Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: “Bug”

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Last week we learned something about Los Pollos Hermanos, and about the emotion behind Gus’ ice-cold kingpin exterior. After weeks of scene-setting and slow-burning, the revelation felt like a window in heaven had been opened and the light was pouring down. Never underestimate the power of this creative team to manipulate our serial-drama appetites, though. They make us crave answers, beg for destruction, and then with a few quiet words, they pivot their show on a corner and send it strolling toward doomsdays we never anticipated.

“Bug” has little of the flash and style Breaking Bad can deliver—nothing to indicate that something big might be going down. No ominous glints of light or cameras mounted on oddball objects. Beyond the slow-motion cold open, with Walter’s busted glasses, bloody hand, and gore-dripped Wallabees—and beyond the similar underwater feel of the “scene of intense violence” that the network warns us about—there’s an almost utilitarian feel to this episode. Characters learn stuff and do stuff; the show palpably gets on with it. It’s precisely this functional veneer that could cause us to miss how many Rubicons get crossed in “Bug.”  I count three enormous, no-going-back decisions presented for three different characters, none of them in consultation with any other, all of them responding to circumstances carefully built up brick by brick and emotion by emotion throughout this season.

Gus: “Tell them the answer is yes.” After a harrowing sniper attack that splatters the contents of a flunky’s skull truckside, Fring strides out amidst the bullets and extends his arms, daring the assailant to take him out. (It’s a move Jesse dubs “the Terminator.”) But even though the sniper (who appears to be the same cartel rep who dissed Gus at the big meet-up in “Problem Dog”) surrenders the field, Gus has gotten the message and decided to surrender. The cartel won’t kill him, but it will make it impossible for him to do business, and for the moment, Gus is a businessman.

As many of you discerned two weeks ago, the cartel’s demand is for Heisenberg. Or if not for the man personally, for the secret of the blue meth. And with his strategy for redefining the answer “yes,” Gus may be continuing to play the long game and concealing some revenge-motivated twist beneath that all-business concession. He has no intention of giving them Walter; he wants to send Jesse to Mexico as a kind of meth consultant, teaching them the formula and the process. Is the idea that these two organizations producing identical crystal have territorial boundaries, the cartel south of the border and Gus north?  Mike explains to Jesse that the cartel can’t kill Gus because it needs his distribution network, but we learned in “Hermanos” that he is protected not by what he can bring to the organization, but by who he is (presumably related to his murky Chilean past). Gus isn’t distributing cartel product; he’s competing with it. Which is why this technology-sharing doesn’t make sense unless it comes with a binding truce and some sharply defined borders.

Skyler: “If you don’t pay them, they will reopen the investigation and that little fiction will completely unravel.” When Ted showed up at the car wash (“You look happy,” he tell Skyler, then trails off, “Last time I saw you… ”), my first thought, I confess, was this site’s Inventory of dropped subplots, and how vindicated I feel that Skyler’s adventure in creative accountancy at Beneke Fabricators doesn’t belong on that list. No, this is one subplot that is going to double down in the main plot, A Simple Plan-style, as Skyler considers the uselessness of cash mouldering in the crawl space and realizes how useful it could be in keeping herself out of trouble. Ted’s being audited by the criminal investigation division of the IRS, and abashedly begs for Skyler’s help in “uncooking the books,” as she puts it.  (Or as he puts it, with much hemming and hawing, “With your knowledge of how the books got the way they are, maybe there’s some way you can undo what’s in there.”)  Skyler has little sympathy until she realizes that her ass is on the line because she certified those books, and “I cannot be audited right now”—not right after we’ve watched her playacting a bunch of fake transactions to get Walter’s meth money into the car wash cash register, each time stapling the receipt with a friendly, “Please give this to your car care professional.”

So she buys Ted a break by showing up at the audit all cleavage-y and bubbleheaded (“this building has so many doors, it’s so confusing!”) and playing dumb with the explanation that she didn’t record electronic payments, only checks.  “When I input everything into the Quicken, nothing flashed red so that’s gotta mean it’s okay right?” she asks the auditor with wide-eyed innocence, and when he dumbfoundedly repeats that she’s doing the accounting for a large construction business on Quicken, she enthuses: “It is the best, isn’t it? It’s like having a calculator on your computer!” There—fixed it, she thinks. Now Ted can pay the back taxes and interest, avoid the fine and jail time since the investigator no longer considers the matter criminal, and they’ll both be out of the woods. But Ted can’t pay. When Skyler mentions another mortgage on his house, selling his Mercedes, he replies that he has a lien on his house and then drives away in a creaking subcompact. And that’s when Skyler opens up the trap door to the crawl space where the un-launderable extra Fring cash is stuffed in space bags. Letting that money out is one huge Pandora’s box of a bad idea.

Jesse: “Can you walk? Then get the fuck out of here and never come back.” But the biggest bridge conflagration of the night belongs to Jesse, and it’s heartbreaking because of how clearly we see that he has not made up his mind before that moment. “Bug” is all about Conflicted Jesse, trying to buy some time to figure out how to follow his bliss and please his mentors at the same time. “I’ll do it,” he repeatedly insists to Walter when the man awkwardly tries to share a cigarette break with him (“You gotta inhale, by the way,” he comments, and “Man, don’t you have enough cancer already?”). And for the first time since “Problem Dog” we see that he’s seriously thinking about doing it. When Gus invites him to the Fring compound for the requisite courting dinner, he extracts the ricin-loaded cigarette from the pack before entering and eyes the stewpot as a possible delivery device. Then when Gus makes his pitch, Jesse is ready with his Walter-inspired outrage: “Is this your plan—be my buddy and make me feel important, then get me to keep cooking for you after you kill Mr. White?” he yells. “If you kill Mr. White, you’re going to have to kill me too!”

It’s like he’s parroting the White party line, but it’s not a put-on. We see just how much of Walter’s methodology he’s absorbed while he’s cleaning up ultraviolet residue from the laundry floor in preparation for Hank’s visit (awkwardly but effectively delayed by Walter with a tale of intestinal distress attributed to “bad Tex-Mex”). In his best just-two-guys-jawing Walter White style, Jesse tries to plant the suggestion to Mike that killing Hank is asking for trouble: “Killin’ a cop, I don’t know… could look suspicious if the dude who’s investigating you suddenly up and dies. And there’s Mr. White, who would be even more apeshit if he had family getting murdered… he’d never cook for Gus again.” Insouciant pause. “Lot of angles to consider.”

But when Walter gets righteously angry while taking the moral low road, discovering that Jesse saw Gus and didn’t make his move, then revealing that he got this information by putting a tracking device on Jesse’s car—well, that tears it. “You bugged my car?” Jesse smoulders, then mutters in disbelief, “… everything I have done for you?” And Walter goes apeshit, completely incapable of understanding that their relationship has been forever altered when Jesse killed Gale on his behalf, and blind and deaf to the help that Jesse just requested of him, the first time Jesse’s reached for that mentoring bond this season. “You signed my death warrant!” Walter screams. “Go to Mexico and wind up in a barrel somewhere!”

Walter: “What does it matter? We’re both dead men anyway.” Or maybe it’s more like: “Yeah, you just go ahead.” The only one who doesn’t seem to see any choices in front of him, Walter just continues to play his desperate, frustrated ends-against-the-middle games. He acts out by calling the cops on Tyrus when he gets sick of being followed. He foists off Hank’s field-trip enthusiasm and turns to Jesse, his weapon of choice, to extract himself from in between Scylla and Charybdis. When Skyler offers to choose Walter Jr.’s birthday car and plan his low-key dinner, Walter is completely passive. With survival as his only aim, he can’t see beyond his own needs and recognize the choices anybody else is facing. And that’s why he leaves Jesse’s house beat up and broken. It remains to be seen whether a punch will finally get through to him when a human life disintegrating in front of his eyes hasn’t been able to do so.

Stray observations:

  • Hank thinks that his “mineral show” outings with Walter are more like Rocky than a spy movie. Then he breaks into a scatting rendition of “Eye Of The Tiger” which disintegrates into mumbling in the second line of the chorus: “Rising up! mmm uh um mmm… ”
  • After work, Jesse watches Ice Road Truckers. To Walter’s feigned interest in the show’s premise, he responds: “Guys drive on ice.”
  • Skyler suggests that the car wash is close to turning a profit on its own, meaning Walter could think about an “exit strategy” from his “second job.” “I’m working on it,” Walter equivocates, eyeing his very own SkyMall tracking device.
  • Some high-quality mentoring Mike offers Jesse in the aftermath of the sniper attack: “Next time, don’t stand there like an idiot.  Run, move your feet and so forth.”
  • Walter’s selective hearing is brilliantly illustrated in the scene where Jesse appeals to him for help on his mission to Mexico. Jesse: “Word has come down that they want me to go to Mexico—there’s some sort of war brewing between Gus and the cartel.” Walter: “‘Word has come down’?”
  • I would watch a whole show of just Walter pissing off Mike. Walter: “Is this going to be a regular thing now? Meth cooking and corpse disposal?” Mike: “Shut up and grab a barrel. And if you ever plan on calling the cops on one of my guys again, you go ahead and get two barrels.”