Breaking Bad Recap: A Look Back At Season 3 Before The Finale (Guest: Sven Barth)

/Film will be recapping and discussing each episode of the third season of Breaking Bad. A spoiler warning applies after the jump for the recaps and for the comments section. For previous recaps, click here. Note: I skipped over episodes "Fly" and "Abiquiu" due to traveling (one leg of which sent me to Puerto Rico for the return of Kenny Powers).

This week, we discuss the shocking semi-finale "Half Measures" and the season's flaws with the culture writer, white rapper, and L.A. personality known as Sven Barth. A discerning barbarian of boob tube and skateboard culture, Barth's creative endeavors span the single "Baby I'm Black" and the cooking series The Shredding Chef on Fuel TV.

Hunter Stephenson: Okay Sven. I think we both agree Breaking Bad is superior to most TV series currently going. But I want to ask you: is the third season where the show went from being a great series to a good if uneven one? When the Cousins exited—empty characters hyped as a death rattle but comparable to a violent psych-out—I was hopeful the season would upswing. Instead, we got Rian Johnson's episode "Fly," which was the best ep of the season but it also inadvertently juxtaposed how little time and writing was spent in other eps, before and after, on rewarding character development. The writers focused so intently this season on viewers' anticipation of bad shit happening and murderous voodoo tension that Walt and Jesse often registered more like pawns of doom than people. "Fly" explored and deepened their individual personalities and psyches, and reexamined their flesh and blood bond. Nevermind that it was executed, due to sheer genius or budget restraints, in a one-room setting. Am I being too critical, or do you agree?Sven Barth: I'll start by saying Breaking Bad is, without a doubt, one of the best cable shows of the past few years. But to me, this season continues to have several problems not present in one and two. I was still excited to watch each episode but Jesse in particular became closer and closer to a mall-type caricature as the season marched on. And yeah, "Fly" was excellent. It hearkened back to the season two episode, "4 Days Out" about the RV battery. "Fly" exemplified why I got addicted to this show from day one, back when I was tuning in because I was invested in the characters foremost, sudden thrills second. Walt's and Jesse's day-to-day was more tangible, convincing. Now that they're certified bad guys, that's missing.bbhmHunter Stephenson: Well, with "Fly" we finally glimpsed the Jesse Pinkman of old. Clearly, I'm not suggesting every episode be as "uneventful" and dialogue heavy as "Fly," but in other episodes this year Jesse was depicted as a total idiot, helplessly naive, or worse, the broodingly one-note "I'm bad" Jesse that arose this season in eps like "Kafkaesque." I'd argue the Jesse seen in "Fly" and "Sunset" is comparable to a graphic novel version, while the season favored a comic book version. I'm taking into account how much he's been through too—crushed by Jane's death, broken from Hank's beat down, jaded by Walt's fairweather, grumpy guidance.

But the Jesse in "Fly" is not acting out in blind and dumbass ways for the sake of it like the one in "Abiquiu" and "Half Measures." It's as if sobriety has made him mentally dull. Less ambitious. The ill conceived subplot of the season—which unfortunately snowballs into the finale—lies in Jesse's decision to skim meth from Gus's lab and sling it to total strangers at rehab. Let me get this straight: he's on the verge of becoming a millionaire—his main goal in the first two seasons—and suddenly he has the urge to rebel for an extra $200, if that, and risk everything...?

Sven Barth: Listen, while Jesse was in bed with the rehab floozy in this episode, a voice in my head was getting louder and louder. The cry from that voice? "Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuude, really? duuuuuuuuuuuuude, c'mon." Jesse used to be the sprinkling of comic relief over the whole dish. Every time there was a serious plan, the "yo" would come in, something would go haywire. Walt would fix it and Jesse Pinkman would learn somewhat of a lesson. Teacher, student, and so forth. That's gone—the lesson learning part. At the end of the episode, it's the same formula minus the lesson. My investment isn't really there, because Jesse suddenly thinks he's Lee Marvin. He's become cyclic. Been there done that, unless Jesse dies in the finale. And that ain't happening.bbhm6Hunter Stephenson: The rehab dealing subplot was a cipher. It was written solely to have Jesse meet and bang the older sister of TomasCombo's murderer. Cue a relapse in judgement and evidently one to meth. I do grasp the can't-escape-the-past direction the writers are going for this season. Gus tells Walt not to make the same mistake with Jesse twice. And repetition was symbolized by Jane's flashback speech about why Georgia O'Keeffe painted so many doors in "Abiquiu." Not only did the title of that ep reference the New Mexico town O'Keeffe resided in, but it was a play on the title of last year's finale "ABQ." And deliberately or not, this season has repeated a similar leap-of-faith creative decision from season two. Jesse meeting Tomas's sister mirrors the coincidence of Walt randomly encountering Jane's dad in the bar. But it doesn't resonate this time, because why make Combo's death the precipice now?

Jesse could have ostensibly tracked down these dealers no problem—they are still working the same street! Same car. Tomas is on the same bike, with the same rotten attitude. And on top of that we find that, Gus, this ever careful kingpin, knows these low rung thugs firsthand and brings them to his HQ. Not sure I buy any of this.

Sven Barth: I don't know. Maybe they wanted to illustrate with the rehab storyline and the standoff how fucked things get when a junkie is trying to maintain. But seriously, even Jesse's dope peddling buddies can't figure out why they came back on the show. Flashbacks, I'm okay with. But going back to pushing dimes is beneath Jesse now, and beneath Aaron Paul's acting cred, or something. Let's admit it. I guess avenging Combo would have lacked further impact if Skinny P and Badger didn't resurface. Plus, without the whole crew, Albuquerque just wouldn't be Albuquerque. Have you been ever there?Hunter Stephenson: Never been to ABQ, never done meth.Sven Barth: It's a pretty spot on depiction. The entire town is just one block of bars and a Holiday Inn, all the cops come out on horseback, but only to police the bar-zone. And then they might slowly move to a diner where someone gets shot at every month or so. Everyone there is on drugs and you can get away with pretty much anything as long as you don't do it downtown. Kind of like the entire United States, I guess. People there are either a meat-head, a meth-head or, in Skyler's case, an air head. I hate her now more than her son does.bb43Hunter Stephenson: Can't wait to see the comments for that one. Looking back, I wonder if season tres would have benefited from a change of setting. Walt is never-not-transforming, and his outlook and business-style necessitate forward momentum. Bryan Cranston has cut Walt to the bone, made him a shark. On one hand Walt's containment in this small town/tank is more claustrophobic, but on the other, it feels like the writers should ditch everything and everyone around him, with the exception of Mike, Saul and Gus. This season, Walt's determination has markedly left other characters spinning in place, often without purpose. Skyler perhaps most of all; well, next to Walt Jr. It's like Skyler had to join the darkside, not due to her history and relationship with Walt, but in order to keep Anna Gunn on as a regular.

Skyler's motivation for joining Walt points to her love of money and luxury—she got a taste for it soaking up the comforts at Ted's—but her weakness wasn't adequately developed. Her offer to become Walt's bookkeeper and accomplice feels forced and rushed, and I doubt the finale will change that. This middle-aged woman just had a daughter, she strangely has no friends, and she no longer has or needs a job. Why would she risk a prison sentence when she could simply move one state over and collect payments? Having Skyler move away is not dramatic enough, maybe, but it's more in tune with who she was. Skyler sought sexual and professional independence this season. The only obstacle was money. No longer. And Saul and Walt don't need her to snootily point out the difference between laser tag and a car wash, c'mon.

Sven Barth: It would have been believable if Skyler had eloped with the Robert Forster-type, yes; but I disagree with you about a new setting. It would have pushed the show over the edge and lost viewers. Perhaps more scenes should have been set in Mexico to illustrate cartel life and to spice it up. There is, however, another star of the the show: Bob Odenkirk. His character remained consistent with last season yet managed to become darker and unpredictable. Of all the supporting characters, Saul still possesses the ability to charm my socks off in every scene. Who doesn't want to hear the intricacies of a crooked lawyer's life? Or the vicarious solutions he'd come up with for yours? In a way, I guess he does what Jesse used to—make the underworld seem fun and funny. But making Saul a larger part of the show would be a mistake. Like, you can't have a Choco-Taco for every meal.bbhm8Hunter Stephenson: We'll get to Walt's latest murders in a second, but what are your thoughts on Hank in the last couple of eps?Sven Barth: Hank looks more like a potato with each episode. His current obsession with walking OUT of the hospital instead of figuring out the reason why he's IN the hospital totally eludes me. Will he be a Jimmy Stewart next season? Cooped up in his room reviewing old files and looking out the window? Or just a lard pile that gets hand jobs from Marie? It's another example of vital peripheral struggles pulled down to childish squabbles.Hunter Stephenson: Maybe Hank's wheels are turning but in his current state of vulnerability he can't admit Walt is suspicious. Remember Steven's admission in the hospital that Hank was right all along about the blue meth returning? But now it's like the investigation into blue meth and the shooting is relative to Hank's level of activity. A cop is nearly massacred in ABQ in broad daylight, but brakes are placed on breaks in the case(s) because he's laid up? The cartel faced repercussions, border politics were said to sizzle—but the blue meth is decidedly local. Hank's assault on Jesse aside, how much evidence do local cops need to again question Pinkman, or tap his car or phone? The RV, the similarity of those anonymous calls, Jesse's old car at Tuco's murder scene. I guess we're hating? I've written a lot about this season, and positively. Obviously, we hold the show to high standards, but they're relative to what's come before.Sven Barth: I gotta say, I like this show, a lot. I wouldn't have so many opinions on it if I didn't spend so many hours watching it. Rather than just watch all the episodes at the end of the season, I watched and waited, every week, which is rare these days. However, I would have felt just as bad for Hank if he got shot in the first episode. Sometimes, I think it feels like the actors know how big the show has become, and aren't able to hide it. I didn't get that from Mad Men's last season.bbhm7Hunter Stephenson: Since you're Twitter is inactive, what did you think of Walt's Aztec clipping down the thugs? Haha.Sven Barth: This is what I thought: Daaaaaaamn! Those sneakers look fuckin' twisted underneath that Pontiac! And then: Crap. Now I probably have to wait a year to find out how far Jesse's gonna "RUN!"Hunter Stephenson: Vince Gilligan, the show's creator, has said in the press that he expects the series to only go five seasons—which given the pace and stakes, still seems like a lot. He's also compared Walt's trajectory to "Mr. Chips turning into Scarface." Do you think a fourth season can reach the heights of the first two, and what would you like to see happen?Sven Barth: I'm not sure if I honestly expect a return to form—see Miami Vice, seasons three and four. Will Jesse make as clean a getaway in the finale or next season as Alec Baldwin? (And might we see Aaron Paul on a sitcom 20 years later?) If he doesn't leave the ABQ—weak—does that mean Pinkman keeps getting his face pounded again and again? I hope not. Where I'd like to see the show go, I suppose, is deep into the darkness. Walt's entire family gets merked, he goes on the run, has nothing to live for and is on a warpath to destroy all drug cartels. He contaminates their drugs with a crew of high school dropouts as foot soldiers. Pinkman goes AWOL, then returns around episode four or five, missing an arm and really tan.Hunter Stephenson: Kind of like a hip hop Clarence, from True Romance?Sven Barth: Sort of. Then, for the series finale, Skyler, Hank etc show up during the last five minutes, and go visit Walter White's grave... he died of cancer after all, and the last three seasons were his trip through purgatory! Hank's meds get mixed up and he becomes Neo-Hulk. Maybe Skyler is Jesse's real mom. Maybe I'm reaching... But, am I? Really? After this season, I guess I'm just looking to be entertained.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.