By Todd VanDerWerff
If the United States makes it easy to follow a certain path to some form of success, it also makes it a little too easy for someone to get lost. "Down," written by Sam Catlin and directed by John Dahl, is evenly split between two deliberately paced stories that converge at the end. In one, a man tries to reconcile with his wife after his secrets and lies take their toll on his marriage. In the other, the man's partner in crime confronts the fact that he's being cast out of the place he's been staying and he doesn't really have a backup plan. Like last year's much-acclaimed film Wendy and Lucy, his descent into some American underbelly becomes a story about just how easy it is to blip off the map, to find yourself completely and utterly gone.
"Down" is the first episode of Breaking Bad's second season to not spend significant amounts of time following the investigation into the Albuquerque drug trade. The show already feels fairly methodically paced but removing that cat-and-mouse aspect of the show's template makes it feel even slower, in a way. For those of us who love how the show gets into the claustrophobic psychologies of its characters, it was yet another highlight in a second season that's improved on the abbreviated first season in almost every way, but for those who think the show is just a molasses-like soup of depressing moments, it must have been well-nigh unbearable.
Our A-plot, as always, has to do with the beleaguered and backsliding Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who's trying his best to put the events of the season's first three episodes, when he found himself abducted by violent drug dealer Tuco (Raymond Cruz) and trying to cook up an alibi to cover for his disappearance during same, behind him. He's trying, as if nothing happened, to go back to being the good family man he was before his cancer diagnosis, cooking up a full breakfast for his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and his son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte); taking Walter Jr. out for driving lessons; and apologizing for just how strange he's seemed lately to Skyler. All of this might have worked to smooth the waters over somewhat, but Walter has a tendency to overcompensate, offering up an elaborate excuse for why he has a second cellphone that's so clearly a lie that Skyler just walks out on him mid-explanation and takes off for the day with no real announcement of where she's going. (At episode's end, she even goes out for a cigarette despite being pregnant. A woman in a neighboring car gives her a judgmental glare as she is about to light up, and you can see Skyler almost not indulge, but she finally just needs her own tiny rebellion and she lets out a big mouthful of smoke. In some ways, Skyler is as trapped as Jesse, whom we'll get to in a moment.)
Walter's attempts to provide for his family via his meth production would break up his little unit if anyone found out (though he always seems to be on the verge of telling Skyler), but they're already doing a pretty good job of that in advance. Because he has this secret he's keeping from his family, he's unable to really level with Skyler in a way that might bring her back into the loving partnership he clearly misses, and because he's spending so much time off with his new business venture, he's also missing lots of what's going on at home, including his son's new nickname, Flynn, and much of what his wife has been up to. Neither Gunn nor Mitte has gotten a lot to do this season so far, but both are wonderful here, showing Walter just how they're moving on from both his diagnosis and him, how much they miss him but also how much they just want him to stop giving them reasons to be suspicious of him. Maybe Walter could get out of the meth game since Tuco's gone and there's probably not enough evidence out there to tie him to the city's drug trade, but the missing weeks when he was seemingly losing his mind would always come between him and his family, and he could never offer an adequate explanation to them as to what, exactly, he was up to in that missing time. Walter seems chipper enough in this episode to make me wonder if he's not seeing some success from the treatment he entered last season, to the point where perhaps he'd enter remission, even as he really had no way to get out of the world of the drug trade. "There's the easy way, and then there's the right way," Walter says when he's trying to teach his son to drive and not use both feet on the pedals. Walter's tragedy is that he too often confuses the two for each other.
There's a marvelous little bit of editing early in the episode where Walter is preparing omelets for his family, still trying to win his way back into their good graces. Walter Jr.'s friend comes over to take him out to teach him how to drive, and Skyler is going out, so neither will be there to eat the omelets. His frustration growing, Walter answers the ringing phone to hear Jesse (Aaron Paul), his partner, on the other end. He attempts to lie his way out of the phone call, since Skyler's there, but she seems on to his game, and, even if she wasn't, the fact that the phone starts ringing again just as quickly as Walter hangs it up would surely tip her off. Jesse's being tossed out of his aunt's house, the place where he was able to find a sort of safe haven and set up a rudimentary cooking lab and also the place where he had some memories of an aunt who seemed concerned for his well-being when most of the rest of his family did not. As he attempts to convey the seriousness of his situation to Walt, he keeps getting rebuffed by the other man, who's far more concerned with saving his family life for appearances and for staying low just long enough to get the investigation of what happened to Tuco to calm down. The sequence cuts from Walter watching his family wander off in all different directions and growing increasingly angry, even throwing out the freshly prepared omelets in a fit of frustration, and Jesse, calling Walter over and over to try to figure out some way out of his predicament and turning to the only person he knows he can trust. The editing grows more and more frenzied (unusual for this show), almost seeming like an action sequence, until the final cut, when Jesse slams down the phone after one last hang-up from Walt and the movers emptying his aunt's home snatch it up just as quickly as he can set it down. He throws the ice trays from her fridge, the last remaining vestiges of the place as it was, after them as they go, but the damage is done. He has no place to go.
It's the Jesse story that really drives this episode, even if the episode spends more time following Walt's attempts to patch up his family. We've met Jesse's parents a few times in the past, but here, we see them trying to get their son to fly straight again by kicking him out of the house after his mother found his lab in the basement. But it's also clear that they've long since lost track of their son, that they don't really know who he is anymore. They clearly have dreams for him (of data entry positions, if last week's episode is any indication), and they're also clearly tired of him putting them off with lies (as he tries to do again in this episode by telling his mom he's looking into business school). It certainly doesn't help that Jesse's essentially a grade-A screw-up. His mind, addled too often by drugs, is never quite able to keep up. He's got some street smarts, clearly, to have gotten by this long, but he's also unable to make the $600 Walt loans him last for any real amount of time. There's a moment late in the episode when Jesse tackles Walt and chokes him, raising his fist in anger to punch him, and it seems almost as if he's striking back at everyone in his life keeping him on the bottom rungs of society, turning on the one last ally he has left. But he blinks and lives to fight another day.
It's hard to blame Jesse for lashing out like that. His tackling of Walter came after the older man laid into him with a verbal tongue-lashing that was meaner than anything his parents or friends could have said to him but managed to externalize almost everything Jesse must feel they think about him anyway. Walter questioning just what Jesse DOES to help him in his burgeoning drug empire certainly must have stung as well. It was also the final indignity in a long string of indignities that led Jesse to that point. Among other things, the guy saw his bike and all of his worldly possessions stolen, couldn't find a place to sleep, couldn't get Walt to talk to him and broke into the impound lot where the mobile cook lab RV was being kept only to find himself falling into a PortaPotty and getting covered in the chemicals from the thing, his skin winding up blue. (Walter asking, in disbelief, "Why are you blue?" was a comic highlight in a very, very grim episode.)
Breaking Bad always has money concerns at its heart. Walter just needs to make enough money, he thinks, to keep his wife, son and unborn child safe and cared for after he dies. Jesse spends most of this episode just trying to find a way to keep his head above water, to have a place to sleep, to not completely disappear, and he decides the way to do that is to get half of Walter's money, after his half of the drug sales was confiscated from his car in the wake of the Tuco shooting. Walter's right that the money is technically his and that Jesse just lost his half through his own incompetence, but he's also missing that Jesse is in dire straits and that he should be helping the kid who's helped him so much. (It's sort of telling that when Walter splits up the cash bundles finally at the end of the episode, he has an odd number and gives the extra cash bundle to himself.) It's probably the right thing to do, but it's certainly not the easy thing to do.
Centering the episode on Jesse's dire financial straits really drove home just how easy it is for someone like him to fall off the map. Ideally, we hope, someone like Jesse will have friends or family who will care enough to reach out and pull him to shore, but Jesse's parents seem to have long since given up on him, and Jesse's friends (represented here by a former bandmate, who has moved on to a fairly typical mid-20s life, complete with house, wife and toddler) are just too far removed from his current situation to really understand just how far their friend has fallen. The show presents these both as ways that Jesse is able to slip off the radar of the world at large but also as admonishments that Jesse hasn't quite made as much of his life as he might have. We don't see that Jesse's friend is significantly different from him. He just managed to pull his life together, while Jesse did not. Jesse has too much faith in being able to skate by at any given moment, and when that lets him down, he puts on a gas mask and collapses in tears.
In a way, Jesse's downward spiral starts to feel inevitable after a while. He laid the seeds for this a long time ago, and now they're just paying off. We may feel for him, but there's also really no way it wouldn't have played out this way. Inevitability just might be Breaking Bad's major theme. It's there in the way Walter's choice to turn to crime has played out with him getting sucked in further and further. It's there in the fact that Walter's death lurks around every corner. It's there in the idea that Walter is going to have to break with his family and already has begun that process. And it's there, lurking, in every flash-forward we see at the start of these episodes, tantalizingly offering hints of what is to come down the road. We see, tonight, Walter's glasses among the pieces of evidence at the crime scene with the floating teddy bear, and we know that, inevitably, there's only one way this can end for Walt.
Some other thoughts:
- I love the way the writers on Breaking Bad give Jesse things to say that make sense on one level but make no real sense on the level of having all of the words fit together into coherent English. Having him call Walter Daddy Warbucks and then refer to his problems as "testicular" was another humorous highlight of the grim episode.
- \I'm starting to wonder just how long the show can play out the very deliberately paced dissolution of Walt and Skyler's marriage. I've been pleased with their slowly escalating fights so far, but how many times can they play out the same argument in roughly the same way? I guess we'll find out.
- I just now found out from some other Internet comments board that AMC is developing the fun novel Carter Beats the Devil as a series. I'm not sure how it would BE a series, but it's a novel that deserves a good adaptation, and AMC's about as good a place to try it as any.
- In other network news, I'm amused that Showtime is now just selling the trying-too-hard bodice ripper The Tudors with lots of blood and a shot of bare breasts in the commercials. It's almost as if they're just giving up and saying, "Listen, we know why you watch, and none of us has to be ashamed about it."
- I traveled quite a bit in New Mexico last fall, and Breaking Bad really nails the atmosphere of the place, which often feels like some weird outpost on the very edge of civilization. The scenes at the gas station felt very of a piece with the state. I'm not sure if the show films on location in Albuquerque (it feels like it does, but I'm often wrong about these things), but it's doing a very good job of approximating it if not. And Walter cooking with chiles made me hungry for the Bobcat Bite of Santa Fe.
- I think I've announced this in every other recap I've done, but for the two of you who read my Breaking Bad pieces and nothing else, I'm on Twitter now.
- Loved the little montage of shots of Jesse's aunt's belongings still haunting her house. It really gave you a good sense of a woman long since departed.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.