Monday, August 20, 2012

BREAKING BAD - "Fifty-One" & "Dead Freight"

Welcome to a roundtable discussion of this week's episode of Breaking Bad from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

Mike:  First off, my thoughts about “Fifty-One”:

- Walt’s trademark Aztek is now history!  Well, as I was just researching it, I see that various internet authorities list the Pontiac Aztek as either one of the 100, 50, or 10 worst cars of all time.  But because we had such a blast in Walt’s increasingly cruddy vehicle, it’s easy at least for me to overlook its hideous shape and brand-destroying reputation.  I mean, remember when Walt got in an auto accident on purpose so that Hank wouldn’t find out about the drug lab?  Good times.  In moving on from his clearly cheesy and uncool vehicle, in his mind he’s putting aside the “old Walt” and living his life -- what's left of it, at least -- to the fullest.  But what happened to being cautious of even having an expensive wine bottle in the trash?  Certainly, the whole leasing angle is one way to deflect suspicion, but Hank the bloodhound is at the height of his powers here.  The car wash may be successful, sure, but all it should take is a stray thought or two.  After all, this is the guy who suspected Lydia, correctly, solely on the basis of her mismatched shoes.  Hank hasn’t made a mistake yet in his investigation of the mysterious Heisenberg, except perhaps being a little too trusting of his curmudgeon of a brother-in-law, but then again, neither has Walt.  (Yet.)

 - To go along with that, Walt Jr.’s Charger is back!  And this one probably won’t get detonated in a parking lot, either.  I’d say that getting the two sports cars is a bold move, and one that more or less shines a huge spotlight on the fact that Walt doesn’t really care what Skyler thinks anymore.  Sure, he’s creepily putting the moves on her every night, and is playing the part of the loving but put-upon husband with their relatives, but at least for now, she is no longer a player in this game.  I’ll get more into this in a bit, but I’ve got to say that this week I was thinking a lot about the vial of poison that Walt has hidden in the walls of his family’s house.  If, God forbid, Holly doesn’t somehow ironically stumble upon it, then I have a feeling a certain person who has recently taken up indoor chain-smoking will soon be the recipient of a very special cigarette indeed.

- Oh, man, Skyler breaking up Walt’s birthday bacon.  I really hope that I am never the focus of the level of spousal disgust that our birthday boy received from his dead-faced, barren-souled wife the morning of his fifty-first birthday.  Though he is painting himself as the victim here to anyone and everyone who notices, with Skyler as the birthday party-ruining future mental patient, the thing is, it’s more or less factual.  Skyler is at the end of her rope here.  As Walt accuses her, and she agrees, there is no plan.  At the end of her and Walt’s little discussion in this episode, she has more or less given herself over to him, to be used as he wishes.  The only stipulation is that their children are no longer in the picture.  If Walt was as shrewd and calculating a businessman as he thinks he is, he would see what a great, pragmatic deal this is.  Not to mention that Skyler is correct about the danger of either of their children being allowed anywhere near their house.  At least, of course, until the timer ticks down and Walt’s cancer finally does him in.  What a brilliant, cold as ice, nightmare-inducing scene this last one was for me.

- With Hank’s new position as head of the ABQ DEA, it remains to be seen if he will still be able to indulge himself with his search for the elusive Heisenberg.  The agent who temporarily replaced Hank’s boss seems to think that it’s case closed, or if not, it should be soon.  Of course, since Hank will essentially be the boss now, I suppose that he could find some justification for a task force to be formed if he looked hard enough.  The return of blue methamphetamine to the streets is one pretty solid clue that Heisenberg wasn’t Gale Boetticher after all, but Hank is risking a lot reputation-wise if he puts himself out on a limb with a huge investigation at this point.  If Hank is good at anything, though, it’s pulling at loose strings and seeing what comes to light, so there will be more to come on this point, I'm sure.

- A personal note: when this episode was over, I went upstairs and gave my wife a hug.  The plan was for me to watch both episodes the same night, but I just needed a break.  I didn’t sleep too well that night.

And here’s what I thought about “Dead Freight”:

- Anyone else think that Walt’s new watch, though certainly an extremely thoughtful gift from Jesse, could end up being the thing that does him in?  If he brings it up one more time with Skylar, that only brings to the forefront yet again how he’s bragging about people wanting to kill him all the time.  And the eagle-eyed detective Hank definitely took notice in their meeting at the beginning.

 - I didn’t mention this in the first half of my write-up this week, but I’m really intrigued by the position that Jesse keeps finding himself in, between the two powerhouses of Mike and Walt, and often in relation to the unreliable, radioactive Lydia.  When Lydia discovers the GPS unit on the bottom of the precursor barrel, Jesse buys her story, but Mike sees it as the result of a long-running pattern of behavior that he now intends to put an end to.  Walt could go either way, it turns out, but both men are men bending their colder instincts as a result of their association with Jesse.  And even though it turns out that Jesse is right after all, I get the distinct impression that the elder partners in this business relationship would rather that they were done with Lydia once and for all.  And business-wise, that definitely makes more sense.  She’s just a liability right now.  Her usefulness, after any train heist inside info is no longer relevant, is negligible at best.  And I think as time goes on, a lot of things are going to have to be decided solely on the basis of their validity, business-wise.  And that’s the smart, if not humane, way to play it.

- Which is actually a pretty nice segue to what everyone is surely talking about this week: the ending of this episode!  We know that Todd, the young go-getter from the pest squad, has shown dedication and promise.  What we didn’t know was that he has the uncanny ability to assess a situation, and act in the most prudent, efficient manner to take care of that situation.  (Side note: who else was so on the edge of their seat from the big heist setpiece of this episode that they forgot about the enigmatic teaser at the beginning of the episode?  Well, me, for one.)  Now, as a result of Todd acting on his own here (or, as, I’m sure, Walt and Jesse are going to be explaining to Mike) there are going to be some pretty serious consequences.

- All of the sudden, Jesse, the idea man, and Walt, the brilliant strategist who’s always got a plan, are presented for the first time (post-Fring, at least) with a true x-factor, completely outside of their control.  If some homeless vagrant wandering the desert disappears, that’s something that might get some media attention, and then it will blow over, assuming that the body is able to be disposed of with enough care.  But this is an otherwise innocent kid who is, I assume, going to be going missing.  There are going to be search parties, and community vigils, and police involvement.  This is a huge deal.

- In the coming episodes, we are really going to see the stuff that our favorite meth crew antiheroes are made of -- what kind of leader Walt really is, if Jesse is really going to have a conscience, if Mike is going to tolerate this kind of garbage for one more second before wisely hitting the bricks out of town.  And what will happen to Todd?  Again, looking at it from a practical perspective, he made the right call.  There is literally no other way to handle the situation that would make sense and maintain the anonymity and tracelessness of their plan.  You can’t pay a kid off and get him to leave town.  You can’t kidnap him or scare him off.  I mean, it’s possible that the kid might have gone on his way and thought nothing of what he may or may not have just witnessed.  But in the meth game, there is no room for that kind of variable.

 - Jesse isn’t necessarily going to agree with that line of reasoning, though.  I have a crazy feeling that the next episode is going to pick up seconds after the end of this one.  I’ve got a sick feeling in my stomach just thinking about it.  I can’t wait to see it.

Jon: Since Mike's already did a wonderful job of laying out all the key events in "Fifty-One" and "Dead Freight," plus we're super late with this recap (totally my fault!), I'm just going to dive right in and talk about the good stuff, of which there was plenty. Together, these two episodes encompass what I love about this show: nuanced character development excised with stage-worthy performances and intense, well-crafted action that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Week 4 brought us an hour light on action, but bursting with individual character moments and evolutions. Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper and last year's great Breaking Bad episode "The Fly") returned to the director's chair for"Fifty-One" and his fingerprints are all over it. There are top-notch performances from everyone, but special kudos must go to Anna Gunn for her scenes this time out because this was a Skyler episode. I've never been much of a big fan of her work on the show, but her dead-eyed blankness of late is perfectly rendering Skyler's feelings of dread to the audience. The pool sequence was a highlight for both Gunn and Johnson, and having reached her breaking point, Skyler has at least for the time being given in to much of Walt's demands. But she'll not have the kids near him or the house until things changed and she's declared an open rebellion on him until further notice. And, oh my, has that been fun to watch thus far or what? Gotta love it when she sits in the living room puffing away on cigarette after cigarette and starts ashing in Walt's happy 51st b-day mug.

Meanwhile, the highlights the following week were all action and suspense, and some of the very best Breaking Bad has ever delivered. The homefront scenes with Walt Jr... er, Flynn were a little on the weak side, but when your antiheroes decide to rob a train in the most fantastic locomotive heist scene in television history later in the episode, you can let that slide a bit.

I love that Jesse once again is the impetus for another crazy, science-based caper (liquid, bitch!). And Walt's continuous ability to push the envelop into the danger zone was maddening. Really, every moment of that long heist was amazing; total edge-of-your-seat work by all involved. And then that last scene. Man. There's just no way not to be totally devastated by that, is there? But that too was great on many levels. Just another example of why this show is such a must-watch each week.

And, Mike, here's where you and I differ a little bit. Yes, Todd may have arrived at the same conclusion the group would've ultimately come to in his split-second decision in the episode's closing moments, but shit, bro -- that's cold! Jesse may have a mild reaction compared to what I was going through after watching that. I can't go as far as you and chalk that little guy up to a mere casualty of the meth biz. I was completely floored when it happened; blood boiling and all. It was the most shocked I'm been by this show since Jane's sudden demise back in season 2. Now, a lot of that had to do with my perception of Jesse Plemmons from FNL (here was my initial reaction), but it was still shocking nonetheless. How the group deals with Todd's actions is going to be fascinating because I have no clue how it will all shake out. Does Todd meet a quick end? Will Jesse turn him in to the authorities? Does Walt protect him, keeping him as his new little henchman? So many possibilities.

Speaking of possibilities, I don't think I've made any wild predictions for things to come later this season thus far in our recaps, but I'm in the mood to do so in another area this time around. I was especially intrigued by Walt and Lydia's exchange as Jesse and Mike waited up above. I'm probably grasping at straws here, but with his marriage souring by the hour, Walt seems poised to make for a romantic push at some point soon. He got into cooking in order to provide for his family, but that's falling apart and he's clearly more interested in obtaining more power than he is merely profiting from his criminal activities these days. If Skyler is able to keep brushing his advances aside, I could totally see him making a move on Lydia. She'll obviously only have any interest in him in terms of saving her own skin, but if she continues to play the "brilliant chemist" card she flashed in "Dead Freight," I can see Walt taking the next step toward her. Sexual conquest is one of the few power trips Walt hasn't realized as he's descended further into his Heisenberg persona. Like I said, I'm grasping at straws; but a boy can dream, can't he?

Anyway, we'll be back soon and plan to return to the old schedule for the last handful of eps for the first half of this final season. Til next time...

Previous Breaking Bad season 5 roundtables: 
Week 1 - "Live Free Or Die"
Week 2 - "Madrigal"
Week 3 - "Hazard Pay"

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