Breaking Bad Season Four

First shown 2011
Created by Vince Gilligan
Starring Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul

A while back there was a car advert in which all the separate components of the vehicle had been extracted and laid out as a work of art. Watching Breaking Bad- especially this fourth season -reminded me of that advert because everything slots into place so perfectly.  It is a master class in how to write an ongoing TV drama that is rich with character and in which each storyline fits together with the others, not always instantly but eventually. There isn’t an centimetre of waste in these 13 episodes, every single scene fits necessarily into the larger picture so any review can only scratch the surface of what is going on. There are people who have tried the show and given up; the shortest time I heard was someone turning off half way through the very first episode! Others have reached seasons 3 or 4 and found the whole thing too heavy. There is, they say, no light and shade in the show, it’s all hate and no love. In one way this might be true yet ultimately it is a series about drugs and guns and cartels while also being one about family and trust and deceit. It’s central premise in case we forget is an ordinary man faced with mortality making some bad choices and finding a thrill to criminal life that he never had in his previous ordinary one.  

Warning - Big Breaking Bad Spoilers past this point
The other thing about this show is that it has scenes that people talk about for ages afterwards. One such scene turns up almost right away at the start of the fourth season. With Gale lying stone cold dead both Walt and Jess’s life expectancy might just be measured in minutes when Gus arrives at the lab. Without any emotion at all he fetches a Stanley knife from a drawer, changes into overalls and pointedly ignores all of Walt’s reasoned yet increasingly frantic explanations as to what happened. Then, and this is still without him having said a word, he slits the throat of one of his henchman who had been spotted at the crime scene.  This scene demonstrates a few things. One is that sometimes characters in other TV shows just talk far too much, especially if they are villains. The second is that the viewer actually knows neither Walt not Jesse will die because even avoiding spoilers it’s not possible to avoid knowing they are in season five. Thirdly it shows the viewer just how immersed in this world they are. About half way through I realised how the scene was going to play out and sure Enough it did (even to the point where when Gus is leaving he says his only line in the entire scene telling Walt and Jesse to get back to work). If this happened with most series it would be a little disappointing once the smugness of second guessing correctly was satisfied. Yet here it took nothing from the sheer power of what was happening; it was still as riveting and shocking as if I hadn’t guessed. I suppose it means I’m now truly in the Breaking Bad zone.
That example aside I rarely am able to predict what the show will do next and that is a good thing. Season Four seems to begin in an even more taut position that its predecessor but whereas that was mostly danger headed inexorably towards our two cooks, season four seems to be about the danger from within and how they can do some second guessing of their own. Walt knows Gus will kill them sooner or later so buys a gun with the aim of killing his serenely vicious boss (Giancarlo Esposito, excellent throughout) only to be informed he will never meet him again. So he drives to his house one night, dons the Heisenberg hat intending to do the deed there only for his phone to ring when he’s half way across the street and Gus telling him to turn round and go home.  Next he tries to rope Mike into his plans in a meeting in a dusty bar and ends up being beaten up. This is a masterful cat and mouse game that plays on Walt’s mind so much he can barely be bothered to invest time in Skylar’s plans to wrestle ownership of the car wash as a method to launder all the money.
Skylar is becoming more like Walt this season it seems; her negotiating tactics failed she resorts to Saul Goodman assisted trickery much to Walt’s consternation. There’s a great look that Saul throws Walt when he starts to lecture Skylar on the ethics of what she’s suggesting. Yet you can see that she too is being drawn into the criminal world, however disapprovingly she has viewed such matters in past seasons. Later on she resorts to even shadier tactics to try and absolve herself from being implicated in old boss Ted Beneke‘s cooked books.
Jesse on the other hand has been numbed by his act of killing Gale. This is a character who has always shied away from face to face violence in the past; it is Walt who has always done such deals. Jesse tries to block his trauma with endless parties and even go kart racing but nothing can quite blot it out. Though never quite as taciturn as Gus, Jesse does spend the first three episodes of the seasons saying much less than before and Aaron Paul is able to convey this so well with the assistance of some interesting camera tricks.  Even later in the season when Jesse is involved in a shootout the camera presents his firing differently to everyone else as if trying to show us the impact it makes on him. By the end of the season Jesse has become far more the character we can identify with than Walt.
Jesse’s mood is diverted when he is sent to accompany Gus’ chief fixer Mike on a series of tasks retrieving money and observing potential rivals. This development wrong foots both the viewer and Walt who assumes that his lab partner is being escorted to his death. Instead it sets up a surprisingly amusing series of sequences that resemble a less verbose version of the original dynamic between Walt and Jesse. Instead of engaging in argument, Mike tends to remain silent as Jesse babbles on inaccurately surmising what is happening. The whole thing is a set up by Gus to drive a wedge between Walt and Jesse; left alone to cook the former finds the going tough but every measure he takes to show defiance backfires in one way or another. So the Mike / Jesse escapades become enjoyable sojourns for us; especially thanks to Jonathan Banks’ marvellous knack of responding to Jesse’s utterances with a pained look of disinterest. As matters progress though you start to sense some sort of respect developing from Mike for the younger man whose unusual ideas and boldness does seem to get results. Whatever the destination this could be a great sitcom idea!

"Have you noticed how tiny Gus is getting these days?"
The pace of this season is noticeably slower than its predecessors but this is a slow cooker simmering with intriguing ingredients any of which could come good. The various strands sometimes appear disparate- the Whites buying the car wash, Hank’s increasing interest in the case file he sees, Jesse’s involvement in matters beyond the lab- yet they all come crashing together in the latter stages with the same kind of skill that marked out the initial surge of the series. Hank’s doggedness means he discovers Gus has some connection to the murder and the drugs but he can’t make it stick so involves Walt- cue some greats scenes with the latter squirming in his seat and nobody does squirming quite as adeptly than Bryan Cranston!
The slow distancing between Walt and Jesse is particularly interesting as the series has thus far relied on the vibrant dynamic between them to power everything else. Yet kept apart for long stretches- and even when they are together exchanging few pleasantries- gives the season a different tone. It is clear that Jesse still feels the need to protect Walt to the point where he threatens to refuse to carry on working for Gus if Walt is killed, something that at one point seems inevitable. Yet Walt is deceiving and manipulating Jesse the whole time, something that only becomes apparent in the very last shot of the season.
At this juncture it seems as if Walter has lost the ability to see people for what they are and has become so adept at lying that it is second nature to him. He might even be going slowly mad as one scene that has him react to approaching doom by laughing maniacally.  For all the moments when he seems weary of the charade- in one scene he tells Hank he won’t justify himself any more to anyone- he does seem to enjoy the manipulative side of his personality. Having previously failed to have tried to save Jane and engineered Jesse into killing Gale, his latest act seems to take his cold heartedness to a new depth. The interesting thing is that Jesse at first thinks it is him who has poisoned his girlfriend Andrea’s son and Walt’s utterly convincing (to Jesse and the viewer) denial is Bryan Cranston at his best. Once again the series thrives as much on something we don’t see than what we do.
By the season’s last few episodes Jesse has become a more significant player in Gus’ organisation seemingly by accident and this highlights how he does remain loyal, even to Mike. Their sojourns mean he becomes a trusted lieutenant even if his initial act of loyalty is a set up. You can tell by the way first Mike, then Gus look at Jesse that he has earned their respect and this is something he has failed to do with most of the other people in his life. In Jesse’s eyes he is becoming someone now. While Walt’s increasingly frantic attempts to get him to assassinate Gus never gain traction, Jesse ends up doing the opposite and twice having to save his new boss from the Cartel. Walt and Jesse end up literally fighting over all these issues now that Jesse feels he is getting far more respect from Gus than he is from “Mister White.” What is fascinating for the viewer of course is that we know this to be true to some extent. Gus knows too that Jesse is a far less complicated individual to deal with than the scheming Walt.
Till this point Gus has been a fascinating villain but we know nothing about him and in a series of crucial flashbacks we learn some of his back story. In particular we witness how the other original `chicken brother` and his original cook was slain by the Cartel’s show off head honcho Don Eladio who is big on respect and killing people in a scene presented as a stylised way beside a swimming pool and attended by none other than Hector aka the old man with the bell, though this is pre-bell! The flip side is Gus’ audacious revenge, in the same location many years later which occurs in episode 10 and marks the moment when the season breaks out of its slow burn into something more explosive.
What the series final trio of episodes show- though we’re not clear till that final shot- is that it is Walt who has manipulated a situation that will  force both Jesse and Hector to help him assassinate Gus once and for all. Thus the season finale ends up centring around an old people’s home which sounds bizarre on paper. Gus’s demise is such a shockingly stylish thing. After an explosion has surely killed him he walks out of the room adjusting his tie, his fastidious qualities remaining till the end. It’s only when the camera moves around to the other side of his face that we know his reign is over.
The precision involved in the writing of this season is peerless. You might quibble occasionally at something only for it to become clear how much sense it makes several episodes later. For example I wondered why we were spending so long on Skylar and the car wash and the need to bring back her former boss only for it to slide into place as a crucial element at the climax. Hank’s endless obsession with Gus turns out to be a tool with which Walt is able to engineer Fring’s eventual demise. As for Hector and his bell; well will the series be the same without it? In every nuance of this fourth season Vince Gilligan and his writers have created something to be both admired and enjoyed. Somehow- and you’d probably need to watch this series several times to work out just how- they have made us root for one of the nastiest, conniving, disloyal and vicious characters ever to front a TV series. Yet still after all he’s done, we want Walter White to win.

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