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Breaking Bad: “To'hajiilee”

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Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children.

—Stephen Sondheim, “Children Will Listen”

Ever since Faust (and maybe long before), wish fulfillment has been a potent generator of tragedy. While children are urged by the narratives we feed them to dream big, adults get a giant corrective dose of caution. Be careful what you want; you might get it. That’s certainly the story of tragic heroes who crave power. Even the seemingly reasonable power to ensure security and opportunity for your children after you’re gone mutates into war with everything that might threaten that objective—war, with its totalizing logic replacing every other goal with simple, final victory.


Serialized television makes us viewers into the embodiments of tragic desire, too, and Vince Gilligan seems determined to impress upon us the same lesson Walt is learning. Every week, we question what we want to have happen, what will satisfy us. We stake our identities on some outcome that will represent victory for our values (or, more likely, our appetites), and pre-emptively declare some other possible outcome as betrayal. Have we learned nothing? Be careful what you wish for, fans. You might get it.

Did you want Walt in handcuffs, the bullshit fountain finally run dry? I know I have, at various times, wanted this. Well, here it is, in one of the series’ very few true cliffhanger endings, the kind where, when we come back next week, we’re likely to pick up the story at the same moment it cut to black on us this week. Did you want Hank vindicated? Here he is, triumphant, accepting congratulations from his partner, calling Marie to exchange tearful, relieved expressions of love. Did you want Jesse to gain the upper hand, for once to be the man with the foolproof plan? Here he is snarling on the phone, goading Walt into the kind of recklessness that goes before big mistakes, spitting on his former mentor.


Is that what we wanted? We may have thought so. But now, as it’s happening and Walt sits defeated and Jesse looks frightened, we have to question ourselves. And that’s even before the wild card shows up, and the fans who wanted something different start cheering, before trailing off in puzzlement about whether they, in their turn, like getting what they wished for. Did you want Walt back cooking again? That’s where we’re headed, but he’s far from Heisenberg at his height. Uncle Jack and his henchman Kenny have a plan for Walt, and they’re only going to play the compliant hired hands long enough to turn Walt into their employee. Lydia barely has to hint about the money train screeching to a halt because the product isn’t pure and isn’t blue (“Blue’s our brand,” she explains) to motivate Jack. His goal is simple, and he’s got no awkward scruples to get in the way. Walt’s going to be back in the hazmat suit—back in somebody else’s superlab. And this time, the big boss isn’t going to be nearly as vigilant about directing her security forces; Lydia only cares about results, too, and unlike Gustavo Fring, she maintains her personal safety and standing by distance, rather than hands-on management.

That turnabout—from Jack’s gang doing Walt’s bidding, to Walt doing Jack’s—is merely the last and most explosive instance of “To’hajiilee's” narrative structure: Mice turning into cats (and back again). The seesaw of hunter and hunted, plotter and pawn, victim and perpetrator, wobbles so fast in this episode that inattentive viewers (if any are left on this show) will likely experience whiplash. Perhaps to the awesome '80s soundtrack of the cold open—”Oh Sherrie” and “Thunder Island” (1979 counts as proto-80s, right?) on the radio at Lydia’s superlab, “She Blinded Me With Science” as Todd’s ringtone—we could add “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” The reversals range from Walt’s cold-blooded utilization of Andrea and Brock to lure Jesse to his own execution, to Jesse’s white-hot rage-acting as he pretends to burn the barrels of cash to trick Walter into leading Hank straight to them.


And then there’s Todd, whose dead-eyed turn from eager apprentice to remorseless, opportunistic killer makes him the scariest motherfucker in the Breaking Bad universe right now. One minute, he’s agreeing to arrange a hit on Jesse without batting an eye, the next, he’s dispassionately pumping bullets in the general direction of whoever his Uncle Jack says stands between them and unlimited Czech drug cash. Todd is Jesse with no loyalty, Gale with no aesthetics, Mike with no code. He’s a tool who’s perfectly content with having no other identity than how others might want to use him.

But the biggest twist of the episode is the one that happens in Walt’s mind when, crouched behind a rock, he sees Hank get out of the SUV. That’s when he realizes that he has neglected to consider the unthinkable: Jesse has turned on him. Why he didn’t foresee it, and what meaning it conveys to him, are the questions that cast the die for Walt’s perspective on defeat. It never occurred to Walt that Jesse would become Hank’s partner in the hunt for Heisenberg because Walt so thoroughly believes his bullshit to Skyler about having Jesse under control—and because he doesn’t think to question whether his own sense of family obligation is shared by those in his circle. (Of course, it’s a sense of family obligation that ambushes and shoots kin in the back of the head in their own best interests, but that’s not unprecedented amongst your Old Yellers and Lennie Smallses and such.)


And then Walt settles on what this betrayal means. It means that he misjudged Jesse all along, and was a fool to defend him to Skyler, to Saul, to Uncle Jack. Jesse is a rat. “Coward!” he hisses at Jesse, ignoring Hank who has just Mirandized him. The implication is that ratting is a craven move; Jesse should have settled his beef with Walter mano a mano, somehow. I found Walt’s “Coward!” accusation extraordinarily revealing. Does he really pride himself on confronting his problems directly, excusing and explaining away all the times he used other people to do his dirty work, even the one he was engineering mere hours ago outside of Andrea's house? Or has he adopted the version of honor among thieves that despises a rat as the lowest of the low?

My guess is it’s the latter undergirded by the former. And that’s what makes the shootout at the end of this episode—when Uncle Jack’s gang, his ace in the hole, the people he hired to follow the people that were following him, turn up despite his orders—and his inability to stop it, so terrifying. Walt has drawn a line at defending himself with deadly force against his own flesh and blood, a line that forced him, reluctantly, to redefine Jesse as non-family in order to justify his elimination by force. What he couldn’t imagine is that Jesse adopted Hank, and vice-versa, creating a situation where deadly force against Jesse puts Hank in the crossfire. The lines that Walt drew, and believed absolutely in his power to maintain, are erased by his collusion with Uncle Jack, the price of which is Walt reluctantly crossing the line of retirement. Once Walt can’t define himself, he loses the ability to define anything. And that means his self-justifications disappear with a puff of dust along a desert road and are buried under an avalanche of bullets. Be careful what you wish for, especially when those wishes are supposed to be ways of putting your family first. Every wish is a new child you have to protect, a wayward offspring you can’t control.


Stray observations:

  • The solution to Todd’s not-very-blue (“kinda blue,” “blue-ish,” “blue-green in there,” “aquamarine”) crystal: Food coloring! “Like they do farm-raised salmon,” Kenny comments helpfully.
  • If I were Lydia, I’d hire my very own Huell to keep Todd from creeping up to me and offering to make my tea stronger. Yeeesh.
  • At Home Depot right now, plastic barrels like the ones Huell packed full of money for Walt are a special buy, 30 percent off!
  • Hank has gotten a better handle on his pretend-you-care-about-the-informant act since he deposed Jesse. When Huell asks how long it will take for Hank to return, Hank riffs on his interrogation patter about Saul helping Walt with his hit list: “As long as it takes to keep you safe.”
  • Walter Jr. hates the cheesy “have an A-1 day!” line, but Skyler insists that it “reinforces our brand.” Of course, Walter Jr. also thinks it’ll be okay to go home now because the gasoline smell will mostly be gone, but Skyler knows better. When Walt shows up, though, it’s not to give the all-clear, and she should pay close attention to his wardrobe: a blue shirt under all those neutrals. He’s ready to cook again.
  • I think Walt’s silence during the long sequence where Hank barks out orders about where to put his hands and how to walk is the most expressive Walter White has been in five seasons. We can all fill in the huffy, put-upon protestations that Walt has been unable to stifle in every comparable situation previously, from Gus’ demonstrations of dominance to Mike’s long-suffering professionalism. To see him mutely obeying orders, anger and despair and resignation battling each other on his face, says far more than any dialogue that could have been written for him.
  • “Not something you’d do yourself, huh?” Jack gently skewers Walter after asking for clarification about Jesse’s anger (“Hulk angry? Rambo? James Bond? Badass individuals?”)
  • Froot Loops is a healthy part of this complete breakfast. “Froot Loops, that’s good stuff!”
  • Hank, the Ansel Adams of staged cellphone pictures, took that shot of the pile of money in the backyard, “by the barbecue grill. You know, where we used to cook out with the family.”