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Breaking Bad: “Salud”

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There are only three episodes left in this season, and after last week and this week we can look forward to a high-stakes string of bold, don’t-look-back moves by all the characters… except Walter. My guess would be that Walter will try to get in on the action before we put this season to bed, but right now our erstwhile antihero is the only major character who isn’t burning bridges and changing games.

Tonight’s thrilling excursion to Mexico would have been terrific even if Gus hadn’t made his audacious bid to remove the cartel threat once and for all. And Skyler’s gambit to escape the notice of the IRS would have been frightening enough even without Ted Beneke putting the noose back over their heads. The fact that the episode ended with mass poisoning, Jesse driving a getaway car, Mike taking a bullet, and Skyler driven by frustration and desperation to reveal her secret wealth to Ted makes “Salud” a step out into the unknown as intrepid as the moves the characters are making. Add Walter’s moving speech to Walter Jr. about remembering his father, and you have everything Breaking Bad needs to be at this point in the season: unpredictable, tense, character-driven, poignant, and almost unbearably suspenseful.

As foreshadowed by the shot of Skyler gazing at her meth money-stuffed crawl space at the end of “Bug,” “Salud” shows her trying to make use of those funds to save her own skin and keep living the tenuously normal life she values. With Walter a no-show at the White home for Walter Jr.’s birthday, she proudly unveils the car she’s chosen for her son’s 16th birthday: a PT Cruiser. Used, if we can credit Skyler’s description of her plans to an indifferent Walter over the telephone last week. With plenty of room for carpooling, and a CD player for Walter Jr.’s tunes. Ah, the words guaranteed to make a teenage boy’s heart race: prudent economical driving habits and outdated media formats!

Walter Jr.’s lack of excitement is nothing, though, compared to the unappreciative reception Skyler’s other cash outlay receives. Saul, mumbling “This is a bad idea,” ushers Ted into his office to present him with a windfall from Great Aunt Birgid’s Luxembourg estate, of which Mr. Beneke is the sole remaining heir. Ted is amazed to have some good news for a change; when Saul produces the figure of $621,552.33 with a flourish, he signals his acquiescence with a bemused “Wow!” But it’s not long before Saul shows up at the car wash to report to Skyler, the sole author of the Luxembourgian fantasy. His newly fattened checking account burning a hole in his pocket, Ted immediately made a beeline to the dealership to lease a new Mercedes. “That’s upwards of $6,300 that won’t be going to the IRS,” Saul summarizes; “… Loath as I am to say I told you so.” So Skyler heads to the Beneke offices where she finds Ted prepping to ramp back up his business and put his employees back on the payroll. Even more alarming, his little talk with Saul has given him the notion of hiring a tax attorney and trying to get a better deal from the IRS, rather than settling his debt. “Maybe the universe is telling you to pay what you owe,” she says, after an initially friendly conversation that turns more and more pointed. Ted, offended at being told what to do, throws her walkout of their affair in Skyler’s face and closes the conversation with a non-committal “Okay, duly noted,” and a barely civil “Thank you for your concern, but I’m done talking about this.” Will any combination of Skyler’s pride, controlling personality, and survival instincts allow her to walk out the door? Nope. “From where do you think you got that $600,000?” she hisses, and the cat’s out of the bag. Now Ted is a co-conspirator and another loose end, just when there happen to be an ever-increasing number of folks, official and criminal, tugging at them.

Walter Jr., meanwhile, has driven his PT Cruiser to his dad’s condo, worried about his absence—and for good reason, as he finds Walter barely coherent and a bloody mess. As some commenters correctly predicted last week, Walter resorts to the “I was gambling and got into a fight” defense, begging Walter Jr. not to tell his mother since “I’ll never hear the end of it,” but his flimsy front quickly crumbles into tears. “I made a mistake,” he sobs. “It’s all my fault. I’m sorry.” Walter Jr. helps him back to bed, supporting himself with a single crutch, and as Walter drifts back into unconsciousness, he asks the boy how he likes his car and then mumbles, “That’s good, Jesse.”


If that moment didn’t make your hair stand up on end—just whom was Walter apologizing to in that weepy speech moments earlier?—the conversation between father and son the next morning surely did. A less frightening, more together Walter explains to the boy why he insists on apologizing for the way he looked and acted the night before. When Walter was young, his father embarked on a rapid decline from Huntington’s disease, and all the good memories that friends and family tried to implant in the boy’s head never supplanted the terrifying memory of visiting his father in the hospital just before his death. He remembers the twisted body, the empty eyes that didn’t seem to focus on him, the terrible disinfectant smell of the hospital, and his breathing: “This rattling sound like if you were shaking an empty spray paint can—like there was nothing in him.” He doesn’t want Walter Jr. to have a similarly bad memory of his father. But Walter Jr., heartbreakingly, replies that “The bad way to remember you would be like you’ve been this whole last year.” As frightening and pitiful as Walter was the night before, “at least you were real, you know?”

Perhaps the beginnings of a renewed bond between father and son, although that “Jesse” Freudian slip is enough to make you wonder if Walter has taken his family substitution process too far already. But no sooner does Walter Jr. drive off in the Cruiser than Tyrus pulls up and demands to know why Walter isn’t at work. Because Gus, Mike, and Jesse have all taken off for Don Eladio’s Mexican compound, where they are surrounded by dozens of burly cartel functionaries, an uppity chemist who thinks Jesse is a fraud, and of course, the condescending presence of Don Eladio himself. Scene after scene teeters on the edge of disaster, as Jesse bluffs his way through his inability to synthesize phenylacetic acid (back in Gus’ superlab, it comes in barrels with a handy mnemonic bee), demands that the lab be scrubbed spotless, and then watches as a digital readout inches above 96 percent purity. “Shit,” he exclaims, seemingly disappointed that he didn’t reach the same levels as his mentor, but the cartel is thrilled; “First of many!” Gaff (the cartel’s batter-hijacking sniper) chortles, Jesse’s first indication that the deal Gus made requires him to stay in Mexico.


Almost immediately, however, Mike relieves Jesse’s mind (and cements his loyalty): “I promise you this—either we’re all going home or none of us are.” Gus’ risky plan is to poison the entire household with some rare tequila he offers to Don Eladio as a gift; he even takes the first drink (after swallowing a couple of emetic pills earlier). When the party is in full swing, Gus excuses himself to go to the bathroom (with one of Eladio’s henchmen standing guard), where he throws up the poison and walks out to a poolside littered with the dead and dying. Mike garrotes Gaff, tells Jesse to grab a gun, and after Gus screams a challenge to the compound to obey him or fight and die, the three head for the hills. Not before Gus doubles over in pain from his deliberate self-poisoning, however, and not before Mike gets shot and Jesse returns fire at his assailant, looking completely shocked when the man drops. When the credits roll, Jesse is at the wheel peeling out of the compound with his two new mentors—the ones who quite clearly trusted him enough to make him a central player in this crazy, risky scheme to behead the cartel—injured and incapacitated beside him.

Faced with an immediate threat requiring action in self-defense, Gus chooses to go on the offensive and change the rules; now we’ll see if he’s planned ahead sufficiently to rule this new international network. Skyler, backed into a corner by an outcome she hadn’t anticipated, complicates her situation immensely by revealing her most closely guarded secret; she’s pennywise (questioning whether Saul should be seen at the car wash) but pound-foolish. Walter? If there’s any action on that front this week, it’s internal. How will his desire to defend himself—or if not himself, at least the reputation and memory he will leave—lead him to act, when he’s spent so long ignoring all those changes at home and at work, and now has been left behind?

Stray observations:

  • That's a nice tequila box, tied with beautiful ribbon, that Gus presented to Don Eladio. Especially considering all the other things I was imagining might be in there.
  • “You can do this,” Gus says to Jesse in the plane on their way to Mexico. Jesse doesn’t look too sure, but Gus’ confidence clearly energizes him, especially in the lab when he executes a perfect “Do it my way, asshole! And clean this shit up!” counterbluster. “I’m the guy your boss brought here to show you how it’s done… I suggest you stop whining like a little bitch and do what I say,” he challenges Eladio’s chemist, and in the background, Mike allows himself a little smile of pride.
  • Saul insinuates that Skyler still has a soft spot for Ted: “You and I don’t wear the same rose-colored glasses where Johnny Fabulous is concerned.”
  • Ted’s explanation for the Mercedes: “Can’t be driving a piece of crap to customer meetings, gotta project that professional image!”
  • For a second it looks like Gus might not have to drink the poisoned tequila, when Don Eladio suggests, “Maybe it’s too good to share?”
  • Not that the die isn’t already cast at that point, but if I were Gus waffling on whether to exact my revenge against the man who killed my partner, Don Eladio’s humiliating advice—“Once every 20 years you forget your place… there’s no place for emotion in this. You of all people should understand.  Business is business” — would have torn it.
  • Mike pulls Don Eladio’s necklace off the corpse floating in the pool.  Is that to prove to the other cartel partners that they were the ones who killed him and claimed his empire?
  • Jesse projects a perfectly pitched uneasiness between the confidence he has to project to pull this off, and the at-sea feeling of something going on he isn’t privy to—usually because everybody’s speaking Spanish. Hey Jesse, if you want to move up in the organization, maybe you should take a few language lessons. Tip: “Yo” means something completely different in English.
  • What poison did Gus use in the tequila? We might suspect Jesse’s ricin, but it’s clear he is not privy to the plan and couldn’t be more surprised when the bodies start hitting the ground. Maybe a little something Maximilio cooked up before his untimely death? That would be chillingly fitting, and if there’s one thing that Gus knows, it’s how to twist the knife—even if nobody knows the full extent of the message being sent but himself.