By Todd VanDerWerff
A young boy, on an errand we can't quite figure out yet, rides his bicycle through a desolate corner of the city of Albuquerque, rot surrounding him. Standing in the middle of that desolation, a large man dressed all in white with multiple piercings surveys his domain. Shot from below, he looms, until we see that he's sipping from a large soda cup, the sort you might buy at a 7-11. He's waiting for someone or something, and when a couple of other guys in a low-riding car pull up to give him some guff, he shoos them off quickly enough. The kid keeps riding, finally reaching the man in white, and he circles him once, twice, many times. Then he inquires as to the origin of the man's earrings, and the man finally has to shoo the kid off. He's worried about the guys in the car, who have pulled up to the corner and parked down a side street to keep an eye on them. But when the gunshots come, they come from behind, from where the kid has gotten off his bike, is holding a gun. As the guy stares at the new wound in his gut in horror, then at the kid, the kid stares in shock, as if he, himself, didn't think he could do this, and then after a few moments, he fires again and again and again as the man in white tries to flee. The guy collapses in the middle of the street, blood pouring from his mouth. The kid and the car pull away from the scene of the crime in almost perfect synchronization, a high shot showing us the two parties leaving in opposite directions, the guy bleeding out in the middle of the street.
Breaking Bad, really, is about people doing something wrong, something they didn't know they were capable of, then hesitating just a second when they realize the gravity of what they've done and plunging ahead anyway. Every character has had multiple moments in the run of the show to pull back, to change course, to reverse the path they have headed down, some more than others. And yet, every time they are forced to confront what they've done, what they've brought into their lives, they pull the trigger and keep on doing what they're doing. In some cases, they know the consequences of what they're going to do. In some cases, they can only guess at them. But no one on Breaking Bad is able to resist the lure of their own dark sides, the way that a life of crime or drugs or an affair call to them, almost seductively.
Like all addiction narratives, Breaking Bad asserts that anything can weave its sensual song around our cerebral cortexes. Drugs, of course, do this in a chemical fashion, which makes them so much easier to fall into a dependency on, but anything, if it makes us feel a certain way, can become something that we grow so dependent on that we think we need it to survive. The kid pulling the trigger isn't there yet. From the shock on his face, this sure seems like his first kill. But with the other two guys guiding his path, it seems likely he could grow to a point where he's so dependent on this life of drugs and gangs that he doesn't see any other path to take. And look at all of the characters who had, in this episode, a chance to back down, to find a new path, and failed.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is reminded by a timely text message from his wife that the real reason he's dealing drugs now has nothing to do with providing for his family any longer and everything to do with his own lust for power and purpose. Jane (Krysten Ritter) realizes that if she goes back in with her boyfriend, Jesse (Aaron Paul), who wants her gone so he can smoke some crystal and mourn the death of the man in white (revealed to be his friend Combo), she will get high with him and destroy her sobriety and the life she's carefully built for herself. Jesse, like the boy at episode's start, is about to embark on a new act of criminality, when Jane introduces him to heroin. And Skyler (Anna Gunn) may not be doing anything illegal, but she's clearly very fond of the way the flirtatious attentions of her boss, with whom she sure seems to have had an indiscretion in the past, make her feel. Again, Breaking Bad is careful to lay out that the illegal things Walt and Jesse and the boy take part in destroy lives. If Skyler has an affair with her boss, she'll really only destroy her family (and then only if she's found out), but it's still wrong. When Breaking Bad tried to say in its first season that everybody sins, it felt like the show hadn't earned the moral maturity to say that and was simply trying to excuse some of Walt's actions. Now, however, it feels like something said with a lot of pain and darkness and weight. We are all falling from the path. We are all culpable.
"Mandala," written by George Mastras and directed by Adam Bernstein, was decidedly an episode where the series moved its characters into place for the final two episodes of this masterful second season. Some of this happened a bit too abruptly. Some of it felt almost a bit too easy. But some of it was thoroughly tense and involving, just another step toward oblivion for a man who started doing the wrong thing with the best of intentions and found deep, dark pieces of himself coming alive when he rubbed shoulders with very bad people.
Let's start with the abrupt. We've known for a while that Jane was someone who had been an addict once and had gone to rehab and entered a program to help keep her from her addictions. Since, again, this is somewhat of an addiction narrative, it was obvious that at some point, she would fall off the wagon, since, after all, her new boyfriend was a drug dealer, working with the best manufacturer of crystal meth in the state of New Mexico. The moment when she paused by the front door of Jesse's apartment, sent away so she wouldn't fall off the wagon, was a masterful acting moment from Ritter, who hasn't been given as much to do on this show as she's capable of. Still, watching her pause, scrunch up her face in concentration, try to walk away from temptation, she made the entire history of a girl we've only recently gotten to know crystal clear. When she went back into Jesse's room, it somehow felt earned, despite the fact that Jane has been an only slightly developed recurring character whose addictive past marked her as someone who was perhaps destined to fall back into old habits. (This is not a criticism. Breaking Bad is not an exceedingly unpredictable show, and I think that's a good thing. It plays the standard crime and addiction story beats with an emotional and psychological rigor that makes these story beats feel earned and, at its best, new again.)
From there, though, the show sped things up a little too much. Jane goes from using meth to sleeping away the next day in bed to introducing Jesse to the joys of heroin (in a sequence that I think probably read cooler on the page than it actually looked—the levitation special effect could have used some work). From the concern Jane's father showed for her last week and the way she's seemed somewhat bashful about her drug use past, it was clear that she wasn't just someone who was addicted to pot or something but someone who was into much harder, much more life-destroying drugs. Still, I might have liked to have a few episodes' buffer between Jane using meth and her bringing in the harder stuff. In real life, of course, former addicts usually return to their drug of choice once they've fallen off the wagon even once, but on a deliberately paced, very process-interested show like Breaking Bad, it feels almost a bit too easy, as though the series needed to give Jesse an addiction that would clearly make him incapable of dealing with the world just in time for Walt to really need him clean and sober. In addition, Jesse's sorrow over missing his friend felt a bit false, if only because we've never really met Jesse's friends (like Walt, we didn't even really know who Combo was).
The moment when Skyler smiled to herself and then turned to perform the Marilyn Monroe version of "Happy Birthday" to her boss was well-done, the perfect portrait of a woman who's normally pretty straitlaced but at least flirted with the idea of doing something wrong long ago and found it intoxicating enough to start toying around with that idea again. Having Skyler discover that Ted, himself, is breaking the law in pretty serious fashion with ostensibly altruistic motivations felt a bit easy, however. Of course, everyone in Skyler's life is doing bad things. Of course, her potential lover is a mirror of her own husband in ways she doesn't know yet. And of course, Ted is underreporting revenue to skim money to help keep payroll chugging along (though the way he adds himself in to the list of people who need help suggests that he, like Walt, has less altruistic methods than he keeps telling himself). Skyler gives Ted a moment to reconsider what he's doing, but he refuses. And so she says she won't be back, but there she is, the next morning, questioning what she's done but sitting at her desk all the same. While this plot could play out in interesting ways (particularly if Skyler discovers her husband's secret activities and is able to contrast the more immediate harm of Walt's actions with the less tangible and easy to grasp harm caused by Ted's actions), it might have been more interesting to see a situation where Skyler's lover was more obviously a good guy, even if he was trying to seduce a married woman, if Ted was a stand-up guy in almost every other way. Still, it will be interesting to see where this goes.
As usual, though, Walt's storyline dominated the episode. Thanks to the advice of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, still amazingly funny and perfect for what is, essentially, a dramatic role), he finds himself in a fried chicken fast food restaurant, waiting to meet with a man who can take the 38 pounds of meth he cooked in the desert off his hands, pay him handsomely for it and make sure it goes out into the world without anyone being detected. He's a cautious businessman, someone who's made his way in the world by not improvising or taking risks. Walt thinks he, too, is cautious, but while he's very careful in the cooking of his meth, his actual work in the field leaves much to be desired. His people are getting scared off, no one respects Jesse, and he's in the middle of a turf war he doesn't know how to navigate. Had he moved a bit more slowly (something of an irony on such a slow-moving show), he might have built a lasting empire. Now, instead, he has to turn to the very quiet and thoughtful Gus (Giancarlo Esposito, in one of those guest spots where the actor sketches a character's whole life from a few small scenes), who castigates him, most of all for his choice of company. "Never trust a drug addict," he hisses, but he's apparently impressed enough with Walt and stories of his product to make an offer to buy his remaining stock off him for $1.2 million. Walt's got an expensive surgery coming up, and he needs the money, so he scrambles to get the product in time, breaking into Jesse's apartment and slapping the kid awake so he can find it and scramble off to the meet-up.
As he's piling the meth into a garbage bag (and why wouldn't he have used the actual garbage can?), Walt picks up his phone, which Skyler has been trying to reach him on, to see that his second child, his baby daughter, is on the way. For a moment, his face breaks into joy. He's going to be a father again, and he's going to live long enough to get to know his second child. And then his face is clouded by darker emotions. "Not now," he says, growing more and more frustrated. He's beginning to realize that if he were still in this game to provide for his family, he'd rush to be at his wife's side, forget the offer. But he's not. He's in this because he likes how it makes him feel. And that's why he hoists the garbage bag to his shoulder and races off to the meet-up. Everything else, even this life-altering day, is just going to have to wait.
Some other thoughts:
- Excellent use of music, as always, in the sequence where Jane injects Jesse with the heroin, even if the shot of him floating high above the bed left something to be desired.
- I loved the name of Gus' restaurant chain. I, too, would like to meet the Chicken Brothers. Also, the discipline of the manager of the restaurant Walt visits speaks well to his managerial skill. I hope Esposito is around for more episodes this season and the next.
- I think I've heaped praise on just about every crew member on the show, but I don't think I've given the location scouts any love. They're always great at finding the exact right places for scenes to take place, like that desolate, lonely slum where the episode opened.
- Speaking of desolate slums, I'm posting this to you from Las Vegas, where I'm on vacation and where some edgy TV show really needs to set up shop. The credit crunch has hit Las Vegas about as badly as anywhere, and it shows, particularly when contrasted with the glitzy glamour still present on the Strip and downtown.
- Reportedly, once you fall off the wagon, you really fall off. How far down the road back to being a drug fiend will Jane be when we return next week? (I watched this on a screener and haven't seen the "next week on." There may be clues there, but I genuinely don't know.)
- We're coming up on Emmy season. The show was surprisingly successful with the awards last year, but that was when the awards had a panel system that allowed quirkier work to slip into the main categories. Suppose there's any hope for the show outside of Cranston and maybe a writing or directing nod?
- AMC's playing the final two episodes fairly close to the vest, so I know as much as any of you do. Final predictions are welcomed in comments.
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.