Breaking Bad recap: The Empire Business
By now, we are all familiar with the Breaking Bad disposal method. Take something you don’t want people to find: A body, usually. Stuff it into a plastic barrel. (Plastic = mandatory.) Pour in gallon or fifteen of hydrofluoric acid. Stir it all up into a nice blood soup. It’s a familiar dance, at this point, with the basic rhythms dating all the way back to the show’s second episode. The sixth episode of Breaking Bad‘s fifth season opened with a disposal scene. There was no expository dialogue, no sound at all. Walt, Jesse, and Todd arrived back at Heisenberg HQ. They fished a kid-sized motorbike out of the dirt patch in their truck. They slowly disassembled the bike: Wheels, gears, screws. Then Todd went back to the truck and dug into the dirt patch. He found a tiny little dead hand. One more body turned to stew. Afterwards, Todd walked up to Jesse and lit up a cigarette. “Say,” he said, “You guys didn’t tell me this stuff smells like cat-piss!” Jesse, in a thoughtful mood, punched Todd in his fat Landry face.
Todd tried to make his case to the Dome-Headed Trio. “I didn’t see any other way,” he said. “I saw a threat and took care of it.” Something in Todd’s diction made him sound almost ex-military, and you could tell that Walt had a certain respect for his decision. Todd didn’t react without thinking; he reacted with brutal logic, and Walt respects logic. (To a certain extent, Breaking Bad could be looked at as the story of Walt’s evolution from Normal Spock to Mirror Mirror Spock. In this metaphor, Jesse is Captain Kirk, Skyler is Dr. McCoy, and Junior is, I dunno, Nurse Chapel.) I also loved Todd’s exit line: Explaining that he wanted to be involved with the team, he said, “I’m motivated, and I’ve got connections.” He almost sounded like a man walking out of a job interview, or like a drummer who’d really love to join the cool kids’ garage band. Jesse was having none of it. When Todd was gone, he called him “Ricky Hitler.”
But Walter reduced the problem to three possible choices: Fire Todd and continually pay him for his silence; Fire Todd and break out the hydrofluoric acid; or keep the baby-killer on the payroll and demote him back to pest control. Mike and Walt voted for option C, although Mike volunteered to give Todd a stern talking-to. You see, Todd is really just an employee who acted out of turn, and the first rule of management is to open up a meaningful dialogue with employees who make mistakes. So Mike meaningfully told Todd, “Next time you bring a gun without telling me, I will stick it up your ass. Sideways.” Todd walked out to his car and pulled out the little boy’s captured tarantula, regarding it with awe, as if he knew it symbolized something but just wasn’t sure what.
Meanwhile, Skyler was visiting her beloved children at her sister’s house. Marie was happy to play Cool Aunt Surrogate Mom. Marie joked, “I could just keep Holly here forever!” It was really interesting, because when she said that, a dog suddenly poked its head through the window and did this:
Marie could tell that there was something on Skyler’s mind. Call it a sixth sense. Or maybe it was because Skyler couldn’t seem to start crying. Really, Skyler looked like a wreck. Marie begged her to open up. She promised to keep a secret. Skyler looked right on the cusp of telling her everything. It would have been so easy. But Skyler is still loyal, or maybe scared of being punished for own role in Walt’s enterprise; maybe she just doesn’t want her sister to despise her. Regardless, Marie changed the whole course of the conversation. She said Skyler had to forgive herself for Ted Beneke, that chisel-faced silver fox. “So, Walt told you,” said Skyler. Let’s give props to Anna Gunn here: I loved the subtle shift in Skyler’s face, from aimless melancholy to outright rage. It was like she suddenly remembered how much she hated the foul creature that used to be her husband.
NEXT PAGE: A serious business decision
Jesse and Walt were cooking a new pile of blue meth, when Jesse happened to turn on the TV news. There was a report about a missing boy named Drew Sharp, whose hobbies included motorbiking, capturing tarantulas, and waving “hello” to strangers. Jesse started to come undone. (Children have always been a particular sore point for Jesse — recall how he reacted the last time a boy on a bike was shot because of him.) Walt gave hi ma speech and let him go home early. But Jesse lingered just long enough to hear Mr. White, alone in the cookhouse, whistling to himself like the happiest man on earth.
Walt swung by the HQ later that night and found his business partners talking business behind his back. Mike explained that he had a bad case of DEA tail, and it was getting harder and harder to throw them off. (Earlier in the ep, we saw Mike get the better of Gomez, leaving a message in a “Dead Drop” that turned out to be a direct love letter to the DEA, a message which is unrepeatable on this family-friendly website.) So Mike had a solution: “I’m out.” Walter said he was sorry, so sorry, to lose Mike — you could see him already salivating over his unexpected 50% raise. But then Jesse dropped the bomb: “I’m out, too. I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
Mike had a connection that was offering $10 million for Jesse and Mike’s share of the methylamine, for a total of $5 mill apiece. Walt reminded them that, with the methylamine they had, they could wind up earning $300 million — just enough for Walt to finally fulfill his dream of making a movie out of John Carter of Mars, with maybe just a tiny cameo for himself as a cavalry officer. But Jesse noted that $5 million right now was plenty of money. “Are we in the meth business?” asked Jesse. “Or the money business?” (That was a good line, in an episode that would quickly be top-heavy with good lines.)
Jesse and Mike went to meet their connection in the middle of the desert. All four men wore black; etched against the big country, they looked like shadows. (ASIDE: It’s interesting to note how, over the course of its run, the colors of Breaking Bad have steadily devolved into monochrome. Back in season 1, Walt wore green earth tones, and Jesse always modeled bright red street clothes, and the White household looked like an overlit ’70s ski-bum cabin, and the regular appearance of blue meth made it look like everyone was carrying around the broken remnants of a Cosmic Cube. Now, everyone wears black all the time, and the White household is bathed in dark Chiaroscuro shadows. End of Aside.) Mike’s connection was a tough-looking guy played by Louis Ferreira, an actor who has worked in basically every TV show you’ve ever heard of and is always instantly recognizable as “Sarah Polley’s quickly-dead boyfriend in Dawn of the Dead.” The connection was down to buy the methylamine…but only with the understanding that his purchase meant that Heisenberg Blue would disappear from the streets.
That brought Mike to a halt, and I loved watching Ferreira figure out the whole picture without even hearing Mike say a word. “You two have a partner you haven’t mentioned?” he asked, knowing the answer. He amended the deal. $15 million for 1000 gallons of methylamine, or no deal.
Meanwhile, the third member of the Meth Coalition was lying in his bed. He stared at his Heisenberg hat. He stared at the ceiling. He looked like a vampire suffering from afternoon insomnia. He received a phone call from Jesse. His old partner wanted to speak to him. “Come over,” said Walt. A few minutes later, Jesse walked in the door of the White household — welcomed in with open arms, for the first time that I can remember. The two men sat down opposite each other. And the dialogue that followed was one of the most loaded conversations in the entire run of Breaking Bad. Indeed, to a certain extent, what followed was almost a debate between two characters in search of a meaning: Mr. White, what’s this whole show been about, anyways?
NEXT PAGE: The Emperor’s ClothesOne of the most interesting things about Walter White is that, compared to most modern TV protagonists, we know barely anything about his past life before the TV show started. Tony Soprano regularly plumbed of his childhood searching for the root of his melancholy. Mad Men‘s first season slowly revealed that Don Draper used to be Dick Whitman, and the show still returns to his Whitman era on occasion. Deadwood made a recurring joke out of Al Swearengen’s inebriated orphanage-memory soliloquies. And the complex web of relationships on The Wire was always firmly rooted in years, if not decades, of street mythology. On Breaking Bad, Walt rarely seems to think about his past. He once pretended to visit his mother, but other than that, there’s never been a mention of his childhood. (Indeed, if Walt is similar to any other character on one of the great TV shows, it’s probably Marlo Stanfield, the druglord demi-god whose curious mixture of boundless ambition and android calm looks extremely similar to Season Five Walter White.) To a certain extent, Walt’s blankness seemed purposeful. There was a time, remember, when we all thought that Breaking Bad was the story of an everyman who becomes a criminal.
But there were a few key hints about Walter’s past. In the first season, we saw Walt go to the birthday party of his old partner Elliot Schwartz. Schwartz was a wealthy man — and there was something specifically taunting about his wealth to Walt. He had been Elliot’s business partner a long time ago — together, they co-founded Gray Matter — but Walt left. Walt also dated Schwartz’s wife, Gretchen — and her reappearance in a season 2 episode led to a conversation with Walt that was, arguably, the first time that Heisenberg really manifested in Walt’s non-criminal life. We learned that Walt left Gretchen, for reasons that have never been explained; and that, soon after, Walt left Gray Matter.
Gray Matter hasn’t been mentioned on the series in three seasons now. But it unexpectedly reared its head in Walt and Jesse’s conversation, which ranged all the way back to the series premiere. Jesse pointed out that Walt had only gotten into the meth business in order to make a specific number: $737 thousand. Now, Walt was walking away from $5 million. Why? “I have not been working this hard,” said Walt. “Just to sell out.” He told Jesse about Gray Matter — “I was the one who named it.” Walt didn’t talk about why he left the company — “Something happened” was all he would allow. (Aside: What do you think? Will that “something” be a revelation further down the line? Is this Walt’s Rosebud? Or does the actual reason not really matter? End of Aside.) Walt accepted a five-thousand-dollar buyout. “Do you know how much it’s worth now?” he asked. “Millions?” asked Jesse. “Billions,” said Walt. “With a B.” Then, the kicker: “I look it up every week.”
Walt couched that comment with a line that seemed designed to reiterate his devotion to his family: “I sold my kids’ birthright for a few months’ rent.” But I don’t think Walt really looks at Gray Matter as a missed opportunity for his children: For private schools, for cool cars, for a big house with an infinity pool. To a certain extent, Gray Matter stands for a whole host of paths not taken. When you consider that Breaking Bad began on Walt’s 50th birthday, the show looks a little bit like the world’s most extreme midlife crisis. Man hates his life, his beautiful house, his beautiful wife. Man remembers a time when he almost had the chance to start his own business. Man decided to relive that experience the right way and start a new business. Man becomes murdering drug-cooking crimelord.
Walt threw Jesse’s words back in his face. The money business? “I’m in the Empire business.” I’m relatively certain that, somewhere in this great country, horrible heartless people are already practicing that line. Jesse, clearly desperate to reason with this strange man, asked a question that hovers over the whole series: “But is a meth empire really something to be proud of?”
Cue Skyler, walking in the door at just the right time.
NEXT PAGE: Yum, green beans!Jesse was apologetic. He wanted to leave. But Walter insisted that he stay for dinner. Skyler shrugged. Why not? And thus ensued the most awkward dinner the White household has ever seen. It’s funny to think that, on a show that doesn’t really have a huge supporting cast, this is only the second time that Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn have been in the same scene (unless I’m misremembering.) Skyler spent the dinner crawling into a glass of wine, which left Jesse struggling to make small talk. “These are great green beans, Mrs. White!” he said. “What’s up with those pictures of frozen food? The food never looks like that when you cook it!” (If Aaron Paul doesn’t win a second Emmy for this scene alone, I’ll eat Werner Herzog’s shoe.)
He told Skyler that Walter was always talking about what a good manager she is. “Did you also tell him about my affair?” asked Skyler. She excused herself. Walt put it in simple terms for Jesse. His kids were no longer in the house. “My wife is waiting for me to die. This business is all I have left now. It’s all I have. And you want to take it away from me.”
So Walt made a play for the methylamine, driving over to Meth HQ in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, Mike was waiting for him. They passed a long night in the HQ office. Mike had to run an errand, so he ziptied Walter to a radiator. But Walter would not be restrained. He had the look of a captured grizzly bear ready to bite his own foot off. It almost came to that. Walt tried grabbing a coffee pot, hoping to break the glass and slice himself free. When that failed, he grabbed the electric wire and managed to make the world’s smallest flamethrower. In the process, he burned his own wrist. But he seemed to barely notice.
Meanwhile, Mike was talking to Hank and Gomez. Trust lawyer Saul Goodman brought stalking charges against the DEA. It wouldn’t stick, but it would give Mike 24 hours. Mike returned to Meth HQ — and discovered the methylamine was gone. Jesse and Walt were in the office. Jesse screamed that Walt had an idea, but Mike wasn’t listening. He pulled out his gun and started counting to three. Jesse begged Mike to listen. Mike stopped counting. He agreed to hear Walter out. Walt said that he had a plan. Everyone could get what they want. “Everyone wins,” he said, sounding for all the world like a man who has spent his whole life waiting for everyone else to lose.
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Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.