Has there ever been a TV drama that balances action and inaction as well as Breaking Bad? Episodes go by with minimal plot development, followed by episodes where buildings blow up, blood spills, and camaraderie curdles into rivalry. And this isn’t just a storytelling strategy; it’s become one of the show’s prevailing themes. Think back to Walt, last season, watching Jane choke to death on her own vomit. Think back to Skyler, last week, telling her lawyer that she’d rather not bust Walt because if she waits long enough, he’ll die. So many characters on Breaking Bad operate under the philosophy that if they do nothing, if they just wait, the situation they’re in will resolve itself some other way. And sometimes—a lot of times—they’re right.
As “Green Light” opens, Walt finds himself as someone for whom people are waiting and someone doing a lot of waiting himself. Even though S. F-ed T., Walt’s still squatting at his house, hoping that if he hangs around long enough, Skyler will get used to him being there, and everything will return to normal. If he’s going to take any action, it’ll be to shore-up his man-of-the-house credentials… like, say, by trying to smash Ted’s office window with a planter. (“I’m talking with Ted,” Walt explains to a panicked Skyler.) But in a moment fraught with irony, symbolism and, yes, humor, the planter just bounces off the glass. Walt's action fails to produce any measurable result.
There are, however, immeasurable changes happening. Thin cracks in the glass, as it were. Everyone who relies on Walt’s meth-cooking skills to fatten their pockets keeps waiting for him to return to the game, and circumstances may just be pushing him off the sidelines. Even though Gus refuses to motivate Walt with warnings of imminent beheadings, and even though Saul and Mike are fed up with Walt's foot-dragging and the recordings of his tedious marital spats, and even though the inaction in Breaking Bad is reaching whatever the opposite of “a fever pitch” might be, “Green Light” still ends with Walt on the brink of a return to cooking.
Why? In part, because of Skyler’s affair. While she’s trying to punish Walt for ruining their marriage with meth, her punishment has the effect of driving him back to a life of crime. For one thing, Walt's practically catatonic in his classroom, such that he gets called into the principal’s office, where he ignores his boss's attempts to find out what’s wrong an instead makes a clumsy pass. So now Walt’s “on sabbatical” at work.
Meanwhile, Jesse has decided to fill the void left by the abrupt retirement of Heisenberg. At the start of the episode, he gives some of his new product—made with Walt’s old formula—to a convenience store cashier named Tara, to pay for a big gas bill. (And by the way, how badass was Jesse holding his bag of meth in front of Tara while a cop stood behind him in line?) But when Jesse offers to be a good franchisee and cut Walt in on a percentage of the proceeds, Walt turns on a dime from kindly and paternal to his old role as the disapproving teacher and boss. “Very shoddy work, Pinkman,” Walt says to man he’d called “son” just a moment before. And when Jesse insists that his customers love the product, Walt scoffs that meth-heads aren’t exactly picky.
It’s a logical progression: Walt’s bad at his marriage and bad at his job, and with his cancer in remission, he’s not even good at being a martyr any more. What he is good at is being the best damn meth-cook in the southwest, and for someone who’s felt undervalued all his life, the level of respect Walt gets as a drug kingpin has to be addictive. So Gus cleverly feeds Walt’s habit, by buying Jesse’s whole supply and giving Walt half the money, unbidden.
“Green Light” was directed by Sam Catlin and written by Scott Winant. The former’s a newcomer to Breaking Bad; the latter is credited with last season’s “Down” and the excellent “4 Days Out.” I can’t rate “Green Light” quite as highly as those, I’m afraid. Because Breaking Bad moves at such a deliberate pace, sometimes the writers overcompensate by amping up the outrageousness when the opportunity arises. Most of the first half of “Green Light” had significant tone issues, with Walt’s reaction to Skyler’s infidelity steering too close to the cartoonish and some of the ancillary characters looking like they’d wandered in from another show altogether. (I’m thinking here of the moronic meth-head that Hank interrogates; the one who prompts Hank to say, “Remind me to get a vasectomy.”)
But the episode is improved significantly by the ongoing struggles of this season’s early MVP, Hank. Plagued with anxiety over his career-boosting assignment in El Paso, Hank’s relieved when he gets word that blue meth—Jesse’s new batch—has turned up again. “Green Light” is filled with one-on-one conversations that double as interrogations of a kind, but the most striking ones involve Hank: first, him breaking down poor Tara the cashier and getting her to cough up a description of Jesse (dreamy blue eyes, sandy brown hair, hunky), and then him muttering “No… I can’t,” when his boss asks him once and for all if he’s going to El Paso. So much of Breaking Bad has been about shades of morality, but Hank’s story is something else altogether: it’s about how someone who represents himself as fully in charge deals with being out of his comfort zone.
Of course, from a narrative perspective, Hank’s paralyzing fear of moving to the frontlines of the drug war is a way to keep him in town and putting the pressure on his brother-in-law. Since he’s not going to prove himself in El Paso, Hank’s clearly looking to rededicate himself to the Heisenberg case. He uses some nifty detective work to get a picture of Jesse’s RV off an ATM camera, and seems primed now to close in on Walt’s ex-partner. As for Walt, he ends the episode with a bag of money in his passenger seat and a green light hanging above him. The waiting is almost over.
-Perpetuating the inaction theme: When Jesse says he’s never been good at anything besides selling meth, Walt asks, “What about your sobriety?” For a moment, it seemed like Walt was suggesting that Jesse had a natural talent for not getting loaded. In other words: for doing nothing.
-How to make a hoary gag work: As soon as Walt put his box of belongings on top of Jesse’s car, I rolled my eyes, knowing that he was going to forget it was up there. But by the time the scene was over, I’d completely forgotten about the box myself, such that when it fell of the car, I was genuinely surprised.
-Don Margolis tried to kill himself, according to Walt’s radio. Tried, but failed. So I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.
-When Hank grabbed a taxi at the airport right after his wife dropped him off, it echoed the scene in “4 Days Out” last season where Walt pretends to fly to his mother’s.
-Saul has a full supply of neck braces for his clients to try on.
-Some nice comic beats in the Saul and Mike scenes, including Mike rolling his eyes as Walt starts choking Saul, and this exchange while Saul listens to Walt talk to himself on Mike’s recording:
Saul: “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”
Walt (on the recording): “I’ll suit myself to his face!”
Saul: “It’s a bad thing.”
-Even though I didn’t much like the scene between Walt and the principal, I did like his inappropriately cheery “Thank you!” in response to her dire, “Frankly I’m concerned.”
-Don’t worry, meth’s not really addictive. That’s just a media thing.
-Because I’m going out of town next weekend, and because it was on the same screener DVD as “Green Light,” I went ahead and watched next week’s episode, “Mas.” Donna will dig into it next Sunday, but let me just say: Man. Stuff definitely happens. Slowly, as always. But it happens.