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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: "Open House"

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The criminal life is a risky business. As the example of civic pillar Gustavo Fring proves, foresight in perceiving risks and boldness in managing them is called for. Last week, Gus and Mike schooled Walter in risk management; this week, it’s Skyler at the blackboard. Despite Walter’s continued wearing of the dunce cap and concomitant humiliation, this is an improvement.

Many of you have been waiting for Walter to get smart, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait a little longer. “Open House” shows that he’s still reacting with exaggerated panic or relief to whatever risk is flooding his perception, and that he’s still protesting loudly whenever he feels emasculated by someone swiping his precious sense of control. Just listen to his condescending tones when Skyler expresses concern about him buying a $300 bottle of champagne. He belittles her worries, but of course she is exactly right.  You never know who will be asking questions; scoffing at the possibility is simply foolish. An unemployed schoolteacher looking to evade attention shouldn’t be buying expensive liquor, cash or no. Unbeknownst to Walter, Skyler has been aware of the risk of having no visible means of support for some time, and has been acting to minimize it by juggling bills and asking for extensions from utility companies. Somebody watching is always a risk, and Skyler knows that without even having the slightest clue about who is actually watching, but Walter only sees the brute force of money (or, last week, guns) as a way of reasserting his power.

We saw last week that Skyler’s primary method of risk management is doing her homework. She armed herself with all the information she needed to make a case to Bogdan about buying the car wash — but failed to understand the emotional reasoning that would cause him to reject her logic. Then when she’s coaching the actor (provided by Saul, we are given to understand) as he tells Bogdan there’s no way around retrofitting his facility to clean up his wastewater, she has the volumes of environmental statutes bookmarked and ready for just such a moment as when Bogdan demands chapter and verse for the laws he’s breaking.  Score one for preparation

Walter’s blindness to the risks he’s incurring point to the reason why I assert that he ends this episode in less danger than when it began. Unseen risks burgeon below the level of perception while you’re trying to deal with the flashing red lights and screaming sirens. Exchanging information with someone whose viewpoint augments and might correct your own — sharing the risk and working out the response consciously — that’s far better than undertaking your own half-baked coping strategy. As we will see with Marie and Jesse this week, go-it-alone risk management quickly devolves into self-medication, and much bigger risks are incurred to soothe the personal demons you think you can’t coexist with.

But Skyler has her own blind spots, and we see chinks in her armor of cool control as well. Like Walter at the outset of his criminal career, she has scruples and principles — lines over which she explicitly refuses to step.  She won’t entertain Saul’s talk of sparking an ICE raid to drive Bogdan out of business because undocumented workers at his car wash would bear the brunt of the harm. (But when Saul suggests strong-arm protectionist tactics — “There’s always ‘you’ve got a real nice place here, it’d be a shame if something happened to it’” — she answers in the form of a question, directed at Walter: “Violence?  That’s not who we are, right?” Irony, yes, but possibly a hairline crack in that moral armor as well.) And her insistence on the car wash as the front operation is in itself a refusal to manage risk sensibly; she wants it for personal reasons, as a vendetta and as karmic justice, and she tries to draw Walter into her obsession by mentioning that Bogdan impugned his manhood.

And touchingly, she’s not as sure of herself as she seems. In a beautifully observed little gesture that should humanize Mrs. White for those who find her cold and bitchy, she glances anxiously at the phone, willing it to ring after deploying her hardball negotiation style. The whole scene is a masterful microcosm of why Walter needs Skyler’s help so badly; he jumps to the conclusion that her puppeteering has failed when it takes Bogdan a few hours to come crawling back to her offer in the face of the water contamination report. “Well, it was a good try,” he concludes.  “So, nail salon sounded promising, whaddya think?” Then when she demands Bogdan come down from the $879,000 figure she named in his office as compensation for insults received, Walter goes ballistic. He’s thinking in the shortest possible of terms — a win is dangling in front of them, and she refuses to grab it. She’s thinking about how it will look if they take anything but the best deal they can get, and she has confidence she can get a better one. Or at least she seems to. When Walter leaves the room, her facade breaks, and she betrays that following her own rules for managing risk is making her anxious. When that anxiety gets a more powerful hold over you than the rules — that’s when people make mistakes and get caught. Clearly Skyler is vulnerable to that pressure, even if she doesn’t succumb to it this time.


Meanwhile Marie and Jesse are providing stunning object lessons for poor risk management, amplified by the absence of partners to share their burdens. Marie is dealing with the stress of her intolerable home life by visiting real estate open houses and spinning detailed tales of imaginary alternate lives, jobs, and families for herself — divorces, husbands who once worked for NASA, homeschooled children, pottery hobbies, hand-modeling. Then she slips a little piece of that showcase home perfection into her capacious purse and brings it home. Yep, her kleptomania is back, but now it’s a part of a comprehensive and disastrous personal coping strategy. She can’t bear the risk of living with her frayed psyche, the risk of having no escape route from the disabled husband who can’t stand her (“I said Cheetos, not Fritos”) and the various observers and helpers who pity her. So she takes a risk that’s objectively far greater — of being exposed, humiliated publicly, even brought up before the law — to take some control of that situation, cut it down to size, make it manageable.

If she and Hank were somehow in it together, they might be able to join forces and strengthen their play just as Skyler and Walt are doing. But Hank’s going it alone, too, deliberately hurting her whenever he can, pushing her away. (Example: Hank doesn’t eat his lunch, Marie says she’ll leave the rice pudding on his tray, he insists he’s not hungry. When we see him next, he’s eating the rice pudding.) For him, too, the biggest risk is psychological — and it’s the longstanding risk of facing up to his failures. He explains the mineral hobby to his former colleague as “cataloging,” and we can see how that would appeal: labeling, knowing what something is, naming its properties. What he’s afraid of is the labels he deserves — his characteristics, his capacities, his nature. And so he refuses at first to take the copy of Gale’s lab notes his colleague brings by (“You need my help on a case?  What am I, Ironside?”), perhaps afraid that if he dives in, he’ll confirm to himself and everyone that he has nothing to contribute.


Finally, for Jesse, the only risk he sees is the visceral threat of violence from his employer, and his response is to distract himself from that with as much skull-pounding self-destructive sensation as he can. It’s stupid — and the shot of Gus’s new muscle sitting outside his house with a disdainful smirk on his face is all the confirmation we need that he’s not thinking about the risk his actions pose to others, and how they might manage him. But it’s also heartwrenching.  First he makes an awkward overture to bring Walter into his don’t-be-alone-at-all-costs coping strategy: “You wanna do something?” “Like what?” Walter asks. “… Go-karts?” Jesse proffers. Then when Walter paternally inquires “Anything we should talk about?”, he lashes back with the same question directed at Walter’s Mike-inflicted black eye. The message is clear: We’re both keeping secrets. No more father-son bond. By the end of the hour Jesse has gone all the way through to the bleak other side of his coping strategy, watching his tweaker houseguests fight each other for the money he can’t figure out how to spend. Manipulating them seems to bring him no pleasure. He’s the lord of a realm he despises — that is, when he’s not a wage slave under the cyclops gaze of a security camera.

In fact, their reactions to that camera tell us everything we need to know about the different worlds these “partners” (Skyler’s horning in on that space, isn’t she?) are inhabiting. Walter gives it a vicious, impotent finger and calls it a “violation of the workspace” — quite a statement so soon after he squeegeed up Victor’s blood. Jesse thinks Walter has a lot to learn about violations such as getting the shit kicked out of you: “I’m not saying you get used to it, but you do kinda get used to it.” Only one of them has help seeing, naming, and coping with such threats right now, and that help is likely to make a great deal of difference in what comes.


Except that the help Skyler offers is limited to what she knows. And when it comes to the danger Walt is in, she thinks a black eye is a big deal. She doesn’t know anything about box cutters, blood, muscle, cartels, murders. If Walter were in real danger, she assumes they should chuck the whole operation and go to the police. What Walter won’t tell her, she can’t help him manage. The limits to what risks you perceive — whether through self-imposed blinders or incomplete disclosure by others — are the limits to what risks you can manage.

Stray observations:

  • The handwringing about Breaking Bad’s pacing, and the demands for more economical storytelling, are getting louder as the season progresses. Let me be clear about my position: This is awesome stuff. Withholding conventional kinds of tension relievers (action sequences, guns going off, explosions, confrontations, etc.) is one of the show’s most effective strategems. Instead of ticking off conventional causes and effects, triggers and consequences, the mechanism of the characters’ psyches — under increasing strain from various angles — gets wound tighter and tighter. This week Skyler’s rachet starts clicking over, and we are going to measure the tensile strength of her character in the weeks to come.
  • One might interpret Walter’s downplaying of his black eye (““I had an argument with a co-worker … We were discussing a particular business strategy, and it got heated, and he hit me once, and I didn’t retaliate because he’s a much older man … We were able to clear the air, mutual respect”) as an attempt to shield Skyler from the real dangers of his work arrangements. Undoubtedly, though, it was partly a typically Walteresque attempt to portray himself as somewhat in control of the situation.
  • The flip side of that observation is that Walter feels infantalized by Skyler’s intimations that he’s hapless. “Peas and ice, I’m writing it down,” he snaps when she bemoans the lack of anything in his freezer that could help with the injury.
  • Thank God Hank used his grabber to get the lab notes at the end of the hour. Until then, his grabber-assisted coping mechanisms were the sad quartet of porn, minerals, professional bowling, and replays of city council meetings.
  • Gorgeous directorial touches with the Hummel figurine that Marie lifts from the first house and leaves at Hank’s bedside, then later with Stephanie the real estate agent hovering in the background while Marie talks about her nonexistent children.
  • Saul (who is still wearing the Wayfarer remembrance ribbon, by the way) sums up the car wash dilemma: “All we have to do is think of a non-violent, unsuspicious way to buy the car wash that protects the innocent and doesn’t cost us $20 million.”
  • Bogdan tries to get rid of the fake water quality official with the ultra-convincing promise: “From now on we will be extra careful and clean, okay? No more pollution!”
  • “Can Huell use your bathroom? He’ll be quick. He’s got a stomach thing.”