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

Breaking Bad: “Buyout”

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: “Buyout”

Last week’s review started with a verse from Warren Zevon’s “Frank And Jesse James,” about the romance of the outlaw and the way we invest them with our dreams of freedom: They fight back against the oppressive institutions of this world, the song suggests, for our benefit, and get nothing but grief for it. Watching “Buyout” this week, the song lyric that came to mind is so famous, it’s almost a platitude. Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster wrote it, and Janis Joplin most prominently sang it: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

I’ve never believed this line. The kind of freedom that comes from having no responsibilities to other human beings doesn’t seem to me worthy of the name. “Buyout” counts as a standout episode in this remarkable season for the way it shows Walter offering up two sides of the truth of his life, corresponding to the subject and predicate of the song lyric. On the one hand, he’s no longer constrained by a need to maintain appearances or play a bullshit role while plotting behind the scenes. He can be exactly who he actually is inside, with everyone in his life except for Hank and Marie. Thinking about all the different Walter Whites he’s been playing for the last year―devoted family man, indulgent father, noble cancer survivor, gambling addict, indispensable employee, desperado, puppetmaster―it’s remarkable that his current condition allows him to shed nearly all of them, in nearly all the settings he inhabits.

Walt sweeps back the curtain and demonstrates this to Jesse when Skyler walks in on their conversation in the White home. Jesse is flustered, scrambling, trying to find a way out of this incriminating moment, but Walt is supremely calm. Here’s a chance to show Jesse exactly how he’s set forth on his path to empire: By reconquering his own house and his own wife. Walter’s calm dinner invitation to Jesse, and Skyler’s equally calm acquiescence, shows that Walt has Skyler under control and doesn’t need to pretend around her any more. “See?” Walt winks to Jesse, sitting in regal splendor on his La-Z-Boy throne as Skyler heads off to make them a meal. Being yourself and being honest about what you want, shedding duplicity and manipulation, surely counts as freedom.

But Walter is only able to do this because (here comes the other half of the line) he’s got nothing left to lose, and he knows it. In the most heartbreaking of an episode full of heartbreaking moments, he explains to Jesse what just happened at the dinner table―Skyler casually revealing her affair and sarcastically asking to be excused while tipping the rest of the bottle of wine into her glass. She’s taken the kids and she’s waiting for Walt to die. “This business is all I have left now,” he seethes. “And you want to take it away from me.”

That horrific, naked guilt trip gets hurled at Jesse because Jesse is acting like he’s free, and nothing infuriates Walter like other people claiming agency. Traumatized by the killing of the dirt bike kid (14-year-old Drew Sharp, we learn from a TV news report), unnerved by Walter’s cheery insistence that soul-searching can wait for “a year, year-and-a-half, once we’ve cooked through this methylamine and made our money,” and presented with a way out by Mike, Jesse decides to “retire, I guess.” A Gus Fring competitor in Phoenix will buy two-thirds of the methylamine, Mike and Jesse’s share; Mike will pay off his guys in prison; and everybody will walk away not as rich as they would have been after cooking 1,000 gallons of precursor worth of crystal meth, but still $5 million richer. Nobody else will have to get killed (“I vote for that,” Jesse says with feeling); none of them will be in danger from the DEA (who have been tailing Mike relentlessly), and even though it’s not the $300 million that the meth would have brought, as Jesse argues, “$5 million isn’t nothing.”

But Walter explodes at the very idea of “selling out” for “pennies on the dollar.” He intends to keep cooking, and regards Mike and Jesse’s sale of their shares as a betrayal because it will go to a competitor. And it turns out that the competitor isn’t thrilled with the idea, either; he won’t take the deal unless all the Heisenberg precursor goes to him, ensuring that the blue meth is permanently off the market. That means Mike has to strong-arm Walt into selling, or more accurately, into stealing the stuff to prevent Mike from selling it. “I have never seen anybody work so hard not to get $5 million dollars,” Mike observes bemusedly as Walt sputters his objections.


Why doesn’t Walt take the easy money? We already know a lot of the reasons: an insatiable lust for power, the hubris of believing he’s smart enough to be untouchable, a disdain for anyone presuming to dictate the terms of his life. But thanks to its unusually candid dialogue, “Buyout” gives us a new reason. Walter believes what he has—not just the physical resources of supplies and equipment he possesses, but more fundamentally, his native resources of intelligence and invention—is of infinite and absolute worth. And he’s not going to stop until he’s been fairly compensated for them. Which means he’s never going to stop.

That’s the point of the Gray Matter story, an electric moment when a long-dormant thread of the series gets picked back up and woven into a thrilling, revealing tapestry. Walt tells Jesse about the company he and his two friends started, their big dreams, their understanding of the unlimited potential of ideas that hadn’t yet germinated. Then, he says, “something happened… I’m not going to go into detail… for personal reasons” he took a buyout of his third of the business for $5,000. Now the company is worth $2.16 billion. He checks the valuation every week, torturing himself about how cheaply he sold his “potential” and his “kids’ birthright.”


Will there ever be enough money to make up for that ancient mistake? The stock price, in the long term, keeps climbing, and that $5,000 payout looks smaller and smaller by comparison. And of course, Walt’s only gotten smarter and more inventive over the years, as proven by his many and varied triumphs as Heisenberg—why limit himself to the valuation of his grad-school self? There’s no reason to think that there will ever come a time when he has “made his money” and can do that long-delayed soul-searching. The position of emperor, after all, is only relinquished upon death. Or exile. Perhaps to New Hampshire. But that possibility doesn’t appear on Walt’s radar.

So Walt has declared himself and his intentions, paradoxical as they might be. And our attention turns to Jesse. Thanks to the clarity of the train-robbery shooting, he has a real opportunity to break free from the guilt and obligation manacling him to Walt. Look at how he makes the decision to get out of the business without running it by his mentor first, because finally he can’t help avoid seeing his mentor as part of the problem. (Walt, newly tone-deaf to what his partner needs him to say to repair the relationship, rails at Jesse about “that methylamine that we nearly killed ourselves trying to steal” and gets an teeth-gritted glare for focusing on the wrong people being killed.) But unforgiveably, Walt shoves him right back into the middle of one of Heisenberg’s irreducible binaries—this time, between Walt and Skyler. It’s all the worse for being involuntary and completely unfair, as Jesse is made to assume the entire burden of polite conversation at a dinner where the warring Whites stare each other down on either side of him. “Yeah, it’s bad,” he trails off, his voice breaking in despair, after delivering a monologue about the disparity between the attractive packaging and the dreadful, scab-like reality of the frozen lasagna he usually eats.


In the episode’s final act, Walt enacts the kind of commitment to freedom that animals exhibit when they chew their own legs off to escape a trap, burning his wrist as he fashions a makeshift blowtorch to cut through his zip-tie restraints. And when Mike comes back from his gambit to get the DEA off their backs long enough to sell the methylamine and shut down operations, we find out what he’s done with that freedom. He’s pulled Jesse back into his orbit. “Just hear him out, this could work!” Jesse pleads as Mike, having just witnessed an empty garage where the tank of methylamine used to be, holds a gun to a supremely confident Walt’s temple. No freedom for Jesse; he’s returned to that same role in between his partners, trying to keep them from killing each other. Sometimes he’s offered a third way in between their diametrically opposed views of a problem. Sometimes he’s urged one or the other of them to listen to the other and not burn their bridges. Walt has now turned that pattern into a strategy in his own scheme to keep the Heisenberg train running. “Everybody wins,” he calmly promises Mike, even though he’s made it more clear than ever that only his own victory matters. If other people have to get a win once in a while to ensure that his ultimate triumph remains viable, then he’s willing to throw them a bone.

The line in “Me And Bobby McGee” that follows the one quoted up top is “Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free.” Now that makes sense. What’s worth nothing—or even not enough—is exactly what Walter can’t accept. And I expect that he will be sacrificing his freedom on that altar of his own self-worth, just like the song says.


Stray observations:

  • Beautifully shot, unbearably sad cold open this week. The overhead shots of Todd in the dump truck, uncovering first the dirt bike, and then, much later, the kid’s hand, are nothing short of elegiac. And it’s also the return of a chillingly utilitarian trope as the dirt bike is methodically disassembled and chucked into a barrel.
  • Mike once warned Walt that he should get a barrel for himself if he didn’t want to cooperate. And now Walt grimly pulls out a barrel to receive Drew Sharp. It’s like there’s a barrel waiting for all of us.
  • Todd may not know just how convincingly he’s making a bid to replace Jesse as Walt’s partner. His self-justification quotes some of the arguments Walt’s made to Jesse about the necessity of killing in the past, like “At the end of the day it was him or us, and I chose us,” and “I saw a threat, and I took care of it.”
  • When Jesse decks Todd for his flippant “shit happens, right?” remark, I like to think that he’s also punishing Todd for having the utter gall to call Walter “Mr. White.”
  • Stuff Hank talks about at work, as picked up by the bug Mike is monitoring: screwups in HR, case numbers being wrong, the difference between Miracle Whip and mayonnaise.
  • There’s a recurring hint in this episode about ersatz equivalents: Miracle Whip, as mentioned above, and the TV report on fake caviar (made of kelp) in the tented house. Maybe Walt’s “everybody wins” plan involves a blue-meth knockoff.
  • Strong scene between Skyler and Marie, with more heartbreak as Marie lets slip that she knows about Ted just as Skyler seems ready to confide something far more awful to her. It’s devastating to watch Skyler close down as she realizes that Walter has already poisoned that oasis.
  • On a personal note, I know just what Skyler’s feeling when she breaks down crying, Marie moves to take Holly, and Skyler pulls her back defensively. Sometimes holding a little baby who has no idea of the horrible things going on around it feels like the only way to keep your sanity.
  • Walt’s desultory demeanor when Jesse calls him at home is astounding. It’s like he and Jesse have switched places, with Walter punishing Jesse for his betrayal by being utterly indifferent to him.
  • This episode gets my highest rating not only because the straight talk feels like a turning point, but also because everybody gets a terrific character showcase. Mike, for example, tells Walter with his usual worldweary emphasis that they’re going to have to spend all night in the office, “like it’s my birthday.” Skyler isn’t the least bit apologetic telling Jesse that the green beans he’s admiring are “from the deli at Albertson’s.” Marie reveals possibly a bit too much when she praises her therapist Dave, then in the next breath commiserates that she’s also been tempted: “Hell, I’ve even thought of… not seriously, but…” And Saul deploys Mike’s temporary-restraining-order scheme, accusing the DEA of stalking, with a sarcastic “different strokes for different folks, but—he’s just not that into you.” (In his most colorful bit of dialogue, Saul also refers to Hank’s “hard-on” for Mike reaching “Uncle Miltie proportions.”)
  • When Mike frisks Walt, we get a quick close-up of Walt’s wallet and keys being thrown onto a desk. At first I thought that they might end up being left behind and found by the wrong people, but seems to me now that we’re just being shown that Walt had access to his car and to cash when he broke free. (Bad job, Mike, not taking them with you. Walt may be a reckless fool, but don’t underestimate him.)
  • Jesse’s awesome line about the frozen lasagna might also be foreshadowing about some fake product in their future: “It's like yo, whatever happened to truth in advertising?”