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3 YEARS

'Breaking Bad' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 11: 'Crawl Space'

Wherein the best laid plans of mice and men go sideways.

Breaking Bad Ep 411 TV Still AMC - H 2011
AMC

I remember the first time I made a concerted effort to meet Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad. I was working for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time and was one of the very early adopters on the genius behind the series. Getting Gilligan on the phone wouldn’t have been any trouble. But I had recently finished Season 2, which I think will stand the test of time – for me at least – as one of those rare seasons where the series didn’t miss a creative beat. Not one. Given that Season 1 was a strike-shortened seven episodes, the 13 in Season 2 were an exclamation point on exactly how brilliant Breaking Bad truly was. For my money the only other series that shot into the stratosphere of fully-formed greatness as fast as Breaking Bad was The Wire.

That’s pretty good company, yes?

 So, at the annual Television Critics Association summer press tour, AMC was throwing a cocktail party at the hotel where the event is held and where the majority of the press stays. I had two goals – say hello to Matt Weiner, who I’d talked to regularly for Mad Men, the other series firmly ensconced in the top tier of television. And also to meet Gilligan for the first time. I ended up talking to the writing staff first – and was happy to hear that they had been reading my weekly deconstructions of the series. We talked about exactly how insane they were – I wanted to know who thought that chopping off someone’s head and putting it on a tortoise wasn’t fucked up enough -- it had to blow up as well. Those people, by the way, are a good bunch. Anyway, I then met Gilligan and got my first surprise answer from him, something I hadn’t even considered: I was talking to him about how impressed I was with the pacing (the show was tearing through storylines that most other shows would have spread out over three or four seasons) and how, even when it all seemed insane, there was a sure hand at the wheel. I knew Gilligan had the whole thing plotted out to the tiniest detail.

Except that I was wrong.

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Gilligan admitted that, shockingly, they were pretty much making it up as it was going along. They had the outline – it was the very first time I heard him utter the notion of taking Walt from likeable to unlikeable, using the now famous “We want to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface” reference.

I bring up this story now because I want to know, more than ever, when they came up with the idea to play the Ted Beneke card as a way to implode the whole forward motion and grand plan of one Walter White. I mean, if that falls in your lap, you’ve turned a little bit of something into solid gold. If you’ve planned it far in advance, then not only is my faith restored in that whole fixing the Skyler-as-tramp bit to derail an IRS investigation into Beneke (I knew the writers would overcome what I think was the biggest stretch this season, believability-wise), but to have the outcome essentially change the course of the series, well, I didn’t see that coming.

Because in “Crawl Space,” an otherwise excellent episode on its own, Gilligan and his writers have turned Skyler cooking the books into the mother of all loose ends, with twist upon twist in the resolution of the issue.

Given all that’s gone on so far in Season 4, it would have been inconceivable just a few episodes ago to think the big bang was going to come from the Skyler-Ted storyline.

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Yes, I knew the first time Ted tripped on the rug in “Crawl Space” that the rug would play a later role –no shots are ever wasted in a great series – but had no idea it would play out as a joke, replete with oranges –symbol of death (see: The Godfather) falling on top of him. That was wonderful. But what Skyler did of her own accord – giving all that money to Ted so he could pay off the IRS and thus keep them off the scent of the White’s illicit activities – came out of nowhere to provide the ultimate bit of dark, cold, comedy. I mean, that decision set the White family fortune back a considerable chunk and the loss of the illicit next egg left Walt’s exit strategy dead and diffused, a conclusion so disastrous for Walt that he has no recourse but to laugh to keep from crying).

To recap quickly: A very big chunk of Walt’s money is gone – to the IRS of all people. Now he doesn’t have the money to pay Saul’s, um, vacuum cleaner guy to disappear the entire White family. It has taken Walt’s hyper-quick riches and turned them to dust. It has set back Walt’s grand plan enormously. He can’t get out. He can’t save his family. And Walt is now in the position where he has exactly one good option – and it’s a decision that will change the course of the series: the events of “Crawl Space” make it clear that Walt is going to kill Gus.

It’s going to happen. It has to happen.

So, yeah, Skyler’s independent decision was a pretty big deal.

Rather than just guessing what evil is on Gus’s mind, now Walt knows: “I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter,” Gus tells him. Jesse has already cooked successfully, not only in Mexico, but back at home. Walt is expendable. And since he was such a dick to Jesse this whole season, he couldn’t be sure that Jesse wouldn’t just allow Gus to wipe out “Mr. White.” He had to flee.

Now the reprieve – getting new identities and running away – is off the table and Walt must alter his plans. And there is only one good plan. Killing Gus is clearly in the works because everything lines up – Mike is in Mexico recovering. He can’t travel. Thanks to Saul’s anonymous tip to the DEA, Hank will be protected while the whole agency keeps its eyes peeled south on the Mexican cartel. Killing Gus, then, is instrumental to the forward march of Breaking Bad.

It’s probably no great detective work to imagine Walt (not Jesse) pulling off this murder/hit via the ricin, perhaps taking Jesse’s “lucky cigarette” with him to be the weapon of choice.

It’s also clear that Giancarlo Esposito is an Emmy-nomination waiting to happen (and it must happen). He’s been fantastic since joining the series but never stronger than this season. With the cartel at arms length, Mike out of commission, and Hank’s DEA probe (OK, it’s off the books) pinpointing the dry cleaning business, the end is near. Walt has to kill Gus to get Gus and the superlab out of the picture. Once that’s done and people scatter to cover their asses and the DEA is all over this twist, we can get back to Walt as a cancer-stricken man trying to take care of his family. He’s still in the game because he has to be -- his money is sunk into the car wash, doing some good. But the superlab was untenable for too long anyway as a storyline (what, was Walt going to retire there?). Getting rid of it – and Gus – means that Walt and Jesse, after some serious personality conflicts are addressed, will be running the business in a much lower, closer-to-the-street, kind of fashion.

Walt still needs to support his family and re-make all that money. I doubt Skyler will be able to convince him to live out his days at the car wash. Walt, no matter what happens, has still broken bad. He wants money in chunks, not barely breaking even at the car wash. So he will keep making meth, albeit at a lower level.

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Who knows exactly what that scenario looks like. But we’re not getting there this season anyway. The doing away with Gus is still at hand (and I wouldn’t rule out Tio having one last play in him, one last furious dinging of that bell – whether it results in something happening to Gus or to Jesse).

Most likely, Walt will not get a free pass here. He will have to do the killing himself, which is a lovely endgame given that much of Season 4 has been about all the anguish Walt has caused others and his seeming inability to realize this or care. It’s what drove Jesse away. It’s what messed him up, too. When Skyler says she gave Ted Beneke the money “for us, for the family” it was exactly Walt’s initial motivation to cook meth, to break bad. So it’s all come full circle. And though Walt has killed people, there’s always been a convenient excuse associated with it: Crazy 8 was going to kill him and his family. Jane was blackmailing him and ruining Jesse (and in that instance, all Walt had to do was not act). Running over those corner thugs? They were going to kill Jesse. But making a plan to kill Gus, even though Gus is clearly a dangerous threat to Walt’s family – is more premeditated than anything Walt has dabbled in before. That kind of willingness to kill – and do it yourself this time – will be a new mental challenge for Walt.

Or maybe it won’t. Maybe he’s so much closer to Scarface than Mr. Chips by now that killing Gus won’t haunt him the way that killing Gale haunted Jesse. We shall see.

But “Crawl Space” certainly gave viewers a clearer picture of the show’s new direction. The era of Gus and the superlab is at an end, somehow. Like the economy course correcting in the most painful way possible, Walt’s enormous paydays for cooking enormous amounts of meth for a kingpin with an enormous infrastructure are about to be over. Walt’s lifestyle is about to be downsized, while his existential crises and the fallout of his failed, foolhardy initial plan get supersized.

The Ted Beneke trap-door – wow. Whoever planned that out – or dreamt it up late in the game – hats off to you.

 

Notes:

“This man pays my salary.” Gus really did think of everything.

 “I’m done explaining myself.” – Walt to Hank…

 “You know that won’t work.” – Gus, to Jesse, about letting “Mr. White” live.

Illicit gambling winnings. “It feels wrong,” said Ted. Oh, Ted. Plus: “No one is going to jail.” Some people, they just don’t see what’s obvious to everyone else. Or, as Skyler put it so succinctly: “Oh my God how are you not following me here?”

 “Now the Salamanca name dies with you.” Gus, to Tio. While I admire Gus’ inability to forget or forgive, you have to wonder if maybe there’s not another Salamanca out there somewhere, unaccounted for – and dangerous.

Hank: “This job is boring as hell until it’s not.” And: “It’s starting to feel like Three Days Of the Condor”

 “It’s gonna be fine. I’ve got my A team on it.” – Saul Goodman.

It felt good to see Walt get tasered by Tyrus. And by the way, who wouldn’t want to be Tyrus? All he has to do is stare at you with a half-smirk and say nothing until you screw up, then he puts you right.

Loved, in the desert scene, with Gus and Jesse and Walt (where Gus essentially “fires” Walt) how the cloud kept coming over and then retreating in the scene, shifting it from light to dark.

I hope we all have this plan memorized just in case: “You just call that number and you leave a message and you tell him that you need a new dust filter for a Hoover Max Extract Pressure Pro Model 60.”

Saul: “Can’t say it’s been a pleasure.”

Love, love, loved the surreal ending, with Laughing Walt framed perfectly by the crawl space entry -- as the camera climbed up ever so slowly (what kind of pulley or crank did they create for that?) that pulled back from the laughing hyena that was Walt.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine