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3 YEARS

'Breaking Bad' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 10: 'Salud'

A toast to spaghetti Westerns and existentialism.

Breaking Bad
AMC

Let’s work backward. Jesse’s video game practice has paid off nicely as he takes out essentially the last man standing at Don Eladio’s infamous retreat. Gus will likely survive the crazed but creative plot to poison Don Eladio and all of his capos (and himself, in a show of support – but the pill or the vomiting or a combination of both have likely kept him alive). Mike has been shot. We don’t know how badly, since he was able to utter the words, “Get us out of here, kid.”

Now, stop.

First, this is why we love Breaking Bad. When the time is right for tension, action and surprise, it will be delivered. But what of the opportunities at this precise moment: The Mexican cartel is out of the picture. Mike could die. We don’t know what state Gus is in or how long he’ll be in it. As Jesse drives them away, he looks like the hero. He also looks to be one of them – them being Gus and Mike (who have played, just as Walt has, father figures to Jesse).

Certainly when Jesse gets back – when they all get back – the dynamic will be even more changed between Walt and Jesse (more than punching each other in the face and beating the snot out of each other from last episode changed their dynamic). Jesse can cook – in Mexico, under inferior super lab conditions, with immense pressure, a nearly pure product.

Walt is now officially of no value to Gus or Mike, unless Gus still has doubts (as he should) about Jesse’s long-term viability in the role as Top Meth Chef.

But I like this reversed dynamic. I’m wondering if, next episode, Jesse uses the words “Mr. White.” If he doesn’t, watch out.

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On the other hand, I don’t think Jesse’s knee-jerk, kill-or-be-killed moment in Mexico makes him any more prone to killing, or having a newfound, bad-assedness about it. As such, he could always forgive Walt and plan an exit strategy with the newly weakened partnership of Gus and Mike.

We should get some hints next week. Or a definitive hammer. One of the two.

If you’re looking for other dangerous loose ends going forward, look no further than the IRS. What Skyler tried to pull with Ted Beneke – an idea so bad that Saul knew it was a disaster from the start – had to be auto-corrected by Skyler in the most dangerous way: telling Ted that the money came from her. That’s a big card to give him. Someone call Mike and mop that shit up.

(I said last week that I’m not liking the Skyler storyline here on the surface – but this week’s events could lead to interesting places and I’m willing to wait to see how that turns out. While I didn’t like the harlot routine in Ep. 9, this phony will thing – Great Aunt Birgit -- was, I believe, meant to be stupid. And Saul’s second-guessing derails and vanishes when he realizes that people will believe anything that’s convenient, especially if they’re desperate. Again, not a favorite story turn, but this week left me less annoyed and more hopeful than last week – because it’s such a spectacularly bad idea that it says a lot about Skyler.)

As much as I loved the ending – it’s vintage Breaking Bad and gives us a number of breathtaking finishes to episodes, perhaps countering, if you need it, the slower episodes earlier on – what happened in the middle of “Salud” was just as satisfying.

This is a series that began when Walter White wanted to do something for his family – to help them, to leave a legacy. Sure, he didn’t think it out as he broke bad. That’s the sublime fallout of it all. But it started with familial love. And the scenes with Walter Jr. talking to his father and reacting to the visceral wounds on his father’s face and psyche, were incredible, subtle and ambitious.

First, it gave Walter Jr. something substantial to do. It raised his profile on the show and put him to good use: he (and Jesse, since Walt still has Jesse on the brain) are bringing the combo package of Walt/Heisenberg back from the brink. If Walt sees Jesse as a surrogate son, he’s certainly understands in these lucid, tear-filled moments that he’s not been a good father figure. I think the notion of perception and memory – which were the ideas wrapped up in Walt’s talk with Walter Jr. – are the forces that allow Walt to see what he’s done to Walter Jr. and, by extension, to Jesse.

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What made those scenes of Walt and Walter Jr. so incredible is that they tried to tackle a gigantic, complicated, nuanced area that is almost never explored with depth on television and left, instead, to fiction and memoirs: Walt is concerned about what memories his son will have of him, because his own father lived a kind of artificial life as well. Walt heard mostly grand, detailed stories of his father, but what he saw and what he remembered from those hospital visits are quite different (and they’ve been stronger in their lasting impression).

The damaged goods that Walter Jr. finds when he drives over to his dad’s house (in the PT Cruiser…god I love that detail almost as much as the Aztek) leave him emotionally jolted. He almost called 911 because he was so worried about his father. And Walt even missed his birthday. He finds his dad bloody, bruised, drugged, fragile. These are not the memories Walt wants to leave behind. So that restores some sympathy to him. But the tipping point is not the story about his own father that he tells Walter Jr., but the response to the whole point of that story – this notion of perception and memory – that he hears back from his son. Walter Jr. is essentially saying:  I don’t care that you’re a mess. That crying, confused, almost sweet man was “real.” That’s who I want back.

The worst way to remember his father: “The way you’ve been this whole last year.”

Ouch.

I’d like to think that this at least temporarily kick-starts Good Walt. And he will try to make amends with Jesse. Beyond that, who knows?

But I can tell you this – Vince Gilligan and his writers have never given up the notion that Walt is a father. And that means something beyond whatever twisted turns becoming Heisenberg have caused or may cause. You don’t write a scene like that – a father talking about how he wants to be remembered, how thoughts of legacy are intertwined with impending death – unless you understand what it’s like to have children. That is to say that I don’t think Breaking Bad goes out with a gunfight or an action sequence. Whenever it goes out, it will be a closing scene or episode immersed in emotional consequence. Stark, uncomfortable honesty – not bullets.

We can have all the Mexican gunfights we, as viewers and fans, might want at this point. But the only reason Walt “broke bad” in the first place was to protect his family. All the outrageous, adrenaline-fueled episodes in between are fantastic fun, but it’s going to come down to something as simple and tragic as choosing the wrong path when you come upon a fork in the road.

And you know what? That’s awesome. Right now, the two best series on television – Breaking Bad and Mad Men – are on the same channel and they’re both about the same thing: existentialism. Except one’s about existentialism with booze, cigarettes and women. And the other one’s about existentialism with guns, money and meth.

All of the exterior stuff is the hook. It’s mostly why we watch. But Don Draper and Walter White are two very, very messed up people who desperately want to appear as if – and believe themselves – that that’s just not true.

So, yeah, Jesse gunning down the Mexican shooter in the waning seconds --  blood-pumping. But don’t discount Walt’s emotional break-through: “I made a mistake,” he told Walter Jr. through the tears. (Is he talking about Jesse or choosing this life or both?) “It’s my own fault. I had it coming…It’s all my fault. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

We’re going to know precisely how sorry in 19 more episodes, but let’s not get too far ahead. There are three more this season. Let’s see how sorry Walt really is this season, first. You never know when Walt’s id will take over again and Heisenberg will reappear.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine