“Peekaboo,” the sixth episode of Breaking Bad’s second season, written by J. Roberts and series creator Vince Gilligan and directed by Peter Medak, asks a question that’s been hovering around the periphery of the series since it began and asks it fairly directly. Who is Walter White (Bryan Cranston), really? And who is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) deep down? Has Walter’s recent turn into criminality and his attempts to take all of this on on his own sprung from necessity or from a deep-seeded part of himself that he finally allowed to be unleashed by the specter of his own death? And, similarly, how much of the sense we get that Jesse doesn’t really have the stomach for this line of work beyond being a low-level dealer is accurate? “Peekaboo” juxtaposes the two getting caught in two very different but equally perilous situations and uses that to suggest that while Jesse’s been dealing drugs for years, Walter is the one who has the true criminal instinct.
Let’s start with Jesse, who goes to retrieve the money and drugs stolen from him last week by the scary-looking woman and her knife-wielding boyfriend. Given the address of the two by his dealer pal (who spells street “streat”), he heads on over to a big, rambling house that feels like something left over from a William Faulkner short story or Grey Gardens, if either took a left turn into hardcore, drug-induced poverty. Jesse knocks on the door, then flattens himself against the wall, and he begins rehearsing the line he’s going to use to get back his cash: “Where’s my money, bitch?” He says it over and over and over, both trying different inflections for the line and seemingly psyching himself up to draw a gun on someone.
It’s a telling little sequence in the episode, I think, both showing us those in between moments we don’t see in other crime dramas, the ones that Breaking Bad specializes in, and showing us how Jesse, to a real degree, is having to convince himself he’s the badass he needs to be to become a drug kingpin and is largely failing at that task so far. Breaking Bad, to a real degree, is about people trying on new identities to try and discover their true inner selves (weirdly, AMC’s other drama series, Mad Men, ALSO boasts this as a major theme), and the bigger of a criminal Jesse tries to be, the more it seems that he really would be happier in a low-level data entry job as his father says he would. Then, he could coast along, sleep with his landlady and eat all the pretzels he wanted. Jesse wants to be something more than what he is, but there’s also something inside of himself that is perhaps too gentle to really make anything of himself, especially in Albuquerque’s criminal underbelly.
“Peekaboo” chooses to demonstrate this through Jesse’s reactions to two different people. One of these is a nicely understated comic beat, and the other treads a little too much in the territory of cliché. The first is when Jesse is standing on that porch, ready to point his gun at whoever should come to the door. As he’s waiting, he suddenly looks over to see a post officer approaching, bearing her load of mail to deliver to the house. She cheerily greets him and asks him to move away from the mailbox, which he is blocking, then strikes up a short conversation with him about how nice the weather is. These are the normal pleasantries of everyday life, and as Jesse slowly relaxes into them, realizing that he’s not going to get busted by someone popping out of the house, he seems much more at ease than when he was rehearsing his badassery. Granted, dealing with the post officer is nowhere near accosting two junkies to give him back the money they took from him, but Jesse, almost in spite of himself, has a warm and open nature, and it’s that nature that comes through as he talks to the almost preternaturally cheerful post officer. The encounter between the two is short, though, and Jesse has to break a window to enter the house in search of the cash he’s after.
It’s inside the house that I think the series missteps ever-so-slightly. Breaking Bad is good at showing the human cost of the drug trade in Albuquerque, of taking us inside the haunted lives and dank dens of the city’s anonymous junkies. It’s never really felt the need to overstate these points, trusting us to realize just how badly Walt’s ultra-high quality meth is damaging these people’s lives. Yeah, they made the choice to take those drugs in the first place, but it was also Walt’s decision to use his skills to make their lives even worse. We don’t need to have any single character stand up and declaim about how drugs are bad—not even DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris), who might have reason to and might actually do so in character—because the show trusts us to grasp that as a simple fact of life.
Tonight, though, Jesse entered that house, and he ran into a little kid, whose parents were so high on meth and heroin that they simply didn’t have time to properly care for the boy. Obviously there are kids like this out there and they’re one of the saddest stories of the cost of the drug trade, but bringing in a kid like this feels a little too much like Breaking Bad stacking the deck, as though it’s putting its finger down on the scales a little too fully. I’d rather the show actually BE aware of the human cost of what Walt and Jesse are doing rather than try to gloss over these unpleasantries (as lesser series about similar subjects do), but it almost feels like stacking the deck to have the good-hearted Jesse run into an adorable, seemingly mute Dickensian ragamuffin with a terrible rash, a runny nose he never wipes, dirt all over his skin and a habit for watching the Cutlery Corner (which was actually one of the subjects of one of my first pieces here at the House years ago) on TV over and over. Scratch that. That’s not stacking the deck. That’s removing every card that’s not a face card.
The kid works better as a device for Jesse to react to than an actual character. When Jesse loses his nerve for what he’s doing because he doesn’t want to threaten the kid’s parents in front of him or because he’s so concerned with the boy that he gets distracted long enough to take a whack to the head that knocks him out. When he’s fleeing the house at episode’s end, he also takes just a little time out to make sure that the kid will be rescued by someone by carrying him out to the porch where the soon-to-arrive police officers will find him when they get there. If the little boy is a little too on-the-nose as a symbol of the COST OF DRUGS, he works fairly well as an example of how Jesse is not quite hard enough to be the drug kingpin he dreams of being, though the show also seems to suggest that Jesse could leave this essentially outwardly interested nature that exists within himself behind if he keeps with the path he’s on long enough. He’s legitimately threatening when he’s waving his gun around and forcing the two junkies to tell him what he wants to know. It’s only the kid that’s able to break this spell, and there won’t always be a kid.
Before moving on to Walt, we may as well pause and acknowledge the great work by David Ury and Dale Dickey as Spooge and his woman, as well as production designer Robb Wilson King’s work at capturing the hellish home they and their child lived in. Medak’s camera captured the way the two holed themselves away from the world, light filtering in through covered windows, creating a landscape swathed in shadow, and King’s set dressing was filled with odds and ends, the kinds of things that would collect around the edges of a life at the margins of society. Ury and Dickey took two parts that were probably a bit overwritten on the page and turned them into believable human beings, two people who had been together so long that they had forgotten to be apart, even though the cycle of destruction they were in was going to take them both down.
If Jesse’s tendency to see too much of the world around him threatens to make him a rather inefficient criminal, Walt’s general inability to get over perceived slights and his deep bitterness are beginning to suggest that even if Walt wasn’t always a criminal, he always had a temperament that would allow him to succeed as one. During a long scene early in the episode, where Walt returns to his old teaching job for the first time in a long time, we see him lecture at length on carbon, the element that unites all living things by being the chemical basis for our very existence. While this at first seems like it might be a return to the more sensitive and holistic Walt of the series’ first couple of episodes, the speech quickly turns bitter, as Walt informs his students that the man who invented synthetic diamonds, instrumental in so much technology, was rewarded with only a $10 savings bond.
There have always been hints in the series that Walt was a frustrated genius who let his bitterness calcify and turn into a rage he kept deeply bottled up, but Breaking Bad is really pushing this button now, impressively allowing Cranston’s work to turn very, very dark (especially when one considers that his Emmy win is probably the most responsible thing for the show’s ratings surge and the work he’s doing now, while compelling, is probably not friendly enough to win Emmys).
The episode focuses on Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) returning to Walt’s life and being surprised when Skyler (Anna Gunn) thanks her for paying for the experimental treatment that Walt began in season one. As you may recall, Gretchen, a former lover of Walt’s, and her husband offered to cover the treatment from their millions and millions of dollars, but Walt turned them down and decided to pay for the treatment from the cash he could make from his meth production. Now under the gun for his lies when Gretchen calls him on them, he first begs her to help him in his lie, then lets the slights of many years ago come out in a torrent of bile. He’s angry at her and her husband for “cheating him” and cutting him out of their company. She’s angry at him for abandoning her in their relationship, leaving midway through a Fourth of July celebration with her family. As his anger rises, she finally says (rather sanctimoniously) that she feels sorry for him, and all he can manage is a “Fuck you.” It’s a perfectly pitched little scene, suggesting so much of the two’s history while never quite laying it all on too thickly.
I’m less certain about the later scenes in this storyline, where Gretchen decides to call Skyler and tell her that she and her husband will no longer be covering Walt’s treatment. On the one hand, it allows Skyler and Walt to draw closer together, especially when Walt is able to tell a relatively simple lie (the economy has wiped the other couple out) and have Skyler completely buy it. The scene where Walt realizes that Skyler has bought his lie and that he can use that lie to draw the two of them closer together (he sidles up and says, “We’ll get through this”) is an absolutely perfect scene of a man more fully embracing something monstrous inside of him. But, on the other hand, I’m just not sure Gretchen would do that, though I suppose it’s possible she just wants to wash her hands of the situation as easily as possible and doesn’t want to hurt Skyler further (we really have no idea of these two’s relationship).
There’s another scene in “Peekaboo” that’s important to understanding Breaking Bad as a whole. Spooge is explaining to Jesse how he came to be in possession of an ATM machine, which he boosted from a convenience store. Since he just took it and the money all goes back to giant banks, it’s a victimless crime, he says. But as he says that, the camera takes a tour of the destruction involved in taking the machine, ending on the blank face of a murdered clerk, his blood spilled on the floor. Breaking Bad knows that wherever there’s crime, there’s someone being hurt. Jesse seems to realize that at times, but the series is increasingly suggesting that Walt really does not.
Some other thoughts:
• Another really solid directorial effort for this show, this time by Medak, who directed a couple of well-received indie features in the ’90s and has directed episodes of a great number of television shows, including House and the ’80s remake of The Twilight Zone. His framing of the scenes within Spooge’s house, particularly the early shot of Jesse approaching a taped-over window and peering into it, added exactly the kind of eerie tension the scenes needed.
• I’ve seen some complaints that the ATM just popping open at the end of the episode, particularly after all Spooge and Jesse had been through to get it open, finally concluding in Spooge’s grotesque death, was unbelievable, but I found it a bleakly comic moment, of the sort the show does so well.
• On the other hand, I’m not sure Jesse taking all of that money and calling 911 was the best call. Spooge’s woman will eventually put enough thoughts together to at least offer up a description of Jesse to a sketch artist, and the cash has to be traceable somehow, right? It’s another example of Jesse letting his compassion get in the way of his criminal instincts, and I expect his compassion will be what ultimately snares him.
• We didn’t get any flash-forwards this week. Not that I think they’re necessary to my enjoyment of the show, but it’s interesting to see them abandon that structural conceit at what’s almost the season’s midway point. We’ll see if it comes back.
• “Skank” is a word you don’t hear often on television, and it’s actually a decent vernacular alternative to the over-used “bitch” or “whore.” After this episode, though, I’m not sure I want to hear it again for many, many years.
• I’m a little unsure of the purpose of that scene with Walt and the other school worker, Carmen. Your thoughts in comments, please.
• I talked about this a little last week, but the show continues to add layers to its portrayal of Albuquerque, which continues to feel like a place where all of these people live and work and build connections. Obviously Spooge won’t be back, but I don’t think it’s out of the question that we’ll run into his woman or his kid again in the future. Or perhaps the jolly post officer!
• Man, this show likes small-scale stories about one of the characters trapped in a small space in a life-threatening situation. Predictions for other predicaments Walt and Jesse can get into in this vein? Or do you think the season will end with Skyler strapped to a nuclear bomb or something while some mad man rattles away about his plans for world domination? (Well, yeah, that’s an enclosed space, but it’s not exactly small scale.)
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