Early in Sunday’s episode of Breaking Bad, “Negro y Azul,” there’s a shot of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) extending a bond from nitrogen to oxygen on a whiteboard, creating a connection where one didn’t exist before. Walt’s trying to explain chemistry to a student who’d really rather just get a better grade so he doesn’t have to go to summer school, trying to tell him how bonds are what makes “matter ... matter,” a lovely unintended pun that says so much about this episode and Breaking Bad in general. Though the student is just trying to put one over on Walt (“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,” the teacher says with just a hint of menace), the notion of bonds forming between elements or between people unites everything in a rather quiet episode of the show. It even concludes with a beautiful shot of one person reaching out a hand to another, tentatively forming that new connection, just not at an atomic level.
“Negro y Azul,” written by X-Files vet John Shiban and directed by Felix Alcala, who’s directed episodes of a number of distinctively shot television series, from Battlestar Galactica to, most recently, Dollhouse, comes smack-dab in the middle of Breaking Bad’s second season, six episodes preceding it and six episodes to come. It’s an episode that allows all of the characters to step back for a second and breathe, something they very much need after the events of the first six episodes. It opens, though, with a hint of menace. A Mexican drug cartel, possibly involved with the long-dead Tuco, is now aware of the strange new drug kingpin named Heisenberg, and they’re gunning for him. The music video that announces all of this tries a little too hard to inject a note of cheeky humor (though, apparently, these drug cartel-sponsored music videos actually exist in Mexico) and it goes on way, way too long, but it’s a nice extension of the way the series has been using the pre-credits sequences to do prologues disconnected from the episodes proper.
After that suggestion of dark things just over the horizon, the episode spends surprisingly little time on the process of cooking up drugs and getting them onto the streets, choosing instead to spend time dealing with the aftermath of last week’s death of Spooge, killed at the end of a long standoff with Jesse (Aaron Paul). Jesse’s a nervous wreck about what happened, holing up in his new apartment, dressed in a ridiculous Jack o’Lantern T-shirt and avoiding Walt’s calls. He’s relatively certain that he can’t be tied to what happened, even though he called the cops, but the whole situation has left him obviously squeamish about the human cost of what he’s doing, especially when he considers the kid living in Spooge’s house. Walt, who’s spent much of the season berating Jesse for some of his stupider decisions, takes a moment to consider what’s going on and then does something unexpected: He takes on the more fatherly role Jesse has always seemed to want him to take on.
The bond between Walt and Jesse has been evolving all season, changing from the simple needs-based relationship it was at the show’s beginning (Walter needed someone to connect the meth he could produce to street-level distribution; Jesse needed someone who could cook better meth). Walt’s frustration at Jesse’s intellectual limitations and the way the kid always seems to be bouncing from one drug-fueled bad turn to another has grown and grown, to the point where it seemed as though he was unable to recognize just how much he was hurting Jesse, who really only had Walt to turn to early in the season. Tonight, though, as Walt saw Jesse’s pain, saw the human being still inside of his partner in crime, he both comforted the boy and began launching a plan to build up his confidence again.
As it turns out, most everyone in the Albuquerque drug trade has heard that Spooge died from an ATM to the head sometime around the same time that Jesse was in his house. Naturally, they believe Jesse was responsible, not Spooge’s woman, and when Walt realizes that rumors of Jesse’s hand in Spooge’s death have begun to circulate through the Albuquerque underworld, he does absolutely nothing to quell those rumors (“You didn’t hear it from me,” he tells two of Jesse’s lackeys as they all meet at a museum dedicated to the development of the atomic bomb). Walt realizes more quickly than Jesse that Jesse’s presence at Spooge’s house is going to build up his legend as drug lord badass, and when he goes back to meet with Jesse, he launches into a speech about how Jesse can be a blowfish on the streets, someone who is basically harmless but appears to be much more dangerous than that. The blowfish inflates its own body to frighten off other fish; Jesse, similarly, can inflate his own reputation as a madman who’ll drop an ATM on your head if you don’t pay up to frighten junkies into paying him. Walt sees this all as a way to expand the two’s operation, enter the void left by the death of Tuco in other parts of the city, but he knows he’s only going to be able to work effectively so long as he remains anonymous and so long as people believe Jesse really is the craziest bastard out there.
We’ve gotten hints that Jesse’s relationship with his father has mostly been severed over the course of the series, and we’ve also gotten hints that he views Walt as a bit of a father figure. The show made that explicit tonight, as Walt tells Jesse’s landlady, Jane (Krysten Ritter), that he actually IS Walter Jackson, Jesse’s dad. But those implications were also present in the speeches Walt gave his ad hoc son, speeches that were both weirdly inspirational and sort of insulting (he tells Jesse he’s not all that bright). Hell, Walt even drops in a lesson on basic economics when Jesse questions why they wouldn’t raise prices on their product, like a dad trying to teach an apprentice son the family trade.
The Walt-as-dad moments were some of the nicer references in an episode that was a little too cluttered with them. Walt talks about forming new bonds at an atomic level, and not only does every character form some sort of new bond, but we’re shown, at the atomic bomb museum, just what can happen when those bonds are ripped apart, when, say, a Mexican drug cartel comes gunning for you. The museum is playing a song about a turtle who needs to learn to duck and cover (which sounds like it might be authentic mid-50s educational propaganda played to teach kids the protocol for “surviving” an atomic blast), and we later see a tortoise who’s literally been made into a bomb. I don’t know if the series needs all of these cutesy reference points, though I’ll admit they provide a certain satisfaction on their own once you see how things tie together. I usually prefer my television a little messier, and there were points when “Negro y Azul” felt just a little too sharply like it was trying to tie its symbolic touches up with nice little bows.
All of that feels a little nitpicky, though, in the face of something like that terrifically surreal moment in the desert sun when Hank (Dean Norris), struggling both to cope with emotions he’s keeping deeply buried after his shooting of Tuco and a new job in a new city with new co-workers who don’t regard him as a hero, comes across the head of Tortuga (Danny Trejo, whose character’s name means “The Turtle”), the man he and his colleagues had been dealing with for information earlier (by ordering what the guy wanted out of a Skymall catalog, of all things). The head has been attached to the aforementioned tortoise, made an example of and sent ambling towards the DEA agents. When they try to pick it up, the head explodes, taking out a number of agents, reducing even more to grievously injured men in need of medical attention and leaving Hank (who had to rush back to the car thanks to a wave of nausea) scurrying from downed agent to downed agent, trying to make sense of the new world he’s been dropped into. I have absolutely no idea if the DEA has ever encountered an informant’s head turned into a bomb and strapped to a tortoise (the Skymall thing being true wouldn’t surprise me), but it feels like the sort of darkly mordant detail that completely fits the harsh-light-of-day universe of Breaking Bad.
Hank’s completely at sea in El Paso, where the methods of dealing with informants are foreign to him and where his lack of Spanish language is a hindrance that it just isn’t in Albuquerque. His wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt), can tell that he’s spinning his wheels and unable to articulate quite why. Hank’s bullheadedness, which makes him such a good guy to have in your family, has been carefully built up by a life in one city, and it’s ill-suited to the task at hand in El Paso. He’s going to have to build up a new life, now, form new bonds with new co-workers, and it doesn’t seem likely that he’s going to be able to, with all of the emotional turmoil and cultural differences holding him back.
Finally, there’s Skyler (Anna Gunn), stepping out of the home to regain her old job, even when she’s massively pregnant. She says it’s due to the economy, but her story for why she left the company also shifts depending on whom she’s telling it to. Walt believes she left because the welding the company was doing was causing her health problems, while Marie seems to know another side of the story, involving a co-worker who got a little frisky with Skyler at a company party. Skyler now insists it was just the one time, and he was obviously drunk, and he’s a committed family man with two kids and on and on, but the prevarications begin to become too much, especially when confronted with the guy himself and when he gets her her old job, fancy office and all, back. As it turns out, he’s no longer married, and he just might still have that old drinking problem. And when Skyler is unpacking her belongings into her new office, she takes a long, hard look at a photo of her and Walt before setting it on her desk. After her perhaps too-friendly boss invites her to lunch, she picks it up again and takes another long, hard look at it. It’s easy to completely blame Walt for what’s going on in his marriage, and, indeed, if he hadn’t gone down the path he’s gone down, there would be no lies, and Skyler would feel more secure in him. But now that she’s clearly telling different people different things about how her departure went down and making numerous excuses for just why, exactly, she needs to be going back into this previously bad situation, it’s hard not to feel that she’s at least a LITTLE complicit in what’s happening to her marriage. Birds of a feather and all.
But, of course, it’s Walt who’s pulling all of these strings and trying to stay one step ahead of everybody else. It’s his little speech to Jesse that sets new wheels in motion for their latest business venture. And it’s the false confidence he fills Jesse with that prompts the young man to come clean to Jane about how he’s not really named Jesse Jackson, how Walt isn’t really his dad and then invite her in to watch his new flat screen TV. Jane, in her own way, is just as rootless as Jesse; she’s just channeled her rootlessness into something more societally acceptable (she’s a tattoo artist, or, as Jesse puts it, a “good drawer”). When these two lost people sit down in front of that TV in Jesse’s big, empty apartment on two patio chairs, facing its blue glow, Jesse babbling about how it makes the black look really black, you begin to realize just how alone they are. And then Jane reaches across the gap between their chairs, a gap that’s very small, like the gap between atoms, but might as well be the size of that erupting mushroom cloud, and silently takes Jesse’s hand. Jesse takes hers, and the two face the blue screen, the words “Still Searching” displayed on it. Jesse and Jane ARE still searching for some sort of purpose, but in that moment, they find something worth clinging to. For a little while, at least.
Some other thoughts:
• I didn’t need to see the WHOLE music video, but I kinda dug the production values of the thing, which felt authentically like something you might see on the Mexican version of MTV (though, obviously, I have no idea what EXACTLY that would look like). I assume there’s no Mexican drug cartel version of David Fincher or Spike Jonze or insert-your-favorite-music-video-director-here.
• On the other hand, that shot at the END of the video, of the black hat shooting off into the blue, blue sky, was the sort of instantly iconic image Breaking Bad seems to come up with weekly and then just toss away in little sidebar moments like that one.
• Dunno if any of you are Rescue Me or In Treatment fans, but if you are, please come check out my new recaps of both at the Onion’s A.V. Club. I know SOMEone out there has to be watching these shows, but I’d like to have more folks to discuss them with over there.
• That argument between Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) and his mother about her not buying the right brand of raisin bran took me back to so many fights in my adolescence over the importance of buying just the right brand name. Now that I pretty much don’t care what kind of raisin bran I have, does that make me an old man? Actually, does JUST EATING RAISIN BRAN make me an old man?
• I was excited to see the great character actor Trejo turn up as Tortuga, so it was too bad that his stay on the show was so short. Still, he carved out a great performance from his one scene, and Tortuga felt like a part of the Breaking Bad universe straight off.
• A tattoo is too much commitment for the tattoo artist? Maybe Jesse should think twice about taking Jane’s hand back at episode’s end.
• Dude, was that Bob Odenkirk in the next-week-on? I think it was!
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