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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: "I See You"

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Stuck in a hospital waiting room, Walter notices something amiss.  That table has a short leg.  It's wobbly.  He takes a subscription card out of the Forbes magazine he's reading and folds it a couple of times, sticks it under the leg as a makeshift shim.  Test — nope, still wobbles.  Fold it a couple more times, try it again.  Press that corner repeatedly, like he's calling a bellhop.  No noise, no movement.  Problem solved.

That little character moment, shot mostly at table level and mostly at a longish distance to include everybody in the frame — Walter Jr. brooding, Skyler supporting, and Marie barely holding it together waiting for news about Hank's surgery after multiple gunshot wounds — was by far my favorite in an episode with too many big, broad signifiers.  It's so real and so well-observed, and it tells you something about Walter's current state of mind: He's back in fix-it, tinker-with-it, would-be-mastermind mode.  All the more so because there's nothing much he can really accomplish except (eventually) take a few calls and try to stave off disaster, warning Jesse not to play with the new toys, rashly guaranteeing Fring double the quota next week and blaming the delay on Gale's incompetence.  And his brief moment of contemplating real action — a half-panicked stare at the surviving cousin as Steve grimly promises that the DEA will find out who he is and what he's really after — is usurped by Fring, who in the final act provides the counterbalancing locus of awesomeness.

In between, my complaint about "I See You" is that two characters keep spouting cliches.  There's Marie with her big speeches about the DEA leaving Hank defenseless, and there's Steve with his constant grumbling about the soft treatment the scumbag cousin is getting.  I felt like Walter, Jesse, and Gus were haunting the edges of a self-consciously ordinary drama where wives get hysterical, sisters restrain them, cops contemplate vigilante justice, and doctors relent when someone challenges their bureaucratic definitions of "immediate family."  

Or maybe it's just that hospital sets constrain TV dramas into relatively hackneyed territory.  Because elsewhere, people interact in more Breaking Bad-appropriate ways.  Gale has a quietly aggrieved reaction to the news that Walter is letting him go, and Walter spins a masterpiece of bullshit to explain why: "It's just that we have different rhythms: I'm classical and you're more jazz."  And then, in the first of two instant-karma responses to Walter's bullshit, Jesse shows up, the living embodiment of what Walter apparently meant by classical: "It's like all shiny up in here!"  But the partnership can't get cooking right away, because Jesse brings news that Walter hadn't gotten because the lab doesn't get cell service: Hank's in the hospital.  And the 9-5 job of making 200 pound of blue meth a week grinds to a halt as Walt spends the next several hours enduring Skyler's accusing glances and becoming, briefly, the beneficiary of her calming influence on Marie.

Jesse's not happy about sitting idle, of course, despite the pleasures of using an airhose to make one's clean suit balloon up like the Michelin Man.  So the "Walter White to the courtesy phone" pages start coming (Walter has to pretend it's a well-wisher: "Thank you for calling, Reverend … again …").  And the new, harder-edged Jesse is uninterested in Walter's family's wellbeing.  When he sees Hank being unloaded from the ambulance, he responds to Skinny Pete's inquiry after his well-being with a rictus-grinned "Actually, I'm great."  And he ends his first call to Walter with "Hey, tell your douchebag brother-in-law to head towards the light."

But the I in "I See You" is Gustavo Fring.  This episode is all about the organization now employing Walter — its long reach and ruthless ambition.  Walter may still think of himself as an independent contractor or even a partner in the Pollos enterprise, but that's what Juan the Cartel Head thought, too, and as soon as his interests diverged from Gus's, he found himself gunned down in his own well-guarded home.  At least Walter knows now that he can't bullshit the All-Seeing Eye.  In this week's creepy climax, Walter finds himself gnawing on Gus's benevolent chicken contribution to the DEA's cause, hearing about a $10,000 reward (that Gus is about to make sure never needs to be paid out), and worst of all, discovering that Gus knew the whole Hank-Walter-Cancer connection long ago.  "I'm told the assassin who survived was gravely injured," Gus reassures Walter. "It's doubtful he'll live.  Now thank me and shake my hand."  Moments later Marco codes as Walter watches with dawning comprehension and horror (and Mike the Cleaner exits the building).  He was steeling himself to make just such a play on his own behalf.  To have Gus make it for him lets him know just who's in charge, and how many debts he's piling up for his $1.5 million.

Stray observations:

  • Gale is not going to go quietly; "This makes no sense," he insists before leaving the lab.  And that guy Gus has got keeping an eye on Jesse doesn't look too pleased with what he's seeing.  That same killer instinct that protected Walter from the Cousins could just as easily protect the Fring empire from Jesse.
  • Jesse's ready to start using all the nifty new toys on his own.  "There's gotta be some sort of manual, right?"
  • Another tiny but devastating moment: Walter pushing a lie toward Skylar after hanging up the courtesy phone — "hey, know who that was?" — and having Skyler just walk away, uninterested in playing pretend.
  • I'm not quite sure what to make of the long scene where Marie freaks out about unsanitary cutlery in the hospital cafeteria, prompting Walter to reminisce about having his lumpectomy in that same hospital.  Skyler seems to melt a little bit as she remembers Walter driving to the operation and hitting every green light.  And Walter concludes that Hank's got a fighting chance because "I survived this hospital, and I'm not half the man your husband is."  Is that all about comforting Marie (quite effectively), or is Walter revealing something about his remission mindset?
  • Hope Mark Bowden appreciates the plug for Killing Pablo, a 2001 release that Walter Jr. starts reading to honor Uncle Hank, who said "the good guys never get ink like the bad guys do.
  • If Walter and Jesse still have a quota due the next day, it's not because Juan is expecting it; he's already agreed that there shouldn't be a shipment this week because the operation should lay low until the DEA calms down.  Walter promises 400 pounds without even being asked to make up for lost time.  Fring's so ice cold that he doesn't even have to tell you what he expects before you fall all over yourself to exceed it.
  • I'm sure you all noticed that the scary sight of Marco pulling himself across the floor toward Walter, his bloody stumps leaving a trail on the hospital floor, echoes the pilgrims to Santa Muerte crawling toward the shrine in the season's opening episode.
  • "Some of the equipment got calibrated incorrectly … it's all very technical and boring."