'Breaking Bad' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 5: 'Shotgun'

The weekly deconstructions continue.

As expected, a lot of the well-earned moping disappeared this week on Breaking Bad, thanks to a dubious but entertaining idea by Gus to bring Jesse out of his doldrums. But mostly this was an elaborate episode to highlight Walt's ever-changing moods. And how those moods affect the people around him.

Few episodes do opening scenes as well as Breaking Bad, but you had to wonder if the frenetic opening was just getting everybody's blood pumping so that the end could suck it all out again as Walt's ego -- damaged by years of abuse pre-Heisenberg and post Gretchen and Elliott’s Gray Matter company – was let loose by the gods of red wine. Walt couldn’t let Hank’s description of Gale as a genius go by unremarked upon. “This genius of yours,” Walt says smugly, clearly drunk, “maybe he’s still out there.”

Of course, that brings Hank back into the investigation he had shelved as “closure” – just one in a long line of dumb moves by Walt.

But before we get into all of that, let’s revisit the opening scene and ask the obvious question: Who knew the Aztek could handle like that? Credit the professional stunt driver for even being able to get that awfully-designed monstrosity into a slide. (By the way, I’ve said this from Season 1, but the Aztek goes right to the exhaustive detail used in Breaking Bad – such a perfect car back then for a sad-sack loser like Walt. One day people will be writing thesis papers on the Aztek, as they must have on the Joads modified Hudson Super 6 in The Grapes of Wrath.)

Speaking of cars, raise your hand if you think Mike needs a new one? And I don’t mean because of what happened in that elaborate Gus ruse. Most of “Shotgun” was a road trip movie that took place in Mike’s car and I have to say that if he’s making those kinds of money collection runs on a regular basis, it’s going to end badly for him on the side of the road with no cell service anywhere. That’s not a car that has “reliable” written on it. (And by the way, who doesn’t carry a shovel in the trunk? Essential.)

OK, I digress.

One of the beautiful elements of “Shotgun” was the continued stunning use of exterior shots. An argument could be made that no series uses location as well as Breaking Bad, but then most shows are shot in a city that is pretending to look like another city and just having the vast expanse of Albuquerque at your disposal must be such an advantage for the director of photography. But those aerial shots of Mike’s car on the dusty roads or weaving on the blacktop between curves lined with identical green plants on a brown canvas were a thing of beauty. That just never gets old as a viewer.

By now you should know that another signature of Breaking Bad is camera location – and specifically putting the lens behind some obscure glass-protected spot, as when Walt poured the redish-black chemicals into a vat (I’m waiting for someone to go back and list the hundreds of amazing places they put a camera in this show, starting from the pilot onward).

And every episode tends to have at least one memorable and visually stunning camera effect. In “Shotgun” there were two – the fast-forward montage of Jesse being bored out of his mind riding shotgun with Mike, and mounting the camera inside Walt’s goggles as he huffed and puffed around the super lab.

Visuals (and sound) are two of the strongest elements in Breaking Bad and are, together – and linked to the writing – the backbone of what makes the series so brilliant. Breaking Bad doesn’t enter the pantheon of truly great television series without its specific cinematography and compelling use of sound (and at the tail end of this episode, the BB theme music cropped up, reminding us how long it has been missing, replaced by Jesse’s drug music and the Latin hip-hop of this episode).

Of course, the crew has more than a little fun with the visuals, as we meet Hank in this episode wearing a “DEA Fun Run” shirt (!) complete with legs under the letters. Just amazing. And I’ve talked a lot about the specific use of color for each character in this series (and how those colors mutate along the episodes and seasons), but Marie and her purple are nearing new comic heights. A purple Rabbit wine opener? Purple eco shopping bags? I liked how the shot of Marie’s purple tea pot meshed with Hank looking through the crime scene pictures of Gale’s place again and noting the bullet hole in Gale’s tea pot.

Of course, it’s not a visual that was most important in “Shotgun,” it’s the language. (“It’s like Scarface had sex with Mr. Rogers” qualifies as an instant classic from Hank, as he looks at Gale’s lab notes. “Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?” is the line that closes the episode and reveals plainly that Hank is back on the case.)

Also on the dialogue front, how about this domino effect: As the crazed Aztek run that opened the episode unfolded, Walt – loaded gun on the seat, seat-belt unbuckled (God he’s come a long way from Season 1, when he put his seat belt on with Hank and the DEA agents to drive one block) – Walt leaves a surprisingly calm message for Skyler. It’s a message that ends with an I-love-you and sparks Skyler’s rekindled passion for Walt and a romp in the bed. But of course that leads to Skyler suggesting they move back in together, which clearly makes Walt hesitant. We then find out via Walter Jr. that Skyler has already told her son that Walt is moving back in on Tuesday. “Tuesday, is it?,” Walt asks. “How about that?” Then Walter Jr. raises his mug of coffee with “Beneke” on the side, a combination of events which leads directly to Walt imploding, via red wine, at Hank’s house and the loosing of his tongue as mentioned earlier.

Ah, Walt. He’s come a long way. Even in this episode, we see so many sides of him, none of them flattering. In the opening scene with the runaway Aztek, he’s on a death mission to find Gus in some ill-advised ploy to help Jesse. And yet, as mentioned in the last couple of these deconstructions, Walt has never grasped just how screwed up he’s made Jesse internally.

And once Walt is at the Los Pollos Hermanos where he believes Gus is, we get another glimpse of his paranoia and his poorly thought out and executed plan to bring a gun in there and shoot Gus if need be. Let’s face it – Walt’s a fool.

Lastly, we see how his jealousy of Ted Beneke drives him to drink and reveal to Hank, through hubris, that the real Heisenberg was still out there.

Brilliant. Despite all he’s done to Skyler, he can’t forgive the affair (which of course is what Skyler thought Walt was up to at one point, driving her closer to Ted). And since his personality revolution, Walt doesn’t like to be told what to do any more, which is why Skyler telling Walter Jr. that his dad was moving back in on Tuesday pissed Walt off so much.

This is not a flattering portrait of Walt. He’s paranoid (the all seeing cameras of Gus), he’s reacting on emotion, he’s missing critical shifts in attitude from those around him, and he’s letting pride get in the way of his own safety (and future).

Not a good episode for Walt. But a great one for old, beaten-up cars.

With Hank putting aside his minerals for what was looking like a cold case, things are going to heat up going forward.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine