Posted on Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
Our recap and mini-essay for last week’s Breaking Bad proved surprisingly popular. We’re glad to see so many /Film readers tuning in to this superb AMC series; it’s a show that frantically cooks up smart debate…as well as predictions for several main characters that are exceedingly bleak and exciting. Today, we discuss “Phoenix,” the 12th episode leading up to next Sunday’s whoa-insured finale. Beware of major spoilers below. Feel free to share your theories on the end of season two, or opinions on the show’s growing comparisons with The Wire, in the comments.
So, “Apology Girl” is dead. She leaves behind two men who love her, and one who…did not. Actress Krysten Ritter’s memorable role as Jane—the would-be Yoko between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman—turned out to be shorter and darker than her bangs. And as sinister as it may sound, many fans seem torn over whether Jane’s demise is a bad thing for Jesse and his future. Was this gorgeous 27-year-old destined to drag Jesse (and his $480K) on a doomed date with Mr. Brownstone? It seemed far more likely than the two of them eloping to New Zealand, where “they filmed Lord of the Rings.” But Jane’s death sparks an even bigger question: did Walter murder Jane?
As pictured above, it was a scene so morally complex and chilling that we foresee it being debated in college courses on TV/film for years to come. Moreover, the icky ethical residue and raw vulnerability of the situation reminded me of class room discussions over the famous Sudan vulture photo by Kevin Carter. Opinions have varied so far. But Walt’s role in Jane’s death confirmed our sentiments last week that he’d finally crossed over to the dark side. We decided this after he chose to conduct a million-dollar meth deal over witnessing the birth of his daughter. That’s, um, low. This is lower. When it comes to cold-blooded murder, Walt has witnessed killings, he’s threatened to kill (Saul Goodman), and he’s killed to save his life (Krazy-8, s1, Tuco‘s failed poisoning, s2). More recently, one of Walt and Jesse’s street dealers was gunned down by unknown assailants. We’re pretty sure Walt didn’t even send flowers to the funeral. But Jane’s death was nonpareil.
Ostensibly, Jane was not directly involved in the unwritten die-by-the-sword ethos of drug-dealing. And…oh yeah, Walt not only watched her die, he not only chose not to help her: he accidentally caused her to die. Let’s first look at what got him there (besides meth and hubris, of course).
Walt breaks back into Jesse’s apartment and finds the lovers predictably lost in another drug-induced slumber. Unlike his prior break-in in the last episode, this time Walt aspires to reach out to Jesse. He’s making a desperate, admirable attempt to have a sobering and profound peptalk. “Phoenix” is an episode that focuses deeply on the definition of “family.” Before Walt enters the apartment we see him decide—even reach the epiphany—about the guy. Jesse is beyond being a partner in “fat stacks, yo,” an immature best friend, a slow apprentice, a former slacker student. He’s like “a nephew” to Walt.
This is a big change in Walt’s direction from the prior episode, “Mandala,” which saw him ready to end the partnership on his path to strict “professionalism.” Here, Walt again attempts to wake Jesse up by shaking him. But by doing this, he inadvertently moves Jane onto her back, into the exact position she warned Jesse about before they shot up. Take note that Walt carefully placed his new baby daughter on her side in the cradle earlier in the ep. And in another cruel bit of irony, it is Jane’s father—Walt randomly meets him at a bar—who unknowingly spurs Walt’s empathy for Jesse. The advice of Jane’s father ultimately lead to his daughter’s death. Haunting. Before Walt leaves to find Jesse, Jane’s father even extends an affable shrug on how to raise his new baby daughter.
Minutes later, Jane is choking on her own vomit. The camera closes in on Walt, who stands inches away. The expression on Bryan Cranston‘s face coveys a a thousand of them: shock, sorrow, disgust, horror, panic, and a tinge of something completely fucked. Macabre glee? Morose satisfaction? Once gain, we see the cold calculations of the drug game manifest on Walt’s face. And as these formulas blanket his paranoia, Walt’s eyes begin to tear: Another enemy bites the dust.
Like Walt, we hardly knew Jane, and clearly he began to suspect the worst. After Jane called him at home, spoke politely to his wife, and then threatened to rat him out to the police (and the local news) and destroy him unless he handed over Jesse’s share, his stance was justified. Before the call, Jane was a peripheral stranger, a “junkie girlfriend.” With the conversation she quickly climbed up/down the ladder to become another adversary. Her death is the convenient termination of a threat to Walt’s business and his expanding fam—immediate (new baby) and distant (Jesse). But what now?
We assume that Walt quickly exits the apartment, leaving Jesse to wake up and find his girlfriend dead in the bedroom with that impossibly hefty bag of money. In the short-term (and long?) will Jane’s death quicken Jesse’s downward spiral, or will it scare him out of it? Also, we all saw the look of terror on Jesse’s face when Jane’s dad—actor John de Lancie—burst into his place and dialed the police, before the couple agreed to enter rehab. It’s unlikely that Jesse will now call the cops to report her death. But if so, will he clean up the bedroom beforehand, including the needle on the nightstand, among other things, that Walt has touched? Also, the back door to Jesse’s apartment has been broken into, further complicating any swift explanation. Either way, Jane’s father will not just disappear. Who can Jesse call? My guess: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, killing it) knows “a guy who knows a guy.”
Skyler and Ted and the Baby
After completing his million dollar transaction with the mysterious Gus at the start—did anyone else see the teddy bear?—Walt rushes to the hospital to meet his wife Skyler (actress Anna Gunn). He enters her room and is so quick with an apology/excuse that he overlooks the baby (named Holly) altogether. And then he remembers. And for once, Walt’s feelings and emotions seem genuine on the surface and beneath, past the thick facade he’s created for Heisenberg. It’s a bittersweet introduction. Skyler’s boss, Ted Beneke (actor Christopher Cousins), is standing silently behind them, watching with that hesitant twinkle in his eye. Pause. Skyler cheerfully informs Walt that Ted not only drove her to the hospital, he almost had to deliver the baby. Walt is polite but noticably short with this lesser. And then Ted kisses Skyler on the cheek, as she fawns all over him, either too tired or too doting to notice Walt’s unease. A Ted Talk is long overdue.
Back in the comfort of his home—new security system on the way?—Walt’s first bonding moment on screen and alone with his baby is just as irksome. He takes her into the room where his monies are stashed under fuzzy, baby-pink insulation. He cooes to her in private that he made all of this money for her. It’s digusting, and from the sound of his voice, one truly hopes that Walt isn’t getting a hard-on as he’s spouting this shit. In his mind, this money makes him a man, the biggest, baddest man in his and his little girl’s world. You wonder if his baby will even grow-up to know him; the future crammed in the wall is Walt’s, even as he professes that it’s hers.
Walter Jr. and The Internet
The most underdeveloped character on Breaking Bad is Walt’s son, Walter Jr. aka Flynn (actor RJ Mitte). To such an extent, that some fans are already predicting his death next Sunday. But this is a show where everyone’s number could be up. In “Phoenix,” Flynn’s latest endearing if unsuccessful attempt to get his father’s attention and become a man of the house might get them both killed.
The website that Flynn has created (in 10 mins?) contains numerous family photos, now public for the world to see. The site also shamelessly has a PayPal button for donations to Walt’s cancer treatment…
Design Snob Note: Flynn urgently needs to pay a visit to /Film 3.0 the next time he decides to create a website—CHECK OUTSAVEWALTERWHITE.COM, it’s real! Somehow this wizard forgot to insert some Blingee.
Walt seems more stricken with the donation option than with the photos—growling the word “charity” at Skyler in a halfhearted justification for taking the website down. This web exposure is, er, not good. It’s equivalent to Jesse becoming a local rapper, but inexplicably worse. And as glimpsed in next Sunday’s finale, the local media hops all over it, putting the family and their story on camera. Walt is shown sitting on his couch in front of a reporter. If a man can combust due to false notions of emasculation, we’ll see it here.
One might think that the website would make Walt’s lawyer, Saul Goodman, do a spit-take. But Saul loves the site. Another one of his characteristic lightbulbs goes off and flickers with evil. Saul suggests they intricately launder Walt’s $480K through the site’s PayPal via “a hacker” he knows. Hilarious. And terrifying. Again, we have no friggin’ clue how creator Vince Gilligan will keep this series going for two more seasons as planned. Maybe it ends with Saul naked in Tahiti.
The Body Bags
With one episode left in the season, the question that no one knows the answer to: Whose dead bodies are shored up at the Whites’ residence in the finale? Is Jane’s body transported there? Will Jesse OD and end up beside her? Will Hank have the showdown of showdowns? Will Walt be forced to fake his death. Or will Skyler and Walt Jr. finally serve as tragic collateral damage? Perhaps the body bags contain parts of Ted after Walt finally snaps. Also, how does the teddy bear get from here to there, thus implicating Gus? If our brains regroup after the last episode, we’ll dive into the answers. In the meantime, what say you?
Breaking Bad airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC. For Hunter’s wrap-up and mini-essay on the previous episode of Breaking Bad, “Mandala,” click here.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila[at]gmail.com and on Twitter.