Breaking Bad recap: The Kelly Criterion
Walt plays blackjack and Jesse takes a gamble while Hank places his bets.
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, discussingthe 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?
Yes, Hank’s eagerly awaiting his French Connection moment with Heisenberg—and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s no doubt loving that reference too. A while back, Gilligan told fans that the 1971 drug-smuggling caper was a big inspiration visually for Breaking Bad, because it was “shot like a hand-held news camera” that’s held “as steady as possible,” a technique he mimicked in the pilot. We’ve also noticed that Heisenberg’s porkpie hat bears a striking resemblance to the one worn by Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, the narcotics detective played by Gene Hackman in the film. Can it be a coincidence that The French Connection‘s drug lords employ a bespectacled chemist?
We wonder if Hank has studied that movie as closely as Gilligan has. When Hank tells Walt that he wants to wave goodbye to Heisenberg, just like Popeye Doyle waved to heroin kingpin Alain Charnier, Walt thinks he’s mistaken: “As I recall from The French Connection, Popeye Doyle never actually caught [Charnier],” Walt says. But we wonder if that’s exactly what Hank meant to imply. Maybe Hank wants Walt to get away so that he won’t be forced to kill his own brother-in-law. Perhaps The French Connection reference is his final warning to Walt: this is Heisenberg’s last chance to wave goodbye nicely before Hank hunts him down.
As for Gale, Hank knows that he’ll never find him alive. Like the astronaut in Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home),” his karaoke song of choice, Gale’s probably finding that he’s way more comfortable out there floating in the Great Beyond than he ever was on Earth. (Watch the hilarious video of Gale singing the song here.)
Speaking of outer space, we enjoyed the callback to Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” the poem that Gale recited for Walt back when they were still bonding over the wonders of chemistry. You’ll remember that Walt was shown reading Whitman’s Leaves of Grass later that same episode, and later in the season, Whitman’s name popped up during an episode of Jeopardy that Walt and Walt Jr. were watching. The poem seems to be haunting Walt, which makes sense. Its themes—that the joy of scientific wonders must be experienced first-hand, that gut feelings often trump rational thought, that a man must separate himself from society in order to be free—speak directly to him.
NEXT: What will happen to Jesse?
Funny, too, that Walt Whitman’s name is an amalgamation of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, because it’s been a long time since these two guys were so united. Are we supposed to think that Mike’s going to shoot Jesse? Well, we don’t: just as Mike wouldn’t bother to blindfold a guy he planned to kill, he definitely wouldn’t drive Jesse all the way out into the desert just to get rid of him. Plus, according to Jonathan Banks, the actor who plays Mike, “Jesse and I are gonna end up spending a lot of time with each other” this season. We wonder if he’ll hold Jesse for ransom, forcing Walt to work for Gus until Gus doesn’t need him anymore.
Which reminds us: we noticed that motion sensors control the security cameras in the meth lab. If Gus can observe Walt while he’s cooking, Gus might be able to recreate the recipe on his own. (Especially if we’re right that the new guy in the lab is Gus’s brother, who happens to be a trained chemist.) We predict that Walt will find a way to lead those motion censors astray. Maybe it’s time to bring Jesse’s robot vacuum to work?
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.