“What do we do?”
Marie wore all-business black to the restaurant meeting with Walter and Skyler. Her response to any challenge that evening and before was informed by a sure moral sense and unflagging devotion to justice and discipline. But then she saw Walter’s ‘confession’ and her entire world changed. For the first time in her life, there was no easy answer to an ethical conundrum.
Breaking Bad is morality play. We could say the same of any episode of Law and Order or CSI, of course, but Breaking Bad occupies a conceptually rich dramatic plane that embraces the full nitty-gritty range of human experience. There is no easy answer for Marie, or for anyone, because every decision affects not only self, but family, extended family, community, and entire organizations, and all of them in different ways. Law and Order proceeds according to a lowest common denominator of assumed moral precepts—a kind of one-size-fits-all ethical foundation for cookie-cutter solutions to one-dimensional problems of crime and punishment. Breaking Bad rejects the lowest common denominator, laughs at the uselessness of the cookie cutter, and forces us to examine moral decisions from multiple, complicated, humanly realistic points of view.
If Breaking Bad merely posed the problem of an ethically bankrupt drug lord, I would have no essays to write, and the entire story of Walter White’s descent into greed-fueled depravity could fit well into the confines of a two-hour movie that would end up in the Wal-mart four-dollar bin next to Halloween III and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. But Walter, like any real-world demon, drags people down with him, in various ways, according to his depravities and bending to the unique proclivities of those he taints. No one is pure or wholesome, all are caught up in allegiances of surrogacy and complicity that make this show the best drama on television, giving ideas to ponder long after the episode airs.
The faster-than-realtime passages in Breaking Bad usually chronicle a scene transition, often the movement from night to dawn and into full daylight. The brief hyper-speed scene immediately following the prologue showed us an emotionally distraught Jesse Pinkman being grilled by two of Albuquerque’s finest, powerfully capturing the turbulent, frantic state of Jesse’s mind.
The cinematic technique used in this scene is not new, but it had its best expression in a 1982 film born in Albuquerque. The movie was called Koyaanisqatsi, a word from the Hopi language which means “life of moral corruption and turmoil” or “life out of balance.” Delivered without narrative or context and with Hopi chants and frantic synthesizer music as the only accompaniment, the movie depicts a world so engulfed in manic energy that rapid-fire movement becomes its own reference; there is no reality outside the mania. Some of the most memorable, even haunting images from the film compress hours of nighttime traffic along busy streets into a few minutes or seconds of screen time.
The director, Godfrey Reggio, said Koyaanisqatsi has “never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It's been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it's not the effect of, it's that everything exists within [technology]. It's not that we use technology, we live technology.”
If we think the Albuquerque-born imagery and techniques of Koyaanisqatsi are being used intentionally in Breaking Bad, and I believe they are, we have to decide the extent to which those techniques are being employed to influence our understanding of the characters and plot.
To me, the absolutely fascinating aspect of this is that Breaking Bad is not social commentary. I explained this point in detail in my introduction to Breaking Bad, Breaking White, because I think understanding Vince Gilligan’s position on social structures is essential to a full appreciation of Walter and company. On the other hand, it seems clear to me that Koyaanisqatsi is one of the most potent visual social commentaries ever created, virtually demanding a response from viewers. If this is true, and if it is also true that the creators of Breaking Bad are intentionally using Koyaanisqatsi-inspired imagery to add essential artistic detail to the plotline, what do scenes like Jesse’s Interrogation mean?
I think of Koyaanisqatsi as a depiction of technology out of control, to the point that it becomes the primary force, the contours of which define our lives. I think for Vince Gilligan there is another yet greater force. Every once in a while a character will have an epiphany, or something will occur for which a character can identify no cause. Probably the most memorable instance of this was in the pivotal Season Three episode, “Fly” (3.10):
"My God, the universe is random, it's not inevitable, it's simple chaos. It's subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That's what science teaches us, but what does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man's daughter dies, it's me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?"
Many fans of Breaking Bad—Bryan Cranston among them—point to Episode 2.12 (“Phoenix”), as Walter White’s turning point from a man who might be redeemed to a demon beyond the possibility of salvation. It was in the last minutes of that episode, after all, that Walter watched Jane Margolis choke on her own vomit and made a conscious decision not to save her life.
Copyright 2011 by Martin Woutisseth, used with permission
Mr. Woutisseth’s stunning visual artistry will be featured in Breaking Blue
I think a case can be made that Walter’s moment of no return actually occurred months later, in Episode 3.10, when he came close to abandoning his long-held idea that “ the universe is random… it's simple chaos.” But by the end of the episode, after weighing the evidence, he decided, naw, the universe really is random. That decision to reject the inherent order and meaning of the universe, I think, could be seen as the crime for which the Breaking Bad universe offers no forgiveness.
Simply put, I believe a purpose-driven universe in which human life has meaning is at the core of Vince Gilligan’s vision of the world of Breaking Bad. The frantic Koyaanisqatsi madness of Walter White’s world is a temporary overlay, a deviation from normalcy that will be corrected soon enough, in a way that will visit a full measure of retribution upon Walter White.
Ashtrays and Bicycle Helmets
In the men’s room at the Route 66 Restaurant, Uncle Jack and his Glänzendeshaar Untersturmführer, Kenny, discussed the many incivilities of modern life. Uncle Jack lamented the armrest ear jacks, where the airlines used to put ashtrays—40 years ago when smoking was still allowed on planes. “I look at that and I say, ‘What the hell happened to this country?’” Shinyhair, Jack’s White Supremacist lieutenant, agreed. “I see a kid with a bicycle helmet on, I want to smack the shit out of him—like for his own good,” Kenny said.
Like for his own good. The significance is simple: Kids these days—in fact, the entire country—is being forced to surrender personal freedom to a heavily regulated society that has insinuated itself to the point that a fellow can’t even have a smoke when it suits him, or let the wind cool his scalp when he’s riding.
That not smoking is a common courtesy and wearing a helmet is just plain common sense never occurs to men like swastika-wearing Uncle Jack and his Number Two, Kenny. Human life for these men is Live Free or Die taken to the Libertarian extreme. Human life is whatever you choose to make of it—even if that means you need to kill people like Declan and his entire gang, as Uncle Jack did. Kraft macht recht—or as we say in English, might makes right. The only unsavory part of the whole business of knocking off Declan was having to clean the man’s blood off Jack’s boot.
Last week’s carnage in the desert was a glimpse into Uncle Jack’s ideal might-makes-right world, where a man can enjoy a smoke while offing his enemies—the perfect place where a man is truly free.
There was no FAA out there at the desert massacre, telling Uncle Jack he couldn’t smoke. And not even a bicycle helmet would have saved Declan’s life. Viewers just tuning in to Breaking Bad, ignorant of the first five years of the show, would nod and say to themselves, “Of course Uncle Jack is the bad guy. He’s just like Walter White. In fact, Uncle Jack is Scarface—he’s what Walter White has become.”
If you are uneasy about any such facile comparison between Uncle Jack and Uncle Walter, I consider that your reservations are well founded. There is no black and white in Breaking Bad. There is certainly a moral center, but as we saw in this episode, in a number of scenes, living in accord with moral precepts is far more difficult in the Breaking Bad universe than probably anywhere else on television. In the case of Uncle Jack, I do not believe he is being used strictly as an example. We hate Uncle Jack. But then, that’s a given. As Indiana Jones said, “Nazis. I hate these guys.” Who can disagree with the sentiment? But Uncle Jack is more than example. I believe he is also an agent. To understand what I mean, we need to consider Walter’s meeting with Jesse in the desert.
The Surrogate and the Spider
“Wow!” the director shouted. “Will you look at that? Why, that spider looks just like the one from ‘Dead Freight.’”
“Oh, yeah,” the camerawoman said, marveling at the sight. “The episode where Todd shot that kid and ended up keeping his spider. By golly, you’re right: That looks like the very same spider.”
“What a coincidence!” the director exclaimed. “We gotta put that in the scene.”
Coincidence, indeed. There are no coincidences in television. I’m sure that spider eats very well, especially between shots, when he roams around in his five-thousand-dollar, all-natural spider cage, fawned over by a trainer and a groomer and a spider nutritionist. Only the best for a spider who has now appeared in two episodes of Albuquerque’s biggest television show, and will enjoy at least one more episode in the limelight.
That spider, of course, is our old friend Anton, as we’ve discussed in previous essays. It won’t be the last time we see Chekhov’s Spider, either. But the fact that Todd owns the spider, and Todd’s favorite pet is now scoping out Jesse does not bode well for Walter’s former partner in the meth business. Spiders, of course, tend to bite, particularly when we least expect them to appear. The implication here is that Chekhov’s Spider is going to bite Jesse—and sometime soon. The spider is an angel of death. An agent, if you will.
“Wait a minute!” you say. “Walter went to get his Mr. Freeze revolver. He’s going to kill Jesse. By the time Todd’s spider gets to him, Jesse will already be dead.”
Well, yeah, except that Walter is the only one in the entire Breaking Bad world—including Jesse’s parents—who has any positive feelings for him. More likely, I think, Walter retrieved his ice-cold guncicle with the intention of protecting Jesse from Saul’s henchmen. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, and my essays have never been about predictions and theories but all about ideas and themes and giving you, my readers, starting points for your own thoughts about the events in an episode.
The spider is an agent. He’s the symbolic representation of Uncle Jack, who in turn is the symbolic representation of forces beyond good and evil. The Universe, if you will. The Universe, I believe, will use Uncle Jack as an agent of retribution—sometimes called Karma.
The complication that stands in the way of using Uncle Jack as the fickle finger of fate is Jesse’s connection to Walter as surrogate son. Surrogacy has been a fundamental theme of Breaking Bad, and certainly foundational to the relationship between Jesse and Walter.
Cristo Redentor (Christ, Redeemer)
The great statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro, BrazilSurrogacy is an important concept in Breaking Bad, but it is possibly the most celebrated idea in the Western world. A surrogate is nothing more than a person who stands in for or takes the place of another, usually as an agreed-upon appointment, and almost always with a specific role, task, or relationship. Most Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was in essence or became by choice or appointment a surrogate who accepted on blameless shoulders the sins and crimes of humankind. The Messiah, Christians believe, became humankind’s Redeemer, suffering and dying so that human beings would no longer have to die; the resurrection of Jesus is understood by the Redeemer’s followers as the guarantee of eternal life.
One important aspect of divine surrogacy has immediate bearing on Breaking Bad. The sacrifice of Jesus is considered perfect, not only because many believe the Redeemer to be God Among Us (perfect by definition), but because the substitutionary sacrifice was made restitution for everyone (or everyone who believes, or those who perform certain actions, and so on, according to the theology of particular groups of followers) for all time.
In fact, there is a sense in which surrogacy itself is a species of perfection, and this is the understanding I believe we need to bring to surrogate relationships in Breaking Bad. In this essay I intend to plant the idea that surrogacy weighs so heavily in the thematic structure of the show that its value is greater than the life of any of the main characters.
In the desert confrontation to which Saul was witness, Jesse pleaded, “Would you just for once stop working me?” He relayed a logical rationale for the meeting out in the middle of nowhere: “Just tell me you don’t give a shit about me and it’s either this…it’s either this [that Jesse leave town] or you’ll kill me the same way you killed Mike.”
It should have been obvious to Jesse that he occupied far less stable ground than the solid foundation Mike had built. Walter had to negotiate with Mike because he laid claim to a network of friends and associates backing him up. He was safe at any desert meeting because his demise would have been deadly to Walter. When Walter made the impulsive decision to kill Mike, he had to move immediately to neutralize the threat posed by Mike’s men, as he did at the end of the first half of Season Five. Jesse has no network, no resources backing him. If he were anyone else, Walter would have shot him right there in the desert and turned his body into red glop in a barrel.
Walter would not, could not kill Jesse because of the perfection I’m calling surrogacy. Walter needs to be able to declare his identity. He cannot merely say, “I am.” The utterance has no value, creates no connection or relation to anything tangible. However, if he says, “I am Jesse’s father,” the surrogacy relationship creates a material identity and puts Walter on solid ground, assuring the truth of his identity.
Surrogacy as guarantor of identity may seem far-fetched. For example, one could argue that Walter already has tangible proof of identity: He is Skyler’s husband and he is Junior’s and Holly’s father. But these are familial relations and not necessarily the result of will or volition (choice). Skyler is not a surrogate wife or a mirror of his will or intellect or an extrapolation of any other aspect of Walter’s being. On the other hand, Jesse as surrogate son is the incarnation of Walter’s will because Walter freely chose Jesse as a surrogate son. In the conclusion to the desert confrontation, Jesse literally embraced Walter as his surrogate father.
Jesse is the perfection of Walter’s identity because his being is all about self-expression, the propagation of his will into the stuff of others’ lives and the mechanisms of the world. Recall, he’s not making methamphetamine or making money, he’s “building an empire.” He’s establishing himself as Emperor, which is to say he is bending the world to his will, ruling it as he sees fit. Jesse is the tangible proof of his standing as absolute monarch.
“Would you just for once stop working me?” The sentiment is correct, because Walter cannot but ‘work’ Jesse. That is his nature, that is the only way he knows to express himself.
Think now on Jesse’s other surrogate relationship.
Jesse sees Brock as unmolded clay, a precious charge, the incarnation of a parent’s reality. That Jesse turned to drugs in the first place, we are led to believe, is the painful but logical outcome of Jesse’s parents’ attempt to express themselves through Jesse—to make him into the expression of their will. Brock’s life, Jesse vowed, will be different. Brock will be his own person, not the automaton dedicated to someone else’s self-expression.
The selfish expression of will versus the selfless surrender of self to others lies at the core of much of Breaking Bad’s dramatic tension. We see this tension play out in surrogacy relationships, but we find possibly its most emotional presentation in dilemmas focused on complicity.
Crime and Complicity
She’s wearing orange. Hank’s color.
When Hank said he was “going out for a while,” her response was, “You have that three o’clock; will you be back?” But really, she might as well have stood on her desk, pointed her finger in his face, and stared down at him with angry, smoldering eyes: “J’accuse!”
Orange is professionalism. It’s teamwork. It’s action-oriented red harnessed to methodical yellow. It’s what the DEA is supposed to be all about, but in the scene above, gray-vested Hank doesn’t know what to do. Gray, of course, is indecision, it’s the fulcrum point between decisive, dangerous action and full retreat. “I’m going out for a while” is another way of putting the question Marie posed after seeing Walter’s confession: “What do we do?”
Hank has been doing a lot of soul searching in his flustered, emotionally distraught, gray world. He’s gone through more color changes in this second half of the season than during any previous period of the series. He began in flaming red, moved to blue for a while, and in the restaurant and confession scenes vested himself in Marie SchraderTM purple. Yikes! His wardrobe changes are even more severe than Steve McCroskey’s evolution of drug addictions:
Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.
Lloyd Bridges as Steve McCroskey
Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.
Lloyd Bridges as Steve McCroskey
Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.
Lloyd Bridges as Steve McCroskey
Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines…
Lloyd Bridges as Steve McCroskey
Just as Steve McCroskey ramped up from tobacco to alcohol to (meth)amphetamines, Hank accelerated first into nebulous then dangerous and now downright lethal environments. Walter’s carefully planned counter-assault all but put the handcuffs on Hank.
We might be tempted to place all of the blame on Walter, but Hank has been complicit, at least to the point of dragging his heels and not reporting what he knows about Walter’s position as drug mastermind. He faces a real dilemma, as we’ve discussed in earlier essays. His reticence in bringing Walter’s case to his co-workers is based on certain knowledge of the personal repercussions of any such revelation: Like ASAC George Merkert before him, he will be removed from the DEA. Merkert lost his job for his ignorance of Gus Fring’s drug activities; Hank’s relationship with Walter is nearly identical to Merkert’s with Fring. Regardless of anything else that may happen, Hank faces quite possibly the most profound predicament of any character in the show. He must choose between his career and bringing Heisenberg to justice. As Hank assists in digging himself deeper into the possibly lethal consequences of inaction, it becomes increasingly likely that he may be required to choose between his own life and bringing Walter to justice. Such is the dilemma faced by heroes, and such is the topography of my fear for Hank.
The forces arrayed against Hank are so severe that even right-minded, clear-thinking Marie was dumbfounded after Walter’s ‘confession’. Probably Marie will face a decision point, too. I believe we saw a glimpse of this in her out-of-the-blue challenge to Walter: “Why don’t you kill yourself, Walt?” Marie is thinking out of the box. The startling question at the restaurant confrontation indicates Marie may be able to compose a plan that will save Hank and put Walter in a deep, dank hole. It’s difficult to envision such a move that does not end with her own death.
The choice before Hank and Marie becomes essentially Faustian in character. Either of them or both of them can choose career and complicity, or decency and justice. In George Abbott’s retelling of the Faust saga, Damn Yankees, Joe Boyd could at least return home to his wife, Meg, to ensure Lola’s and the Devil’s defeat.
It’s hard to envision any such happy ending for Hank and Marie. If they choose career and complicity, Walter wins. If they choose decency and justice, one or both of them will surely die.
What did she ponder in her office, in the dark? Walter entered her space saying he needed to go to chemotherapy in 45 minutes, asking if she could take the cash register. She didn’t respond. We can surmise that she’s not contemplating Walter’s needs, his chemotherapy, or the needs of the car wash. What, then, has gained hold of her thoughts?
Three possibilities come to mind: 1) Her children, 2) Hank and Marie, and 3) Her own future. Because of two recent shifts in Skyler’s thinking and behavior, my money is on #3. I’d like to believe Skyler is a good parent, that she has her children’s best interests in mind. Certainly she did everything she could to remove the children from the house, rightfully scared that their lives were in danger. But she has relented, and the children are back to living in the same house as the violence magnet, Walter. This may seem an unlikely turn of events, but she faces her own dilemma. Should she turn in her husband and lose hundreds of millions of dollars, or remain his number one accomplice and live a life of ease?
Most likely she’s not thinking of the children; she’s made the critical decisions in that part of her life. She’s not thinking of Hank and Marie; she’s decided to align with Walter and against her sister. That leaves Option #3. Just what will she do as heir to a $500 million windfall? How will she ensure that no one finds a way to take the money? Time is not on her side. At some point she must have considered how she could shrink the timeline so that she could assert control and prevent unknown forces from stealing her nest egg. I would imagine one way to gain control would be to accelerate the demise of a man who’s surely going to die anyway.
I titled this section ‘Arachnophilia’, intimating some nebulous alliance with Todd and Uncle Jack or any of the other peripheral players who could become Chekhov’s Spider to plot Walter’s or Jesse’s death. But I invite you to place a question mark after the word. We have no evidence at all that Skyler is plotting against Walter. But we are being given pointed indications of the possibility.
Probably the most striking indication was Walter’s bumbling and mumbling about fixing the ‘latch’ on the soda machine, followed immediately by the announcement that he had to leave right away to pick up prescriptions. He believed he adequately cloaked his rapid appearance and sudden departure in artful ruse, but it has been a long time since Skyler was ignorant of his manipulative deceptions. She surely knew he was up to something he wished to hide from her; it seems almost certain she would have known about the long-frozen revolver in the soda machine.
I look for her involvement at some point in the coming confrontation with Jesse. Skyler has used Saul’s henchmen in the past, with Ted. Since she and Saul share an interest in preventing Jesse from carrying out mayhem—including his doomed attempt at arson—it does not seem at all unlikely that it will be Saul’s goons who arrive at Walter’s house before he does, preventing Jesse from torching the house.
Marie posed the most unexpected question of the evening: “Why don’t you kill yourself, Walt?” I would like to suggest that the end of the episode posed a much deeper question:
Why did Jesse try to burn down Walter’s house? Why didn’t he just get his gun, walk up to Walter, and put a bullet in his head?
Jesse’s foray into arson was the direct result of his discovery that Walter tried to kill Brock. That Walter performed the deed with lily of the valley berries, not with ricin, is not germane. Jesse knew Walter poisoned the child, he lied about it, and he has been manipulating Jesse since Day One.
But why did Jesse seize immediately on attacking Walter’s house, not Walter himself? This was the biggest question in the writers’ room, as one of the writers, Gennifer Hutchison, explained:
"It was such a question of what would Jesse do. How would he retaliate? We went back and forth on the level of the retaliation. Would he go straight to Walt? Would he go to the house? Would he make a move against the family?" (Gennifer Hutchison quoted in The Hollywood Reporter, August 2013)
I believe they got it right. It all comes down to the pivotal importance of the idea of surrogacy.
Consider the tense restaurant confrontation between Mr. and Mrs. Heisenberg and Mr. and Mrs. Schrader.
Walter and Skyler both knew that their children would be safer, more comfortable, and in the long run far better off if Hank and Marie became the little ones’ de facto guardians. But the Heisenbergs declared that they would retain custody of their children, even if Hank kicked down Walter’s door and arrested him. “If it comes to that, so be it.” The children’s welfare, then, was subsumed to the parent-child relationship. The children’s psychological health, potentially their physical wellbeing, and possibly their very lives were rendered less important than the connection between the drug lord and his offspring.
I believe it’s important to understand that Walter was not using the children as ‘human shields’. But he’s on the wrong side of the Judgment of Solomon.
Two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him… “In the middle of the night,” [one of the prostitutes said], “she got up and took my son from beside me while your servant was asleep; she took him in her arms and put her own dead son in mine… Then the other woman spoke. “That is not true! My son is the live one, yours is the dead one.”… “Bring me a sword,” said the king; and a sword was brought into the king’s presence. “Cut the living child in two,” the king said, “and give half to one, half to the other.” At this the woman who was the mother of the living child addressed the king… “I beg you, my lord,” she said, “let them give her the live child; on no account let them kill him!” But the other said, “He shall belong to neither of us. Cut him in half!” Then the king gave his decision. “Give the live child to the first woman,” he said, “and do not kill him. She is his mother.”
(1 Kings 3:16-27)
By risking their own children’s lives, Walter and Skyler were putting their own desire and will before their children’s wellbeing. They became the Other Prostitute in the Judgment of Solomon. They are not Junior’s and Holly’s true parents. They are not parents at all.
Parenting involves a sacred trust—a vow to act always in the child’s best interest. The kind of parental love that Jesse has for Brock, a parental bond founded on the perfection of surrogacy, requires of him a vow no less sacred or binding than that imposed by biological parenthood. That, I believe, is Jesse’s understanding of surrogacy, and that is why he attacked Walter’s home, not Walter himself.
Walter’s house at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane is the most complete statement of the unholy lie that there is a man called Walter White. Perhaps such a man existed at some point in time, but the house is inhabited now by Mr. and Mrs. Heisenberg and two children, biologically related to them but held in vile captivity. 308 Negra Arroyo Lane is the illusion of normalcy—of decency, as Heisenberg said in Episode 5.09.
Heisenberg’s existence is an affront to values more precious than life, in Jesse’s mind. Heisenberg perverts the sacred notion of surrogacy, bends it into something that serves his own selfish interests, not the interests of a child. Jesse is attacking Heisenberg’s vile perversion of the basic precepts of humanity. That is why he must destroy Heisenberg’s house.
Jesse will fail, of course. We know from the flash-forwards that, although the house was long vacant, it was not burned to the ground. But Jesse will never again embrace Heisenberg as he did in the desert. Hank and Marie, as far as we can tell, continue to sink deeper and deeper into the foul stench of complicity. But a bright glimmer of hope appeared in this episode, when Jesse kicked down the door to Heisenberg’s house, allowing bright light to illumine the dark space inside. “There is still decency,” Holmes says to Watson in Murder by Decree. Indeed. Even in the most depraved soul we might find decency, hope, and the will to do what is right.