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'Breaking Bad' recap: Long-buried bombs explode

August 18, 2013|By Todd VanDerWerff
  • Skyler (Anna Gunn) meets with Hank to discuss what she knows about her husband.
Skyler (Anna Gunn) meets with Hank to discuss what she knows about her husband. (AMC )

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that the difference between suspense and surprise hinges on audience foreknowledge. Picture two people eating. Now imagine a bomb underneath the table, about to go off. Suspense requires the audience to know the bomb is there, to live in terrible anticipation that it will go off and explode two characters we’ve hopefully come to know and like. Surprise is what happens when the audience doesn’t know, and the bomb just goes off. Both methods can work, but in my experience, suspense is generally preferable to surprise. When anything can be a surprise, it tends to breed mistrust in the audience, and mistrust is the biggest enemy possible of good storytelling.

“Breaking Bad” is nothing if not expert at planting bombs under tables, then showing the audience seven or eight times that the bomb is there. What’s great about the show is that even as it builds up all that suspense, it then often finds surprising ways for the bomb to go off.

Take, for instance, the case of Jesse Pinkman, whom the audience first sees in “Buried” lying on his back on a merry-go-round in some Albuquerque park. He’s been discovered by an old man who left his house and found a bundle of money lying on the ground in front of it, before discovering more bundles of money on the ground in front of his neighbors’ houses. He follows the trail of Benjamin Franklin-adorned breadcrumbs down to the park, where he finds Jesse, the groans of the merry-go-round suggesting all the pain the young man feels deep down.

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And that’s where we leave Jesse. For the whole episode until its very end.

The rest of the episode is solid stuff, the show putting various pieces in place and setting plans in motion for the big endgame, but it’s unquestionably enhanced by the question of just what might happen to Jesse. Every time his name is mentioned, it’s a reminder that he’s out there, the one loose end that Walt has yet to bother tying up, the one fray in the tapestry that might allow everything to unravel (as we know it will). Leaving that question hanging doesn’t directly motivate Walt or Skyler or anyone, really, but it does contribute to the audience’s growing sense of unease, the sense that all of this is going to start crumbling around Walt’s ears sooner, rather than later.

It’s perhaps a bad idea to spend so much time on Jesse in a review of “Buried” — he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, either at the playground or when he’s being interrogated at episode’s end — but the way the show uses him is a microcosm of the way it’s used Skyler all along. Ever since she discovered Walt’s big secret in the season 3 premiere, the question has been if she would tip her hand to her sister and brother-in-law. Even as recently as season 4, such a thing has seemed all but inevitable. Yet as the show’s writers have kept frantically spinning plates to keep Skyler under the same roof as her emotionally abusive husband (even when she briefly escaped in season 4), they’ve landed upon the Carmela Soprano answer: Like it or not, Skyler White is now complicit in her husband’s actions.

The idea is elegant in its simplicity. But not only does it solve one of the show’s major plot problems, but it provides the moral and emotional underpinnings for “Buried,” which is gutting as the audience watches Skyler realize just what Hank knows, then wrestle with what — if anything — to tell him about what she knows of her husband’s activities. Skyler’s always been a pragmatic woman. Indeed, Vince Gilligan has described her as the most pragmatic character on the show several times. It’s obvious when she meets with Hank at the diner, where he pushes too far, too fast, in trying to get a confession on his recorder, that there’s a huge part of her that would love to give her husband up, to end this whole charade and return to whatever she can salvage of her old life.

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Yet to do that is to lose everything. The money and the car wash and the stability. Walt might have become a monster. He might have become something she hated, deep down. But there are other aspects to her new life that she obviously enjoys. Her clothes are nicer, and she drives a better car. She’s becoming adapted to her new habitat, and even worse, she should go to jail for laundering that money, for knowing about her husband’s actions and telling no one, for so many things. She’s trapped, as buried as the money Walter sticks beneath the desert sands.

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