Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
(Thoughts on the fourth season of Breaking Bad, written by somebody who doesn’t have cable and by the time he had Netflix he was too busy with other projects, which is why he’s years behind the rest of you.)
“He’s the one / who likes all the pretty songs / and he likes to sing along / and he likes to shoot his gun / but he knows not what it means.” — Kurt Cobain
“I won.” — Walter White
Breaking Bad has been credited, rightfully so, for several achievements in its storytelling, not the least of which is its mastery of tension and suspense; within individual episodes, over the course of several episodes, over the course of a single season, and over the course of the entire series. But tension and suspense have been done well by other series before, and what elevates the work being done by the creative team behind Breaking Bad is that they have taken the base components of tension and suspense and crafted a portrait of mounting horror.
That phrase, “mounting horror,” could have three interpretations:
And the series, particularly in this fourth season, offers a deeply realized blend of all three. For it is in this fourth season that we witness the metamorphoses of the major players, in all of the awkward contortion and waste fluids of such a process, as they either become, return to, or admit who they are.
On one end of the spectrum you have the parallel journeys of Jesse and Hank, who spend a significant and unpleasant period after their first time shooting somebody (Jesse) and their first time being shot (Hank) as hollow clockwork versions of themselves. Jesse works to deaden his trauma with decadence and an unsubtle effort to transform his pristine childhood home into the ugly mess of his current psyche. Hank, meanwhile, submerges his usual drive to act and keen eye for details into indolence, bitterness, and an obsession on the features of minerals (notably, he reintroduces crystalline substances and chemistry to his life but for once nobody is willing to kill him over it). Both men are mired in self-hatred, but while Jesse engages in acts of destruction Hank engages in acts of projection and ignorance. Both of them aim to forget. It is only when both of them are handed purpose again that we begin to see a new Jesse and an old Hank return.
After a year of mixed messages from Walt — who has alternately spoken and acted as though Jesse is of no worth and as if he is the only person the enterprise truly needs — Jesse receives very clear tutelage and appreciation from Gustavo and Mike, who understand, in ways Walt never had, the potency of emotion over reason as a tool for human manipulation. Through Mike, Gustavo taps into the resourcefulness and wit that Jesse always had, and molds it into something he can use. In fact, part of what we see in the battle between Gus and Walt is that Gus isn’t just a better criminal than Walt, as one would expect, but he’s also a better teacher. Walt’s tendencies are to lecture and hammer knowledge home, whereas Gustavo believes in work-study. Walt interprets the brutal dispatching of Victor as a message — I can kill who I wish when I wish to — when in fact it is a lesson. The man who succeeds is the man who cannot be predicted.
He then proceeds to demonstrate as such by shutting Walt out and allowing Jesse in. The grooming represents a departure for Jesse and for Gus, a man who previously would never have trusted an addict to be anything more than a liability. Instead, Gustavo takes the unorthodox approach of teaching him how to be deadly. It should be clear to us as it eventually became clear to Walt: Gustavo had won the battle for Jesse’s loyalty, and indeed, eventually, Jesse would have signed off on Walt’s execution.
For when we finally witness the moment that transformed Gustavo we also learn the most dangerous advantage he’s always held over Walt: He has the luxury and discipline of patience. Walt first entered the world of drug manufacturing under the strict deadline of his lung cancer, and the vast majority of his decisions since then have been guided by the perception of doom at his heels. For as much as Gus has built his drug empire as a means of earning vast amounts of money, it has moreso, and always, been a means of earning vengeance for the suffering he endured during his first meeting with Don Eladio. That suffering is held close and under strict lock and key, as it is both his primary motivation and his primary weakness. His need to torment Hector Salamanca above all others has boiled within him for decades. When at last his victory is complete he is so blinded by the satisfaction of it that he makes first the mistake of bringing Jesse to the nursing home with him as an additional twist of the knife into Hector, and secondly the mistake of believing his hold over Jesse is so complete that the first mistake isn’t even a mistake at all.
While Jesse’s development comes due to Gustavo making an uncharacteristic choice, Hank’s reawakening comes instead due to Walt making a wholly predictable one. Although the investigation into Gale’s murder manages to bring Hank back to balance, his tenacity remains dormant until Walt, ever under-appreciated, decides to plant the seed that Gale was merely a patsy of Heisenberg’s. And then we’re off to the races, with Hank piecing together, bit by bit, the connection between Gale and Gus, between the German front corporation and Los Pollos Hermanos. The jolt to his psyche then proceeds to fan out, seeming to give him renewed energy towards leaving the house, to restarting his body, to cooling the hostility toward his wife.
This latter behavior, interestingly, had pushed Marie into a fairly dramatic change, almost a true fugue state, of her own. We have no prior evidence that her kleptomania had been facilitated by such extensive role-playing before now, and it seems that the behavior, of attending open houses in character, was less about the compulsion to steal than it was about the compulsion to have a reality nothing like her own. It’s not that she doesn’t thrive on drama, mind. She seems very much in control of her environment and temperament when the home is suddenly under DEA protection. What she can’t actually handle about Hank’s convalescence is her inability to bully it back into the drama she prefers. Hank’s pliability is in direct correlation to his confidence — he has more ability to handle his domestic struggles when he can channel that frustration into fighting crime. Without that key part of him, he becomes as intractable and difficult as the only other person with whom he has regular contact.
The strange part? Hank and Marie are the most functional relationship we’ve currently seen in this series.
Next: The Ballad of Walt and Skyler