he can twist the game to play by his own special rules (safety, non-violence, smooth production), he ends up killing someone. Which should make us all the more curious who his future gun stash is aimed at.
Like you, I loved that Skyler finally exploded at him, calling him on his insanity and insisting on some voice of moral reason. I am also just plain glad they broke the tension that was building. Skyler as an emotional hostage in her own house was stressing me out too much. I was also relieved to find out that she is not nearly as terrified of Walt as her shattered behavior might have suggested. At least she has enough backbone to take him on directly, tell him what she is really thinking, and marshal all her wits to protect her children. Their argument set the stage for a twisted game of marital poker/boxing/chess. Skyler may not bring Walt down directly, but distracting his energies certainly won’t help him build his new empire.
My thoughts on Hank’s promotion: maybe whoever will get assigned to the day-to-day on the Fringe case will have enough distance to connect the dots. There are clues in the puzzle that might point to Walt that Hank would have a hard time seeing, since the last thing he can imagine is his spineless brother-in-law as a drug lord mastermind. But a new guy won’t be so blind.
My thoughts on Lydia: for someone so terrified she can’t even match her shoes and who exaggerates her situation (I know talking to the DEA when you are part of an international drug ring must be nerve-wracking but 14 agents certainly did not burst into her office screaming at her or “swarm” the warehouse), she isn’t scared enough of Mike. I am not surprised to learn that Hank harbored old fashioned ideas about the vulnerability of the “weaker sex” despite knowing he shouldn’t be so sexist as to assume Lydia won’t try to take him down. But I doubt his new found feminism is going to serve Lydia well in the end, even if Walt reigns Mike in for a while.
I’m just waiting.