Breaking Bad: “Cornered”
B+

Breaking Bad: “Cornered”

B+

Breaking Bad

“Cornered”

Season 4, Episode 6

Oh, Walter. Even when you are right, you are so, so wrong. “This whole thing—all of this—it’s all about me!” he insists when trying to open Jesse’s eyes to how Gus and Mike are manipulating him. “I am not in danger—I am the danger!” he glowers to Skyler when she reiterates that he should give himself up rather than work with murderers. Yes and yes. But, in a more accurate sense, no no no no what are you doing you idiot no!

For a man who began this series by reinventing himself and establishing a double life, Walter’s salient characteristic in season four is his tone-deafness to people and situations. Skyler correctly interprets his drunken boasting at Hank and Marie’s dinner table, realizing that (a) he wouldn’t have gotten so bent out of shape if Hank’s praise weren’t for a co-worker, and (b) if Walter’s co-workers are being viciously murdered, that’s not the safe and stable workplace he had allowed her to imagine. But he cruelly swats away her concern, choosing to focus on her unfortunate insistence that he’s in over his head rather than her legitimate concern for everyone’s safety. “Who are you talking to right now? Who is it that you think you see?” he shouts. In his mind, he’s the linchpin of the Fring empire, which “ceases to exist” if he doesn’t show up for work, and woe betide anyone who belittles him. To Skyler’s nightmare scenario of someone knocking at their door with murderous intentions, Walter hisses, “I am the one who knocks.”

Almost immediately, Walter realizes that his outburst was a terrible mistake. When Skyler initially insisted (back in episode three, “Open House”) that Walter go to the police if things get rough, it was part of a scene where she was taking control and schooling Walter on the notion of risk. Now in this second iteration, both we and Walter belatedly realize that she’s absolutely serious about this part—it’s not a piece of the power play. His remorse comes too late, though; Skyler grabs Holly and, in one of her more heartbreaking scenes in the series, flips a coin at the Four Corners monument to decide which state to flee to. She can’t accept the verdict of the coin—Colorado—even when Holly gazes up at her with a baby’s wide-eyed look of trust, as if to say, “Where we headed, Mom?” In the end, fate and common sense alike lose out over the processes she’s already set in motion, I’m surmising; we’re likely to find out more of her reasons for staying in coming episodes, but it’s still a bit mysterious here.

Walter misreads his reunion with Jesse at the Fring laundry even more egregiously, although his analysis of the situation is eerily accurate. If there were a single empathetic bone in his body these days, he would see that what he’s doing to Jesse in that conversation is exactly what has been done to him—and what has turned him into a fuming ball of rage. He attempts to demonstrate to Jesse exactly why nobody would spend two minutes or two cents grooming him for higher responsibilities in the organization. Why would anybody use Jesse as a guard? “Are you a former Navy SEAL? Do you have to have your hands registered as lethal weapons?” he sneers. Don’t underestimate Jesse too badly, Walter—he sees more than anyone thinks. “I see that they can’t outright kill me, but they don’t want me getting high. I see that this thing started as Gus getting Mike to babysit me,” Jesse asserts. But then he saved Mike from robbery or worse, “so maybe I’m not such a loser after all.” But Walter’s not listening to that last bit, which is the key to understanding what’s happening inside Jesse’s head; he just wants to understand what’s happening inside Fring’s head. “This robbery you stopped wasn’t even real… Gus goes to work driving a wedge between you and me—how long did those guys even chase you?” 

What Walter is willfully ignoring is that the bond between him and Jesse, the one Gus is trying to break, is not one of trust and mutual benefit. It's now based on the horrible things they’ve done for each other and to each other. That’s a bond Jesse is clearly fleeing, substituting Mike as his mentor and going all out to impress him when they stake out the illicit house of blue meth together. Mike is in no mood to be the audience for this performance at first, but when Jesse lures tweaker Tucker out into the yard and even gets him to take over the pointless digging (“How deep do you think it is?” Jesse asks; “Pretty deep,” Tucker confesses), he breaks into a near smile. We don’t hear Mike’s assessment of his performance to Fring at the diner, cutting away to Jesse waiting outside before he articulates it, but when Fring comes out, Jesse uneasily solicits his praise. “I hear you can handle yourself,” Fring observes, and when Jesse asks, “Why me?”, the boss replies: “I like to think I can see things in people.” It may have started as a ploy, as Gus and Mike’s conversation last week indicated and as Jesse intuits. But if I were in his shoes, I’d believe that I had gotten the boss’s notice after that little exchange.

And given that there is trouble afoot with the cartel, Gus is going to need some people who can read the lay of the land. The episode begins with a blackly comic inversion of Mike’s badassery in “Bullet Points,” as two Fring enforcers hiding in the back of a fry-batter shipment get outsmarted (rather than outgunned) by three cartel hit men. After offing the driver, the cartel guys attach the truck’s exhaust to the refrigeration system, smothering the enforcers in carbon monoxide and forcing them to shoot the truck full of holes from the inside to try to catch a breath. Wait a bit, push the bodies out of the way when you open the truck, use your black light to find the one bucket of batter marked with an invisible star, leave the rest to spoil in the desert (along with the driver’s empty lunch cooler, whose contents you’ve already consumed), and when Gus’ men come looking for their stolen crystal, send them a message: “Ready to talk?” That’s the cartel approach, and Mike sees it as hardball; he wants to strike back in the same vein, by hiring more muscle and taking the fight to them, but Gus wants the war to “stay cold” and directs Mike to set up the meeting.

Walter’s certainly not wrong to see everything as ploys, schemes, setups, chess moves. It all is that. But it can also be more—relationships, loyalties, trust, consequences. When he buys Walter Jr. a muscle car instead of a sensible used car from the lot they visit first, it’s blatant bribery (“I think if you’re going to buy me off… buy me off”). Then he makes two claims to assert his right to do so: “Maybe it’s a little flashy, but he needed a car, and I’m his father—I should be able to give him what he wants;” and, when it’s clear Skyler will not let it stand, “I just worry that he’ll blame you for this.” The problem is that those claims directly contradict the central claim of protecting his family that he’s repeated to others and to himself ad nauseam. Walter doesn’t believe everyone can come out a winner.  Even as he loudly insists on “The firewall! Church and state!” to avoid being interrogated by Skyler about his work in Gus’ lab, he kicks as hard as he can against the firewalls that others have erected to keep their trains running on time, sapping and sabotaging them like mad to claw his way back into a position of power. Or, as Skyler puts it (in a speech that's just a bit too on-the-nose), “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.” All Walter can see are ways to divide and conquer, both those being used on him by others and those he’s deploying himself, and it’s a form of blindness he’s not going to be able to afford much longer.

Stray observations:

  • I was surprised Walter kept his cool when Bogdan was goading him about being a tough boss (“Making the cashiers wipe down the cars, even when they don’t want to” —wow, Bogdan remembers the circumstances of Walt quitting with astounding precision!) and smirking that if he can’t handle it, he can turn over the job to his wife. Beautiful fuck-you at the end, though, with Walter smashing the framed first dollar he wouldn’t let Bogdan keep (“As is,” he parrots Bogdan pointedly), then using the crisp bill inside to buy a can of Coke from the glowing machine.
  • Sarcastic Walter may be self-destructive, but he sure is fun to watch. When Skyler opines “I think last night was a cry for help—I think some part of you wants Hank to catch you,” Walter erupts in faux-relief: “That is it! Exactly! You’re like Dr. Joyce Brothers here! A tremendous weight just lifted off me! Thank you!”
  • Like father, like son: Walter Jr. has thought through exactly why his mother is wrong for leaving: “I read online, she’s not even allowed to be mad at you. Gambling addiction is a sickness.” And Walter’s sermons on personal responsibility are unlikely to stick when Junior gets snazzy cars out of his gambling problem.
  • Speaking of snazzy cars, is that a 2011 Dodge Charger Walter Jr. drives home, all racing stripes and snarl? (Knowledgeable commenters below ID the car as a Challenger.  Thanks, KCs!) We saw a Charger back in season three; the cousins pulled a big shiny ax out of its trunk on their way into Walter's house. (I'm no car expert, but I trust the folks at imcdb.org.)
  • That business where Walter pays the laundry ladies to clean up the lab is a strange interlude, isn’t it? A funny one, certainly, but did Walter really think this challenge to Fring power would be successful? After luring the ladies to the lab (where they’ve clearly been told never to go) with “Presidente Grant, very important man” and saluting the security camera with his cup of Gale-blend coffee, Walter finds out he’s just bought the women a one-way ticket back to Honduras. “You tell Gus to blame me, not them,” Walter explains to Tyrus; “He does,” Tyrus deadpans.
  • Mike doesn’t like unpredictable meth-heads, so he waits them out. What he doesn’t know is that they are predictable, and Jesse knows just how to get them to do what he wants. (Also, Jesse knows that there’s a shovel in the trunk. Jesse is paying attention.)
  • When Mike gets a call in the diner, he leaves Jesse abruptly (“Need any help?” Jesse offers; “Nope,” Mike replies). Later, in the episode’s best moment, Jesse gets a call in the lab and leaves with the same sense of quiet purpose and studied indifference to his companion: "Yeah… I'll be right up."
  • Mike on waiting, or as Jesse puts it, “that P.I. sit-in-the-car business”: “Don’t want to burst your bubble kid, but that’s 90 percent of the job.”
  • “I know it looks like, well, awesome, but it’s super safe, Dad made sure, and I promise to always go the speed limit or below, way below, and it gets great gas mileage.”