TROUBLE CITY

SCHWARTZBLOG: BREAKING BAD, SEASON 2

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Season 1 On to season 2.

The premiere is a bit of an odd duck, as it plays like a part two of the first season finale, but that one didn’t really end on a cliffhanger or demand that things pick up immediately.  It’s neither the beginning nor end of the Tuco storyline.  But it is funny and intense in all the right BB ways, and it leads us into the awesome climax of that story in “Grilled”, which is a highlight of the entire series.  The broiling, claustrophobic tension in Tuco’s house is...well, that’s why I have the “Hitchcock” section at the bottom.

“Bit By A Dead Bee” marks the first of what I think of as “clean up” episodes, where the focus is almost entirely on dealing with the fallout from the climax of the preceding arc.  These are not the most exciting episodes of the series, but serve necessary housekeeping functions and allow the show to indulge in one of its specialties: concocting solutions to problems that make things even worse.

The middle episodes are most remarkable for Aaron Paul and Dean Norris upping their game with the desperate and vulnerable sides of their characters.  There’s a bit of downtime between the Tuco resolution and when Jesse gets their own distribution network going, but really it’s only an episode or two.  I mentioned before that I don’t think BB is a particularly slow-paced show, although it has a reputation as such.  I think that impression comes from how the show lingers on individual scenes, drawing tension out of the long, quiet stretches.  That’s a luxury you can indulge when your show is built around one of the most powerful performances in television history (I might give that particular appellation to Ian McShane on Deadwood, but certainly wouldn’t quibble if someone named Cranston), and people like Paul or Esposito capable of matching him step for step.  Those guys can hold the screen for minutes at a time with just their facial expressions and have it not get boring.

Apropos of nothing, I really wish Danny Trejo could’ve gotten more than a single scene before being killed off, but like most good supporting characters, his head ends up attached to an exploding turtle.  But that's your basic Dramaturgy 101 stuff, hardly worth mentioning.

So having spent a lot of the first half of the season ironing out the characterizations of the regular cast, the back half is where we see its first real expansion.  We get to spend more time with Badger, Skinny Pete and Combo, which is always fun, and also meet Ted Beneke and Jane.  Krysten Ritter really does an incredible job with a relatively small amount of screentime.  She has to introduce us to this character, who is not exactly an open book, and be smart and sexy enough for us to get invested in the romance as something genuine and healthy, but also still damaged enough that her unraveling doesn’t seem arbitrary.  It’s a very complex arc compressed to really only a few episodes, but she pulls it off with aplomb.  Her end is one of the most gut-wrenching things I've seen on television, and it wouldn’t be if we didn’t buy both her basic sweetness and potential as well the conniving addict part of her personality when it rears its head.

Here’s some fun facts.  Saul doesn’t show up until episode 8 of the season.  Gus is introduced in episode 11, and has a grand total of 3 scenes in the season, counting the one where all he does is ask if the chicken is satisfactory.  Mike the cleaner only appears in the finale.  Given how much of the subsequent seasons is built around these guys, I was somewhat amazed that it takes the better part of two seasons to meet any of them.  Even with them involved, Breaking Bad does not have what I would consider a sprawling cast, but the show just feels more complete once they're all in the mix.   I’ll probably have more to say later when they take on greater roles in the main plot, but for now I’ll just say that they all get fantastic introduction scenes.  Gus is not a role that allows Giancarlo Esposito a huge variety of different shades to play, but just look at the turn he does from fast food manager to gangster in his conversation with Walt.  ACTING!!!

God, the scene in the bar between Walter and Jane’s father is so damn good.  Normally, I’m not a fan of scenes that hinge on us as the audience having a completely different perspective than the characters, particularly when one of them is so strongly our POV character, to work.  But this one, with both of them talking about the same people but not understanding who they are, just works so well and I have no way of explaining why except that Bryan Cranston and John De Lancie are fucking champs.  It would probably be my favorite scene of the season if it weren’t for Skyler unraveling all of Walt’s lies and leaving him in the finale.  Anna Gunn may be stuck with one of the more thankless roles in recent memory, but she fucking BRINGS IT in that scene.

I will say there is one bit of plot mechanics that just doesn’t work for me in the endgame here.  In order to force Walter to choose between his daughter’s birth and the biggest drug deal of his career, Gus passes down an ultimatum that he will by 38 pounds of meth for $1.2 million, but only at a remote truck stop in exactly one hour.  It gets the clock ticking on an intense sequence and sets up a nice moral conundrum, but completely goes against everything we know about Gus’s character. Our sole interaction with him so far has been his dressing down Walt for not being “cautious” and showing “poor judgment”.

We don’t just know that he is exceedingly careful about his drug dealings, it is literally the only thing we know about him.  And yet the deal he offers demands exactly the kind of sloppiness that he was so disdainful of ten minutes earlier?  The first time I watched this I was convinced that the truck stop deal was actually a second test to see if Walter would actually do something so stupidly reckless.  And it’s not like getting to know Gus more over the course of the series has led me to see some new part of his character that would think that sending a guy barreling out of a smack den with a million bucks worth of meth flung into a garbage bag so he can tear ass to an abandoned building and hand it off to people he has never met before with no back-up is the right way to do this kind of deal.  On a lesser show I probably wouldn’t think twice, but BB doesn’t usually let the tail wag the dog in this way so it stands out.

One thing I have no problems with is the plane crash.  I can understand being a bit disappointed that, given how the entire season had teased it, it only affected Walt at a couple steps remove.  But I think the first season was about Walt making a bad decision and being forced into situations where he had to do things he never thought he would to get out, and season 2 has to progress from that.  And it does so by exploring the collateral damage from his decisions, how he responds when confronted with things like Hank’s PTSD or the deaths of Combo and Jane, who he didn’t kill with his own hands but nonetheless bears some real responsibility for.  How responsible was Walt for Jane dying?  Was it 80% of a murder?  50%?  Whatever it is, his culpability for the disaster must be less, but is 10% responsibility for 167 deaths worse than full responsibility for one? There aren’t exactly “real” answers to such questions, but the important point is that Walt won’t ask them.  He deflects and rationalizes and protests that he didn’t mean for any of this to happen.  As Jane's father looks through her closet and tries to convince himself that a blue dress will look better than a black one in her coffin, Walt tries to convince himself that the slight remove from actually killing her means his heart is not so much black as a sort of a navy blue.

Breaking Bad is a show that is very much concerned with concepts of masculinity (which is why Hank has continued to be such a great foil for Walt as the show digs deeper into the damage behind the masks they show the world).  “What does it mean to be a Man in this day and age?” is a show the question that is constantly turning over and examining from different perspectives.  I would answer that question in part by saying that a Man does not make excuses.  A Man owns his mistakes.  He takes responsibility for the things he’s done, rather than fleeing from it.  A “Real Man” would not whine that he didn’t mean for this to happen, he would ask himself what he could have done to prevent it.

Whether or not what happened with Jane is technically murder* is irrelevant.  A Man holds himself to a higher standard.  Walt’s moral failing this season is that he keeps holding himself to lower and lower ones.

Estimated Profits: ~$65,000 - $600 (to Jesse) - $30000 (Jesse again) - $13000 (hospital stay following bogus fugue state) + $15000 + $4660 + $45000 - $80000 (Saul) + $480000 - 200000 (surgery) = ~ $290,000 ahead

Murders - Emilio, Krazy 8, Jane

Lesser Included Offenses - possession of an unregistered firearm, indecent exposure in a supermarket, breaking and entering, assault and battery (Spooge/Skank), kidnapping, assault and battery (Saul)

Collateral Damage - One innocent janitor loses his job and goes to jail on a bullshit marijuana charge.  Hank had to kill a guy (even if he was an insane, degenerate piece of filth who deserved to die).  Combo was killed dealing for Walt.  Jane’s father’s life is utterly ruined.  167 passengers on two planes are dead.  

Sequences To Make Hitchcock Proud:  Absolutely everything with Walt/Jesse/Tuco/Tio in “Grilled”, Hank brings Tio in to Jesse’s interrogation in “Bit By A Dead Bee”, Jane starts to overdose in “Phoenix”

Heisenberg Certainty Principle - “Stay out of my territory.”   TV On The Radio’s “DLZ” was already a favorite of mine, but now I can’t hear it without thinking of this scene.  BB owns it like Goodfellas owns “Layla”.

Best Lie -  The best scheme has to be using Walter Jr.’s donation website to launder meth money, which is doubly great because of the way it continuously rankles Walt’s pride, exposing what a joke the “all for my family” line has become.  That constant frustration is a great example of Cranston’s gifts as a comic actor strengthening the dramatic material he’s wrestling with.

But in terms of spinning a tale on the spot, Walt claiming that Eliott and Gretchen are secretly broke not only prevents the whole house of cards from collapsing, but allows him to bridge a little of the distance that his lies have created between him and Skyler while smearing his hated “enemies” all at once.  Cranston fighting to suppress a smile while she processes it sells it perfectly.

Official Walter Jr. Breakfast Count: 9 (“Pilot”, “Cat’s In The Bag”, “Gray Matter”, “Crazy Handful of Nothin”, “Down”, “Negro y Azul”, “Over” x2,  “ABQ”)

We Are Done, Professionally - Jesse and Walt have their first fisticuffs in ep. 4, “Down”.  They essentially break up again, promising they will never see each other again in episode 12, “Phoenix”.  This one will note stick either.

The Erlenmeyer Flask Is Mightier - Walt cooks ricin for poisoning Tuco, although he doesn’t pull it off.  He concocts a battery for the RV from spare change and bits of metal, sponges, and graphite from scavenged brake pads

It’s The Little Things - Tio’s bell ringing over the credits of “Grilled” (everything with Tio’s bell, really), the what-the-fuck narcocorrido opening, Saul’s real name is McGill, but goes by Goodman because the “homeboys” want a Jew for a lawyer, everything about the set design of Saul’s office: inflatable Statue of Liberty on top, Constitution wallpaper, “America The Beautiful” piped in to the waiting room through tinny speakers, the scales of justice that Jesse uses as an ashtray

 

*It is, or at least manslaughter.  Specifics vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it’s an accepted tenet of nearly every legal system in the world that there is both criminal and civil liability for failure to aid someone when doing so would not endanger yourself or others.  The liability is even more severe if you created the danger to them yourself, as Walt did by knocking Jane onto her back