Breaking Bad
Season 5.14
"Dead to Rights"
Guest Writer: Tedra Osell

Monday, September 16, 2013

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
[The sixth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on the final season of AMC's Breaking Bad]

"Dead to Rights"
Written by: Tedra Osell

Up to the end of the opening credits--twenty minutes in--this week's episode of Breaking Bad still looked like a 70s Western, mostly open skies and gorgeous landscapes littered with bodies.. Afterwards, though, it was straight horror: cramped dark interiors, knives, people chained in bunkers. And in what I think was a first for the series, there wasn't a single moment of comic relief anywhere once the title had flashed on the screen.

There's still some humor, though, in the past. We open with a shot of boiling liquid and a flashback to Walt and Jesse's first cook that's full of foreshadowing. "What's next?" Jesse asks. "We wait." Walt responds. "The reaction has begun." Boy howdy. Walt starts to explain that "This is an exothermic reaction, giving off heat," and Jesse mutters under his breath, "put me into a coma why don't you." Be careful what you wish for, Jesse: Walt will have you in a kind of living death by the end of the hour. Interestingly, this scene also has a number of quasi-sexual motifs: Jesse asks if "we don't got like, eight more anal things we gotta do," Walt of course is naked except for his rubber apron, tightly whities, and rubber gloves--which he pulls off with a marked snapping sound as Jesse calls him a dick--an outfit that of course is about his cooking meth but is also kind of disturbingly fetishy. (Once we see what Jesse's fate is, it's downright serial-killerish.) For now, though, Walt and Jesse step outside the cozy RV into the light of the desert, and Jesse, following, averts his eyes at the sight of Walt from behind--and, symbolically, at the vision of his future. This season has convinced me that one of the underlying themes of Breaking Bad is a savage indictment of American machismo: the more powerful and "in charge" Walt's become, the more nakedly we've seen the inhumanity of the isolated male ego and the transparent way men use those things that are supposed to hold them check--family, the provider role, the role of protector--to justify their own self-interest. No wonder Jesse flinches.

Walt, meanwhile, dons a shirt and shoes and walks off to call Skyler. Here he is, a man half-dressed, calling to lie to his wife about what he's doing and who he's with: I had to work late, babe. But what Walt is embarking on, we know, is not an affair with another woman but rather a different kind of masculine adventure. Like the hero of a late Western, his journey is into Manhood with a capital M and no room for domesticity; power for its own sake. His undressed legs, "vast and trunkless," "stand in the desert," in the words of the poem from which this episode takes its title. Even here at the beginning, when the audience was still inclined to empathize with his desire to "protect" and "provide for" his family, we're reminded, what he is actually doing is lying to and betraying them. "Family," of course, becomes nothing more than the thinnest pretext for cruelty--think of Hector Salamanca's "lesson" to the cousins as boys, the danger that single mom Andrea (a contemporary Guadalupe) and her chubby son Brock (a modern Medieval Christ child) are put into by Jesse's continued ties to them, or indeed Skyler's own fall from grace once she chose her love for Walt and the temptation of his version of "family" by staying with him rather than turning him in. Here, Skyler is still innocent, but her words are loaded with portents. She asks Walt to bring home a pizza (the false offering he's later to hurl away in anger, when he's trying to worm his way back into his home), she's packing up a statuette of a "sad clown" that she's sold (soon, we'll have a shot of Walt's own "shattered visage"--Shelley again--crying out in anguish), she suggests naming the baby "Holly" (a name that suddenly struck me as oddly Christmasy--is Holly's birthday at the end of the year?).

Walt finishes his phone call. The camera pans back and slowly everything but the desert vanishes: first Walt, then Jesse, then the RV. Recall the closing lines from Ozymandias:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And, the title credit.

Followed by a shot of the same desert, still empty but for the sound of machine-gun fire. The sound stops, and the scene fills in: Uncle Jack's truck and Steve Gomez's black SUV materialize. We're back in the present day, and, as the camera glances around the scene, we see that Gomez is dead, Hank is down and shot in the leg (always the legs: what is a man if he can't stand on his own two feet?). Uncle Jack, wearing a long black leather coat and a steely gaze, strides forward to execute Hank as Walt struggles to get out of the SUV and to regain control of the situation. But control, as we've seen time and time again in the show, is a slippery illusion, and now Hank, as Gus did before him, finds that his command of the situation has been taken by an underling for whom he initially had only contempt. Uncle Jack has been a fascinating late addition to the story, in my opinion. He's almost a cartoon of angry white American masculinity, with his swastika tattoos, his violence, and his control over his (all male) connections and relations--including Todd, the nephew who has, by some standards, clearly been remarkably well-raised: he's polite, he's respectful, and he has the gee-whiz good looks and chivalry towards women (he so desperately wants to satisfy the uber-feminine Lydia) of the greenhorn character in any number of Western films, a role that would make Uncle Jack the mentor figure. Think of bald, black-clad Uncle Jack as bald, black-clad Yul Brynner in The Magnificient Seven to see what a vicious critique of conventional ideas about male honor is being offered here.

Later in the episode, we'll see again the way that loss of face provokes male rage and violence; here, we see it in Jack, the lowest-status (and most dangerous) of Walt's enemies to date, and in Walt's reaction to being outmaneuvered by him. In his attempt to save Hank--"he's my family," Walt stresses, with the emphasis on the possessive--he offers Jack the money buried nearby. Jack executes Hank anyway, of course--Hank going out, in keeping with his character, in the middle of telling Jack to "do what you're gonna--"--and takes the money, leaving one barrel of it to Walt while he explains to Todd, in a fatherly fashion, about the importance of not being greedy. Todd, who Jack reminds Walt "respects you," consoles him: "sorry for your loss." Which loss? Hank? His power? The money? Walt has only one thing left--his deal with Jack, and they shake hands a second time, "no hard feelings." "Pinkman," Walt snarls, as Jack begins to walk off. "You still owe me." A man, after all, has to keep his word. Walt indicates where Jesse is hiding under his Chrysler, and Jack's associates haul him out. Jack is just about to execute Jesse on a silent signal from Walt when Todd, laconic as ever, steps in: Jesse's been working with the Feds, he reminds Jack, maybe we should find out what he knows. "I could do it," he offers. "Me and him, we got history." The boy is stepping up, giving all the right signals of his emerging manhood. "We'll take care of the job, after that," he explains to Walt, ever respectful. Todd is a much better protege than Jesse ever was--only his allegiance isn't to Walt, as some have surmised: it's to his uncle, the head of his own clan. We'll discover soon that Todd, who learns more quickly than Jesse did, has a hidden agenda here; as Saul said of Jesse in the last episode, "the kid's not as dumb as you think."

But for now, needing information is enough, and Walt and Jack agree that Jesse will be killed after Jack's gang has extracted what they need from him. Walt, having been thoroughly outflanked, turns vengeful and vicious towards the one person he still has power over. "Wait," he commands, and approaches Jesse. His face is all sadness, but his words are savage: "I watched Jane die. I was there. . . . I could have saved her, but I didn't." So much for protecting women. Keep in mind the gap between his words and his expression here when we see him cry again later in the episode: real men don't cry.

Jack and company drive away, Jesse looking back through the rear-view window, and we notice that the first two letters of the license plate of Jack's car are NZ. Walt gets in his car and leaves, too--only to run out of gas, a bullet hole in his tank. He rolls the barrel of money across the desert to a small house of brick, a contemporary adobe populated by an old Navajo man, his hair in braids. We're still on the reservation, after all. Walt, bested by Nazis--the late 20th century go-to villain--has to turn to an Indian for help. The music accompaniment here is the Limelighters, "Times are Getting Hard"--I can't be sure, but it certainly sounds like a depression-era song (here's a list of recordings; the earliest one listed is Pete Seeger in 1959, which certainly suggests that it's older than that), sung in the person of a man who has lost his job. What pulled American men out of the depression, of course, was war with the Nazis--a war to which Navajos are now known to have made a significant contribution. (This scene, like the opener, has a light touch notwithstanding my opening claim about the episode's lack of humor--I think it's significant that despite taking place in the narrative present it's located in a symbolic past.) This Navajo man's contribution to the story is his truck, which Walt buys from him with a wad of cash, silently overcoming his initial response: "it's not for sale." As ever, what the Indians do and don't consider salable matters less than what American men think they need.

Halfway through the episode, we finally finish the opening credits. The end of all good Westerns, of course, is a showdown; here, too.

Two figures square off, one in white and one in black: Skyler and Marie. Being women, though, the face off happens verbally, in an enclosed room, rather than silently in a wide-open space. Moreover, the traditional "good"/"bad" dichotomy is reversed--it's Marie wearing all black, while Skyler continues the cream/white theme that's characterized her and Walter ever since they started laundering their money (and washing cars). Marie's outfit, of course, also acknowledges Hank's death; she's in mourning, though she doesn't yet know it. It's clear in this scene that it's the sisters, rather than their husbands, playing the true protector role: with the men fallen, the women are left to guard the home front. Marie tells Skyler that she needs to tell Flynn because "he deserves to know the truth from his family, not a bunch of uniformed strangers." Skyler, having allowed herself to be drawn into Walt's world, is still in denial, much as Walt was back when she, not Marie, was the one who tried to insist on the truth while he used "family" as a justification for silence.

And the showdown ends the Western. Hank lost his gunfight dead in the desert, but Skyler, in the modern west, is imprisoned. Her trapped expression and the barlike effect of the vertical blinds behind her are replaced by a scene from a horror movie. We see the bars of a large floor grate, from which we pan down to see a figure, in chains, lying in a dark, bare concrete basement cell. It's Jesse, the poor bastard, and as Todd pulls a tarp away from the grating above to lower a ladder, light streams in and we see that once again Jesse has been beaten to a pulp. Todd has shifted from Western greenhorn to serial killer, a role he's well-suited for: creepily polite, conventionally good-looking, and coldly psychotic. He's far more evil than Walt was in the early days when he had Krazy-8 locked in Jesse's basement, and Jesse's fate is accordingly worse than Krazy-8s ignominious death. Instead of killing him (or commanding him to rub the lotion on its skin), Todd helps Jesse up a ladder and out of his prison into a quonset hut warehouse filled with chemical equipment, where he chains him to a track running the length of the room. Jesse stumbles along the track to the end and discovers a photo of Andrea and Brock attached to an I-beam. The implication is clear: he'd better cooperate. His attempt to get the upper hand over Walt--his moment of manhood--has exposed them yet again. In the background, Todd is changing into a jumpsuit, as Gus did when he slashed Victor's throat. Todd, though, will keep Jesse alive, for now: "let's cook." Jesse is going to pay the price Walt should have paid for Jesse's death, by teaching Todd how to make Walt's recipe. I don't think I've ever seen a neater depiction of hell.

Back to Skyler and Marie: Walt Jr./Flynn is telling his aunt and mother that they're crazed liars. He wants to call his father, or Hank--some kind of authoritative father figure. How often has Junior demonstrated to us the moral bankruptcy of Walt's (anti-)heroic masculinity? Puking in the pool when Walt gets him drunk, admiring the car Walt buys him with his drug money, blaming his mom for kicking his drug kingpin father out of the house. Hank and Walt aren't available, of course, so the young man is forced back into the feminine world: Skyler drives him and Holly home, asking him to buckle his seatbelt. "You're shitting me, right?" he says, ignoring her. We can see her internalize the blame once again when he says that "if all this is true, and you knew about it, then you're as bad as him." But Junior is still young, and he's wrong, as we're about to find out.

The falsity of his judgment emerges almost immediately, as they pull up behind the truck Walt bought off the old Navajo man in the desert. Walt comes out of the house, commanding them to come in and pack "right now." But at this point Walter's role as head of household has completely broken down. Neither Skyler nor Junior will obey, even in the one remaining situation--an imminent emergency--where the old-fashioned "honor and obey" expectation might still be assumed to apply. "Just listen to me!" he shouts. "Go, now! Both of you!" Junior stands stock still, and in the background, Skyler puts Holly in her playpen as she might any day after getting home from work. Neither of them seems to be in any kind of hurry. Skyler, in fact, questions Walt's presence in his own home: "why are you here?" Through gritted teeth, Walt explains that he "needs both of you to trust me," to which Skyler responds, "where. is. Hank." She accuses him of killing Hank, Junior repeats, "Uncle Hank is dead??" and Walt, having lost control of the situation, throws his hands up and retreats. He and Junior disappear down the hall, arguing, while the camera shifts to a sharp focus on the kitchen counter where the phone sits next to the knife block. In the background, Skyler, like a slasher movie babysitter, walks towards the counter and pulls a knife out of the rack as Walt rushes back towards the living room, followed by Junior.

She steps in front of Junior and, possessed, commands Walt to "get out." She slashes, and a cut magically appears across Walter's raised hand. A struggle for the knife follows; Junior tackles Walt and gets the knife; Walt yells "we're a family!" while Skyler falls back into the role of terrified horror movie victim and Junior calls the police. Walt runs, grabbing Holly and the diaper bag on the way out the door: he's shifted from family man to kidnapper. Skyler runs after him, pounding on the window of the truck for him to "let her go!" while he guns the engine, using the beaten and out-of-place pickup--the same colors as the one Uncle Jack drove into the desert--to shove her suburban family car out of the drive and out of his way. He speeds away, and leaves Skyler standing alone in the middle of the street, blood on her upper-middle-class-cream-colored separates, screaming.

We cut to a tight shot of the Koala Kare instructions on a baby changing table in a bathroom somewhere. Walt is changing Holly. But any possibility for amusement is lost when we hear the semi-nonsense Walt is cooing to try to soothe Holly: "don't be sad, where's a bellybutton?" He's severed her connection to her mother; and when he picks her up, we hear her first words. "Mama… Mama… Mama…." Even Walt looks pretty stricken. But remember the last time we saw him cry, as he told Jesse that he'd watched Jane die, and recall his conversation about protecting daughters with Jane's father at the bar. Women make a man soft and vulnerable; if Walt's going to keep his freedom, he's going to have to sacrifice Holly. And as the denouement makes clear, he's going to choose freedom and some kind of revenge rather than shame and imprisonment. We still don't know who he's going to poison with that ricin he'd hidden in Holly's room, but we know he'll go back for it.

He won't go back home to be arrested, though. The scene is back in Skyler's living room, dark and filled with cops. One of them is calling in an Amber alert for Holly while Marie sits, worried, on the couch. The phone rings; we hear Walt commanding Skyler to answer the phone. Directed by the police, she does--and he launches into a tirade of abuse. "What the hell is wrong with you? Why can't you do one thing I say? This is your fault. This is what comes of your disrespect." On and on, all the things abusers say to their victims--and, not incidentally, many of the things that have reportedly been said in forums and discussion groups about Skyler: she's "never grateful," she "whines and complains," she's a "stupid bitch." Here it is: if at some point we admired Walt for being a badass, or empathized with his desire to "protect" or "provide for" "his" family (while turning a blind eye to what that protection and provision did to his family along the way), this episode shows us the naked truth, the egotistical underpinning of American manhood. Given a choice--Skyler begs him to "come home"--he refuses, and casts the blame elsewhere. He abandons Holly, with a note pinned to her jacket, in a fire station--a contemporary legal "safe haven" in America for abandoned infants--and is then himself spirited away in the firetruck-red mini van of Saul's mysterious guy-who-can-make-you-disappear. We know, though, that it's still not over. He still has vengeance to achieve, or try to.

"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair," Ozymandias's pedestal says. But it's just a pedestal with "trunkless legs"; the statue's "shattered visage" lies nearby, in the sand. The greatest shall fall, the poem says. There's a more subtle warning though, in which the reader/viewer is cautioned to "despair" alongside the "mighty." Our ability to empathize with Walt as the protagonist, our (anti-)hero-worship, our desire to see him "win," has grown (hopefully!) increasingly thin as events have unfolded. This episode reflects our early recognition of ourselves in Walt back to us as what it is: a kind of id-driven will to destructive power, violently defended on all sides by denial, displacement, and fantasy.


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Josh K-sky said...

and he launches into a tirade of abuse

Worth noting that Walt's playacting here; the effect of the abuse is to paint Skyler as his victim, not his collaborator, in front of the police. There are multiple satisfactions here for Walt -- executing one final clever ploy, "protecting" his family, even controlling how his son sees each of his parents. To say nothing of getting to say the actual words he says to Skyler.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this very much, Tedra. Your close reading really underscores how much this episode crystallizes the show's scathing critique of man-of-the-house/protector/macho masculinity. But like the first commenter I also read the final scene as Walt's attempt to redeem himself (in his own eyes, if not ours) by finding one more way to outwit his enemies and "protect his family." Though if one sees him playacting the phone call (and I can't read it any other way) then the door opens to reading this final scene as supporting the idea that he (and patriarchal masculinity) has at least a shred of humanity left: in his desire to preserve Skyler's future, and her future relationships with her children, and taking all the blame on himself. One might see a kind of honor in that classic machismo move. I'm sure the Skyler haters will. (I don't.)

Tedra Osell said...

I think if I'd had more time I'd have drawn out the nuance of the defense/attack stuff going on in that call. My focus, of course, was on the way that so much of the audience (still) seems to defend/identify with him (which I think reading his phone call primarily as a "protective" move kind of feeds into). Obviously it's layered; both/and. As Josh says, multiple satisfactions there: attacking Skyler while trying to protect her. Definitely human, but far from redeeming.

Josh K-sky said...

Right, I think it's important not to call this redeeming -- I think the foremost satisfaction is of controlling one more thing, exercising one last clever move.

Lauren said...

My two cents: Walt knew and Skyler knew too that he was "abusing" her in the hearing of the police (or whomever) so that she'd be exonerated. That's why he cried; it's also why she said "I'm sorry" --the only way she could to let him know she recognized what was going on without blowing the cover he was offering. That's not to say that he has never abused her (and Walt Jr.)--he gives them a dose of his style of abuse earlier in the episode when he tries to persuade them to trust him. Just to say that there was as I saw it very little ambiguity about what was going on (if much irony and double entendre which may be what Tedra means by "both/and").

Thanks for a great post!

Corey said...

More on that phone call ... which has by now generated a lot of commentary elsewhere (including by me in some Facebook posts): there's no question that it exposes Walt's abuse as never before: we have never heard him be this brutal to Skyler. But it does seem crucial to also see the scene as an oddly tender one between the couple, communicating with one another in a way only they understand. Walt is playing the role of Hesienberg so that the police will view him as demonic, and Sklyer as his victim rather than collaborator. She knows this: her pause when he asks if there are police there, before telling him "no" is her confirmation to him that they are there, the audience for his performance. And he's by now a great performer (which is to say a great liar), unlike his awkward performance at the start of the episode, after the first cook, where he has to haltingly rehearse his lines before his phone call. Put another way, we do get to see the raging id that is Heisenberg, but performed by the superego that is Walt's now pathetic belief that his role as father and husband is to protect his family (despite their rejection of this): caught in the middle of this is Walt's ego, which weeps as it faces (and engineers) the loss of identity he has just (we find out) secured. Your take on the scene seems right to me: it's a terrible moment the series has worked up to speaking aloud, but at the same time, perhaps perversely, it's one of the more touchingly personal interactions between Walt and Sklyer, couched in a public performance for the police and for us.

Lauren said...

That sounds right to me too Corey!