It’s funny how Breaking Bad will take its time, episode after episode, carefully setting up dominoes, and then in an instant knock them all down with one impulsive swipe, rather then going for the traditional topple. Last week, the screws tightened on our heroes and anti-heroes in ways that were surprising, though still roughly on-pace for a Breaking Bad season. Under pressure because of Ted’s unwillingness to pay his goddamn taxes, Skyler had to tell her ex-boss and ex-lover that she was the one behind his unexpected windfall, and thus outed herself as an illicitly wealthy woman. Humiliated and depressed after his beat-down at Jesse’s hands, Walt finally expressed some contrition, albeit only to Junior, who had no idea what his dad was weeping about. And down Mexico way, Jesse worried that he’d been traded to a rival cartel for a dealer to be named later, until Gus went all Graham Young on his longtime enemies. The episode ended with corpses strewn everywhere and secrets on the brink of being exposed, and though the Breaking Bad writers had gotten to that point in a roundabout way, it was a point I’m sure we all pretty much expected they’d get to eventually.
And then this week…. Ho-lee crap.
I’m going to express a hesitation—just a slight hesitation, mind you—with “Crawl Space,” and I’m going to do it right up top, so I can get into the amazing last 10 minutes, which were as intense and terrifying as any horror movie I’ve seen lately. (And that last shot! Ho-lee… well, y’know.) “Crawl Space” is primarily a plot episode, not a theme episode, so it lacks some of the thoughtful Breaking Bad exploration of how corruption infects both the corrupt and anyone in their immediate vicinity. That more subtle, character-based side of the show is primarily evident in some early exchanges between Walt and Tyrus, where Walt blusters about how he’ll quit if Jesse doesn’t make it back alive from Mexico, and then reminds Tyrus that Hank is still scoping out one of the Los Pollos Hermanos facilities, and suggests that once it’s “made presentable,” Walt should be the one to take Hank out there. When Tyrus—typically—says nothing, Walt mutters, “Just run it up the chain of command.” One of the most reliable sources of comedy and pathos in Breaking Bad is the way Walt uses the language of the Organization Man to try and wrest some small measure of control from the criminals who hold his fate in their hands.
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But those kinds of small moments are in short supply in “Crawl Space.” In their place: big moments. Huge moments. Moments coming so fast that at times it almost feels like there’s a scene or two missing from the episode.
Hank provides the catalyst for the rapid acceleration in the action. Unable to get any info from Tyrus about what’s going on in Mexico, Walt takes advantage of the long, uneventful stakeout time with Hank to ask if he’s heard any cartel news. (Hank tells him about a “big play down south… lots of bodies… we’ll know more when the buzzards leave the bones.”) All the while, Walt pushes Hank to get out of the car and check out the facility they’re watching, hoping that he’ll find nothing and will stand down from the Fring investigation. “Our next three moves are sitting here and waiting,” Hank stubbornly replies, noting that criminal investigation is “not all supermodels and speedboats.” (He also kills time by repeating the facts of the Fring case thus far, which struck me as kind of unnecessary.) Then, all of a sudden, Hank mentions that he’d like to swing by an industrial laundry that he suspects might be a Fring front, and Walt, unprepared for this development and in the dark in general with respect to his criminal cohorts, panics outside the laundry’s parking lot and intentionally crashes into another car, sending Hank and himself to the hospital.
But as we’ve learned over and over again on Breaking Bad, delaying the inevitable doesn’t prevent it. (Or to put it in terms Walt would understand: remission is not recovery.) When Walt gets discharged, he learns that business didn’t get put on hold while he was out of commission. Pinkman cooked without him, proving once and for all that Walt is expendable. Which is a big problem, not just for Walt but for his entire family.
One of the benefits of Breaking Bad’s studying-all-the-angles-before-taking-the-shot approach to storytelling is that by now, we know what’s a plausible option and what’s not. It made sense that Gus would keep Walt alive once Gale was dead, and made sense that Gus would keep Jesse safe and on the payroll at Walt’s behest. It makes sense now that Gus will do what Jesse asks and just “fire” Walt instead of killing him. True, Jesse’s still an unreliable junkie, but he proved his worth down in Mexico when he stood up to the cartel and made a perfect batch of blue. (Moreover, Jesse may have proved that if he can make the meth, pretty much anyone can.)
But Hank? There’s no reason for Gus to let Hank live. Hank’s closing in on whole Fring operation, and in a week he’ll have his own “gimpmobile” and will be able to investigate without Walt’s clumsy diversions. There’s no card that Walt can play to save Hank. As for Jesse? Well, he’s never been a big fan of Hank.
So with all of that well-established, we get the astonishing, white-knuckle last act of “Crawl Space.” After Walt goes to see Jesse to apologize (and to ask why he cooked while Walt was indisposed), he gets zapped by Tyrus and dragged out into the desert. I was reminded of last season’s “Sunset,” where Hank cornered Walt and Jesse in their RV at the junkyard in the middle of an episode, where most shows would’ve made that moment a cliffhanger. Now here’s Walt, facing Gus and sure he’s a dead man, and the episode still has ten minutes to go.
Once Walt realizes that Gus isn’t going to kill him—as the clouds roll overhead, ominously—he tries to assert what he imagines to be his leverage over Gus. But Gus is feeling cocky after taking down the cartel. (He’s even been to see Tio Héctor in the nursing home, to tell him about the slaughter down south and to hiss, “The Salamanca name dies with you.”) Gus tells Walt that if he tries to stop him from killing Hank, he’ll kill his whole family, including the baby.
At this point, the plot moves very rapidly—though it also feels a little like witnessing in accident in slow motion. Walt calls Saul, and asks him to get the guy who knows how to disappear people. Saul gives Walt the number for a vacuum cleaner repairman, and tells him to call for a new dust filter for a “Max Extract Pressure Probe Model 60,” and to be prepared to leave within an hour of making the call, with about a half-million dollars at the ready to pay for “the filter.” Saul also agrees (extremely reluctantly) to place an anonymous call to the DEA to warn that there’s a hit out on Hank. Then Walt rushes home to gather his people and… he discovers that Skyler has given the bulk of their money-stash to Ted.
Breaking Bad is one of the most stylish shows on TV, sometimes to the point of being show-offy. But because the creative team is willing to move the camera or use time-lapse or do kooky perspective shots, they can pull off an image as bizarre and unsettling as the one that ends “Crawl Space:” with a bruised, purple-faced, cackling and cobwebbed Walt, on his back in the dirt below his house. Walt is shot from above and framed through the portal to the crawlspace, as the soundtrack throbs with a low pulse, the camera drifts up and the walls appear to shake. I watch a lot of television and a lot of movies, and I’ve never seen anything quite like that.
As I said, much of what happened in this episode was bound to happen, really. But to have it all spin out of control so rapidly was a real shock. It took some set-up and some stalling and some Ted-ex-machina to get us here, but now Walt and his family are targets again, with nothing—not even money—to shield them. Walt’s laid out flat, covered in dust, with the weight of his whole shaky construction pressing on top of him. Next week we’ll see if there’s any room to maneuver under there.
- There’s one major subplot in “Crawl Space” I didn’t bring up, and it’s one that may end up giving Walt an out. That obstinate bastard Ted calls Skyler to his home and gives her most of her money back, minus the money he spent on his new car (because “leases are pretty ironclad”). He explains to her that just paying off the IRS won’t allow him to keep his business or his house, with its elegantly spare furnishings and clunky, easy-to-trip-on rug. Skyler thinks he’s shaking her down for more money (which she might be willing to provide), but he insists he’s not. So Skyler calls Saul, who sends Huell and another lackey over to force Ted to write a check to the IRS, which they plan to make sure clears. But Ted makes a break for it, and trips over his rug, and bangs his head on his kitchen island, and… well, we don’t find out for sure by the end of this episode whether Ted’s alive or dead. But if he’s alive, the prospect of Ted’s tax troubles and their potential for exposing Walt might be the kind of thing he can spin to his advantage with the ever-cautious Gus.
- I should also mention the exciting conclusion to Jesse’s Mexican Vacation, which involves a makeshift O.R. in some kind of a warehouse, a hypodermic needle through Gus’ tongue, a full blood transfusion for Gus, and a seriously wounded Mike being left to rot until Gus is taken care of, because the doctor knows who’s paying his salary. Later, Jesse talks more with the doctor, and discovers that the doc already has bags of blood of Jesse’s type in the fridge, and already knows Jesse’s allergies and bad habits. Still later, Gus and Jesse get to bond some as they hike six miles to a spot where a man is waiting to truck them across the border. (“There are many good ways south,” Gus sighs. “Only one way north.”)
- Hector is watching Bridge On The River Kwai when Gus comes to see him at the home. Who’s the Alec Guinness character in this series? At the moment, I gotta go with Walt. Especially after the way this episode ends.
- Speaking of Walt, it’s amusing to see him looking more and more beat up as the episode progresses. Hank even remarks on it during the stakeout, assuming that the Jesse-related bruises are due to some kind of gambling situation (as Walt had said to Junior). Hank tells a long story about a buddy who had his car repoed because of an addiction to scratch-and-wins, but Walt, in no mood to play his part, mutters, “I’m done explaining myself.”
- Furthering the indignity: Tyrus sneaks Walt into work in a pile of dirty laundry.
- I like the casualness of the scene between Jesse and his girlfriend’s kid, playing videogames. “You’re just pressin’ buttons and makin’ it do magical stuff,” Jesse coos.
- Classic Skyler, bringing frozen yogurt to the recuperating Hank. According to Junior, “I said to Mom, ‘Ice cream,’ but she was like, ‘It tastes the same but it’s healthier.’ Sorry, I tried.”
- I know many of you take issue with Donna’s tough grading-on-a-curve policy with this show, but she’s a professor in a university honors program, so that’s just how she rolls. Always room for improvement. I mean, I’ve lost over 40 pounds this year, and I’m still just a “B.”
- Donna will back with you next week, by the way. Due to issues with our AMC screener, she wasn’t able to get to this week’s episode before she left on a trip to Japan. So I got to have my annual fill-in review. Tradition!