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

Breaking Bad: "Half Measures"

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: "Half Measures"

Ever since the pilot, Walter has been taking half measures.  It may not seem like it; what could be more all-in than the meth lab in the desert, than killing Crazy-8, than the money behind the insulation, than letting Jane die?  But the whole time, Walter has been telling himself that it's all provisional.  When he had cancer and thought he was going to die, he was doing it just to provide for his family.  Everything else he did was to further and protect that ultimate cause.  If there was no more need for it — say, because he didn't have cancer anymore, or the family was able to provide for itself — well, then, he wouldn't be a meth cooker anymore, would he?  And yet here we are in Season 3, cancer in remission, and Walter's still cooking … why?  That's the question that's been gnawing at him all season, a question whose impenetrable depths have led him to a strange passivity.  When he was dying, everything had urgency.  There was a clarity to his quest, even in its most extreme moments.  Yet he refused to identify as what he was, a criminal and a murderer, because it was all provisional.  Like Walter Jr.'s license to drive, it was a stop on the way to another goal.  And like Walter Jr.'s unorthodox both-feet-on-the-pedals driving technique, it didn't matter if he didn't do it exactly by the books.  As long as it got him safely home.

When Mike the Cleaner delivers his big speech to Walter — "no more half measures" — it's clear what he means.  Walter is trying to keep Jesse on the Gus Fring team by diverting him from his crusade against the dealers who killed Combo (and worse, it seems to Jesse, made Andrea's eleven-year-old brother Tomas the triggerman).  He comes up with the idea of getting Jesse convicted of a minor crime and sent to low-security detention for a while, just enough so he'll cool off.  ("Not to jail," he protests to Saul. "I'm talking about one of those situations where you're in an orange jumpsuit picking up litter along the highway."  "That's jail," Saul informs him.)  To Mike the Cleaner, this is "moronic."  Worse, "the boss wouldn't like it." Jesse's a guy who's "been on the bubble for a long time"; the message of his long story about threatening the wife-beater during his days as a cop is that some people can't be changed.  It's no use trying to contain the damage.  Best to acknowledge reality and do what has to be done.

One wonders what Mike thinks about Gus Fring's solution to the Jesse vs. corner dealers problem, which is pretty much the essence of the cautionary tale Mike tells Walter.  Gus tries to scare everybody straight by bringing them together for a summit and throwing his boss-man-of-mystery weight around.  It's the first crack in the Fring armor, isn't it?  The moment Gus tells the dealers "No more children," and apparently thinks that this toothless proscription solves the moral problem Jesse has brought to his attention, is the moment he reveals that he doesn't have control of the situation.  His greatest strength — that he's first and foremost a businessman — is also his weakness.  Principles schminciples.  Just get 'em to shake hands so the product keeps flowing.  That's his notion of problem-solving.

And it's not just Mike telling Walter that it's time to fish or cut bait.  He's still trying to make distinctions with Skyler that reveal he's in provisional mode long after the category has ceased to make sense.  Trying to keep his source of income disentangled from his family life is ludicrous at this stage, yet he has not yet committed to Skyler's plan to make the scheme sustainable.  But of course he's not the only one with a half-measures problem in the White household; Skyler, for her part, still wants the moral high ground of the estrangement, refusing to let him move back in or resume a regular paternal role.

Only Jesse is willing to put all his chips on the table, it seems.  At the end of his rope, and sure about his identity (he sneers pityingly at Walter's desperate insistence that "you are not a murderer; I'm not and you're not, it's as simple as that"), with nothing to guide his behavior except the rock-solid principle that somebody who uses a kid as a murder weapon deserves to die, he's not about to be dissuaded from justice.  By the end of the episode, we see that even his plan to give them ricin-laced burgers through Hooker Wendy, extreme as it seemed to Walter, was a half measure.  He was trying to do the deed and get away clean, have his cake and eat it too — and worse, he was making somebody else the delivery device for the death he wanted to deal, just like the dealers used Tomas.  He plays on Wendy's maternal instinct to get her on his side, urging her to think of the murder like the things she does to keep her son Patrick safe.  ("Wouldn't you do anything to protect him?" he pleads.  "I already do," she mumbles.)  Then when he foolishly accepted Gus's word that it was over, the consequence was Tomas dead beside his twisted bike.  No more half measures.  Jesse snorts some meth; the principle of sobriety no longer matters.  He's willing to die to avenge the family, a place he should have come to long before Tomas paid the price for his reticence, for the plotting and planning and self-preservation instinct that has all been revealed as futile.

And so Walter finally takes Mike the Cleaner's advice — but opposite from what he intended.  In the bar Jesse protests that Walter was ready to poison Tuco with ricin — why not the dealers, then?  Walter responds that "Tuco wanted to murder us; these guys don't.  Apples and oranges."  The plan to murder Tuco enabled them to stay alive and preserve their business.  By contrast, "This achieves nothing.  It accomplishes nothing."  In other words, only provisional measures make sense.  Nothing is to be done for its own sake; only to advance some larger end.  "Sometimes compromises have to be made for the best of reasons," as Walter hisses to Jesse's voicemail.  But Jesse is seeing through the other end of that telescope.  Only things that are just and worthwhile in their own right, not as a step on the road to something else, make sense to do.  Everything else is a half measure.  And when Walter hears on the television that an eleven-year-old boy has become "yet another casualty of this city's ongoing war against drugs and the gangs who sell them," he finally see Jesse's point.  It's time to take the advice that Jesse gives to Wendy, to do whatever it takes to protect a son.  And this time, to do it in full knowledge and in honesty to one's self about why you're doing it.  Saving Jesse even if it means sacrificing the other goals and principles that you'd been treating as ends.  Acknowledging that Jesse himself is an end to be protected that trumps all the precious lies you've been telling yourself.  Mike wanted Walter to stop taking half measures and acknowledge that Jesse is beyond redemption.  Walter, instead, stops taking half-measures in that redemption effort.  So that Jesse didn't have to be the murderer, Walter did the murder.  It's not just getting home safe; it's doing things right.


Remember where we were at this time last season?  Walter by the bedside watching as Jane choked to death.  Inaction has become action.  And just like that moment last year, Walter's made a choice that will change everything.

Stray observations:

  • Typically arresting montage in the cold open showing Wendy the prostitute turning tricks at the Crossroads Motel, set to the Association's bouncy pop hit "Windy."  Especially clever was the editing that showed her "bending down to give me a rainbow," then the seemingly endless repetition of that same shot in different cars with different guys.
  • If I were starting a money-laundering business, my first stop — like Skyler's — would be the Wikipedia entry on money laundering.
  • A breakthrough in the Hank storyline: Thanks to a lost bet and the funniest smash cut of the season (from his eyes rolling back to being wheeled out of the room with flowers on his lap), he's out of the hospital.  Also, Marie may not be able to keep Walter's "gambling" secret very well if she's asking Walter Jr. whether Dad's giving him card-playing lessons, and Hank is about to start asking questions since the Whites now have no visible means of support.
  • Meanwhile, Walter can't make Saul's scales of justice balance with binder clips, while Saul can't win at computer Klondike.
  • I watched that run of Jeopardy!, and like Walter Jr. said, that guy was really good.  "What's a yawp?"  "It's a loud yell."  "That's what I said!"
  • "You knock your way, Groucho, I'll knock mine."
  • "Run."