'Breaking Bad' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 6: 'Cornered.'

Breaking Bad - PR Art Portrait - Season 4 - 2011



One of the dangers in deciding to deconstruct great series (as opposed to just “recapping” a bunch of shows) is that there’s a simple flaw in the presumption. Not every episode of a great series is actually great. Most are. But it’s the cumulative power of each season that really determines exactly how exalted a series truly is.

And it’s equally important to understand that the best creators – and the writers they hand-pick – can have “off” episodes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there have been bad episodes of Breaking Bad or Mad Men or The Sopranos or The Wire.

There are mostly just episodes that don’t measure up. And that’s because the lofty heights we hold these series to can’t always be met. But can you imagine trying to justify that to, say, Vince Gilligan or Matt Weiner? “Yeah, I just was let down a bit that the episode wasn’t nearly as great as most of the others. It didn’t suck. It was better than most of what I’ve watched this year. But it was, I don’t know, less great.”

I think that’s the point where doing this skews a bit sideways. (And, again, I think that has something to do with a notion I’ve raised before – that some episodes are not supposed to pay off in that hour; they set up or put forth ideas that will resonate later, with other episodes or, more likely, the whole.)

And yet, I was going to put “Cornered” into the “less great” column. What it had going for it, immediately, was Walt’s fantastic explosion with Skyler (more on that later) and the continuation of what will probably be the main theme this season – that Gus has competition. And that competition is not going away – just yet.

But luckily, Monday was filled with writing about upcoming 9/11 documentaries for the magazine; Tuesday was Mrs. CrankyPants birthday (one so important it merited a full-day getaway for oysters and beer, a nearly empty beach and lots of great food); and Wednesday had the hours sucked out of it by the (necessary) purchasing of a new car and the (mostly necessary) meetings with architect/contractor to discuss fixing home damage and possibly putting a pretty bow on other parts of said house in the future.

Guess what that allowed me to do, besides delay this to Thursday? Think. At least a bit. And now I like “Cornered” a whole lot more, because I had just assumed that Gilligan had already moved Walt down the way some in his attempt to turn him from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” And with all of this discussion about the contract talks and inevitable end of Breaking Bad – this season, then 16 more episodes, then over – I had mistakenly thought Walt had broken pretty bad and the last, what, quarter(?) of that downward spiral in future episodes would be all the gory details.

But “Cornered” proved Gilligan and his writers have Walt somewhere in this confusing middle section of his evolution. No longer Mr. Chips, by default. But still a long way from Scarface, too. And that was refreshing. Movies and television (but television to a lesser extent, particularly if its superbly done) rushes evolution. The I am this, but now suddenly I am that idea passes for emotional progress. But it’s not life-like.

“Cornered” showed that Walt is not yet who he thinks he is. Yes, there’s that wonderful rant and boast to Skyler, which was so artfully constructed to be a heartfelt gesture of worry. And yet, Walt, via his unbridled and troublesome ego, then twists said worry into some defamation of his now manly, outlaw character. “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to,” he yells at Skyler, “so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler, I am the danger.” Now, right here, two pitch-perfect moments. It’s not so much Skyler who is delusional about the “real” Walt, as it is Walt. He has always fancied himself something more, bigger, exponentially more important. But he’s not. And I think he knows it, or at least needs to say otherwise  out loud to make himself believe it. Skyler’s worry, remember, came from her replaying the tamp-down-the-frantic phone call Walt made on his way to his “showdown” with Gus. (And by the way, how did he look in that scenario? Read last week’s deconstruction for emphasis.) Replaying the message, Skyler could sense his fear and the talk turned to whether the people who killed Gale would also knock on Walt’s door and kill him. “A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that’s me? No! I am the one who knocks!”

That is delusional brilliance right there. (And that exchange alone certainly made this a top-notch episode).

But beyond the fist-pumping endorsement of the dialogue, it’s actually not who Walt is. In fact, the bad-ass who went door-knocking in this episode was Jesse, rooting out the meth-heads. It wasn’t Walt last week, either. All the world – and most important, the all-seeing cameras – knew that Walt was carrying a gun to see Gus. Were Gus even to have considered engaging him – let’s follow Walt’s bad logic – how would that scenario have ended?

With Gus killing Walt. That’s where.

It was like in a previous episode when Mike knew Walt had a poorly concealed gun, then punched him in the face. Or when Walt thought he’d go knock on Gus’ door at home, then got called out like a child and told to go home.

You are not the one who knocks, Walt.

“Cornered” emphatically set out to undermine the God complex that Walt has. He alienates Jesse (even further) by belittling the ruse Gus and Mike had set up for him, only to lose the battle of valid point-making by saying “It’s all about ME.” Walt’s shouting match about being powerful enough to protect his family nearly sent Skyler and Holly to Colorado (and yes, if you live in Colorado, you should feel dissed about the Four Corners coin toss, but ultimately it was probably more to do with Skyler not wanting to be in snow country than anything else).  Walt loses the battle of buying Walter Jr. a new tricked-out Challenger to Skyler, who is making him take it back. And despite getting the last word (or in this case, deed) in with Bogdan, retrieving the keys was hardly a heroic, manly, moment of redemption. Bogdan berated Walt, questioned his strength and character.

Everything Walt tried to do, every decision he tried to make  – even getting the women at Gus’s laundry business to clean up the lab – backfired in some way.

For Walt, his ego – so dangerously on display when he drunkenly told Hank the real Heisenberg was still out there – needed a come-uppance. And “Cornered” was the episode that proved Walt’s internal beliefs about his power and value in the world, relative to his actual power, were not being taken seriously by anyone around him.

“Someone needs to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” Skyler says, cuttingly, to end the episode.

Cumulatively, this deftly spread-out refutation of Walt’s power made me rethink the episode. Walt may one day get power or be as important as he thinks, but if he learned anything from these latest events, it should be the stark notion that, “No, I’m not in charge here.” Or, more accurately, “No, I am not the one who knocks.”

But self-awareness is not chief among Walt’s attributes, so who knows if what happened to him in “Cornered” will sink in. But I think it rather nicely gave him a reality check, just like Jesse’s murder of Gale and the realization that he was in too deep also was a reality check for Jesse. Perhaps now Breaking Bad will move onto the pressing issue of who wants a piece of Gus’s action, or a piece of Gus himself.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter:  @BastardMachine