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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: "Bullet Points"

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“Why am I the only person behaving in a professional manner?” Walter grouses to Saul in the central conversation of tonight’s episode. It seems an odd complaint considering that Walter is about to identify what should be his central concern — that the police are investigating Gale’s death, that they have some leads, and that if Jesse gets picked up as a suspect, the whole Los Pollos Hermanos empire is at risk. Meaning that Gus will be looking to secure his position and eliminate the threat by silencing Jesse permanently. Or, as Saul puts it, “Pinkman is first in the imminent demise department.”

But Walter, as usual, has himself on his mind first and foremost. He’s steamed that everyone seems to be focused on putting him in his place, rather than taking care of business. From Mike (“that grunting, dead-eyed cretin”) punching him out, to Gus wielding his box cutter, everyone is sending messages to Walter about the pecking order. “Hello, Western Union, message received!” Walter announces theatrically to the world at large. He’s equally pissed about Skyler’s elaborate orchestration of their cover story about his gambling winnings, the one that’s going to explain to Hank and Walter, Jr. and anybody else who comes asking how they got $800K to buy a car wash. Despite Skyler’s protestations to the contrary, Walter correctly perceives that her script is intended to served the dual purpose of furthering their money-laundering plans and continuing to punish him for everything he’s done.

Does he at least have a point about his colleagues’ lack of professionalism? In the case of dead-eyed Jesse, certainly — although Walter’s inability to ascertain the reason for his reckless behavior is wrenching. We’ve come a long way from the Walter who took on the job of revenge to spare his surrogate son from that guilt. The moment he asserted an equivalence between that act of love and the murder he wanted Jesse to do to in return, Walter lost the relationship that had been his saving grace in this violent world. Now he forces Jesse to relive Gale’s shooting as an exercise in damage control, to Jesse’s evident distress, and assumes that his off-hours partying is just the typical Jesse fuckup rather than a cry for help.

In the two examples he cites right before his professionalism rant, though, Walter betrays a fundamental misconception of the business he’s in. When Mike decked him and Gus engaged in box-cutter theater, they were acting as consummate professionals — professional criminal enforcers. That’s one of the points of the magnificent cold (get it?) open showing Mike taking out two of Gus’s enemies after they riddle his refrigerated truck with automatic weapons fire. That’s his job, and he doesn’t get flustered or take it personally; even when he loses a piece of his right ear to an enemy round, he treats it as an occupational annoyance. And it goes without saying that he does that job well, biding his time, waiting out his opponents, then dispatching them with overpowering force. Sending a message and doing what his boss pays him for, all without letting pride get in the way — that’s Mike, professional cleaner. Where Walter gets off questioning Gus’s professionalism, I have no idea; the man is the very picture of cool competence.  

What Walter fails to appreciate is that there’s a difference between business and crime. In a criminal organization, one can never forget that violence is a first-line strategy. Ironically, that’s exactly the same mistake Gale made. Gale failed to recognize that Walter would regard him as a threat rather than a colleague; poignantly, in the season opener, he even invites his own demise by recommending that Gus bring Walter into the enterprise. In the drug business, every colleague is a potential threat, and every alliance is contingent on extreme self-defense. That’s why Walter is still alive and Gale is dead. In fact, Gale is the object lesson Walter should be studying rather than Victor. Gale acted like an employee and an scientist, valuing helpfulness and quality work instead of self-preservation. In his own whiny way, Walter is doing the same thing, demanding his rights and criticizing the boss instead of figuring out how to survive in the situation at hand.  

It seems that Walter momentarily recognizes and mourns Gale as a human being when he appears in that heartbreaking Cambodian karaoke DVD (featuring his rendition of Peter’ Schilling’s unlikely 1984 hit single, and sequel to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes.” “Major Tom (Coming Home)”). There’s a look of sadness and regret on his face amidst the chilling terror of recognizing just how close Hank is to unmasking his secret. He quickly goes into damage-control mode, though, and not the flailing, defensive kind. Instead he neatly deflects Hank’s penetrating question about who W.W. is in Gale’s poetic epigraph “To W.W., my star, my perfect silence” by noting that Gale has sketched Walt Whitman beside his copied-out “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer” (as quoted in Season 3’s “Sunset,” and to whose last line the epigraph refers). What does Hank suspect?  Nothing concrete, I’m guessing, but he's talking to a guy who just revealed a secret life as a high-stakes gambler, a tale to which Hank’s response is a bemused “Wow. Not surprisingly, Hank’s law enforcement instincts have him watching for tells everywhere, even if the inklings haven’t reached his conscious awareness yet.

As soon as possible, though, Walter responds to his newfound knowledge about Gale’s murder investigation (tossed off by Hank as “APD business”) by rushing around trying to fix things. Finally a chance for him to act rather than sit in the corner with the dunce cap on absorbing lessons. So invigorating is it — and so thoroughly does Walter believe that he’s capable of making a long-term go of this meth thing — that he hesitates only a moment when Saul offers him a last-resort way out: the number of someone who will disappear him and his family and render them incapable of being found by their former associates. “You two have a little shit creek action going there,” Saul commiserates. “You know, you can buy a paddle.” No doubt we’re hearing about this now because Walter may get that desperate soon, but for now, there’s little allure to this suggestion. Walter wants to win, and still believes he can if he makes the right moves.

He’s right about this, at least: Walter stands in the gap between Skyler’s version of a meth business, where you just need your stories straight, your research squared away, and your personnel to play their roles; and Gus’s version, where life is a lot cheaper than chicken batter. Gale stood there, too, but didn’t realize it; Walter has the advantage of knowing his place, even if he’s not satisfied. What if Gale had been the one who saw the threat and took out Walter? What would the pieces of Walter’s dual life look like in a folder of evidence and clues, tossed together in unintentionally comic juxtaposition? Walter is perfectly situated to see the big picture and act decisively — if he can open his eyes and swallow his pride. And the predicament Jesse has just gotten himself into, through so blatantly not caring whether he has money or not, where Mike is taking him, whether he lives or dies, might be the wake-up call Walter needs. Jesse’s eyes are conspicuously unblindfolded, and he’s smart enough to know what that means. Next week we’ll see if Walter can shed his blinkers and act like a human being instead of an aggrieved wage slave.

Stray observations:

  • Vince Gilligan has talked frequently in interviews about the role of karma in his conception of Walter’s journey. It occurs to me that Skyler, at least, believes herself to be karma’s human agent.  She puts herself in charge of making him pay. This is only one of several occasions recently where she’s taken advantage of an occasion’s dual purpose, from the car wash serving as functional drug-money cleanser and corrective to the past, to the Gambler’s Anonymous meeting not only providing perfect support for the blackjack story but also contributing a metaphor to Skyler’s dinner theater script.
  • Walter disdains Skyler’s attempt to coach him on implementing the system he’s supposedly developed, especially after his decision to hit on a soft 18 turns out to be a loser. “The key thing to remember here is that it’s not about any one hand,” he blusters.
  • I hope all the BB fans who watch it for action and general badassery enjoyed the ultra-cool opening scene with Mike in the refrigerated truck and batter splattering the camera lens. What makes BB great, though, is that a scene like that isn’t obligatory fan service or deployment of the show’s signature style. It makes a thematic point about the difference between Mike’s approach to his job and Walter’s, and it serves to remind us that we’ve never seen Mike shirk his duty yet, causing us to suspect that whatever happens out in the desert with Jesse, it won’t be Mike going soft.
  • Many of you have also been waiting for Walt Jr. to reappear, and he gets a nice moment at Hank’s dinner table undercutting Skyler’s plan by considering his dad’s gambling addiction to be awesome.
  • Skyler has almost convinced herself that her gambling revelation counts as honesty: “Coming clean with Hank and Ju— … appearing to come clean will be the best thing for everyone.”
  • Oh, that speech. That whole scene where the two of them go over the sheaf of script pages is wincingly brutal. “I’m going to launch with the exciting news that we are buying a car wash,” she begins, leading Walt to sardonically contribute, “Yay.” Then she betrays that her skill at creative accounting doesn’t carry over to creative writing: “‘We’re going to tell you the whole story, it’s a doozy, so hold on to your hats’ … keeps it light while leading them to expect something big.” And finally she suggests that Walter “look down at the floor with remorse” after reiterating how terribly, terribly ashamed he is, and settles for him glancing at his feet with pointed sarcasm.
  • The gambling story serves the auxiliary purpose of allowing Marie to tell Hank that the Whites are covering his bills, whenever she’s ready; right now he thinks the insurance is covering everything. In reality Skyler won’t allow Marie to spend a dime, meaning she will owe Skyler big time, and you can bet Skyler will collect sooner or later.
  • In Gale’s lab notes, along with the Heisenberg formula: a list of top ten recumbent bikes, a recipe for vegan s’mores, indoor composting tips, and that Far Side cartoon where the scientist is about to pop a paper bag behind the one working on the nuclear warhead.  Even from beyond the grave, Gale is the character that keeps on giving.
  • Hank is legitimately energized and upbeat during the dinner and afterwards. After a well-timed moment when the Whites burst into happy greeting after standing tensely on the Schraders’ front porch like actors waiting in the wings, he joshes with Walt Junior, refuses to let Walter push his wheelchair, gets peeved when Walter rattles off a bunch of chemical facts about the mineral he’s demosnstrating, and shows his old DEA bravado when discussing the case. He professes to assume that Gale is Heisenberg and only regrets that he wasn’t there to make the arrest himself — “Popeye Doyle waving the old Frog One.” (To which Walter reminds him that Doyle didn’t catch the bad guy in the first film, at least.)
  • Walter notices that the security camera is following Jesse around, not him. And Jesse’s still skimming enough to throw blue rocks at his partyguests lest any of them lose the energy to rant about the dangers of various kinds of radiation, especially for susceptible folks in rural areas where the ozone layer’s already thin due to the cow farms.
  • “You should see his house. It’s like Skid Row. He has actual hobos living there.”
  • “Just make sure to really hit the cancer, really touch on the fear and despair … We want them to understand why you could do something so stupid.”
  • “There’s got to be something else that I can do, something to keep everything from spiralling out of control.”
  • “Wanna ask where we’re going?” “Nope.”