I got so excited in this part! That Mexican Cartel sniper dude thinks he’s all badass showing up to talk to Gus on his own and sniping people and whatnot. He seemed like he was unstoppable or something. Then Mike just fucking chokes him out with the whatchamacallit. And then the way Jesse gets off his chair saying “What the fu…?” I live on the border and the Mexican cartels are ravaging Mexico, a country that I consider to be my second home, so it was very satisfying to see those fucks get their comeuppance, even if only in a fictional sense.
Inconceivable! Of all the possible movies from which to borrow inspiration for his daring plot to take out his cartel rival, Don Eladio, did Gus eschew “The Godfather” and “Scarface” in favor of “The Princess Bride”? Iocane powder, anyone? As usual, “Breaking Bad” overcomes a flimsy logical pivot–what happens if Don Eladio isn’t thirsty?– by packing an extended scene with stylistic and structural triumphs. Style, because of the show’s oddball tempo (Gus slowly folding his jacket, the herky-jerky demise of the cartel guys), Tarantino/Rodriguez-quality sense of trashy humor (the bikini-clad whores running to their cars holding stolen trinkets and wads of cash), and cut-throat gangster bravado issuing from unlikely sources (Gus yelling an open challenge to all comers). Structural, for the way it echoes previous scenes and caps off the journeys of two characters: Jesse’s video-game shooting of a real gun and his quick work in the getaway car complete his transformation into a strong-minded, lethally competent asset, while Gus’s history with Don Eladio ends to his vengeful satisfaction.
Although Jesse comes through on the estate to complete his long development out of his infernal bottoming-out back in Albuquerque–notice how clear-eyed he is when he shoots the henchman– the episode’s ending punctuates Gus’s boldness and brilliance, brought home by a masterful turn by Giancarlo Esposito. An excellent addition to the show, Esposito has never been better than he is in “Salud”. It’s not just the humor, although he perfectly shows off Gus’s hilarious fastidiousness when he flicks a speck of dirt off his jacket lapel as he steps over the hulking corpse of a cartel goon. Nor is it his consummate professionalism, captured succinctly in the faintest of appreciative smiles crossing his face after Jesse gives his new bosses an earful in the drug lab. Nor is it his fierce grandeur, as when he wills himself to stand upright, like Tony Montana, to spit defiance at anyone stupid enough to be contemplating a run at him. Esposito’s feat is to bring all of these qualities into exquisite balance, never dipping too far in any one direction, such that his Gus is a truly unpredictable character.
The only other character on the show who matches this unpredictability is Walt. Bryan Cranston, like Esposito, knows how to use subtlety to deepen his character so that the viewer is never completely sure what’s about to happen even when the play is obvious. Even when they behave according to form, there’s still an unsettling sense that matters didn’t have to unfold quite that way. In this episode, for example, only at the end do we realize Gus wasn’t going to give up Jesse to the cartel, though at times we think he might. As we watch Walt deal with Walt Jr, we wonder exactly what he’s going to tell his son. This far into the series, it’s clear that Vince Gilligan and his writers are defining roles and underscoring differences between kings and those who would be kings. All season long Walt has wanted to be the boss, the boss that Gus already is. Going a bit further, Skylar wants to be a boss, too, of sorts. Ted is another kind of boss. In a funny way, though Hank isn’t a boss, his subplot is focused on the idea of a boss–what kind of man is Heisenberg, and who could (Gus) and could not (Gale) be such a criminal mastermind?
This is the real reason the poisoning scene at Don Eladio’s, though stretching credulity, is actually a masterstroke. The use of poison draws together and colorfully trumps similar story points in the show’s second and fourth seasons, when Walt and Jesse hatch limp-wristed plans to kill off a target using a deadly poison (Tuco and Gus, respectively). Gus achieves what Walt and Jesse could not, showing again that he is worthy of sitting atop the criminal pyramid for having the balls to do what the other guys can’t. Gus is the man who brings the gun to the knife-fight, unlike the Walts of the world, who are laid up for days after a fist-fight. He does what is necessary. He earns the loyalty of his men (Mike). He knows how to spot and nurture solid lieutenants (Jesse). He is willing to take the gravest of risks. He lives by Don Eladio’s words: business is business, as the cliche goes, and emotion shouldn’t enter into things. (He also proves a TV and movie rule that any time a gangster talks about “business”, he will shortly thereafter suffer an especially cruel betrayal-killing.)
With that in mind, we can see that it’s no accident that only now, in the tenth episode of season four, do we hear about the death of Walt’s father from Huntington’s disease. Cranston gives one of his best speeches as he provides crucial context to his drive to be a strong father for Walt Jr. Now his behavior makes more sense. After age six he had no father, and only kept him alive in the form of a single, solitary memory, and a gruesome one at that. Walt’s dark desire to provide for his family makes a lot more sense. The character we thought we knew is broadened by that speech (so much so that a small but nagging voice almost makes me suspect that Walt has invented or at least heavily embellished his story as a ploy to win over his son).
But he is broadened emotionally, which is in direct contrast to Gus’s act of revenge, and that’s why it’s so effective in this particular episode, as a lead-in to Don Eladio’s pool party. Walt is made into a portrait of a conflicted, haunted man. Gus’s psychology is every bit as edgy and complex, but he has found a way to dominate it. Though Gus clearly has personal reasons for his move on the cartel, it’s also good business, not to mention self-preservation. His heart affects his decision-making but it doesn’t control it. With Walt that isn’t the case. Walt is emotionally driven because of his father, Gus controls his passions; Walt wears his intellectual arrogance on his sleeve, Gus never lets ego cloud his mind; and Walt takes wild risks only in the heat of the moment, when events cause him to boil over, whereas Gus plots and plans like a chess master. “Salud” makes these already apparent contrasts even starker.
In a minor key, Skylar also reveals her own weakness in her confrontation with Ted. Although it appears she has the upper hand when the scene ends, she has opened the door for complications galore. Of all the new possibilities opened up by this magnificent episode, Ted’s role as spoiler offers fertile ground for disasters to grow right in the Whites’ backyard. Ted is an all-American quarterback type, a middle-management cretin blundering into affairs whose dimensions he couldn’t even grasp if Skylar stuck a blueprint in his hand. The sort of man, in short, who listens to a dodgy lawyer serving up a dodgy story about a dead aunt he’s never heard of leaving him $640,000 and says “Wow”, like he’s just picked up the “Bank Error–Collect $50” card in Monopoly. Gordon Gekko’s line comes to mind: “A fool and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place”.
Ted reflects a side of “Breaking Bad” which is often overlooked, partly because it’s not a primary concern of the series and partly because, it must be said, it’s only vaguely fleshed out by Gilligan and his cohort. The side I mean is satire: in one cringeworthy scene Ted epitomizes, in one golf-shirted knucklehead, the well-meaning doofus typical of the “Main Street” American middle class, and also the corporate honcho whose “Wall Street” ideas consist of two shots of shadiness, one shot of slimy banality. Skylar’s “gift” is a bail-out, of course. Like many Americans, Ted decides not to do the smart thing and pay what’s due. Given the means to get out of debt, he immediately turns around and jumps into more debt. He considers the money a message from the universe, and decides he’ll put it back into his bankrupt company.
Note, however, that when he speaks unconvincingly of putting the cash back into the company, to help put people on the payroll so they can “pay their monthly mortgage bills”, there’s a leased Mercedes visible over his shoulder. Skylar knows Ted will squander the money. If he doesn’t spend it on splashy big-ticket items, he’ll waste it on a legal defense, hoping to “get a better deal” from the IRS. Ted’s a fool, but he’s a fool in a recognizably 21st-Century American capitalist kind of way: greedy, hypocritical, soft-minded, litigious, image-obsessed, lost in a fantasy world of phony confidence. Yesterday’s winner, today’s FICO casualty. He talks rot, like a Republican, making himself out to be a good ol’ boy with a few bucks in his pocket, a real “job creator”, but in truth he’s just a self-serving stooge. Even Saul Goodman looks down his nose at him, for crying out loud.
The scene in which Skylar confronts Ted draws a line under a magnificent, long-building irony. Skylar’s objective is easy to understand. She needs to convince Ted to pay his back taxes and head off an IRS investigation which might draw the Whites into the government’s crosshairs. To do this, she makes a pretence of trying to get him to do the right thing and pay what he owes. She’s more or less playing the role of a good citizen. In reality she isn’t. Not only is she implicated in Ted’s criminal activity, she’s now in the center of Walt’s larger enterprise, as well. What’s interesting is that it isn’t totally clear if she understands her own hypocrisy. “Breaking Bad”, at its heart, is a show about the lies we tell ourselves to keep living through the many contradictions in our lives. It’s about the consequences of our self-delusion, and what happens when the facts push back against our fictions. Gus, too, is a kind of super-hypocrite, with his fast food franchise and his police fundraising, but there’s no indication he’s lying to himself. He knows who he is. Walt and Skylar do not, and Skylar’s scene with Ted illustrates how foggy she is about her situation.
Ted is one of the aforementioned facts running smack into the middle of Skylar’s self-delusion. Like a Coen Brothers crime film, there’s a slow-motion horror to the myriad ways in which people’s plans fall apart. In common with, say, Jerry Lundegaard in “Fargo”, there’s nothing particularly wrong with any part of Skylar’s plan other than the fact that reality is much, much too messy to allow it to work. The brilliant satirical wrinkle to Ted’s character is that, while he’s a fool, he’s not by any stretch a complete idiot. Things would be simpler if Ted was more one-dimensional, either easy to reason with or easy to manipulate. He isn’t. He’s a classic, self-interested, bourgeois hypocrite who will, I predict, become an even stickier problem for the Whites. Skylar’s growing dismay is fun to watch because she’s experiencing, face to face, the kind of vertiginous fright many of us feel about our fellow citizens from afar. Ted is selfish, and just dumb enough, to ruin his own life. But he’s also selfish, and just smart enough, to ruin hers.
When Skylar compromises their position by giving him the money, and then worsens it by admitting it was she who arranged the fake aunt’s inheritance, she is sinking to Ted’s level. Her own internal conflicts have made her as mistake-prone as Walt. These are the two opposing poles the show offers to its viewers: a truly visionary, brilliant, gutsy leader in Gus, on one hand, and a miserable, self-deluding mediocrity in Ted, on the other. Right now Walt and Skylar are groping along blindly between these two positions, and could go in either direction. At different times they’ve been as shrewd as the good boss, while at others they’ve bumbled as stupidly as the bad one. Which, if we are still viewing them in the light of satire, might also make them all too similar to most of the show’s American audience. What will we choose? Bank bailouts or social solidarity? Cosmic messages or clear minds? Doing the easy thing, or the right thing? Crawling deeper into crisis, or paying what we owe? In the end I don’t think these themes matter much to “Breaking Bad”, but it’s worth appreciating a show that uncorks such a nasty satiric uppercut in its fourth- or fifth-most interesting dramatic layer.