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

Breaking Bad: "Caballo Sin Nombre"

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: "Caballo Sin Nombre"

For most of “Caballo Sin Nombre” (“A Horse With No Name”), I was preparing to write about how well Breaking Bad does even the expository scenes that are designed to move us from point A to point B. I was going to discuss the ways the writers keep us off balance by not filling us in completely on the motivations behind Walter’s return to his empty homestead, say, and how it makes chilling character bits out of the business of Jesse buying his parents’ house. And then the final act changed everything. We could all see in the season premiere last week that the Cousins were coming for Heisenberg; many of us guessed that they could find Walter by quizzing Tuco’s wheelchair-bound uncle. But who predicted that it would all happen so fast — that the Cousins would be in the White ranch house this week, waiting with an ax to take revenge on Walter when he emerged from the shower after singing “In the desert, you can remember your name, ‘cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain …” (La laaaaa, laaaa, laalalaa la, lalalaaa, laaaaaaa la …)

The last five minutes of this episode was as tense a sequence as this show, with its well-known mastery of tension, has ever produced. But for all my plans to laud its handling of the more everyday moments, I thought there were a couple of clunky elements, too. Hank’s insistence to Marie that Walter must have been having an affair, followed by her demurral based on nothing more than woman’s intuition (“I think there’s something more …”) was a rather cliched way of setting up the pair’s continued efforts to get more information, either out of Skyler or on their own. (Maybe Hank could, y’know, remember last week when Walter told him there was a quarter million in that duffel bag.) And I don’t know what to say about the return of Ted Beneke, Skyler’s handsome boss, who’s still cooking the books and still counting on the romantic tension between them to keep Skyler from blowing the whistle. The moment when he approached her to peer at the numbers over her shoulder, only to have her pointedly move the printouts around the corner of the table, was nicely handled. But Ted still comes off more as an ironic plot generator rather than a human being.

I’d be searching for clues to the episode in America’s oddball hit song, heard first in Walter’s car as he drives through the desert, if the lyrics were anything more than trippy surrealism. But maybe Walter needs to spend a few more days in the desert to work on his rage issues, because he goes off on a cop that stops him for his cracked windshield and ends up sitting in a jail cell with pepper-spray-reddened eyes. At first his anger seems like pure bluster — pretending that he was so traumatized by Wayfarer 515 that he should get a pass on his safety issue. “Sure, pepper spray the man who is expressing his opinion under the First Amendment!” he shouts. But when he shows up at his old house with a peace offering of the biggest pizza I’ve ever seen (and a little bag of dipping sticks), then, after being rebuffed, throws the pizza on the roof, goes on a bender, wakes up face-down in a pile of popcorn, and screams “I’ve got your restraining order right here! Restrain this!” at the answering machine that spit out his wife’s cold voice, the anger seems to be coming from a more deep-rooted problem, don’t you think?

And the question is how Saul Goodman’s surprisingly effective machinations designed to get Jesse and Walter back in the meth cooking business will affect that erupting temper, and be affected by it. First of all, Jesse finds out that his parents are renovating their house in order to sell it, so Saul threatens to reveal that there used to be a meth lab in the basement unless they sell for half their asking price. Then Saul calls up his cleaner, Mike — the one who took care of Jesse’s duplex after Jane’s death — and tells him “we may have a wife problem” in reference to Skyler’s presumed effect on Walter’s willingness to participate in the criminal enterprise. As a result, Jesse shells out $400,000 cash to buy his childhood home, the one his dad won’t let him set foot in when he drops by (“there are pictures on the website if you want to take a look,” Dad offers lamely). And Mike puts a listening device in the White home, which allows him to understand something of what’s about to happen when the Cousins stroll in while Walter’s lathered up inside. What is he hoping to accomplish with the bug initially, though? Something to blackmail Skyler with, the same way he blackmails the Pinkmans? Jesse is resigned and ready to get back to business, presumably without sampling any of the product this time — his 45 days clean chip dangles from his review mirror — but Walter is still insisting “I can’t be the bad guy.” Does Saul think that he can get Walter over Skyler with evidence of infidelity, perhaps, so that he can move on to the other fish in the sea (“You’ve been out of circulation awhile, you’ll be amazed at what’s out there … Thailand, Czech Republic … those women are just so grateful to even be here,” Saul enthuses) and, of course, get the lab back up and running? And why was Walter so determined to get into the house with the money duffel and several suitcases that he snaked in through the crawl space? Is this just a middle finger at Skyler, or does he have some other reason to be there?

What we do know is that this is not going to be a season-long manhunt with the Cousins getting ever closer to Our Antihero. They’re there … in the house … with an ax. If Fring isn’t been alerted just in time and doesn’t called them to a meeting by texting POLLOS moments before Walter steps out of the shower (more Bryan Cranston near-nudity for you fans out there), the jig would be up. As it is, they leave the Wayfarer 515 eyeball on Walter’s clothes: “You’re being watched.” The image of a towel-clad Walter poking his head out the bedroom door to survey the empty hallway foreshadows a season of paranoia to go with the lies and rage.

Stray observations:

  • To the well-observed interactions list we started last week, add the cop who pulls Walter over: “Could you turn the music down, please? … Down means off.”
  • Quite a chicken theme we’ve got going on now. Hank and his colleagues refer to the immigrant-smuggling operation that the Cousins exploded last week as a “chicken run” operated by “polleros.”
  • Jesse tries to converse with his dad about the renovation: “That’ll increase the value … I read that in, I want to say, like … Time magazine.”
  • Note the visual call-back to one of season one’s most iconic images, Walter fishing money out of a rotating dryer drum shot from inside; this time, the same shot reveals Walter retrieving clothes in a laundromat. How the mighty criminal masterminds have fallen.
  • Poor Skyler can’t catch a break with her son. She calls him Flynn, the way he prefers, only now he’s decided that she’s just avoiding saying Walter Jr. because she hates Walter so much she can’t bear to say his name. Meanwhile, in the room where Walter Jr. watches the donations continue to roll in to his Save Walter White website, local (to me) band Lucero enjoys prominent poster placement.
  • Walter’s motel room is a pigsty, but he spots a Band-Aid floating in the motel pool and can’t stop himself from going in there and fishing it out.
  • Tuco’s uncle lives in Albuquerque’s most stereotypical old folks’ home, complete with a TV showing “Joker’s Wild” and shaky biddies doing picture puzzles of pretty kitties.
  • Thank goodness Walter Jr.’s unannounced visit to the Beachcomber brings out the old equivocating, in-denial Walter: “It’s a little difficult to delineate … there are always two sides to every story,” he hedges when his son denounces his mother for unreasoned hatred, then when he gets the chance to drop by while taking the boy home, he heads straight for the Listerine and cologne that Skyler presumably will find irresistible.
  • Odenkirk has a great time with Saul’s meeting with the Pinkmans: “I get it, flat fee client,” he winks at their uptight attorney. Describing the cash buyer for their property: “For our purposes, you might just visualize a large pile of money.” And leafing through their disclosures in a futile effort to find reference to the meth lab contamination: “Oh look, you got your termite inspection.”
  • Jesse’s younger brother Jake’s not going to get to go to space camp because of Saul’s lowball offer. Then Jesse walks up to the door with the keys: “I bought this place.” So cold.
  • What kind of factory floor was Gus Fring standing on when he got Mike’s message about problems at the White’s house? Is that where they make the chicken?
  • Long live the giant pizza on the roof POV shot!