Breaking Bad Recap: Episode 5 “Mas” is the Season’s Riveting Game-Changer (Guest: Natasha Vargas-Cooper)
Posted on Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 by Hunter Stephenson
/Film will be recapping and discussing each episode of the third season of Breaking Bad. For this installment, /Film discourses with Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a sharp-witted, caps-friendly writer at The Awl and author of the new book Mad Men Unbuttoned, due this July from HarperStudio. A spoiler warning applies after the jump for the recap and for the comments section. Meth heads welcome. For previous recaps, click here.
Hunter Stephenson: Before we discuss the hell-tinted game-changer that was “Mas,” tell me where Walter White resides in your obsession with masculine anti-heroes in current TV and film. What does Breaking Bad tell us about the state of the modern man?
Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Walter White, thanks to magnificent Bryan Cranston, has quickly ascended into the highest echelon of beloved Manly Men Who Do Bad Things. He is Sopranos status for me. I think what White has—what you see echoed in characters like Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Jim McNulty—is fragmented existence. In their professional lives these men are the masters of their craft and at home they are considered failures.
NVC: The rub of course being what makes them great at their jobs makes them bad at everything else. But the expectation of these men is that they should be emotional providers as well as financial providers. There should be a synthesis of all their skills, domestic and professional. While I don’t disagree with that notion, I think it’s really hard because men don’t really have a model to do this. It’s only been in the last 30 years that men were expected to be egalitarian partners and not patriarchs. Walter White, more than any other character I’ve seen on TV is in the throes of this realignment. Torn between being a patriarch and a partner. But he’s not a sociopath! He’s this remarkably sensitive, empathetic, charismatic chemist.
Nevertheless, what makes Walter so successful in meth dealing is his brutishness. Grabbing his junk, bellowing at Jesse. His physical demeanor even changes, the slump straightens out, his voice drops a couple octaves. He emasculates Jesse whenever he fucks up, he rules the drug trade through fear—and it comes so naturally! It’s this kind of masculinity that is below social convention, that is impolite but very honest, and I think essential. He becomes primordial man with mean ginger ‘stache! I don’t care if that’s old fashioned! I love it.
HS: There is overlap between Walter White, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano in terms of needing to be the most powerful in their fields. But what sets White a part this season, for me, is the exposed existential dilemma. Unlike those guys, death is the ultimate drive for Walter White, not money, sex, family, or materialism. In “Mas” we see Skyler beginning to convince herself that Walt’s cancer jeopardized his ability to be, as you said, a provider—that it forced him to make a desperate but highly profitable decision for his fam. And we see Gus Fring manipulate Walt with his admirable speech in the ep declaring, “A man provides and he does even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or loved.” But like the icy divorce lawyer tells Skyler, “That’s horseshit.”
I think in Walt’s mind, cancer is secretly the best thing that ever happened to him. He finds that it lifted the curtain of civility and academia and allowed him to explore a much older, primal reality. Next to life, professional crime is the most vicious and masterful game of give and take; and, now that Walt has the money for his family and his cancer is docile, we are observing how he can’t go back to regs. His life would be a lie. Is that sociopathic? It’s hard to say. “Mas” is the season’s game-changer. In Gus’s lab, we can’t deny that Walt’s “professional” goals are about to take precedent over providing, no matter that he initially turns down the offer. By season’s end, are we watching a drama about the life and success of a villain? If so, that’s fascinating to me. It would be like Unbreakable from Mr. Glass’s perspective. Wait. Walter White is “Mr. Glass.” I’ll stop…
NVC: DON’T BE STICKING YOUR M. NIGHT SHAMALANSHITSHOW INTO MY BELOVED WALTER WHITE! I think you are absolutely right, though, about that spectacular death drive of Walt’s—a death drive I don’t think we’ve seen so nakedly and artfully rendered on TV before.
I think the series cinched my love for it when Walt was told his cancer was in remission and you could see his latent disappointment rise to the surface and boil over in fury when he started punching the towel dispensers in a bathroom. Ah, that violence! Walt seems to come alive the most when he’s near oblivion. So, to the red, refined lab of game changing possibilities. Is it naive of me to believe Gus is going to protect Walt from the cartel? That perhaps he is not as snaky as we are meant to believe?
I also think Skyler is not going to let Walt go and his big heartedness will keep him in the house. Walt, as we’ve seen makes rash judgements and then scales back—BECAUSE THIS SHOW IS ART AND MIMICS AS IT IS!—like when he instructed Jesse to kill the junkies and then called back the next day to cancel the hit. Walt is at war with himself! What do you think of Skyler and her dilemma? Do you think Walter was able to walk away because of Gus‘s offer or because, as Skyler put it, she ‘fucked Ted?‘
HS: Well, Skyler is the character more and more (male?) viewers apparently want to see killed off and chalked off to collateral damage (or for water cooler kicks). In “Mas,” her inherent “bitch” was finally addressed, and she made the case that no one in her family understands her. Smart move by the writers. I think it’s still difficult for a number of fans to separate Skyler’s flaws from Anna Gunn’s challenging performance. I think she’s one of the most realistic female characters on TV. Gunn does this thing with when Skyler is nervous and turned on, where she touches her top lip with her tongue. She can’t contain the cougar.
I also can’t completely sympathize with her as a scorned mom because she’s clearly a shitty cook, a terrible home decorator, and supports her handicapped son with a mere glance at dinner. She smoked while pregnant with Holly (and Walt Jr., we have to wonder) and now around her cradle.
I’m not sure I agree that Walt walked away from Gus’s offer—at least in the confines of “Mas”—due to Ted or Skyler. I think it had more to do with the teetering feeling of becoming the WHITE SCAREFACE. We know White is hurt by the “fucked Ted” confession, but to him, it probably confirms his competitive view of the world.
NVC: She’s largely a thankless character. Skyler‘s too reminiscent of the mom calling you inside from the porch, telling you it’s time to leave your friends and do your homework—cutting off your fun, only encouraging resentment. But that’s what moms do! Especially when your husband hasn’t made any of his own decisions for the first 50 years of his life, per his admission.
I actually began to sympathize with her during the first episode when she told Walt Jr. to shut up and eat. That’s the way you have to talk to teenagers! Leg braces or not. Also, she seems, as you said, like a bit of a reformed bad girl. With the smoking and the cougar lip smacking. I think, or at least hope, the writers are using Skyler to fuck with our sense of morality. There is something absolutely chilling about watching a pregnant smoker. But less chilling than watching Walt murder a drug dealer with a bicycle chain?
It’s easy to dislike Skyler because she is the natural moral authority. And who likes authority when it comes to the drug trade? So while we can align ourselves against the drug war, the school principal, and the DEA, it’s harder to make the case to ruin Skyler’s life and family. And I think we resent that…
HS: Do you pick up a weird religious undercurrent in the series at times? In “Mas” the color red is used—even more prevalently than usual–to symbolize evil. Literal Hell. For instance, Combo’s mom wears a cross, and Gus’s lab is underground and completely red. Saul’s office front is red, as is the rock Jesse throws at Walt’s windshield, as is Jesse’s car. We see how heated tiles are temptation for Skyler. It’s very in your face.
NVC: In terms of hell and religious imagery, I think you’re right. It’s deeply Catholic. Especially with Gus, posing as the devil tempting Jesus with his kingdom. I think that comes from two things. For one, the characters are so close to Mexico, so the Catholicism, superstition, and the chaos of their drug trade is never far away. It’s literally on the border and it may be impossible to keep out. It’s spilling over, seeping in, putting men’s heads on turtles. There’s the series’ new two-headed monster: The Cousins of Death, who seem to embody a prehistoric evil, like they were created in one of Cormac McCarthy‘s bleached-bone nightmares.
There does indeed seem to be something bigger swirling above, or below, all the characters in the godless desert. Something scary though, wrathful, and otherworldly. I keep thinking about that magnificent but horrifying scene where the Mexicans are crawling on their knees to pay tribute inside of the Santa Muerte sanctuary and there’s a drawing of the mysterious Heisenberg, who, ironically is a man of science. The religious mysticism creates this wonderful tension and duality, because it is the antithesis of science, which is Walt’s profession.
The question then is: will Walt’s background as a man of logic and science be an asset in the drug trade—beyond his product—or his undoing? Especially now that working for Gus means he will be tucked away in a lab. Unable to rule through myth and fear.
HS: Lastly, where does “Mas” leave Jesse in your eyes? He reverts back to wigga overdrive, and we see him pitted against Walt, for money, territory, the magic recipe, and product. Can Jesse, a natural born loser, ever be a formidable adversary to Walt? And how long can the show go before the police dog inside Hank’s bald dome picks up Walt’s complicit scent? “Mas” gave Hank a white-towel-and-shower scene like Walt and Ted have received, and during it he seemed on the verge of a coronary. Where would you like to see Hank’s storyline go from here?
NVC: Hank! He’s so layered—there’s an example of Man trying to synthesize being an emotional provider, protector, patriarch and partner and it’s tearing him apart! I think Hank’s wife is going to put the pieces together first and she will ultimately do the betraying. She’s too duplicitous and squirrelly to be trusted. I think Hank and Marie will split before Skyler and Walt do.
Jesse is a character I struggle empathizing with. For one, I think Aaron Paul is deft but hits the same notes a little too often. Like an early DiCaprio, his fieriness sometimes turns into screeching. Further, let me flash my Violent Suburban Alienation credentials here: I grew up with kids like Jesse. In fact, they made a movie about the kids I grew up with, it’s called Alpha Dog. So well-off kids who traffic amphetamine and then stumble into atrocious violence to overcome their unrealized potential don’t invoke a lot of sympathy in me. It stirs up the opposite.
There’s a part of me that cheers on Jesse’s destruction because I don’t know if the kid will ever come to good. Walt only has, at best, a few years left on this earth. Jesse already seems too toxic to save. Nevertheless! I think Jesse will crack after maybe two more episodes and he’ll be working for Walt again as a lab assistant. It’s one of Walt’s most human traits and possibly his downfall. He trusts a junkie like Jesse. They have a father and son bond. Walt knows that Jesse worships him, so I don’t think Walt will be able to snuff him out. And there’s opportunity lost in all of this. The more Walt inhabits Jesse’s world, the less he is a father to his own son. Walt Jr. is the most vulnerable. That kid is marked.
Breaking Bad airs Sundays at 10 p.m. EST on AMC. For previous /Film episode recaps, click here.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila/gmail and followed on Twitter.