"I.F.T." opens with a flashback. In and of itself, this isn't particularly remarkable. TV does flashbacks all the time, mostly to fill in story points that won't come up in the organic sweep of what's happening. But "Breaking Bad" doesn't really do flashbacks all that often. There have been a few back to when Walt was a floppy-haired chemist working on a potentially Nobel Prize-winning research project, and there have been some other timeline switches heading into the future of the show's timeline (particularly in season two), but this series, for the most part, doesn't engage in jumping back into its own history, particularly to events that occurred within the timeline of the series proper, all that often. So on that level, tonight's opening scene - separated from the rest of the episode in typical "Breaking Bad" fashion - is remarkable. Creator Vince Gilligan and episode author George Mastras want us to see this moment for some reason.
[Full recap of Sunday's (April 4) "Breaking Bad" after the break...]
But the big question is why. The moment - which involves snitch Tortuga having his head whacked off with a machete by the cousins - is something we probably didn't need to see from a strict story perspective. We already know the cousins are pretty bad-ass. We already knew Tortuga lost his head (and had it grafted to a tortoise), and we already suspected that this all happened because he talked to the feds. If this is meant to get us worried about Walter White's ultimate fate, it doesn't really work, simply because we already know the cousins are so ruthless and are after him. If it's meant to just fill in this particular part of the story, it similarly doesn't work because, while Tortuga's a great character and a lot of fun, his importance to the story is slim enough that there's no real reason to need to see his very graphic death.
But look at that tortoise again. And think back to those people crouched to the Earth in the season premiere, crawling toward death. And think of the slow, steady progress the series' storyline makes. Tortuga doesn't know it yet, but he's stumbled into a situation where he's about to lose his life, just as Walt doesn't know that the cousins were in his bedroom just a few hours ago. "Breaking Bad" is a series about people who are marked for terrible, terrible things by a fate that crawls toward them as methodically as the zombies in "Night of the Living Dead." They can't escape what's coming, and in some cases, they seem to almost egg it on. Walt says he wants out of the drug-dealing life now, but events all over the place (some of his own making and some not) are conspiring to pull him back into that life. And the more that he insists that everyone needs to recognize the greatness of what he's accomplished, the more he forces himself into everyone else's lives, the more he marks himself as someone who will be isolated from anyone that might pull him back from the brink.
And still that tortoise is crawling forward and the forces of fate itself (seemingly) are ready to burst out of the back room and throw him down. Tortuga, too, thought he could escape what was coming, and he simply couldn't. The world of "Breaking Bad" is a rough place, and to live in it, you either have to stay out of the cesspools of humanity entirely or you have to make yourself as rough as everyone else who lives down there. Walter has been unable to do that, and even though he whines about getting the respect he deserves, there's little he'll be able to do when his moment comes. What's he going to say to the cousins? "I built a drug empire from the ground up"? They won't care. Neither will death.
Really, this season of "Breaking Bad" has been full of these shots of implacable forces slowly making their way forward or marring otherwise pristine landscapes. If the second season of the show used its opening scenes to often suggest that there were some traps you simply could not escape, the third season is going even farther with these opening scenes. Human hubris is the thing that will bring us down more often than not, because when you come right down to it, most other people don't care who you are. They may like you. They may even love you. But more often than not, you're an obstacle they need to get out of the way so they can go about their business. If you're Walter White, that may mean you're thrown in the back of a cop car. If you're Tortuga, it means your head ends up strapped to the back of a tortoise. In many ways, we're all just cannon fodder.
But what "Breaking Bad" fans are going to want to talk about, I think, is that final series of scenes where Skyler, emotionally battered by a husband who simply refuses to relinquish his hold on her because he realizes she won't actually call the cops on him, takes back some of her own power. Skyler has not always been the show's most believable character. The series was a little too willing to make her into a saint in season one, and in season two, it went out of its way to avoid having her confront the fact that her husband was increasingly not the man she married. All of this often made her seem a little weak, and on a show full of great male characters, she seemed a little too much like the stereotypical damsel in distress, the woman who was soft and weak and needed rescuing.
I think it's safe to say that's not the case anymore. Now that she's given birth and now that she's tossed her husband out, Skyler is a force of nature herself, someone who's pushing back against the way things are with sustained and suppressed fury. Anna Gunn, who's always been good playing an often ill-defined character, is working wonders with what she's given this season. Look at the huge number of emotions that play across her face as Walt tosses that duffel bag of money in front of her and demands not just that she take it for their children's schooling and her health insurance expenses but also that she admit that he earned it that he, on some level, did a good thing. And then look at the emotions that play across her face as she goes to seduce Ted Beneke, a man she finds slightly loathsome but needs to play his own part in her attempt to win back her power from her husband.
And, let's be honest, she needs to win it back. I don't know that there's been a show that's as willing to make its protagonist as bottom-scrapingly loathsome as "Breaking Bad" has been willing to make Walt. Maybe Tony Soprano and maybe Vic Mackey, but other than those two, Walt is pretty much in a class of his own. (And I'd actually argue he's worse because Tony and Vic simply went about their business and Walt wants someone to acknowledge what he has done, based on his own feelings of middle class inadequacy.) The series will have an occasional moment when the guy seems to get back in touch with his humanity, but it is almost relentlessly focused on showing us how everything that happens to him is his own fault. Even his attempts to put his marriage back together - attempts that should make him sympathetic, since he's the one who's being left! - focus mostly on how he can't just try to worm his way back into Skyler's affections. He has to pummel at her and try to force himself into her heart. He doesn't ask to be let back into the house; he simply finds a way back in and haughtily acts as if it was his to begin with.
Skyler is falling under the classic phenomenon where the wife of the protagonist, who often wants entirely reasonable concessions from the protagonist, comes in for scorn from Internet commenters, who strongly identify with the protagonist and tire of anyone standing in his way. (Thank the Lord that "The Sopranos" middle seasons mostly predated the TV blogosphere, or who knows what awful things would have been said about Carmela?) Recent additional examples of this phenomenon include Rita from "Dexter," Betty Draper from "Mad Men" (though she brought quite a bit of hatred on herself, to be fair), Corinne Mackey from "The Shield" and Bill Henrickson from "Big Love" (who, if we're being honest, brings almost all of this scorn on himself). Not to psychoanalyze the kinds of people who post online or anything, but there's an almost bizarre desire to identify with the sociopathic protagonist at the expense of all else, to see the lead character get everything they want and see those who try to stop them suffer. I can get rooting for Walter over, say, the cousins, who are simply forces of a dark and implacable evil that cannot be stopped (whereas Walter remains at least somewhat human), but I have trouble seeing why anyone would call Skyler "whiny." She's a woman who's just had everything she ever worked toward or hoped for yanked out from under her, and she's reacting like any of us would if we found out that our spouses were meth kingpins. Hell, she's probably acting BETTER than any of us would.
Skyler sleeping with Ted is her way to tell Walt that he can't simply tell her what to do, that she won't be just another part of his big project. The central question of this season would seem to be whether or not there is something so strong between the two that even Skyler's knowledge of Walt's criminal activities won't break it. Yet Walt seems intent on breaking it all on his own. The comparison and contrast between Walt and Gus (who has appeared in all episodes so far as a calm presence who constantly keeps all hell from breaking loose) could not be more clear here. One is a man who demands that everyone see what he has built; the other is a man who is quite content to keep what he has built from growing so large that it implodes upon itself. "Breaking Bad" began as a series about a man who was trying to do the right thing in a very wrong way. It has become a series about a man who is almost incapable of doing the right thing anymore, a man who is selfish and unable to see anyone else's points of view. And yet, he remains fascinating and somehow sympathetic. Secure in the knowledge that Bryan Cranston will just nail whatever they give him, the writers on this show are pushing Walter farther and farther past the realm of the acceptable and into the realm of utter dark-heartedness. It's a surprising show of guts, and it's a sign of just how willing the show has been to send its hero, tortoise-like, into new realms where even our sympathy for him might die. Steady and implacable defines the role of fate on the show, but it might as well define the show itself.
Some other thoughts:
*** It was hard to work Jesse into the central thesis this week, but man, his storyline was a heartbreaker. It was pretty obvious early on just who he kept calling while lying on the floor of his house, but that final series of scenes of him listening to the voicemail recording of Jane was just brutal in how sad it was (particularly when her voice just ... went away). The modern age has made it so much easier to keep remnants of people around after they die, yet television plays around with this so little. It was great to see "Breaking Bad" acknowledge this and horrifying to see Jesse step back into the world of meth production, just one of the forces that will seemingly drag Walt back into the life he no longer wants.
*** Here are some props for Michelle McLaren, who directed the episode with visual verve and style. I particularly loved the high-up shots of Jesse from the ceiling of his new home, staring up at the camera and isolated in his red sleeping bag.
*** One of the things I find interesting about this season is how willing the show is to let all of these characters exist in their own separate orbits. Really, the only thing uniting them at this point is Saul, and the show is making good use of Bob Odenkirk as the guy who shuttles between parties and tries to get the band back together.
*** There wasn't really room to talk about Hank in the main piece either, but the show has always used him as a somewhat ironic counterpoint to Walt. He's similarly a guy who has issues with keeping his work at work, and here, we see just how badly his PTSD still affects him. When he finds out who Walt really is, it's not gonna be good at all.
*** Unremarked upon last week but worth a mention this week: Jonathan Banks, who plays Saul's fixer Mike, is now a series regular. Hopefully, this means we'll get to see a lot more of him, as I love his world-weariness.
*** The show must have realized what it was losing when it sent Danny Trejo packing last season. Maybe that was why he made such an impromptu appearance out of nowhere.
Your discussion question: How long can Gus keep the cousins at bay?