By Todd VanDerWerff
What does it mean anymore to be a father? We still roughly know what it means to be a mother. Indeed, we rather know it in our bones. Giving birth, nurturing, caretaking, we get all that. But, increasingly, the notion of fatherhood feels almost taken for granted, as something we've constructed up around the male parent to give him something to do. You teach the kids to drive. You make sure they stay on the straight and narrow. You provide for them somehow, guide them in a way to help them realize their dreams, maybe even some of your own dreams. Those pundits who bleat about how the role of the father is disappearing in modern culture aren't right, not exactly, but what they say sometimes, critically, feels right, as though dear old Dad and the patriarchy he drags along with him is powerless in the face of modernization, even as we know that the smiling benevolence of Father Knows Best was, at best, not always true and, at worst, a complete myth. We respond to deeper urges, then, know, somehow, that to be a father is to hold your baby for the first time and say to yourself, "All right. It's not all about me now. Let's see how that changes things."
This is not meant to slag on fathers in the build-up to their big day in a couple of weeks (especially since I have a pretty great one), but it is to say that Breaking Bad's penultimate episode of its second season, "Phoenix," written by John Shiban and directed by Colin Bucksey, a beautifully rich and layered work about the various ways parents and children disappoint each other with a shocker ending that pushed the utter lack of morality of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to new depths, brought these thoughts to the fore. Its central scene was one of two fathers who had no idea how deeply their lives were connected and how even more deeply they were about to be drawn together talking in a bar about how to raise their daughters, how to find room in their hearts for children who disappoint them. It could have been a scene too fraught with coincidence to play, but it somehow was something tiny and extraordinary, and it used its coincidence to heighten the contradictions between the two men.
When the episode opened, it picked up directly after last week's cliffhanger, with Walter racing to meet his contact from Gus at Los Pollos Hermanos and visiting a long-abandoned motel (where, apparently, the pink teddy bear from the flash forwards hangs out). The sequence is shot and edited in such a way as to continue the excitement from last week's cliffhanger ending, but it also pauses to take a breather, when Walt places a call and gets Marie (Betsy Brandt), only to find out that Skyler (Anna Gunn) has already given birth to his daughter Holly (introduced, obviously, in this episode).
To make matters worse, when Walt finally gets to the hospital (in a perfectly executed smash cut that goes from Walt's spare tire bouncing across the abandoned parking lot, slamming against a discarded telephone, to Walt himself hurrying into the hospital), he discovers that Ted Beneke, his wife's boss and his unknown romantic rival (or, perhaps, this sequence suggests, Walt completely knows the guy has designs on his wife), is the one who rushed Skyler to the hospital, is the one who was there when baby Holly was born. Walt is a hugely successful businessman, but he's still usurped in his own life. Granted, much of this comes from his own choice to be the drug lord, not the family man (though, to a degree, it's hard to blame him when $1.2 million is at stake), in that instant, but it's the little things like this that feed into the dangerous resentment that makes Walter White the guy who wouldn't give up his drug business out of hard-heartedness, not any actual necessity.
From there, the episode dances between the story of Walt trying to figure out a use for the money and trying to get Jesse (Aaron Paul) to drop his girlfriend and the heroin and clean up and Jesse's increased desperation and drug addiction. Watching Jane (Krysten Ritter) fall right back into drug addiction felt predictable last week, to a degree, but this week, there was an emotional rawness to it that worked perfectly, if only because we got to spend more time with Jane's dad (the great John de Lancie, known best to many as Q from numerous Star Trek series). While Breaking Bad is not primarily a narrative about drug addiction (it's only really obliquely used to comment on Walt's addiction to his own power), the series has reached a point where driving home the human cost of drug addiction beyond a few quick shots of jittery junkies and meeting the tow-headed little moppet of two of those junkies was probably necessary. Intellectually, we know that plying highly addictive drugs is a very bad thing, but it's one thing to know that and another to see it.
Jane has always been a bit of a cipher. She's a girl who battled a very real and present addiction but also seems to battle an addiction to being in the wrong places and with the wrong people. She's the one who reaches out to Jesse, a guy who seems beneath her in most ways, including social class, and she's the one who keeps the relationship going when it reaches a natural breaking point over how she's unwilling to show him to her family. She also chooses to work at a tattoo parlor where it's implied she is surrounded by the kinds of people who might pull her back into her addiction. Jane, as much as anything, seems addicted to being up right next to danger, always with the possibility of tipping over into it.
Getting to know her dad fills in even more of that picture. The sad eyes of de Lancie boil over into rage easily enough when he discovers that his daughter is sleeping with the lowlife who's renting from him, but she also plays him like a book. He apparently drags her to Narcotics Anonymous meetings (notice the way Jane says "I was in the shower" in the exact same cadence both times he calls her; this is a game they've played before), and he is powerless to figure out a way to get her to step back on the straight and narrow. She's been sober for 18 months, but she's also not finding a way to pull herself entirely out of the life that led her into that addiction in the first place. The occasionally formal and stentorian de Lancie (who says "miserable little smackhead" like it's Shakespeare) seems an odd choice to play the father of this girl who's ruled by her impulses and needs (and, indeed, on a first viewing, I thought this a demerit), but the more you watch his performance, the more you understand just how sad this man is, how he walks in a class higher than most of the people in Albuquerque, how he's stymied by just how much his daughter has thrown away and just how easily she can play him like a fiddle.
This reminds one of meeting Jesse's parents earlier in the season and seeing just how disheartened they were by who their son had become. The children of Breaking Bad have been given everything and have thrown it all away, and that leaves their parents completely befuddled and unable to deal with what has happened. It's not for nothing that the one young person on the show who doesn't seem to have completely disappointed his parents is Walter Jr., (RJ Mitte) who both struggles with a condition and coming from a lower-middle class family. It's also not for nothing that the episode's most sinister shot is Walt cradling his newborn and pulling back the covering in his laundry room to show her the tall stacks of money hidden in the wall. We give our children everything we can, but wanting things can only corrupt. But we (especially, the show suggests, fathers) often equate love with giving things, and that leads to giving too much, to spoiling, to, inevitably, corruption. Papas may want to buy their babies mockingbirds, but that doesn't mean that mockingbird (or that $1.2 million) is a net positive.
It may seem curious to give so much of the episode over to these two characters we barely know, but it's necessary to make the episodes final moments pack the punch they need to. Walt, troubled by how he's going to launder the money and the way Jane blackmailed him to get Jesse's share (he had been planning on withholding it until Jesse cleaned up, perhaps reacting to what Gus told him last week), goes out to a bar, where he runs into Jane's dad. As the two talk, at first about water on Mars and then about family, we learn even more the hell that Jane's dad lives in. Jane is going to keep disappointing him and keep disappointing him, and he's going to keep coming back because he loves her, is unable to do anything BUT love her. Her mother seems to be out of the picture, and every time he comes close to making a clean break with her, she manipulates him into being more lenient than she probably deserves.
In that instant, we get a sense of the whole cycle of these two people, of the way that Walter will be trapped in a similar cycle with his surrogate son, Jesse, whom he can't quite kick to the curb for reasons that he's still not able to articulate. So, of course, when Jane's dad tells Walter that you can't give up on family, it sends Walter back to Jesse's apartment, where he breaks in again and tries to rouse the sleeping boy, to get him to straighten up. And then ...
"I just think if we had enough money, nobody could make us do anything" is what Jane says after she successfully buys herself a day spared from her father's wrath. Tomorrow, he's going to take her off to rehab, but today, she can find some money, can use it to skip town (to New Zealand, apparently), can escape the cycle she's trapped in with her father. Money is at the heart of all problems on Breaking Bad. Some of these problems (like lacking the funds to pay for Walt's surgery) are ones that need to be solved. Some of them (like Jane's desire to skip town) are just attempts to use money as a way to avoid the real world (money, in that way, is very like drugs). Breaking Bad understands better than almost any show on the air right now just how necessary money is and just how corrupting, how everything changes the second large amounts of money are introduced into the equation. That giant stack of bills isn't going anywhere because Walt avoids Saul's (Bob Odenkirk) very good advice about how to dispense with it. But that money ... it's so easy to take pride in it, isn't it? And pride is something that Walter White has been lacking in ...
Which brings us back to Jesse's bedroom, where Walt tries to shake Jesse back to consciousness in the middle of his drug-fueled haze. As he does so, Jane rolls onto her back (a place, the episode let us know earlier, where both babies and junkies can choke to death on their own vomit), and once Walter has given up on Jesse, she throws up and begins to choke. Walter races to turn her on her side, to free up her airway, but just as he's about to reach out and turn her, he stops short. Here is a problem: a girl who knows who he is and has no compunctions about blackmailing him. She's apparently going to skip town, but he has no guarantee of that.
And so, in that moment, Walter, who agonized so much about killing the dangerous drug dealer Krazy 8 back in the series' third episode, lets Jane die, watches, indeed, almost fascinated. And in the moments following her death, Walt lets himself cry for a moment, but soon lets his face turn to a mask of unreadable steel. It's an excellent performance from Cranston (and a brave choice by Bucksey to shoot so much of the death of a major recurring character in a close-up reaction shot), but it's also another moment in the show that carries some sort of finality. More and more, what is left of the human Walter White, the man who can sit in a bar and over a beer commiserate with another man about being a father to a daughter, is being put aside. The tears are going away in favor of cold implacability.
Some other thoughts:
- There's some discussion in comments already about whether or not discussion of the "Next week on" previews should be considered spoilers and, therefore, off-limits to discussion. I'm not terribly bothered by spoilers (I was, indeed, spoiled on literally everything in this episode by the time I watched it, and I think I almost appreciated it more for that very reason), but I get why many people are. If you have a particular side in this debate, please speak up in comments. In the meantime, please keep thoughts on the next week on for the finale out of the comments until we can figure out what we're going to do.
- Some grousing has been floating around about how every time you see a major character actor in the background of a scene, you know that that person is going to play a major character. While I can see how it would have been more intriguing to truly be surprised by who Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) was, the show has to make hard choices to justify bringing name actors out to Albuquerque, and I'd rather see Esposito's take on the prickly Gus than not have it at all in the name of a surprise that probably wouldn't have been as surprising as we think it would have been.
- Always nice to hear "Green Grass and High Tides," even if it reminds me of just how thoroughly that song dominated me in Rock Band.
- I just discovered that Breaking Bad has podcasts featuring editor Kelley Dixon, creator Vince Gilligan and a panoply of folks involved with the show. Give 'em all a listen. They're unusually revealing about the writing and production process on the show, especially when compared to other TV-show produced podcasts.
- \If someone hasn't cast Krysten Ritter and Anne Hathaway as sisters in some heartfelt family dramedy by the end of the week, then I will be forced to inform Hollywood it has no idea what it's doing.
- Well, so much for my prediction that Jane would be in one of the body bags. I can't possibly imagine a scenario wherein Jane's dead body would end up in the vicinity of Walt's driveway.
- Sorry for the delay this week. I didn't have a screener, and my schedule kept me from this until just now. There won't be a similar problem with the finale.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet. His writing also appears at The AV Club.