In “Bit by a Dead Bee,” written by Peter Gould and directed by Terry McDonough, the camera takes its sweet time drinking in the details of one of those seemingly innocuous pieces of art bought from low-rent furniture stores and used to decorate hospital rooms in as peaceful and unobtrusive a manner as possible. The painting depicts a rowboat heading out into a large lake, tree branches drooping down to the ground to frame the image on either side. A man is at the oars of the rowboat, and his family is standing on the shore, waving to him as he rows off into the afternoon sun. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), in the hospital to cover for the fact that he was kidnapped by a drug dealer in last week’s episode and will have to account for a good deal of missing time, stares and stares at that painting, and the more he looks at it, the less innocuous it seems. He is that man, rowing off into uncertainty, and everyone he’s ever known and loved is already standing on shore to wave farewell to him, even as he’s trying to row just slowly enough to make sure they have a life to return to when they get done bidding him farewell. Walt’s a man heading into uncertainty, and all the planning in the world isn’t going to change that.
Normally, I kind of despise too-easy symbolism like this in art, but I thought the painting worked in spite of itself here, largely because it kept spurring Walt toward new revelations. When we first saw it, he was just being ensconced in his hospital room, and his loving family had gathered to say hello to him after thinking something more terrible than the fugue state (sort of like amnesia, apparently) they believed he had suffered from. As they gathered around him, he seemed to be drinking in their presence, reminding himself of why he was doing things that kept putting him in harm’s way. The last time we saw it, however, the painting took on a new menace. The man in that painting is trapped. He can never rejoin his family, no matter how much all parties involved wish that he could. The longer we and Walt looked at it, the less it seemed like the kind of scene that one would want to live in. And so, as he attempted to explain his situation to the psychiatrist assigned to find out if the fugue state was a one-time thing (played by the great Harry Groener, who really needs to land a series regular role worthy of his talents), he ended up telling the psychiatrist just how trapped he feels in his house and in his life.
That scene with Walt and the psychiatrist was one of the best Breaking Bad has ever done. (Indeed, this is one of the better episodes the show has done and certainly the best of this young season so far.) Cranston’s grief at everything that has happened to him in his life is so palpable throughout the scene, and the flash in his eyes as he realizes the psychiatrist will not break the confidentiality of the little hospital room was filled with both hope and dread. In that instant, you could see the entirety of Walt’s thought process, which always seems to be incorporating one million different variables into the most complex equation of them all, as he contemplated telling the psychiatrist and tried to work through all of the angles. Was the psychiatrist lying? Would he make Walt feel more guilty than he already did? Would he celebrate Walt’s new career path? With each new variable, Walt seemed to tiptoe closer and closer to that line of confessing his sins (who is the psychiatrist but the modern priest with a less-judgmental demeanor?). All he needed to do was open his mouth and just start the words coming, for we knew they would keep spilling out as soon as he started to speak (just as we knew they would when he almost told Skyler (Anna Gunn) in the season premiere). Instead, though, he lied by telling the truth, by talking about how his wife’s pregnancy was unplanned, how his son had cerebral palsy, how overqualified he was for his dead-end job, how resentful of everything he was and how stubborn it had all made him. His story of hitchhiking to Gallup and then realizing he needed to come home, tail between his legs, was, of course, a fabrication, but it rang with the truth. Part of Walt wants to leave, has, indeed, already left, to stop burdening his family with the disease that will ultimately defeat him, even if they want to be burdened. But unlike the man in the painting, he has the power to turn back around and head for shore, and he always will. He rather hates himself for that sometimes.
This scene had a quiet bookend in a later moment. Walt improbably breaks out of the hospital to return home and re-hide the money he hid in the diaper box in the wall vent. (Presumably, he won’t need easy transport for the cash any time soon now that Tuco’s dead.) As he’s socking the money away again, he freezes when he hears Skyler out and about, getting a midnight snack. He springs up from the floor of the nursery, knocking the mobile so it sways and jingles, then ducks behind the door, nauseatingly waiting to see if Skyler somehow notices him or the mobile swinging away. Instead, she goes about business as usual, and right as he’s about to sneak out behind her back, he has to hide again because Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) appears, having been awakened by his mother. As he watches them from the shadows, his eyes widening in recognition, he can see that they’ve already started to leave him behind. They are waving from the shore, and he is rowing off into oblivion. Because they know how he will die and, roughly, when, they are having to make their peace with it.
The overall structure of the episode played around with one of my favorite things Breaking Bad does. The episode opens with long and hazy shots of Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walt wandering from the desert where they were left stranded at Tuco’s hideout at the end of the last episode back to the edges of civilization. As Walt climbs into the back of a truck full of Hispanic men, Jesse tells Walt that he’s come up with a “bold plan,” and it seems as if the two are going to go ahead with it. Rather than let us in on this plan, Breaking Bad shows us as the plan comes together, bit by bit, and Walt and Jesse construct an alibi that, if not airtight, is solid enough to keep the DEA at bay and keep official suspicion off of Walt, even if his wife still knows something’s not quite right with her husband. I love being kept in the dark and seeing the methodical nature of worming one’s way out of what seems to be an impossible predicament, and that’s something Breaking Bad does better than just about any show on TV at the moment.
Walt’s plan is, indeed, pretty bold. On his end, it involves walking naked into a grocery store so he’ll be picked up as having mental health issues and the idea that he’s been off and wandering the area for the last few days and doesn’t remember a thing will make more sense than it might have had he just showed up at home alone. The sequence building up to Walt standing naked in the back of the store, even if it was obvious that that was what he was doing from the first, was a nicely constructed bit of escalating humor, from the camera focusing on Walt’s shoe keeping the automatic door from closing to seeing his belt coiled, serpent-like, on the cool, tile floor of the store. Walt goes from there to the hospital, where he fools the doctors into thinking he’s been suffering from memory loss easily enough. After all, what reason would this generally upstanding man have to lie? He even uses it to perhaps begin the road to removing some of the much-hated drugs in his rotation from his prescription pad. Only the psychiatrist poses a significant hurdle to him getting out of the hospital in a timely fashion, and he’s able to circumvent that neatly enough with the mostly-true story he concocts in the room. For the most part, the Walt half of the episode focuses on a man trying to deal with his family moving past him, and Cranston plays all of these emotions beautifully. (Though, when doesn’t he?)
Jesse has the harder task. He has to clear all evidence of meth making from his home in case he screws up and gives the cops cause to search his place. Then, he has to hole up in a motel with a hooker and act as though he’s been there for the weekend, hopped up on drugs and Funyuns and so out of it that he doesn’t even notice his car being stolen (which would explain why Hank (Dean Norris) finds it out at Tuco’s desert hideaway). Jesse, of course, is brought in for questioning, and he meets up with Hank, his partner and, in a thrilling mid-episode twist, Tuco’s Tio (Mark Margolis, eyes white-hot with fury). The scene where Hank tries to find holes in Jesse’s story, asking him what he had to eat and acting incredulous that he would not notice his car disappearing, is the episode’s second standout scene. Last season, Paul and Norris were the actors least well-served by the storyline, playing the two characters that the show was most likely to turn into too-easy caricatures. In the first three episodes of this season, though, the series has shown more of the desperation fueling Jesse’s bottom-scraping deals (you can practically see the veins bug out on his forehead when he realizes he’ll have to watch the $68,000 he was keeping in his car slip between his fingers) and more of the alpha-male swagger and gut intelligence that makes Hank tick. Hank is so close to the solution of just what’s going on in the Albuquerque drug trade. He just can’t quite get there because he’s too blinded by his connection to his brother-in-law to place him in the rightful place as the new, big player on the scene.
The Jesse/Hank interrogation scenes did rely a little too heavily on coincidence to completely work. It would have been fine if the hooker Jesse hires had also been the one Hank hired last season to scare Walter Jr. straight OR if Tio was such a stone-cold old-time criminal that he wouldn’t EVER talk to the feds, but having Jesse catch BOTH lucky breaks felt like a bit of a cheat and a storytelling stall. Obviously, if the hooker breaks in the face of Hank’s questioning (as she would without the improbability of him being the guy who solicited her in his misguided fatherly figure attempt last season) or if Tio identifies Jesse as being at Tuco’s hideout, there’s no way that Jesse isn’t stuck in jail, and the series’s premise starts to fall apart, since Walt really still needs Jesse to move his product. I was willing to go with the hooker coincidence, but even if Tio WAS that dedicated to his hatred of the Feds, the fury in Margolis’ performance was so palpable that I didn’t buy that he wouldn’t take any chance to get his revenge on Jesse, no matter what personal codes he had to violate. Tio is one of the show’s great creations, I think, and the escalation of that scene where Jesse realized that not only was Tio more with-it than he and Walt had assumed last week but also that he spoke English was just perfectly executed. (“Are we on the planet Mars? ... Are we on the planet Saturn? ... Are we on the planet Earth?” DING! The pauses between Tio hammering on his bell were fraught with so much tension, you could practically see Jesse writing his prison sentence in his head.) To have all of that build to Tio crapping his pants and the officers waving it off as the old guy being too much of an O.G. to cave somehow felt too easy.
In the end, though, “Bit by a Dead Bee” succeeded through employing its methodical pace to the sort of story that might have taken up 30 seconds on The Sopranos—establishing the kind of alibi that will keep our characters free and free to cause trouble. If Breaking Bad is a story told in increments, then this week’s episode may have moved too slowly for some. But it’s in that inching closer and closer to the line of telling the truth that the whole story lies.
Some other thoughts:
• That was a great music choice for the sequence where Walt rides back to the hospital, all alone on the bus, after seeing the little family tableau in the kitchen. Anyone have any idea what the song is? My usual sources are letting me down.
• I always enjoy seeing the different letters in the names of the various guest stars and episode-specific creative personnel that are highlighted to indicate certain elements in the periodic table of elements. Clearly, I need professional help.
• Hank’s character has improved as we’ve seen him in more and more environments. Here, he can be clinical with the officers looking into the shooting of Tuco, breezy with his partner, jubilant with his co-workers and warm with Walters Sr. and Jr. Both Norris and Paul held their own in their scenes together, making those little constructions work very well indeed.
• Walter’s staring at the painting reminded me, perversely, of a plotline on the soon-to-be-ending Prison Break (which I stopped watching ages ago), where the mentally unstable character Haywire (yeah, the character names were all subtle like that) got it into his head that he should sail to The Netherlands after looking at a painting of a boat for long enough. He somehow acquired a dog and set out to make his dream happen (on the shores of Lake Michigan!). It was probably my favorite plotline in the history of television. Sadly, I think it took up about three minutes of television time.
• I loved seeing that even as Jesse is able to bluff his way so quickly through the interrogations and manage to dodge a huge bullet, he can’t get his dad to give him a ride. Seeing just how low he gets around his parents always puts Jesse in a new perspective and shows you why he continues to tag around with Walt beyond simple monetary concerns. I also liked that he and the prostitute were going to have a bite at Waffle House, though I’m sort of doubting there ARE Waffle Houses in New Mexico.
• All of the press materials I’ve seen for the show indicate that Skyler is spelled with an E, but I keep seeing it spelled with an A (Skylar) elsewhere on the Internets. Readers? What say you?
• There’s no way that last lie about the second cellphone doesn’t come back to destroy Walt later. He can’t win Skyler back at this point until the truth starts to spill out, and it’s decidedly UNLIKELY she’ll go for a meth cooker. He won’t be able to make naked jokes to get out of that one. (Though I must admit Mr. Cranston looks decidedly jaunty in a pork pie hat and nothing else.)
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