By Todd VanDerWerff
If there's one thing I find a touch annoying about Breaking Bad, it's that the show will occasionally lean on a too-easy symbol or two. It doesn't do this incredibly often, but it will every so often use some mundane object to make a Larger Point about What's Wrong with the Characters, and while the show is getting better at it, it often has the stink of something you might find in a too-proud-of-itself short story in a college lit journal. On a first viewing, I thought the idea of Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) foundation on his house being full of rot was one of these over-obvious symbols. Walt's built so much of his life now on an empire of lies that the conceit of his own house literally not being in order felt too much like the parable of the wise man building his house upon the rock. After a second viewing, however, I'm not so sure. There actually might be more there there to this symbol than first meets the eye.
"Over," written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Phil Abraham, is probably a necessary breather episode. It opens with another haunting image from what seems to be the rapidly approaching future (this time featuring two bodies covered by sheets and lying in a driveway), but then it substantially ramps down the tension, turning into an episode about how Walt deals with the knowledge that he's almost certainly going to live and how his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn); son, Walt, Jr. (RJ Mitte); and partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul) all deal with that seemingly happy news.
The episode, if nothing else, confirms that the news that Walt's cancer was in serious remission isn't going to paint the rest of the season as a show about a guy trying to extricate himself from the life of crime he hastily threw together. If anything, the show just got bleaker, as Walt realized that his old life was now somehow inadequate, that he couldn't share in others' joy for him because the knowledge that he was going to die freed him to finally give in to the blistering resentment boiling at his core. He was an angry little man, yes, but he, paradoxically, felt alive.
That's where the idea of the rotting foundation started to improve for me on a second viewing. At first, I thought it was just a rather simple suggestion that Walt couldn't put his house in order very easily because the way he had made his riches was so shaky and unsound. While the symbol DOES point to that, it also gets at another, deeper layer that the whole season has been pointing at—Walt thought he had a simple problem (his water heater was corroding; his health was going), but when he tried to fix that simple problem as easily as possible (by replacing the water heater with a state-of-the-art new one; by making and selling meth), he discovered that the problem was larger because the ground where the problem sat was so full of holes that it would take real corrective work to repair.
The water heater sat on a floor filled with fungus and disease, ready to give way and create even bigger problems soon enough. The water heater and, possibly, anyone standing near it could very soon find themselves dumped into the small crawlspace beneath the house if they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Walt's willing to do the work to fix the floor, to install the new water heater that will correct the problems that led to the shaky foundation in the first place. However, while he's grudgingly willing to fix the surface level problem of his drug-dealing empire (he's going to cautiously sell off the product he and Jesse have and then retire from the game), he's not willing to fix the shaky floor it sits upon, the floor of his own resentments and bitterness at the world he feels has constantly dealt him a losing hand. Because he's not, his rather sensible plan plunges through the rotted-out floor of his own anger and heads into the depths. And there's no reason to believe Walt isn't going with it.
Of course, this much was obvious just from watching the episode, where Cranston had less to say than he has in maybe any episode of this show yet. He spends much of his time glowering, trying to get under the skin of everyone who's happy for him, working on his house in silence to the accompaniment of his power tools. When he talks about his reaction on hearing his tumor was in remission, he says it was the same as when he first found out he had cancer—"Why me?" Walt maybe wasn't the world's best criminal, but he was finally awake after decades of torpor. That being awake woke him only to the kinds of spiritual rot that will do a man in, well, that didn't matter much to him. So now, now that he has to settle down again and live a respectable life and make trips to the home improvement store and take naps, now he's realizing just how much of himself he kept shut off all those years.
Here, again, the show invites the audience to make our own bleak choice: Do we root for Walt to go back to a life of respectability and become dramatically uninteresting again, or do we hope that he embraces the blackness inside of him more fully, dives back into the brackish deep end? Of course we opt for the latter, because we're TV fans, that's how we're conditioned to behave, but all that does is make us very, very, very indirectly culpable for everything that follows.
So what are we to make of Walt, then, having decided to give up the game and sitting, suffering, having to put up with a party full of his friends and family, people he seems deeply angered to even be around now? He sits at a table with Hank (Dean Norris) and his son, drinking shot after shot of tequila and glowering into the distance, listening as Hank AGAIN tells stories of his DEA adventures. Walt Jr. listens, drinking in these tales of action and derring-do, and Walt lets his resentment at hearing these stories of a life he'll no longer get to be a part of continue to fester, until he silently reaches over and pours a little tequila for his son, who drinks it down with a hearty cough. At first, it just seems like a rite of passage, but he keeps pouring and pouring and pouring, and Walt, Jr., just wants to keep up.
This mostly wordless sequence between Norris, who wants to stop Walt, and Cranston, who wants to keep pouring is a beautifully ugly thing. Check out the expression on Walt's face as he pours the tequila OVER Hank's hand as Hank tries to cover Walt, Jr.'s cup. Walt keeps pushing the standoff, driving Hank to slowly back off on his laconic attempts to defuse the situation and take action. The situation is only defused by Walt, Jr., leaning over and throwing up in the pool.
When Walt apologizes for all of this, he doesn't seem to really MEAN it, though. He's just saying that because that's what you DO in situations like this. If Breaking Bad is, at some level, about just what it takes to unleash all of our hidden, tamped down desires, "Over" is a necessary episode about just how hard it is to step back from all of that and resume a normal life, to repair that floor underlying your own darkest impulses. Now that Walt has had a taste of a life where he is feared and respected and unquestionably part of something much, much larger than himself, returning to a life where he merely lives the way he's supposed to is almost more than he can bear.
Which is why when he finds himself at the home improvement store, coming across a methhead buying up products to go and cook, he steps in and offers a corrective. But he can't just stop there. Repairing his foundation is going to take real, solid effort, and he's just not up for that sort of work. So he storms out of the store to the tune of TV on the Radio, finds the methhead in the parking lot (as well as his big, bald counterpart—a parallel to Walt himself?) and corners them both. "Stay out of my territory," he says, and he doesn't seem particularly concerned with staying concealed. He's out in the open now. He's completely exposed all of the dark pieces of himself and rather embraced them. But if Walt's hubris was what led his foundation to rot from resentment, it also seems likely that it will be what takes him down in the end. He's no longer playing this game cautiously. He's playing it because he can.
Not so with Jesse, who reacts happily to the news that Walt is getting better and getting out of the game. Jesse, obviously, is happy for the good news for his father figure, but he's also seemingly relieved to be getting to a point where he can get back down to being a smalltime crook instead of the big blowfish Walt wants him to be. Paul spends most of this episode sidelined off in a plot where he hangs out with his girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), and they dance around the issue of whether they are or aren't a couple, particularly when her dad, the building's owner, comes to check on her (and doesn't seem terribly concerned with his daughter's privacy) and Jane will only introduce Jesse as a new tenant and not the guy she's sleeping with. Jesse's basically sensitive soul is bruised by all of this, but I'm not sure this subplot was all that needed.
Every young relationship needs to have this moment when the two partners clarify what, exactly, they are to each other, and Breaking Bad's basically process-obsessed structure fairly demands we devote an episode to it, but since not as much weight has been invested in the Jane/Jesse relationship, it feels a bit like a time-killer, a way to give Jesse something to do when he has no real reason to be hanging out with Walt. Still, it was interesting to get further looks into the lives Jesse might have lived had he been just a bit more ambitious. His comics characters were pretty well-drawn (I mean, at least as far as I could tell) but weren't terribly well thought-out on a creative level. This is kind of a pattern with Jesse. He has the raw talent much of the time, but he doesn't always have the best of foundations to rest that talent on. So, hey, maybe that water heater stood for a multitude of things.
Finally, there's Skyler, who's back and working with the guy we know at least touched her when she worked there several years ago. Now, however, she seems so thrown by the fact that Walt's improved condition hasn't similarly improved her marriage that she's coming up with reasons to bump into that guy, until he finally squeezes her hand and the two seem to be playing a game of who-will-seduce-whom or its like. The question that seems to be making itself more and more prominent is this: Did Skyler just attract this guy's attentions a few years back, or was she actively engaged in a flirtation or even an affair with him? This episode dances right up to the line of that question but never quite answers it, choosing instead to ground itself in the thought that Walt and Skyler's relationship will not be fixed so easily by an external problem being solved. Once again, there's a bad foundation, waiting to give way.
Obviously, then, if the foundation announces itself too blatantly as a symbol in the episode, at least it stands for a great many things and manages to stand for all of them at once. We humans are not built to fix external issues and then let go of the internal ones. We let them continue to eat away at what's below us until we find ourselves plunging ever downward. Similarly, this season of Breaking Bad, which has seen the characters plummeting downhill rapidly for a number of weeks now needed this moment for the RV to level out just a bit, seem to slow. It needed to give the characters (and us) a chance to pull the escape hatch and make a dive for the soft sand beside the road. But nobody's bailing out, not us, not Jesse, not Skyler and certainly not Walt. We're in this until the bitter end, and that end looks more and more like it's going to feature lots of blood.
Some other thoughts:
- The natural speculation is to ask what's up with the flash-forwards, which resurfaced here (and, indeed, wonder if they ARE flash-forwards, though I don't see how they aren't). I think the safest assumption is that the cartel catches up to Walt. We've been building to that all season and to have it be a faultily installed water heater (as Alan Sepinwall suggests it might be) is anti-climactic in a way that's not terribly evident in this show nor in the previous work of creator Vince Gilligan. As far as who the bodies belong to, I'd place even money on one of them being Jane, since this show is not going to bump off two regulars. I just hope the other isn't Saul Goodman.
- In addition to that point, have we ever gotten an idea of just how far along Skyler is? It definitely seems like she'll be giving birth any day now, which might give us a hint of who that burnt, pink teddy bear is actually for.>
- Take sides in comments: Backwardo or Rewindo? Which do you prefer?
- I find hidden spaces vastly fascinating, so I enjoyed seeing Walt disappear into the space beneath his house, and Abraham's camera captured the eerie quality of the light and shadows down there.
- I was going to suggest the rather generic identity of the home improvement store suggested that maybe the show doesn't go in for product placement, but then I remembered that some weeks it seemingly has. More likely, I guess, is that Home Depot just didn't want everyone to know you can go there for the vast majority of your meth-cooking needs.
- Man, I love me some TV on the Radio, and their track "DLZ" is completely apropos for this show. Good choice, music supervisors!
- Over-obvious symbolism I DID like? Walt's money having actual blood on it. Those stains ain't coming out as easily as you'd like, Walt.
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.