Breaking Bad: Cheetos, Not Fritos

It’s been some time since we discussed individual TV episodes here at Pop Culture Has AIDS. But hey, we can rectify that. There’s a great drama series going on right now, at this very moment, Klosterman be damned.

Huddle up, try to ignore the security cameras following you around the room, and we’ll chat about last night’s episode of Breaking Bad.

Spoilers for last night’s episode, “Open House,” forthcoming.

Breaking Bad is in a relentlessly dark place right now. The plot, such as it is, is inching forward when it moves at all, leaving the show 45 minutes or so each week to show our five main characters living in utter misery.

  • Walt is emasculated as he’s ever been, under surveillance, punching the clock, while his ex-wife makes inroads to his criminal enterprise. This is double frustrating for Walt and for viewers after the long-awaited return of Heisenberg in the season three finale. The stratagem of murdering Gale turned out to be false hope for those who want the full-fledged comeback of the man in the porkpie hat.
  • Jesse is super fucked. He had never fully recovered from the death of Jane, and now he must cope with trying to go on through life after murdering a quasi-innocent man. There’s no coming back from that.
  • Hank is depressed beyond recognition as he recovers from his injuries. He’s lashing out at his wife, and using his marital bed as a dining table, toilet, and sadness cubby.
  • Marie is back to kleptomania, and adding a dose of compulsive lying as she tries to escape the sheer brutality of her daily life.
  • Skyler is slowly losing her moral compass as she tries to find something to live for in the wake of her failed marriage and failed liaison with her boss.

We’re three episodes into the season now, and what’s happened in terms of story? After Gus forcibly resolved the cliffhanger from season three, here’s what’s happened: Jesse bought a stereo, Skyler negotiated with the dude who owns the car wash, and….

That’s about it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Breaking Bad is good enough to captivate without much movement in the way of story. In fact, the show is at its best when it engenders a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere — think of a brutal summer heat wave in a big city where the possibility for imminent explosion is ever-present. Some of BB’s best episodes are more about character and tone than plot (“The Fly”, most pointedly).

As such, “Open House” is a strong episode, though not anywhere near the series’ strongest, and handily the least essential of the three season four episodes to date. The reason for that is simple: too much of the episode focuses on sisters Skyler and Marie. Skyler has always been Breaking Bad’s weakest link, never likable when she was supposed to be likable, and too often shrill and hypocritical. She’s not unlikable in the same way Walter is — charismatic and energizing. She’s unlikable in a “tempted to fast forward through her scenes” kind of way.

[And it doesn’t help that Anna Gunn looks amazingly off-putting this season. She seems to have gotten Heidi Montag-esque amounts of plastic surgery and/or augmentation, and the end result is as distracting as it is hideous. Sorry, but it’s true.]

Marie is a better-written character than Skyler, but unfortunately, Betsy Brandt doesn’t give a great performance in that role. Her acting style is too unsubtle to mesh with the rest of the cast. So, in the shadow of characters as compelling as Walt, Jesse, Gus and Hank, an episode focusing in large part on the sisters is bound to have a perfunctory feel to it. Does Breaking Bad have a lady problem? Probably no more than any other show created and largely written by men. At least Vince Gilligan and company give the sisters their own personalities, unpleasant though they may be. They’re not just window dressing, although at times it feels like the show is struggling to find ways to keep Skyler involved and on the canvas after the Whites’ split — the Betty Draper problem, rearing its ugly head again.

Watching the Schrader’s marriage decompose continues to be a fascinating highlight of the season, however. And the always-welcome Saul brought some much-needed comic relief to a mostly humorless episode. (Though can we please institute an all-media moratorium on the sound of a toilet flushing serving as a punchline?)

But the best parts of “Open House” centered on the despair of one Jesse Pinkman, who took the most memorable Go-Kart ride in television history and continues to desperately seek ways to get through another day. Aaron Paul is absolutely killing it right now, and Jesse’s downward spiral is the number one reason to watch Breaking Bad right now. But I do have one quibble.

So, you know how Jesse’s house is now a drug palace filled with methheads and assorted ne’er-do-wells? And you remember that scene where people were having sex on the floor in a crowded living room while other people were fighting and still other people were just generally being weird and druggy? It reminded me of this:

And not in a good way.

I didn’t believe in the ongoing rave/bumfights/rainmaking going on at Casa Jessie for one second. As with the above clip, this felt like a show creating a world of which it had no knowledge or understanding — which is strange for Breaking Bad, which has to this point dealt with the underbelly of the drug world impressively and realistically. I have no doubt that there are crack dens and meth dens where behavior even worse and more strange than what we saw in “Open House” goes on consistently, but as Skyler told Walt, the devil is in the details, and these details didn’t have the ring of truth. The scenes at Jessie’s house felt like something out of a terrible anti-drug PSA from the early ’90s.

This character, this actor, and his current arc deserve better.

Favorite detail of the week: Hank dismissing the fantasy football guide Marie bought him with contempt, because the information would be so outdated by the time his draft rolled around. That’s exactly the kind of guide you always see on supermarket shelves early in the summer, and wonder who on earth actually buys them. Now we know: emotionally abused wives of bitter paraplegics.

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1 Comment

Filed under Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “Breaking Bad: Cheetos, Not Fritos

  1. Great write-up, thanks. But I’d say Walt and Skyler aren’t comparable to Mad Men with its ‘Betty Draper problem’. Whereas in that show she’s recently become like a dead branch on a tree, just rotting (quite interestingly but to no narrative purpose) away, Skyler coming back into the show in a big way here is far more natural.

    You point out Walt’s emasculation right now – its never been worse perhaps, but the thing is its always been there. It in part defines him – it’s not purely for personal protection that he got that gun last week. Skyler’s always been a big part of that right from the uninterested handjob in the pilot episode. Her coming back to pull the strings again is natural and again proves one of the show’s main themes: no matter how much better you think things will get if you change (cook meth) they just won’t. Ever.

    But yeah, the plastic surgery took me out of approximatley 80% of the scenss she was in.

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