In last week's episode of "Breaking Bad," there was a curious moment just before Walt got his dinner invitation from Gus. As Jesse was about to open a valve that would release toxic fumes into the lab, Walt had to remind him to put on his mask. It was a throwaway moment, but its inclusion in the episode was a subtle reminder of Walt's role as the cautious partner and Jesse's as the careless loose cannon.
Caution and safety were mentioned a lot tonight, but always filtered through some sort of compromise. For example, as he rides home with his son, Walt notices that Walt Jr. is still using both feet to drive. Unlike last time, Walt lets it slide: "Well, as long as it gets you safely from point A to point B, then who am I to argue?" Immediately after, Walt and Skyler discuss her offer to run the car wash as a money laundering front. Last week, Walt refused outright. As soon as he sees an opening for more access to his family tonight, however, a compromise is ironed out.
Such compromises would see things unravel in a big way in the fallout surrounding Combo's murder. When Jesse meets with Walt to let him know his plan for revenge, one that utilizes Walt's old plan for killing Tuco with ricin, Walt calls the situations apples and oranges. Tuco wanted to kill them, so Walt's plan to kill Tuco was reasonable. Now, however, compromise was called for because the dealers who killed Combo work for Gus.
(I'd argue that Tuco and Gus aren't so different now that we know Gus is the kind of guy who'd use kids as dealers and assassins — and perhaps have kids killed. I suspect even crazy Tuco would balk at that.)
To seek a compromise, Walt asks for Saul's help. Saul talks to Mike the P.I., who tells Walt that half measures (like having Jesse arrested) accomplish nothing. So Walt goes to Gus. No doubt, Walt doesn't consider going to his boss a compromise, but once Gus gathers all the warring factions for a sit down, we learn that Walt has even managed to convince Gus to compromise. ("If it wasn't for this man, things would be handled very differently," Gus tells Jesse.) Gus's solution? Jesse should shake hands with Combo's murderers and drop the matter. Jesse initially refuses, but after Gus tells his men "no more children," Jesse relents and the situation looks to be resolved.
And so, just as Mike foreshadowed with his story of half measures, the most sympathetic person in the whole mess, 11-year-old Tomas, is the one who ends up dead. We don't know for certain who killed the boy, but it's not unreasonable to believe, as Jesse does, that Gus's words to his employees, "No more children," would be dealt with by murdering the kid.
There's a nice callback moment when Walt finds out about the murder. Sitting at the dinner table with his family, the conversation is drowned out by a roar in Walt's head, something that happened regularly in Walt's early days as a drug dealer but which vanished as his role in the business became more stable. With a quick jump cut, the roar is gone and Walt is out the door.
And so the show ends with a scene that had me holding my breath for a good 30 seconds. Jesse goes back to the corner, snorts a bump of meth (the first time this season we've seen him use the drug), and at the first sight of Gus's men, grabs his gun and walks toward them for a shootout. At just the moment we expect the first shots to come, Walt's car veers onto to the scene running over Gus's dealers. Walt gets out of the car and, seeing one of the men crawling for his gun, picks up the weapon and shoots the dealer in the head. Without hesitation. He looks up at Jesse and says one word: "Run."
(It was at this moment that I finally inhaled a lot of air quite audibly.)
Of course, in the next to last episode of last season, Walt stood by and watched Jane die. He didn't kill her directly, but he could've saved her. Here, Walt takes yet another step down the moral ladder, this time actively murdering someone in cold blood, with no real argument that it was self-defense. The big question I'm pondering right now in the immediate aftermath of the episode is how much of his behavior was about protecting Jesse and how much was pure retaliation for the killing of a child. At the very least, it seems to be a real recognition that Jesse's initial lack of compromise in the meeting with Gus was the most reasonable position of anyone in that room, even if it held a lot of risk for Jesse himself.
One of the things that makes "Breaking Bad" so good is its ability to weave a theme under the surface of nearly every scene of an episode without ever needing to have its characters spell it out for the audience. The closest we get here is Mike's story to Walt about the half measure he took as a cop that ended with a woman dead. But the scene is so effectively underplayed by Jonathan Banks that it never comes off as the show's moral moment. And in his story, Mike even works in Gus's advice from last week to never make the same mistake twice, yet nothing about the scene feels expository or pretentious.
In earlier seasons, despite a lot of raves from critics, Aaron Paul didn't impress me much with his acting. His emotional outbursts were too bombastic to warrant much respect, although that really was what the character called for at the time. This season, however, the range of emotion he's been called upon to play has expanded considerably, and Paul has turned in some great episodes as a result. Tonight, two scenes in particular saw him building off the seething undercurrent he developed last week. The first was his meeting with Walt about poisoning Combo's killers, while the second was when he stood up to Gus for his dealer's use of a child assassin. Both scenes belong on an Emmy reel. But I think Paul's best moment of the episode was his swift transition from drug-fueled rage to speechless surprise when Walt ran over the rival dealers.
Only one more episode this season. Given the trajectory of the show in its first three seasons, it's easy to assume that Walt will eventually get rid of Gus (either intentionally or through some unintended consequences), moving up the ladder and stepping into his former boss's shoes. The question is whether it's going to happen this soon. If so, it would be a shame to say goodbye to Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Frings, but that's really a minor complaint given how fantastic this season's story arc is playing out.
A few random thoughts...
- Another great pre-credit sequence, this time focusing on the daily life of Jesse's prostitute friend, Wendy, last seen in season two providing an alibi for Jesse. The whole thing is set beautifully to the tune of The Association's "Windy."
- Just like last week, we get some progress in Hank's road to recovery through a small amount of screen time. After a bet regarding how well a certain part of his anatomy is, Hank has to accede to Marie's wishes, and now he's going home from the hospital.
- For all her reasonable advice last week, Skyler is still naive enough to be reading up on money laundering in Wikipedia.
- Nice touch having Walt play with Saul's scales of justice, leaving them unbalanced just before launching into his plan to "protect" Jesse by having him arrested.
- "I'll be here with bells on." "What?" "Just a saying. Don't worry. I won't be wearing bells."