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Breaking Bad recap: The Kelly Criterion

Walt plays blackjack and Jesse takes a gamble while Hank places his bets.

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Breaking Bad Cranston
Ursula Coyote/AMC

Breaking Bad

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
Off Air
seasons:
5
run date:
01/20/08-09/29/13
performer:
Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Aaron Paul, Bob Odenkirk
Producer:
Vince Gilligan
broadcaster:
AMC
genre:
Drama

How much are you willing to gamble right now in order to win in the long run?

That’s the big question behind this episode of Breaking Bad. While practicing his card game with Skyler, Walt says that he’s been studying the Kelly criterion, a mathematical formula that determines the optimal size of a series of bets for the best possible outcome. And the Kelly criterion is a good metaphor, because this week, everyone’s trying to figure out how much to wager today in order to come out ahead tomorrow.

There’s Hank, who risks tipping his hand to Walt so that he can eventually catch Heisenberg. There’s Jesse, who thinks not caring about anything will help him get through tomorrow, though his reckless attitude may get him killed tonight. And there’s Walt and Skyler, whose suspicious gambling story could immediately blow their cover with Hank and Marie—though if it doesn’t, it will buy them a whole lot of time in explaining the car wash.

It’s just like that guy on Walt’s t-shirt said: you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.

Even Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan is working with his own Kelly criterion formula, figuring out what risks in this episode will lead to the most wham-bang finale. Listening to Walt and Skyler discuss Walt’s strategy at blackjack, we can’t help but feel like we’re listening in on the Breaking Bad writers’ room, discussing the build up to the fourth season. After dealing the cards to Walt, Skyler says, “We both know that the first decision is whether or not to split or to surrender.” Sure enough, Walt’s faced a split-or-surrender moment with Hank every season, between the shootout at Tuco’s place and the moment when Walt and Jesse get trapped in the RV.

“The next decision is whether to double down or not,” Skyler says, “which you should be doing.” Walt’s doubled down twice already, first by teaming up with Jesse, and then with Skyler. No wonder she supports that move.

“The final decision,” she says, “is whether or not to hit or to stand.” Isn’t that exactly what Walt’s doing with Gus? The fact that he tells Skyler he wants to hit—and then loses the game—doesn’t bode well for his chances against the big boss.

Even when Skyler and Walt get their story straight for Hank and Marie, Skyler’s advice feels like an urging from Gilligan to Breaking Bad‘s writers: “In your own words, you say, ‘We’re almost to the end,’” she tells Walt. With Hank closing in on Heisenberg, and only a season or two left of the show, she doesn’t know how right she is.

NEXT: The French Connection, “Major Tom,” and Walt Whitman? What does it all mean?