If Breaking Bad began heading downhill rapidly last week (in a narrative sense, not a quality sense), this week, it lets off the brake, heading into what appears to be the second season’s final act. “4 Days Out,” written by Sam Catlin and directed by Michelle MacLaren, hits a bunch of Breaking Bad’s favorite devices, from the idea of characters trapped in a confined space and forced to deal with each other to a sudden, bitter reversal of fortune that should leave everyone happy but has the effect of making our central character, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) even more miserable than he should be in the first place. It was another exemplary episode in a season full of them, and if nothing else, it sets us up nicely for what is to come. It’s also staggeringly beautiful, drinking in the desert landscape that dominates its running time with a wide-eyed sense for the beauty of the wilderness.
Many have already pointed out the similarities between “4 Days Out” and The Sopranos episode “Pine Barrens,” the third season hour that featured Paulie and Christopher stranded in the bitterly cold wilderness in pursuit of a Russian mobster they could never quite track down. Like “Pine Barrens,” “4 Days Out” featured two of our characters trapped in a barren landscape by problems of their own making. In addition, both episodes feature a healthy dose of dark, dark humor, and both episodes provide ample opportunity for the characters to muse on the turns their lives have taken to get them to this point. The difference, though, was that Paulie and Christopher often did not have the faculty to understand just how deeply enmeshed in the world they lived in they were. Walter chose his life of crime much later, and he’s just beginning to realize all of the ways it could destroy him and his partner Jesse (Aaron Paul).
The two episodes mostly diverge from there. “4 Days Out,” in particular, packs a hell of a punch in its closing moments. After an entire episode that began with Walt noticing a huge mass in his lungs on the scan designed to figure out the state of his cancer and led into a scene of him coughing up blood, we discover that the experimental treatment Walt used most of his drug money to pay for actually WORKED. His tumor has shrunk by 80 percent. There’s a very good chance that he’s going to live, and as his family erupts in happiness around him, his face suddenly gets very, very pale and very, very frightened. He’s lifted up a rock with his criminal activities, and all of the bugs underneath have come crawling out towards him. Now, no matter how quickly he puts the rock down again, he’s not going to stop those bugs from coming after him. When he looks at himself in the reflection of a soap dispenser at episode’s end, he can do only one thing: batter it until he is no longer recognizable.
Breaking Bad relies on a very delicate balance with the Walt character. We have to believe both in the seething resentments that drive him to continue doing what he’s doing, even as it never quite pays off as much as he hopes it will, AND in the idea that he knows, at some level, that what he’s doing is wrong and feels just a twinge of guilt about that. The series can’t make the guilt he feels too strong or it will run the risk of unbalancing the show by making Walt’s actions unbelievable or his predicament too sympathetic (something many feared it would do from the pilot, which leaned a little too hard on the “He’s dying!” motivation for what Walt was doing). At the same time, it can’t allow him to utterly give in to his resentments or it will fundamentally turn into a different show. Walt needs to maintain his relationships with other human beings in some way. He needs Jesse, and he needs his family, or he’ll be adrift in a world he’s not quite improvisatory to understand.
In recent weeks, there’s been a rather vocal contingent growing in the comments here that insists the show has grown too far away from its bleak beginning and ran too quickly towards the darkly comic tone it employs sparingly. I suspect that “4 Days Out” will do nothing to assuage those commentors’ fears, as it did provide a few bleak moments when Walt realized what he was doing but ultimately buried those with a rare triumphant moment for the guy (when he figures out how to build a homemade battery to charge the dead RV battery) and a lot of very sly, deadpan humor (Jesse saying “A robot?” was one of the funnier moments in the series’s run). While I would argue the dark comedy of the show has always been present, I don’t think the show is betraying itself by abandoning unrelenting bleakness in favor of a storyline about building a brand-new criminal empire either.
The bleakness these commentors praise is still present in the series. It just takes a different form, buried underneath all of the other layers the show has developed this season. In the first handful of episodes (the bleakest ones), the tone grew naturally from the fact that Walt felt cornered, all alone, forced into a life of crime. With each step he took more deeply into that life of crime, however, he also, paradoxically, re-immersed himself among the bottom feeders of a vibrant society he had mostly withdrawn from, based on what we’ve seen. The bleakness of the show was less about a natural outgrowth of the premise itself and more about the false choice that Breaking Bad set up in those first few episodes—Walt can either sell meth and provide for his family, or he can leave them stranded when he dies.
The series has, yes, left some of this behind, but that’s because it’s been carefully pointing out to us just how false that choice always was. There WERE other options available to Walt; he’s just such a bitter man, filled with recriminations from a life of regret, that he doesn’t take those options. He prefers to go it, disastrously at times, alone. Breaking Bad was very good in those early episodes, but it was also a series that absolved us too easily of watching a show about a man turning his life to very dark works. By turning the series away from the bleak tone, it becomes more morally complex AND doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. All of this, ultimately, is FAR bleaker to me than the superficial trappings of the early episodes, as are the scenes when we see the other members of Walt’s family already beginning to figure out how they’re going to move on without him.
Also, while we’re at it, the best television series don’t confine themselves to a maddeningly singular vision, the way so many great films do. The best television series are full of the breadth and depth of the panoply of human life. Whether it’s the sweep of the Baltimore featured in The Wire or the way literally every facet of American life seems to be reflected in the Springfield of The Simpsons, the best television series create worlds, then populate those worlds with fascinating characters who could only exist in that specific world. Breaking Bad is doing this with aplomb in its second season. Sure we could see a lawyer who intones menacingly about how Walt BETTER cut him in on his drug deals, but isn’t it more interesting to see the casual malevolence of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, in his second appearance on the show)? Similarly, the other characters in the show’s universe run the gamut from idiotic lowlifes to hopped up drug kingpins. These are maybe not the most original characters in the world, but the sheer breadth the show is bringing in (particularly when it felt too singularly focused in season one) suggests that the series has many, many more stories to tell than it initially seemed it would.
A lot of those stories, it would seem, will have to do with Walt or Jesse getting trapped in a tiny space and confronting a single problem. We’ve already seen it three times this season, first with Walt and Jesse stuck in that odd little house with Tuco, then with Jesse trapped in the house of Spooge and his woman and now with Walt and Jesse stranded in the middle of nowhere with an RV with a dead battery. The shot establishing that the battery was going to go dead was simply too obvious, but everything else in this storyline was terrific, from the way the situation just kept getting worse with the generator going out and then the RV not starting and then the generator BLOWING up and then Jesse dumping the last of the water on it to the way it allowed for a rare moment of introspection from Walt, who says that he deserves all of this. He’s ruined many lives with his actions, not least of which are Jesse’s (who could be in Santa Fe looking at Georgia O’Keefe paintings with his new girlfriend) and his own. When he thinks he has only weeks to live at episode’s start, he doesn’t spend one of the few weekends left with his wife and kid or even with his mother (the cover story he gives for why he’s going to be gone). He spends it cooking meth. He went into this with the best of intentions, but just the act of breaking the law, of introducing destructive elements into society, tends to rise up and consume oneself utterly.
This is to say nothing of how the whole sequence was shot, which honestly brought to mind a minor riff on how Terrence Malick shoots his films. The blue skies and the yellow weeds of the desert landscape were gorgeously shot, and the color throughout (including the orange hues of a desert sunset and the cooler blues and yellows of the chemical mixing process) was impeccable. Look, for instance, at that long series of shots of the RV coming closer and closer to the camera as it heads out into the wilderness, starting as a high crane shot with the RV in the distance, then gradually lowering as it approaches, but also tilting ever so slightly, suggesting that things are going to be very off here, that this desert isn’t just a place where these two are going to try to get ahead but also a crucible of some sort where they’ll be tested.
The rest of the episode was mostly set-up and denouement. To be honest, I had figured a few weeks back that Walt would find his cancer had gone into remission. That didn’t diminish the power of the moment when he learned just how far it had gone down, the horror in his eyes as he realized everything he had done to get him to that moment, the jubilation of his family. Just seeing Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) grappling with the news, erupting in happiness, drove home just how deeply Walt has dug his own grave. Sure he could try to get out of things now, but there are enough people who know who he is and a cartel intent on coming after him that it seems he won’t be able to get out as clean as he’d like.
Death has always been the ultimate promise for Walter White. While it was something that he seemed to fear, it was also something that he too readily embraced. He reordered his life on the precept that he would be dying soon and that anything he did wouldn’t count against him in this life. Now that it looks like he’s going to live, he’s going to have to grapple with what he did, the lives he’s hurt, just who he’s become. He could face jail time or worse from all of this. Even if Walter White tries to get out of the meth dealing business full-time, the collateral damage ensuing from all of his decisions will prove to be far greater than a mere soap dispenser.
Some other thoughts:
• I’ve gotten so used to scouring the profiles of the directors on this show and discovering that they did some acclaimed indie film in the ’90s and then disappeared, but MacLaren appears to have mostly bounced around TV shows, first as a production manager and then as a director and producer. In addition to Breaking Bad, she’s directed episodes of Without a Trace and (what else?) The X-Files. Catlin, meanwhile, worked on Canterbury’s Law and Kidnapped before this, two shows that would not possibly suggest the levels and depths he was able to plumb in this episode (though Kidnapped was a fun serialized goof).
• This week’s Vince Gilligan flashback is The X-Files episode “Paper Hearts.” Gilligan always seemed clued into Mulder’s unique obsession with finding his sister, and “Paper Hearts” was one of the better episodes at unpacking that whole desire. You can see flashes of this understanding of obsession in the way Walt allows resentments from the past to crowd out more rational alternatives to his drug dealing.
• I didn’t delve into this a lot in the main review, but this episode was probably the funniest of the show’s run to date. I could have probably just written a review consisting entirely of the great lines and called it a day. OK, here’s one: “Congratulations, you just left your family a second-hand Subaru.”
• Man, are the writers going to give Betsy Brandt ANYthing to do this season? Watching her deliver that line about how she’d read the magazine already at her workplace reminded me of just how much she can bring to the show when it’s inclined to give her things to do. Marie’s not my favorite character, but she seems like she’s got an interesting point-of-view we’re not getting to see.
• Personal favorite shot: Jesse smoking the marijuana like a cigarette while Walt ate a Funyun as the two faced the setting sun.
• Some excellent musical choices this week to score the montage of the trip out to the desert and the montage of the meth cooking. They were, respectively, according to Alan Sepinwall, “Good Morning Freedom” by Blue Mink and “One by One” by The Black Seeds. Sepinwall’s also got some awesome screencaps of some of the episode’s better shots.
• I’ve got screeners for the next two, so we’ll hopefully be able to get something up shortly after the episode airs instead of having to wait around until Monday morning. Look for us next Sunday night.
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