Sushi for Twelve, $482 plus delivery f Respect the Chemistry: Thoughts on Breaking Bad 5.10 by Pearson Moore

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Respect the Chemistry: Thoughts on Breaking Bad 5.10 by Pearson Moore

“You have to get ’im.”

The scene was silent. The tension was so high the very air inside Hank’s car seemed to crackle. For an excruciating 39 seconds we witnessed such emotional intensity in Marie that cannon fire would have been drowned out by her fury. When finally she spoke, Marie uttered just five words, the only conceivable words:

“You have to get ’im.”

The impossible incongruity of Marie was nothing short of spectacular in this episode. She articulated the central truth of the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad, but she did it in the wake of an action that stunned all of us and rendered me incapable of delivering coherent analysis. The fight over Baby Holly, with its powerful emotion and striking symbolism, was easily the most significant scene of the episode, laden as it was with truths that have been building to this moment since the first episodes of Season One.

“Respect the chemistry,” Walter told us many years ago. In this episode the only person who was true to herself—and true to every tenet and law of chemistry—was Marie Schrader. But even her righteous fury and adherence to chemical principle was insufficient to the task. Bringing down Heisenberg is going to take more than a purple woman’s anger or an orange man’s detective work. There’s going to be a showdown, but the fatal blow will be struck not by the righteous or the strong, but by the harmonious and the true. Tonight, in the midst of roiling emotion and tension to make hairs stand on end, Marie showed us how it will be done.

Gunfight at O.K. Garage

The garage door opened. Walter, grim, determined, took 20 paces toward the street and turned around to face his adversary. Hank snarled, counted seven paces toward the garage entrance, and took up a position directly opposite Walter. The two men, chiral opposites, straddled a narrow line carved in concrete. They stared at each other. Hank’s forefinger twitched. Three fingers of Walter’s left hand twitched. Hank raised his right hand and punched the garage door controller.

The scene should have been familiar to you. If you grew up in the United States, or if you are a fan of spaghetti Westerns, you’ve witnessed the tableau a hundred times.

The weapon of choice in the Breaking Bad scene was not a Colt 45 or a Remington revolver, but Hank’s personal cell phone—and Walter’s second cell phone. The physical standoff became a duel of wits as each of two mortal enemies scrambled to figure out what the other’s next move would be. And so it went for possibly the most tension-filled half hour of television I have experienced. I don’t know if I took a breath during that time, but I do know that when I next looked at the clock 33 minutes had elapsed. My head was spinning so much that I didn’t even pay attention to the commercials, which usually annoy me if nothing else. The episode was so engaging that my thoughts raced, even when the screen in the living room tried valiantly to entice with a new car or fresh coffee at Tim Hortons or a terrific new fabric softener. It was a tense, gritty, breathless 33 minutes, and it all started with that amazing gunfight at O.K. Garage.

The symbolism of the Old West gunfight is well known to all of us. The good guy always wears the white hat, the bad guy always wears the black hat. Though some might argue that the symbolism doesn’t always work outside of Hollywood movies…unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Trudeau supporter, as I am. Don’t blame me, though. Blame Justin’s father.

Justin Trudeau (Leader of the LPC), Stephen Harper (Prime Minister of Canada)

One might wonder what Canadian politicians have to do with a showdown outside an Albuquerque garage. It’s all about color: white and black, red and blue. Although I will reference a few Canadian political figures in the course of our discussion, it is a Canadian composer and poet, Leonard Cohen, who will work the hardest to bring us to a deeper understanding of this evening’s episode.

Honor and Righteousness

The Duel Between Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr

July 11, 1804

It was the most famous duel of the 19th century. A sitting Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, faced off against the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Students of the period would be hard pressed to identify any ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ in this heated disagreement. Political rivals since 1791, the Federalist Hamilton saw many of his initiatives thwarted by the Democratic-Republican Burr. But the street ran both ways. When the College of Electors deadlocked over the Presidency in 1800, Hamilton took rare pleasure in working behind the scenes in the House of Representatives to garner votes for Thomas Jefferson, Burr’s opponent in the election. Burr had four long years to reflect on Hamilton’s political treachery, but both men continued to actively work against each other during that time. Finally, in 1804, Burr had enough and he demanded a duel, which Hamilton accepted. Though Hamilton was mortally wounded, history was kind to him; his face adorns the U.S. ten dollar bill to this day.

An 18th century duel was almost always a personal matter between two men. Duels were governed by concepts of honor, protocol, and the rule of natural law. Typically, the opponents would agree on a time and place for the duel, usually several weeks in the future. Most of the arrangements would be made through ‘seconds’, who acted as representatives to each party and took pains to ensure that every action leading to the eventual duel was carried out in an honorable and fair manner. Natural law as it was then called, or the ‘Will of God’ as it was known earlier in history, would decide which man was in the right.

Most elements of the duel changed in the latter half of the 19th century in the Western United States. There were no ‘seconds’, no planning. Honor was not necessarily in question, but the material or financial advantage of one party was often a driving force. It was not until the 20th century, with its idealization of the Old West, that morality was added to the mix. According to our parents’ and grandparents’ revisionist rewriting of history, one party in the duel was always right, the other was always wrong. Thus the single element of the duel never lost was the idea of ‘natural law’ determining the outcome. The White Hat always won because God was on his side.

‘All Bad Things Must Come to an End’

Painting by Isabella Morawetz, used with permission.

The outstanding visual creations of Isabella Morawetz will be featured in my Breaking Bad companion book Breaking Blue.

The Gunfight at O.K. Garage served an important function to the story. For the first time since the beginning of the series, Hank and Walter were on equal footing. Walter enjoyed the advantage for the entire first year of his methamphetamine empire, but now it was Hank who successfully planted the GPS tracking device on Walter’s car. It was Hank who won the race to contact Skyler. It was Hank who met privately with her and arranged for Marie to work on Skyler’s guilty conscience.

The Gunfight at O.K. Garage also serves as warning to us. Putting Hank and Walter on equal footing may at first seem like an advantage to Hank, still limping after being gunned down several months ago. But the idea of ‘equal footing’ is equality, not advantage. And in two important respects, Hank remains at a severe disadvantage to Heisenberg, as I will point out in this essay.

Freedom Under Hank’s Control

“You’re done being his victim.”

You’re free, Skyler. You’re free because of “My ability to control this situation…”

The long Hank-Skyler restaurant scene occurred immediately following the duel, and it established a very different kind of tension. The large blue box extending from one end of the window to the other end frames Hank’s booth in perfect spatial symmetry. The thick blue line is placed at the center of the booth, marking Hank’s personal space to the right of the line and Skyler’s personal space to the left.

Skyler is sitting rigidly at the outermost extreme of the box, as if trying to push herself away from Hank. Hank, on the other hand, is leaning as far forward as the table will allow. His left hand violates Skyler’s space. Her right hand draws back, recoiling from any possible contact with Hank, withdrawing to the point that she occupies less than half her allotted physical domain. We might well imagine that if the table were not there Hank would pull close enough to trap Skyler in his arms, keeping her in place “to control this situation.”

This quest to control has been Hank’s undoing for the last two episodes. He might have had some chance to win Skyler over to his side, but instead, he continued with his cowboy mentality—his ‘Lone Wolf McQuade’ behavior, as Marie put it.

Lone Wolf McQuade

Hank might have worked to provide a welcoming atmosphere for Skyler. Instead, he seemed to take every action that could drive her away. He wanted her to talk so that he could “control the situation.” He shoved a recorder into her space and instructed her to “State your name and the date before you start.” She was no longer Skyler, Sister-in-Law, but Mrs. Heisenberg, Co-Perpetrator. How could she not have been scared out of her wits by Hank’s aggressive actions?

Red is not Hank’s color. As I wrote in my essay last week, Breaking Bad Red is the color of unexamined youthful passion and anger. But in the first half of this episode Hank continued to sport a blood red shirt, his only ambition to “be the man who caught him.” Red anger is not what Hank is truly made of, and the John McClane-John Rambo-Lone Wolf McQuade-style of law enforcement is not his modus operandi. No one knows the real Henry Schrader better than Marie Schrader, and it was the courageous Woman in Purple who once again set things straight.

“You have to tell them, Hank. Today. Put the whole DEA on it—that’s how this is supposed to work, right?” I believe it was Marie’s naked appeal to Hank’s conscience that convinced him to surrender the Lone Wolf quest. But this may be wishful thinking on my part. These were her final words, just before we saw gray-suited Hank enter the DEA office: “What if you wait? If they catch Walt without you—if they find out that you knew and you said nothing? Hank, wouldn’t you go to jail, too?”

It is certainly possible that the threat of incarceration was Hank’s primary motivator, but I want to believe it was Marie’s strong sense of right and wrong that acted as the tipping point in Hank’s determination to sacrifice his career so that Heisenberg could face justice. This places a faith—and a burden—on Marie that future events may demonstrate was unjustified. But I’m an optimist. And why not? After all, how many women out there have the resourcefulness to find a purple tea kettle?

True Blue Ike

Dwight D. Eisenhower served as President of the United States from 1953 to 1961. He was a Republican.

As occupant of the country’s highest political office, Dwight Eisenhower was not only President, but he was also the Leader of the Republican Party. From our 21st century perspective we quickly assign to Ike everything we know about Republicans. After all, as Leader of the Republican Party Eisenhower would have been the definitive exemplar of every aspect of Republicanism. Therefore, applying our 21st century understanding, we know Ike was:

1. A social conservative.
2. A fiscal conservative.
3. Laissez-faire in his approach to markets.
4. The candidate who won all the ‘Red States’ in the elections of 1952 and 1956.

Except for #2 above, we would be completely wrong in our assessment. In fact, to use the vernacular of the time, we would be ‘dead wrong’. But then, as both Ike’s friends and adversaries were wont to say at the time, “Better dead than red.”

In modern times, ‘red’ in the political sphere refers to Republicans, ‘blue’ refers to Democrats. In Eisenhower’s time, though, being red was a very, very bad thing. In fact, during the entire Cold War, from about 1949 through 1991, the world looked like this:

The world of the Cold War was divided into three spheres of influence: The Capitalist First World in blue, the Communist Second World in red, and the up-for-grabs Third World in green. The so-called Domino Theory said the as yet unaligned Third World countries would fall to Communism as soon as the evil philosophy spread among its people. It was America’s job, then, to infiltrate those countries before the Communists could. The ‘Commies’ in Russia and China were Reds. Communist sympathizers, Socialists, and those with an overtly liberal agenda in the United States were known as ‘Pinkos’.

Ike would have become angry indeed with anyone who called him ‘Red’. While he probably would have distanced himself from the ‘Liberal’ label, he was unquestionably liberal by our 21st century standards. Both he and President Nixon, if they were around today, would be shunned by present-day Republicans for their unacceptably liberal, ‘socialist’ stances.

The import for fans of Breaking Bad is the danger in too quickly applying labels or in accepting apparent connections at face value. “Hey, look! It’s finally come down to a showdown between Hank and Walt!” All the signs are there, after all, as I showed earlier in this essay. If we replaced Hank and Walter’s cell phones with revolvers the scene would have played out just like a stereotypical 1950s Western. The thing is, we’re not living in the 1950s. You can refer to Republican politics as ‘red’ without fear of having your home firebombed or being hauled before the local police. But you can also reasonably expect that the good guys don’t always wear the white hat, and the bad guys don’t always dress in black.

Chemistry By the Numbers

Tonight’s episode was satisfying in a way that few Breaking Bad episodes are. There is never a lack of interesting ideas and symbols to contemplate, but coming as I do from a background in analyzing LOST, often on a frame-by-frame basis, I always feel a special kinship with episodes that include mysterious numbers.

There was a number in last week’s episode—a number that pops up more frequently than any other, actually. In Season One we became acquainted with the character, Krazy8. From time to time we witness a figure-eight bruise on a character.

In last week’s episode we saw Jesse throw exactly 14 thick stacks of bills into strangers’ yards. I counted. The most meaningful of those tosses was, of course, Throw Number Eight—

—the one that ended up falling into the sewer.

The number eight is a little Easter Egg that the writers throw in from time to time, maybe to give people like me something to do. Maybe the writers play a lot of billiards.

What do Walter’s six numbers mean? Well, as I said, numbers don’t often have great symbolic significance on Breaking Bad. You might think that the numbers were chosen at random, just some ordinary place in the New Mexico desert. Wrong-o! The numbers do have significance. Now if this were LOST or Fringe or The X Files, we would not be surprised to learn that the numbers are the coordinates for the Great Pyramid of Giza, or a secret launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Hah! Breaking Bad is not about conspiracies or aliens or millennia-old Protectors of an ancient island.

The above is a satellite view of the GPS coordinates of Walter’s secret stash. I know, I know—it didn’t look like that in the episode. If you plug the coordinates into Google you’ll come up with this address: 5650 University Blvd. SE, Albuquerque, NM. The exact location is the Southwest door of Sound Stage #1 at Albuquerque Studios in Albuquerque—where Breaking Bad is filmed. Aw, shucks. I was hoping for space aliens.

Now, the take-home message for Walter is that using local GPS coordinates as New Mexico State Lottery numbers is not going to fool someone like me for more than a few seconds. And I know for a fact that the DEA employs people with a lot more intelligence than I have (especially after a couple bottles of Guinness). So, Walter, you might want to take those numbers off your refrigerator door.

Woman in Blue

If you believe Lydia’s choice of desert apparel was accidental you haven’t been paying close enough attention to the series. The pinnacle of the Breaking Bad universe is expressed in a single color: Blue. If you see a character dressed in blue, watch out. That character is bold, assertive, calculating, and she has absolutely no time for small talk. She does not suffer fools or enemies or other impediments to the ruthless implementation of her plans.

Some viewers will have questions about the nature of events that transpired in the desert junkyard. The bold blue color of Lydia’s jacket should have been an immediate tip-off. Something bad was going to happen, and we could confidently attribute all of it, including the detailed planning of the event, to the Woman in Blue. But even if you were watching the episode on a black-and-white television (do they exist anymore?), you could have figured it out.

Lydia checked her watch, saying to Declan (the drug distributor from Phoenix), “I really wish…you’d given him [Todd] a chance.” We found out in the next few seconds why she had expressed this desire. It’s not because she liked Declan. When she pulled the telephone from her pocket she wasn’t checking her voice mail messages or reading the weather report. She was sending a signal to Todd’s Uncle Jack and his gang, telling him to proceed with the unpleasantries they had planned in the event that Declan refused to employ Todd as Chief Cook. When Declan was called back above ground, Lydia prepared for the nasty business by crouching down low and plugging her ears. It was only after that modest bit of preparation that the noisy slaughter began. She wished Declan had given Todd a chance because if he had, she wouldn’t have had to endure the nauseating gunshot deaths of a dozen men.

I would imagine many viewers assumed Lydia was acting at Walter’s behest. But we know from Episode 5.09 that Walter wished to remain unattached to Lydia in any way. That Lydia is working on her own and has now put Todd in place as Chief Cook seems a reasonable conclusion. Therefore, Uncle Jack’s entire gang is likewise under Lydia’s command. Chekhov’s Spider has acquired sharp fangs and a fatal bite.

Woman in Purple

The woman of the hour was Marie Schrader. Given substance and vitality by Betsy Brandt, Marie came alive in this episode, pulling together themes and symbols from long-ago episodes and demonstrating the unparalleled power of this series to captivate and engage.

As we proceed along the color continuum we move from blue to violet to ultraviolet. For the purposes of understanding Breaking Bad, we might think of purple as ‘ultrablue’. There is a lot more to the symbolism of this color, and I will spend an entire chapter (Chapter P, of course!) in my Breaking Bad companion book Breaking Blue explaining Marie’s favorite color. But since I can’t devote the entire essay to Marie’s wardrobe, let’s concentrate on a single facet of her character: shoplifting.

Purple is an impure but extreme form of blue. Blue carries out long and careful research and planning. Blue knows it is in control and will achieve its objectives. Purple, on the other hand, doesn’t so much plan as risk. Purple takes delight in getting away with something, and is surprised at her ability to take what she wants, oftentimes right under the watchful eye of those entrusted with the safeguarding of merchandise. In this episode we became witnesses to Marie’s most audacious attempt at shoplifting.

It was Marie’s effort to abscond with Holly that took my breath away tonight and led me to ponder an aspect of the series that until now I had given little thought. In the first episodes I considered Marie’s shoplifting compulsion a kind of ‘mini-Heisenberg’ portrayal, a sometimes humorous statement that even the most upstanding among us have imperfections. We all do things that create pain or injury in others’ lives, and Marie was the example of that. Heisenberg killed, Marie stole spoons and picture frames. Heisenberg said Mike was ‘on vacation’, Marie said her name was Tori Costner, divorced, with one child, Eli. “I work a lot with clay,” she told the woman running the open house. (Episode 4.03, “Open House”) Tonight’s episode demonstrated that there is a lot more to Marie than we ever knew before.

Marie’s approach to her sister, and especially the series of assumptions she made about the extent of Skyler’s involvement, was informed by the dark, kleptomaniac side of herself. Hank had assumed Skyler’s innocence and never departed from that position. Marie perhaps hoped for some sign of innocence, but as she peeled back the increasingly rotten layers of Skyler’s corrupt soul, she found to her horror that Skyler’s involvement was far more sinister than any kind of peripheral complicity; she was every bit the monster that Walter was. The realization horrified her, and she delivered to her sister the same blow Hank had reserved for Walter after his own horrifying epiphany.

I’d love to take a poll of viewers around one simple question: Did Marie attempt to kidnap Holly?

The idea of ‘kidnapping’ did not occur to me until I sat down to compose this essay. Marie was taking the baby, getting Holly away from her unstable, dangerous parents, taking her away from a potentially deadly environment. I never thought of ‘kidnapping’.

And yet, from a legal standpoint, kidnapping is precisely what Marie was trying to accomplish. If she had made it as far as the other side of the door, she could have been arrested. Not by the Albuquerque police, because kidnapping has federal jurisdiction. No, she would have been arrested by Hank’s co-workers down the hall at the federal building—she would have been detained and booked by the FBI.

But who among us would say that this ultimate expression of Marie’s penchant for shoplifting—it followed the same pattern, after all—she didn’t ask permission, she just took the child—was in any way unjustified or wrong?

Now this is where the episode became downright fascinating in the deep questions it posed. From a certain point of view most of us can agree that Marie’s actions were justified, that she was acting on behalf of Holly’s best interests. Even if she might legally have been charged with kidnapping, how could anyone accuse her of malfeasance from a strictly moral point of view?

But it occurred to me that psychologists and court systems have long known that physical and verbal contact between criminal parents and innocent children is often beneficial to the child. In fact, the benefits are often deemed to be so great, of such value to the child’s development, that difficult, sometimes costly arrangements are made so as to allow incarcerated parents to have time with their children. Neither Skyler nor Walter has been abusive toward either of the children. It seems to me not inconceivable that a court, proceeding on the basis of a psychologist’s recommendation, would allow the imprisoned Skyler and maybe even Walter to spend time with their children.

And this is when Leonard Cohen intruded into my meditations.

If you’re not familiar with Cohen’s masterpiece, “Hallelujah,” I recommend you click on Youtube and listen to one of his performances or studio recordings of the song. At least for now, don’t listen to the other popular recordings—the k. d. lang version or the Kate Voegele interpretation. Listen to Cohen himself tell you of the majestic but awful, gut-wrenching state that allows ordinary human beings to exclaim Hallelujah.

There are ways, Cohen tells us, to gain an extraordinary, painful resonance with the terrifying powers of the Universe. He starts out by telling us of King David. The unspoken tradition underlying Cohen’s poem is the notion that David had been given an unusual gift for musical composition. The connection Cohen makes is to say that this gift was not given as the result of unusual piety but instead was the unexpected outcome of seeing the divinity in another human being. King David certainly lusted after Bathsheba, yes. He sinned, and his God abandoned him, left him to his great misery and sorrow. But out of that soul-shaking loneliness, King David—and Leonard Cohen—extract the truth that they do not belong in that desolate place, that they are the ones, in fact, who have turned their backs on God. And it is in this unfathomable state of repentance and pain that Cohen utters Hallelujah, in the ‘secret chord’ that ‘pleased the lord.’ That is to say, it is only in the deepest recesses of the most wretched pain that any of us can truly gain a glimpse of or resonance with the divine.

“Wow,” I hear you saying. “Pearson’s really gone off the deep end this time.” Certainly. But then that’s not a novel event in my life!

I’m not trying to say that Hank and Marie and Gomie will have to suffer personal pain or loss before they can defeat Heisenberg, although it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the three of them come through this without major trauma or death. What I am trying to say is that two or more characters are going to have to visit some very uncomfortable plane of existence before they can bring him down. King David had to travel to the outermost frontiers of human existence to acquire his extraordinary musical talent. That’s the message of Cohen’s song, and that I believe is also the message of Breaking Bad. Paint-by-numbers illustration and by-the-book detective work is not going to work here. If Hank were tracking an ordinary criminal he could just go through the motions, whip out his recorder, and instruct the witness, in droning monotone, to “state your name and the date before you start.” That’s just not going to wash here. Hank will be required to do extraordinary, uncomfortable things if he wishes to initiate the sequence of events leading to Heisenberg’s arrest or destruction. He and his crew will have to do things akin to Marie’s kidnapping of Holly. I am not saying any of their actions will have to be illegal, only that they will have to be extraordinary.

Justin Trudeau accomplished something extraordinary in 2008. He turned the riding (legislative district) of Papineau, Québec, from Bloc Québécois light blue to flaming Liberal red and he’s kept it that way ever since. His party is counting on him to pull off something like a miracle in 2014. Looking at a map of Canada, engulfed as it is by Conservative dark blue and the New Democratic Party’s deep orange, acknowledging the reality that the Liberal Party is a minor third party, Mr. Trudeau is facing enormous, virtually impossible odds. Like Hank Schrader and Leonard Cohen, Justin Trudeau will have to visit uncomfortable, lonely places if he has any chance of wresting political leadership from the current powers that be in his country.

The reality of Justin Trudeau is that he is not Liberal red anymore than Dwight Eisenhower was Republican red. Eisenhower was a great general. Trudeau is a great political leader. Both of them are great because they rose above any casual or simplistic classifications. Hank and Marie will have discover in their misery some species of greatness that allows them likewise to rise above orange and violet to deliver the blow that knocks out Heisenberg.

Heisenberg is all about paint-by-numbers. “Respect the chemistry,” for Heisenberg, means respecting the relentless truth of logic and science. Respect the chemistry and you will be able to assert yourself. You will be able to amass immeasurable wealth. You will build an empire.

Breaking Bad is all about transcending the limited Heisenberg mindset, finding respect for truths that transcend logic and science. “I swear to God, Marie, I think the universe is trying to tell me something, and I’m finally ready to listen.” (Hank to Marie, Episode 3.07, “One Minute”) Those who listen, those who are willing, with Hank, to sacrifice a career in order to achieve a greater good, are the ones who truly respect the chemistry. They are the ones who compose the secret harmonies of King David and Leonard Cohen that bring pleasure to the universe. They are the ones who will get ’im.