"Breaking Bad" is better than almost any series on right now at ramping up tension in almost completely organic ways. That's because, I think, it takes its time to build toward those moments of tension. It believably puts all of the pieces in place to make catastrophe seem not only plausible but almost the only logical outcome of what's happening. It puts the dominos in place, and then it just casually flips over the first, letting the others fall in rapid succession. That means that the show's more casual fans complain when it seems like there's not a lot happening, but it also means there's little fans can do but get ready for what's to come when that first domino falls. Other series would have drawn out many of the developments in this episode for the better part of a season. "Breaking Bad" is content to have Hank's investigation into the RV last just three episodes and culminate in one of the most effortlessly tense scenes I've ever seen in the medium.
[Full recap of Sunday's (April 25) "Breaking Bad" after the break...]
I love the way the scene where Jesse and Walt end up trapped in the RV while Hank waits outside is set up, carried out and gotten out of organically. There's nothing more pleasurable in a scenario like this than knowing you're in the hands of storytellers who are going to take you through it in a wholly believable and fascinating manner. Since "Breaking Bad" has built up a great deal of audience faith in its first two seasons in regards to these matters, as soon as the RV situation arose, I knew that there was a way out of it, and that the way out of it would make it seem almost like the writers were making it up on the fly as much as Walt always is. And despite one small quibble, I was not disappointed. This is an almost nauseating sequence of television, and it takes an already tense episode up to some whole other level.
Let's start with the quibble in dissecting this sequence: I didn't quite buy that the guy who owns the salvage yard would be such a legal expert. I can see the point of view that he's some sort of "no government!" zealot who knows his rights when it comes to his private property, but his ability to quote and cite the constitution, among other documents, struck me as just a little too convenient, a little too like the writers giving him a writerly affectation that would, nonetheless, help out their characters. It's ultimately a stalling tactic, as Walt gets his way out of the situation via a nauseating choice that might make Hank more suspicious of him sooner, rather than later, but I would have preferred if he were more involved in the stall as well. (To be fair, he does give Jesse some things to shout through the door as well, and I do love the salvage yard guy's nonchalant delivery of, "Huh. There's somebody in there.")
But other than that, this is just some great stuff. I love the way it plants the seeds of nearly everything else that happens in the episode, how casually we get to hear, say, Hank's ringtone he uses for when Marie is calling or how well it establishes that Hank is watching Jesse's house so when Jesse goes to check on the RV at Badger's prompting, we already know what's going to come next. The emotions here play off ideas that the season has been building up until this point, and the mood and sense of, say, the heat inside the RV are played up within the moment, but the construction of this centerpiece sequence is almost a textbook example of how to place exposition in place without it being too glaring. We're always being led exactly where the writers want to lead us, but we're never too aware of it until we realize just why the series was dwelling on this or that item.
All season long, the series has been carefully keeping Walt, Jesse, Hank and Skyler in completely separate orbits (even taking occasional visits over to the universes Saul and Gus operate in). There would be moments when it would seem as if they'd be drawn back into the same storyline, but the show has done an admirable job of keeping them mostly separate, when most shows do everything they can to draw characters together over the course of a season. It was natural to assume that the season's arc would draw these four together in a slowly tightening fashion, keeping the Cousins on the outside of everything as a reminder that there are consequences to these actions and far, far worse men out there who have no compunctions about simply hitting someone in the head with an axe. Instead, the series pulls all of these strands together tightly very quickly - before it's even reached the halfway point of the season, no less! - and it wastes no time in making things very, very bad for all parties. Where does the show go from here? That's less certain, but I'm impressed with the way the series messes with the usual way a seasonal arc would play out like this.
I also love the way writer and director John Shiban keeps the Cousins on the edge of the storyline throughout, letting them dominate both the opening and closing scenes and reducing them to two menacing men who hang out at Gus' restaurant in between, waiting patiently for him to give them the OK to off Walter. The first scene is very nearly a horror movie (and, indeed, Shiban inserts a shot where one of the Cousins flashes past the camera like a monster in an "Alien" sequel that struck me as a little too supernaturally influenced, though since both Shiban and creator Vince Gilligan came up on "The X-Files," there's a good reason for the influence). A police officer on one of the local reservations goes to the house of an older woman to check in on her after prompting from a relative. The scene proceeds exactly as you'd expect - the Cousins are responsible, the cop finds the body, one of the Cousins comes out to seemingly turn himself in, the other is lurking with an ax - but the final shot of the first Cousin biting into an apple exactly as the second buries his ax into the cop's head is a great sick joke. The actual axening occurs blurred out in the background (probably due to standards and practices), and what dominates the frame is the Cousin biting into his apple, the sound of crunching filling in for the sound of ax tearing into flesh on the soundtrack.
It's the final scene, the one from which the episode draws its name, that really ups the stakes in drawing all of these people together. Gus, who, let's remember, is at least casually acquainted with Hank, gives the Cousins the OK to take out the DEA agent who killed Tuco that they might be able to better bide their time until they can kill Walt (who has fortuitously entered back into his business arrangement with Gus). The scene is filmed at one of those remote New Mexico locations "Breaking Bad" loves so well, and the colors of the sun going down as Gus talks to the two - much of it shot in a very wide shot - give the scene a tension I'm not even sure the writers intended. Are the Cousins going to bump off Gus? No, as it turns out, but it's natural to worry, though his sense of authority is strong enough to hold the two off.
But there's plenty more going on in the episode other than just building up to that claustrophobic and chaotic scene in the RV. The other most important development, I'd wager, is meeting Walter's new partner, Gale, played by the great Dave Costabile. Costabile is someone who's been bouncing around character parts for a few seasons now, apparently unwilling to give up his theatre career in favor of getting a supporting role on the latest "CSI" series, though I'm glad he agreed to fly out to Albuquerque for this. Before this, Costabile's best work was probably as the hen-pecked Doug on "Flight of the Conchords" or maybe on the second season of "Damages" (though I prefer to forget that as much as possible), but here, he easily tops himself, instantly creating a character who's at once very, very funny and a natural match for Walt. It's easy to see just why Gus picked him to be the guy that would help Walt meet his quotas, and the montage where the two are cooking meth and brewing coffee to the tune of delightful jazz. It's a brief visit from the more gleefully comic side that "Breaking Bad" shows off from time to time, and it's a nice respite from everything in the other storylines.
I also love the way the episode keeps letting us into Hank's dogged pursuit of Heisenberg and how that pursuit is wreaking havoc on him both physically and personally. He sits in his car all day, eating fast food, barely sleeping, waiting for Jesse to come out and lead him to that RV. He's short with his wife when she calls, and when what he thinks is a police dispatcher calls him to tell him that Marie has been in an accident, you can see the thought play across his face that he should wait until he gets his warrant and THEN go visit her. One of the things that "Breaking Bad" is making so very clear this season is that Walt and Hank are two sides of the same person, both driven by obsession and feelings of inadequacy, but one driven by those to catch drug dealers and the other driven by that to become one. The series has always had this theme on its back burner, but in this season, it's made the decision to pull it more toward the forefront. It hasn't been so overtly obvious about it that the theme has become eye-rolling to watch or anything, but it has been willing to make it slightly more explicit, to its credit, I think.
Skyler mostly sits this episode out, though there's a great scene where she's once again testy with Walt after the last episode seemed to suggest the two of them were at least reaching a point where they could be civil with each other. It was nice to see the two squabble about how Walter wanted to pay too much in the way of child support and the way he parroted Gus' line about what a man does back to her. That's certainly something you don't see in many divorce storylines on TV. Similarly, Walter, Jr., is only here to be mad at Walt for granting Skyler the divorce (though I liked the bit where Walter tried to explain to him about how he felt guilty without letting on too much). Saul turns up as Walt's last-second lifeline and as Walt tries to bounce ideas for getting rid of the RV off of him, but, as always, Bob Odenkirk wrings every bit of humor out of his appearance.
But that's all window dressing on a great central idea for an episode, as it should be. It's one of the costs of Walt's business that every step Hank takes closer to solving who's flooding the Albuquerque market with the blue meth brings him closer and closer to his brother-in-law - a guy he still feels close enough to to give a call to ask about Jesse Pinkman when he thinks he's backed into a corner on the investigation. Part of the fun of the show is watching the way this all plays out, how the cat-and-mouse game keeps the two of them drifting closer together and farther apart. To that end, the show needs episodes like this to keep from becoming one long contemplation of the way one man's choice to do bad affects everyone else around him. In a way, these episodes are the ones that pay the bills for the show, the ones that keep us invested in the plot's momentum. But because "Breaking Bad" always pulls them off, we're always ready for the next week of long, stately shots of desert roses. Building tension is something "Breaking Bad" is great at, but I almost think it doesn't get enough credit for how good it is at relieving that tension as well.
Some other thoughts:
***Nice callback to last season: Jesse wanting a buzzer installed in the RV for if the keys are left in the ignition.
***On the other hand, not many series would take the time to have Gale recite Whitman's "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer," so it's not like this was an episode crammed to the gills with action or anything like that.
***Dean Norris has always been one of the more underrated actors of this ensemble. I'm glad the last few episodes are giving him a chance to shine, and if you think this episode was great for him, wait until you see next week's.
***Loved Walt asking if there was anything in life that wasn't negotiable while trying to get the model apartment exactly as is. I like the artificiality of his new trappings, the way they suggest that he's still not entirely comfortable in the new life he finds himself in, even as it becomes obvious that some growing part of him relishes it.
***For a man with hundreds of thousands of dollars, Walt sure doesn't much flaunt it insofar as his lunch routine is concerned.
***Shiban had some nicely showy shots in the episode, ones that called attention to themselves without doing so too much. I particularly liked seeing Jesse through the glass table top and the use of color in the scene where Hank goes to the hospital.
This week's question: If you had just narrowly averted capture by a man who had you pinned inside an RV, a man who had called other officers to come with a warrant to search said RV, and if you had just sent said RV to, more or less, the scrap heap, would you REALLY stand around to watch it be destroyed, no matter how cinematically enjoyable? I have my doubts.