Bryan Cranston of 'Breaking Bad'
The opening scene of the third season of "Breaking Bad
" is one of the more arresting out-of-nowhere images I've seen on TV
. An old man, presumably Hispanic, is crawling through the dirt. What appear to be tears stain his face. He's slowly making his way away from something ... or perhaps toward something. And yet, the people around him, standing and going about their business, simply do not seem to care. And then the camera pulls out, and we can see that this old man is one of many. There are dozens of people crawling through the muck, supplicated to something we can't yet see.
[More recap after the break...]
At which point, these people are joined by two men in dapper suits and disturbing, skull-toed boots. The men look about them, and at this point, we wonder, perhaps, if these men are making these others do this. However, the well-dressed men are soon joining the others in the long crawl, their bellies pressed to the Earth and their eyes looking forward. Where are they headed? As it turns out, they're headed to a tent, stepping inside to reveal a giant idol-like effigy of a woman represented only with a skull. (According to executive producer Vince Gilligan, it's a representation of death itself.) And then the well-dressed twins kneel, and the camera pans past the skull to reveal a simple drawing of Walter White. And then it all locks into place. These are Tuco's cousins, the ones who work with the cartel, and they're about to embark on a mission that will rid the world of the man who took their relative from them.
On a pure plot level, this makes sense. We're meeting the men who will be our primary antagonists this season, and we're learning just who their target is. But I think the sequence works on another, deeper thematic level as well. "Breaking Bad" began as a story about a man who was crawling toward death, who was attempting to find a way out of the certain predicament he found himself in and found it in giving in to a dark bitterness that had always been inside him but he had never really indulged. Now, seemingly, Walter White has defeated death at least temporarily. He's well again, and he's got more money than he knows how to spend (as he puts it). The adoption of criminality has rather brought something back into his life that was long missing.
And now, he has enough money and enough of his health to have options, to be able to contemplate leaving the life in an attempt to win back his wife, even as Gus dangles more money before him. And yet, he's still crawling toward death. There are two men who will have no compunction about killing him coming his way, and the life he has chosen can only end poorly for him. Unlike Gus, he's never going to be calm and collected enough to stay under the radar for long. He's too impressed with himself, with what he's done, and he's been too ready to desire recognition of what he's done to keep at a small enough level like Gus has. Indeed, his volatility threatens to bring a whole host of people - from those directly connected to his new life like Gus, Jesse and Saul to those who know nothing of it or want nothing to do with it like his family - down with him.
I imagine there will be fans of "Breaking Bad" who are a bit miffed by the premiere, which substantially ramps down the head of steam the show had built up last season in favor of contemplation of the cost of doing bad things and the weight of death on a community's soul. Both Walt and Jesse are facing guilt over the plane crash that killed 167 in the skies over Albuquerque, but only Jesse is willing to take it on head-on, allowing to himself that he's the bad guy, as he's learned in rehab. Walt, however, keeps attempting to divert his responsibility over what happened by passing the buck, even blaming the government in one scene, or by suggesting that what happened wasn't as bad as it could have been.
Dan Fienberg argued
(on this very site, no less!) earlier this week that the soul of "Breaking Bad" is that of a dark comedy or a Coen Brothers' film, and I think he's essentially right about that. The scenes where Walt tries to put everything in perspective only to reveal just how little perspective he has about anything other than his own need to massage his own feelings about what has happened. That whole scene in the school gymnasium, where the principal attempts to get the kids to talk about their feelings, is shot through with a ghoulish gallows humor, as one student tries to use the crash to get out of schoolwork and another girl opens up about how the whole crash has her doubting that God is an active presence in our lives, only to be told she needs to keep what she's saying secular. And it's all capped by that cringe humor-ish sequence where Walt tells the kids just how much worse it could have been and is met with shocked stares. Is this guy really saying this? Of course he is. He needs to assuage his own guilt, to make the others in his circle know that it's really OK, even though 167 people are dead who shouldn't be.
The show's visual representation of those innocent dead has always been the pink teddy bear in Walter's pool, presumably one that belonged to a child who is dead because of what he did. And just when you think the show has forgotten about it, that representation returns, as Walt fishes the bear's eye out of the pool filter, pulling it out to look at him at various times, an unblinking reminder of the cancer eating away at his soul. (Also, interestingly, whenever he looks at the eye, he seems to end up in a situation where a character who will react poorly if they find out the truth shows up, first with Hank and then with Skyler. I'm not sure if this is just a coincidence or if the show is going for something literary with the symbolism. My suspicion is the latter, since that's what the show does, but if that is, indeed, the case, I genuinely have no idea what it might mean.)
In the other half of the episode tonight, the White marriage, which was already falling apart, continues to get worse. Skyler has forced Walt to move out, sure, and Walter, Jr., (or Flynn) is angry at her for not trying to patch things over or really even offer a reason things have gone south (a reason she can't even offer to her own sister). Hank's suggesting to Walt that if he takes a step back, he just might be able to get Skyler back, and Walt seems to be considering it, seeing how quickly he pounces on the notion when Skyler drops by unannounced to talk with him. But she's there because she thinks she's puzzled it out: He's a drug dealer, she says, unprompted, and you can see the flash of recognition in Walter's eyes (in a marvelous acting moment from Bryan Cranston) before it's just as quickly chased away by his hardened heart.
I love the rhythms of this scene, the way that Skyler seems almost sympathetic when it seems it's just marijuana. (Call me crazy, but I read this scene as to say that Skyler wouldn't have wanted that in her life but might have found it easier to forgive.) Instead, the bottom keeps dropping out as she guesses cocaine and then has Walter confirm that it's meth, that he's a producer but not a dealer (though she has no idea how deep all of this goes). The show has often had a very hard time keeping Skyler in the dark over its two seasons so far, and I like that the series just let her guess instead of having her find something incriminating. When you've been married to someone that long, you can often manage to just figure out what they're up to, and I like that she did here. But I also like the way the scene keeps twisting in on itself, as Walter keeps pushing to win her back and she keeps pushing to get away from him, insisting that she won't tell anyone what he's up to so long as he offers her a clean break, which is, of course, the one thing he doesn't want to offer her. It's a masterful piece of writing, and it's well-performed by Cranston and Anna Gunn.
So it comes down to this: Does Walter really want his family back? Or does he want the $3 million for three months of his time that Gus offers him? This being TV, I can't imagine that Walter will stay out of the life of cooking meth for long (just look at how much strength it takes for him to reject Gus' offer in that scene at Pollos), but I'm intrigued to see just what this show looks like without that element, though I suppose that the presence of the twins will always keep that sort of thing lurking in the background. As many, many reviewers have pointed out, this is the season when Walter appears to be running into two people who have no problems with doing the wrong thing at any time. "Breaking Bad" has always argued that the mere start of the criminal life will naturally lead to becoming a full-fledged criminal, that greed and venality will almost always lead to an inability to escape your own downward spiral. To survive what's coming, Walter will have to sink to its level in some regards. But to win back his family, he'll have to reject that. He doesn't know it yet, but he's still crawling toward death.
Some other thoughts:
*** Hey, look! It's Jere Burns! Now, I haven't thought much about Burns in recent years, but that scene where he and Jesse talk about realizing you've done something horrible is a knockout, and both Burns and Aaron Paul make it deeply moving.
*** So glad that Giancarlo Esposito is a regular. The additions of Gus and Saul last season really enlivened a show that has always felt like it has a bit too limited of a world, and I hope we see more than enough of both of them.
*** Also, I hope this is the season Betsy Brandt gets something to do.
*** At the same time, I do hope this is not the last we see of John de Lancie, whose sad theatricality I found to be one of the best things about the latter portions of last season. I don't want him to put it all together and come to kill Walter or anything, but I do hope that we eventually see how Walter's acts have taken their toll on him as well.
*** Another thing I agree with Fienberg on: What's with the yellow tint for the Mexico scenes? This has become such an entrenched way to shoot scenes south of the border in things that I think most people haven't realized that it doesn't always make sense to do the color-coding. Hell, "Big Love" had a whole episode that almost entirely took place in Mexico this season, and despite that (and frequent references to "Mexico" in the script), it was shot through with yellow tinting. This seems pointless and needs to stop now.
*** Cranston also directed this one (as he did the second season premiere), and he has a nice eye for this sort of thing, though he's not quite on the level of some of the show's regular stable of directors, who often make the series feel like some sort of renegade art film.
*** As much as I liked the episode, I thought the scene where Walter burns his stash of cash was pretty stupid. I just didn't buy that he would do that to begin with, and then his frantic attempts to put it out struck me as too broad.
And, yeah, I'm one of those irritating people who thinks "Breaking Bad" is either the best or the second-best show on TV right now (give or take a "Mad Men"). As such, I could write at length about this series. If you want more or less on the series in the weeks to come, just let me know, and I will gladly oblige.