End of Season Report: Breaking Bad, Season 4 – Part 1

29 Jul

Season 4

A sense of helplessness and desperation pervades Breaking Bad’s fourth season.  Walter has temporarily staved off his, and Jesse’s, death, thanks to having Jesse shoot Gale, but he knows his days are numbered once Gus finds a new chemist, and he’s absolutely terrified.  Sure, he made some peace with living with seemingly terminal cancer before, but the ticking clock of cancer has nothing on the ticking clock of Gustavo Fring.  After making it through contemplative bottle episode The Fly and the end of the third season, Walt’s deep will to live and survive is renewed, and his terror is ongoing and present during the fourth season even when not at the fore.

Re-watching the season quickly was a significantly different experience than watching weekly; some parts really slowed down, and the end game, which I had remembered as lasting about four episodes only really lasted two.  It’s basically impossible to sustain the constantly abject hopelessness that the fourth season begins with for 13 episodes, fortunately for the viewer, so the tone comes out most continually in the first two and last two episodes of the season, but it’s felt throughout, and everything Walt says and does in the entire season is best viewed through this prism of outright desperation.

In case it wasn’t obvious that Gus was a man who means business and that Walt needed to be terrified of him, Gus slits his associate Victor’s throat in front of Walt in a first episode scene which occurs right where the third season left off.  It’s possible that this is punishment for Victor getting seen at the scene of the murder, but it has the added effect of showing Walt how serious he is; if he killed Victor only for this purpose then Gus is even more bloodthirsty and cutthroat than I realized.

Walt’s trying to figure out an approach to survival, and all he can think of at first are the obvious ones – killing Gus directly or getting Mike to help him out.  He buys a gun, and is foiled trying to go Gus’s house to simply walk in and shoot him.  After suggesting a plan to Mike to help get Walt in a room with Gus, Mike beats him up right in the bar where they’re meeting.  It’s a great scene, and Walt is foolish for making suggestions that he should know Mike is never going to accept.  However, I think Walt is hardly crazy.  Walt sees his own death as something that could be coming any day, any week, and he’s going to go down swinging.  While this approach shows off some Walt’s lesser qualities, it always displays one of his best; his tenacity.  One method fails; find another.  Get beat up in the process if that’s what it takes.

The immediate danger recedes after the second episode in what a way all immediate danger has to; one can only be on the absolute edge of anticipation for so long.  The feeling rather, then, settles into a dull numbness which lasts through the middle of the season, occasionally heightening after particularly frightening moments to let Walt and the audience know that he should be, and is, scared out of his mind.  The much-talked-about “I am the danger” scene is one of these moments.

A couple of incidents throughout the season show off Walt’s single biggest weakness, his ego.  What’s the point of being the best darn meth cook in the southwest if nobody knows it, and you can’t even show off your winnings.  Walt drunkenly muses that Gale’s probably not Heisenberg to Hank at a dinner party and he buys his son an expensive car, which he blows up, when his wife smartly makes him return it.  He can’t get the concept of behaving modestly in his head; someone needs to know what a great job he’s doing.  Jesse wants to be Walt’s ally, but Walt constantly mangles their relationship due to his ego and his poor social skills.  It’s extremely frustrating to watch him drive Jesse away over and over when if he would choose his words and expressions more carefully he could make his point without a fight.

Jesse begins his seasonal downward spiral in the first half of the season, the weight of shooting someone heavy on his conscience.  It’s a moral undertaking that Jesse is unequipped to bear; he doesn’t have Walt’s facility for easy rationalization.  Gus, using his talent, as we’re reminded he possesses, of reading people, sees a spark in Jesse.  Jesse’s far more malleable than Walt; with strong mentorship, Jesse has qualities that would make him a valuable asset, and might imbue with him a sense of loyalty towards whoever the mentor was.  Of course, none of this would have mattered a whit to Gus, who wanted Jesse dead, just a couple of weeks ago, if a relationship with Jesse didn’t also allow Gus to finally put the meddlesome Walt out of the picture.

Mike begins to mentor Jesse, without Jesse exactly realizing what’s going on, until Gus sets up a situation in which Jesse will either be killed, or come out triumphant with new confidence and purpose.  Walt confronts Jesse about the situation, suspecting far more presciently than he could have possibly known, that Gus staged the attack to pump up Jesse’s confidence and begin to drive Walt and Jesse apart.  However, Walt’s brilliant intuition is rendered useless due to the ham-handed way he discusses it, turning Jesse more against him than ever before.

Walt thinks of one more brilliant way to eliminate Gus.  He creates ricin, puts it in a cigarette, and convinces Jesse to look for an opportunity to put it in Gus’s food or drink whenever he has the chance.  Jesse’s reluctance and inability to do so quickly enough spurs Walt’s anger and frustration and drives the two apart.  Walt’s manner of complaining to Jesse is another example of Walt’s poor people skills.  It’s understandable why Walt is so frustrated; he thinks every opportunity Jesse misses increases the likelihood of Walt’s own impending death.  But he has trouble conveying this fear in a constructive way.

We enter what I call the Gus portion of the season, which lasts from approximately episodes 7 through 11.  For this brief span, Breaking Bad almost portrays Gus as the protagonist.  We learn some of Gus’s past, when his partner was killed by the Don and Hector “Tio” Salamanca, and his desire for revenge that has lasted decades; he returns to Tio’s nursing home to taunt Tio when his nephews die (side note: I think it’s ever so slightly cheap to allude to Gus’s mysterious past as the reason the Don doesn’t kill him and never come back to it – it’s not important enough to be a terrible omission but it’s worth mentioning).  We learn Gus’s weakness, which is his desire for revenge against Tio and the cartel.

Come back soon for part 2 of the Season 4 breakdown.

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