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Breaking Bad followed up last week's excellence with an episode that didn't quite match it in terms of entertaining the viewer. With a greater emphasis than usual on visual style the episode did provide some stunning shots, but it was also brought down slightly by a storyline that moved along at a snail's pace. That being said, the episode was not without some big developments to the plot and characters.
Walt's anxiety over Jesse's safety has obviously built to a frantic level in the space between now and when we last saw him in Jesse's house. The well executed shots from the point-of-view of Walt's front bumper immediately throw us into the chaos of his madcap race to Los Pollos Hermanos. Adding to the excitement was Walt yelling at Saul to ensure Skyler gets all of his money if something happens to him, all while weaving in and out of traffic with varying degrees of success. However, the more important call would be the message he leaves Skyler, which would have a considerable impact on their relationship. That would come later though, as Walt does somehow manage to avoid arrest or collision on his way to confront Gus. “The Chicken Man” always seems a step ahead though; leaving Walt to stare at security cameras that mock him every bit as much as the one in the lab. Cranston's performance as an unhinged Walter White in these opening minutes make it easy to see why he nabbed that best actor Emmy three years running.
Mike's assurances of Jesse's safety do not go far in quelling Walt's fears, but the concerned chemist is soon given a distraction he can't resist. Walt and Skyler's celebration over finalizing the purchase of the car wash started off with the same cold, businesslike atmosphere as most of their interactions, but took on a much more intimate quality when Skyler misinterprets Walt's message. Left when Walt thought he might not see her again, the message now seems like a heartfelt attempt at letting Skyler know he still loves her. As they fall into bed together, Walt's conscience doesn't even blink in letting Skyler believe what she wants. Though coming just on the heels of Walt agreeing with her that they both have to be completely honest with each other, the scene was more comedic than hurtful. It also provided a solution to the problem of getting Walt and Skyler back together. With Skyler never showing any affection, and in fact often talking down or emasculating Walt; who on his part strikes back with a finely honed sense of sarcasm, it was hard to see the two of them having sex again; which is so often how couples wind up reconciling. But the humorous moment -especially Walt Jr.'s reaction when he realizes what they're up to- worked around the issue without changing either of the character's behavior.
Walt soon finds his frustrations returning however. His solo cook at the lab has got Jesse on his mind, and the feeling of being powerless has him on edge. A feeling that is even extending to his home life as Walt Jr. informs him Skyler has already decided when he'll move back in, despite Walt never actually agreeing to anything. His anger gets bumped up another notch when he notices Jr. drinking out of a Beneke mug; which recalls the painful memory of Skyler sleeping with her boss. By the time Walt arrives at Hank and Marie's for dinner, he is already well on his way to a meltdown. Hank unknowingly stomping on Walt's pride -the thing he holds most dear- is the final straw. Walt was as lit as a Christmas tree, but it was his ego that really led to him convincing Hank that Gale wasn't Heisenberg. The simmering rage he felt and the effect of the wine didn't hold a candle to the damage Walt did with just his own inflated sense of self. Cranston pulled out another great scene with his slouched and sloven demeanor, portraying Walt's intoxication flawlessly as the character implodes.
Jesse and Mike's day spent rounding up payoffs in and out of Albuquerque certainly didn't match the intensity of Walt's opening moments – at least not until their last stop. Their opening scene was a long unsuccessful attempt at making the audience feel as fearful as Walt was for Jesse. Aaron Paul's character is not about to be killed off though, so just like the scene back in the season premiere; we know Jesse's life isn't really in danger. But unlike “Box Cutter” there was no payoff for the superficial suspense of Jesse steeling himself for Mike's attack. Instead of getting a scene of extreme violence that was beautiful in its brutality, the two just get back in the car to head for the next dead drop. Which is how most of their day went; one long car ride with a few stops in between. Obviously the point is to convey Jesse's own sense of boredom, and in that regard the scenes were a tremendous success. You don't have to bore your audience for that long to get your point across though. Which is not to say there weren't a few moments to make the storyline worth watching; starting with this priceless image of Jesse doing his best to imitate a secret service agent while guarding the car.
In addition to the laughs garnered from watching Mike have to put up with Jesse's stir-craziness, there were a couple other moments during their travels worth acknowledging. In an episode brimming with stylized cinematography, the time-lapse shots of Jesse waiting for Mike were one of the best examples. The slow drift of the clouds was a great contrast to Jesse's inability to sit still. The true saving grace of the storyline came at its end however. The reveal of Gus being behind the two thugs that tried to make off with the collections shed light on what had been confusing the audience as much as it had Mike. Gus -showing he has more insight into Jesse than Walt does- realized the only thing that would get Jesse out of his downward spiral would be fighting for the life he was so ready to throw away. It actually started back with the scene when Jesse was ready to go down swinging if Mike tried to snuff him. Since then -without even realizing- Jesse has spent the day without the stimuli he had been craving to distract him from his guilt, and yet there was no emotional breakdown. The fight-&-flight from the stickup men was the final rush of adrenaline he needed to put the past behind him. Gus could see that Jesse not only needed to be reminded of what it felt like to be alive, but also why that “natural high” was better than anything he could get from the end of a pipe. In giving him new purpose as more than just a lab assistant, Gus also bestowed a sense of self-worth on Jesse that has been lacking since long before Gale's blood was staining his hands.
While the episode wasn't one the best of the season, it did advance the story and characters more than most of the others, and came with the promise of even more development in the near future. Some incredible visuals made up for a somewhat boring storyline, as did the concept of one character building himself back up while the other tears himself down.