Hank's after Gus, the cartel's after Walt, and the clock's ticking. Why not seize the day?

By Melissa Maerz
September 05, 2011 at 06:00 AM EDT
Ursula Coyote/AMC
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How would you live your life if you knew your days were numbered?

That’s the question most often pondered by cancer survivors on television, the point being that if doctors told you that you were going to die tomorrow, you’d concentrate more on the important stuff: spending time with your family and friends, worrying less about work, and generally crazy-sexy-cancer-ing it up, if we’re to believe shows like The Big C. It’s just like Saul Goodman tells Andrea’s son in this week’s episode: “Carpe diem, okay?”

But the genius of Breaking Bad is that it suggests that cliche couldn’t be more wrong. After Walt discovered that he had cancer, he made some pretty self-destructive choices, including splitting from his wife and cooking meth. When Jesse felt sure that Gus would kill him, he held the mother of all parties and did enough drugs to kill a large dog. Even though Gus is pretty certain that the Mexican cartel is plotting his death, he can’t resist taunting the group’s wheelchair-bound leader, Hector “Tio” Salamanca. Knowing that time is ticking doesn’t give these characters a new lease on life. It makes them want to do as much dumb thrill-seeking as they can, as quickly as possible.

Take the lecture that Walt delivers to a fellow cancer patient at the hospital. When the guy complains that God has waylaid his plans to start a family and become an entrepreneur, Walt’s enraged that he’s giving up control and not living on his own terms. “Every life comes with a death sentence,” Walt seethes. “One of these times, I’m gonna hear some bad news. Until then, who’s in charge? Me.”

But, as Walt’s quickly learning, there are some things in life that you can’t control. Gus, for example. Walt has to rely on Jesse to poison their boss, but Jesse’s been lying to Walt about that plan. (Coming on the heels of Gus’s meetings with the cops and the cartel, Jesse’s text—“Meeting is off. Something came up. Boss is busy.”—was the understatement of the year.) And then there’s Hank. Walt likes to believe that Heisenberg’s pulling the DEA’s strings, but when it comes down to just the two of them, sitting in a Los Pollos parking lot, Walt is at his brother-in-law’s beck and call, forced to plant a tracking device on his own boss’s car. (Bugging Gus’s property without a warrant! Is Hank breaking bad as well?) Walt’s not even in charge of the car wash anymore. When Marie tells Skyler, “You’ve really taken to this being your own boss thing!” it’s clear that Walt’s only the second-in-command over there.

Of course, the biggest thing that’s beyond Walt’s control is cancer. It’s been a long time since Breaking Bad has delved into Walt’s illness, probably because he’s been in remission. But lately, each episode seems to remind us that Walt’s sick. In “Bullet Points,” Skyler tells Walt that they should play up his cancer to make Hank and Marie feel more sympathetic about his so-called gambling addiction. In “Cornered,” Walt takes a shower in one scene, revealing the scar from his experimental cancer surgery. This week, Walt Jr. asks if his dad got the results back from his doctor. Walt says his cancer is still in remission, but his uneasy expression suggests that he might be lying. Are the writers trying to tell us something? Considering that Walt believes a man is a measure of his choices, not just his motives, it would be fitting if what ultimately stopped Heisenberg wasn’t Gus or Hank but cancer itself, the one thing that would render all his choices moot.

NEXT: Will Gus soon be “disappeared” by the cartel?

Gus is facing a different sort of countdown on his life—two countdowns, actually, if you believe the DEA’s hunting him down as quickly as the cartel. In a flashback, we see him telling Hector that someone warned Hank right before the cousins came to kill him. He says that Juan Bolsa, the high-level cartel member who ordered the cousins to kill Tortuga, probably knew who tipped off Hank, but—wouldn’t you know it!—Juan Bolsa happened to get killed. “An accident, perhaps?” Gus suggests, nearly smiling. “A mistake made by his own men? We may never know.” But we do know. Gus made that call to Hank, effectively getting the cousins killed, and that’s as close to a confession as Hector’s going to get. “This is what comes of blood for blood, Hector,” Gus snarls. “Sangre por sangre.”

And he’s right: sangre por sangre is exactly why Hector will soon retaliate against Gus, who effectively got the cousins killed and has protected Walt for too long. Interesting that Walt delivers his own version of a sangre por sangre speech after he gets caught planting Hank’s GPS tracker on Gus’s car. “We have a mutual interest in resolving this without violence,” he says. The same logic that Gus used to save Walt is the one Walt’s using to save himself.

Ironically, the DEA agents who are looking to bring Gus down are currently saving his life. If the cops are watching Gus, then Hector can’t make the call to have him killed. (When Gus asks “Is today the day, Hector?” he’s warning him: If you do this today, you’ll get caught.) And it seems Hank’s going to be on him for a while. Sure, Gus comes up with a good excuse to explain why Hank found his fingerprints at Gale’s apartment, but his personal records from Chile are fishy. And we think we know why: Gus was somehow involved with Pinochet. That would explain why Hector once called Gus “The Big Generalissimo,” and also why, as Hank says, “before ’86, the guy’s a ghost.” Gus got out just at the right time, before Pinochet lost control of the country. No wonder the cartel’s old leader, Don Eladio, tells Gus during the bloody swimming pool flashback, “The only reason you’re alive and [your partner] is dead is that I know who you are.”

Speaking of that flashback, if there’s one thing that Breaking Bad has taught us, it’s that any time a character looks like he’s going to get killed, you should start praying for the guy who’s sitting next to him. Right when Tuco was about to go crazy on Walt and Jesse, he turned around and beat his own henchman to death. When Gus came after Walt and Jesse with a box cutter, he ended up slitting Victor’s throat instead. As soon as we saw Don Eladio asking why he should let Gus live, we started to worry for Gus’s loyal chemist, Max Arciniega. (Fun fact: the character Maximillian Arciniega is named after the actor who played Krazy-8, the guy who ended up dead in Breaking Bad‘s third episode. With that kind of legacy, the poor guy was never meant to last very long. Also, after comparing his show to Scarface many times in interviews, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan finally gets to wink at that reference by casting that film’s Steven Bauer as Don Eladio. )

NEXT: What does this Swimming Pool of Death suggest about Walt’s future?

Interesting that the story Max told Don Eladio about his relationship with Gus was the same one Gus told the DEA agents about how he knew Gale. Both Gale and Max were recipients of the scholarship that Gus created for chemists. Both got involved with meth. Both ended up dead. (If the records in Mexico are better than the records in Chile, Hank and his chronies could dig up some good information on this coincidence.) Also, both were fiercely loyal to Gus. “He’s the most loyal man I’ve ever met,” says Max of the Los Pollos boss. And yet, loyalty is starting to become a liability. Last week, Mike told Jesse that Gus likes him because he’s loyal. But you know what else is loyal? Dogs. And as we learned in last week’s episode, some dogs get killed, just for being loyal to the wrong man.

That was certainly the case for Max. Watching his blood drain into the swimming pool, we couldn’t help but remember that other Swimming Pool of Death, the one from season two that was filled with detritus from the plane crash caused by Jane’s dad. A pink stuffed toy was found in the pool back then, and this season, it keeps coming back: Skyler found it rolling around Walt’s drawer, and baby Holly was dressed like that fuzzy pink thing in “Cornered.” Will the plane crash soon come back to haunt Walt, possibly endangering his family in the same way Gus’s hermano Max went down? Jesse still doesn’t know that Walt let Jane die, and once he does, he’s going to want payback. Meanwhile, Mike’s right: the whole season’s headed toward a perfect storm of cartel leaders and DEA agents and Los Pollos guys turning on one another. And judging by the way Walt treated that Dodge Challenger, he’s not going down without setting everything on fire.

Carpe diem, okay?

Further questions for you readers:

Is it possible that Gomez might be a mole who’s being paid off by Gus? It seemed intentional that he was shown again in the opening flashback, telling the cousins, “Burn in hell!” Could it be that Gus warned Gomez about the cousins, and he was the one who tipped off Hank? Is that why he’s so skeptical of Hank’s suggestions that Gus is behind Gale’s death?

After killing Max, Don Eladio and Hector tell Gus: “Look at him, you did this to him.” Gus later tells Hector, “Look at me.” It reminds us of a scene from a while back, where Gus told Jesse, “Don’t look at [Walt], look at me.” Being watched has been a big theme this season, mostly for Walt, who can’t escape the cameras in the lab. So what do you make of these demands to be looked at?

Episode Recaps

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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  • 01/20/08-09/29/13
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