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Episode Review: Breaking Bad – “Cornered”

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(Disclaimer: Breaking Bad is such a richly developed show that there is much more to discuss than there is in your average television drama. As such, this review is going to be formatted a little differently than normal and will be a little longer than usual, but I feel that’s necessary for a show like this. It will also be a discussion of major plot points in the episode so here’s your giant SPOILER ALERT. Don’t read this until you’ve seen the episode. It also assumes that you are a viewer of the show and have a basic familiarity with characters and plots. Onto the review.)

If it wasn’t already, Walt’s transformation from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to ruthless meth manufacturer is now complete, with the ugliest sides of his personality on display multiple times throughout “Cornered.” It’s never advisable to take anything for granted when trying to predict future Breaking Bad storylines but I, for one, would be very surprised if Walt ends up with any kind of happy ending, in large part because of his actions of late. Let’s take a look at what we can get out of “Cornered.”

Teaser
In a nice callback to “Bullet Points,” we open with two of Gus’s guards sitting in the back of a refrigerated Los Pollos Hermanos truck during a transport, however, unfortunately for these two, they don’t possess Mike’s luck or ingenuity. Following an ambush by the cartel, the driver of the truck is murdered brutally [1], while the guards in the back of the truck are poisoned fatally with carbon monoxide from the truck while the cartel members sit idly and nonchalantly by. Before long, they enter the back of the truck and make off with a bucket of meth that’s been disguised in a container of fry batter. And the title card hits…

[1] Seriously, I think I saw part of his brain exposed. Not kidding.

Act One
“I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I AM the one who knocks.”
In the wake of the dinner with Hank and Marie where Walt decided to cast suspicion upon himself in “Shotgun,” Skyler is doing some research on Gale Boetticher’s murder and listening to Walt’s “I love you” phone message that she so massively misinterpreted over and over in order to gain some perspective on who she’s just (literally) jumped back into bed with. At the same time, in that bed, Walt is sleeping off a massive wine hangover before being awakened and confronted by Skyler. “God… what did I say last night,” is his response to being quizzed about what he knows about Gale. Skyler is worried (again) about his and the family’s safety, prompting this exchange:

Skyler: “Who killed him? Was it the people you work for?”
Walt: “Definitely not.”
Skyler: “Was it somebody who, at some point, might want to do the same to you?”
Walt: “I seriously doubt it.”

What’s interesting here is that he’s technically telling the truth, but he’s also clearly lying by omission and it’s yet another example of his hubris in thinking that he’s always one step ahead of whoever he’s dealing with. Walt keeps trying to play everything off like it’s nothing more than drunken ramblings while Skyler is quick to jump to the conclusion that it’s a cry for help and that they should call the police. Of course, Walt responds very unfavorably to this, particularly when Skyler suggests that he’s in over his head, which we know will set him and his massive ego off. And indeed, he responds, “Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? Even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. What do you think would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going in to work?” before chillingly adding, “I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I AM the one who knocks.” That is a pantheon moment for the series and, if it hasn’t been clear before, it is now that the Walter White we met in season one is completely gone. There is more Heisenberg than Walter White present in this man’s body than ever before. Skyler sits both dumbfounded and terrified by this realization [2] as Anna Gunn’s facial expression says everything that it needs to [3]. After excusing himself to take a shower, Walt returns to try to smooth things over but finds Skyler gone. A little time-lapse photography sends things later into the day where Walt is meeting (sans Skyler) with Bogdan at the car wash to officially transfer ownership. Bogdan, while simultaneously tweaking Walt and reiterating that the sale is for the car wash “as is,” begins questioning whether Walt is ready to be the boss [4] before letting him know that if he can’t handle things, he can always call “his pretty wife.” Just as Bogdan is about to leave, he realizes that the wash’s ceremonial first dollar is still hanging in a frame on the wall. As he attempts to retrieve it, Walt reminds him of the “as is” stipulation and Bogdan leaves, defeated. In yet another ugly moment, Walt smashes the frame, takes the dollar bill, and uses it to purchase a soda from the vending machine [5]. Cold, Walt. Very, very cold.

[2] And, frankly, so is the audience.
[3] I’ve been fairly critical of Gunn and the Skyler character for most of the season but without a doubt some of her strongest work thus far is done in this episode.
[4] Pretty ironic, that.
[5] Kudos to the wife for predicting this almost as soon as the frame got smashed.

Act Two
“No, this whole thing… it’s all about ME.”
In a no-name diner, Mike and Jesse are sitting at a booth as Mike is eating dinner and Jesse is clearly in the throes of withdrawal, shaking while nursing a glass of water. Mike notices what’s happening and asks Jesse if he’s OK, eventually pushing his own food over to Jesse and instructing him to eat it. Jesse looks like he can barely keep it down and Mike… is actually displaying a somewhat paternal instinct towards Jesse. It’s actually strange to watch but it deepens their relationship at a time when Jesse’s interactions with Walt have become decidedly less pleasant. Back at the Whites’, Skyler is still absent and Walt and Walt Jr. are eating by themselves and, during the course of the meal, Walt presses Jr. for info about Skyler since she’s actually been in contact with him. He also tries to steer Jr. away from thinking that his dispute with Skyler is over the gambling lie, and in doing so, ends up taking Jr. car shopping. After arriving at a used lot, Jr. is able to use Walt’s guilt to convince him into splurging on a much gaudier vehicle and it’s clear within seconds how this is going to go over once Skyler gets wind of it. Meanwhile, Jesse is waiting outside the lab waiting to meet with Walt. After giving Jesse crap about actually being there to work, the fracture between the two men begins to deepen even more as Walt pumps Jesse for more information about Gus and Mike. He’s incredulous that a businessman as ruthless and successful as Gus would have any use for someone as lowly as Jesse, particularly with all of the muscle at Gus’s disposal, asking, “Do you really believe that you mean anything to these people?” Jesse believes that initially Gus and Mike realized that they couldn’t kill him due to Walt’s ultimatum, but that they didn’t want him using meth either so Mike was tasked with babysitting him. However, he believes that saving Mike from the “ambush” in “Shotgun” changed their view of him and that they now entrust him with more responsibilities. Walt responds to this as only Walt can, believing that the whole situation is because of him. He calls the robbery a setup [6] and declares, “No, this whole thing… it’s all about ME.” Jesse, in complete disbelief of Walt’s ego, silently and disgustedly walks away to begin work in the lab. After completing the majority of their tasks, Jesse receives a phone call from Mike and takes off, leaving Walt to finish up on his own. As we saw in “Shotgun,” Walt isn’t fond of doing work that he considers beneath him so he heads up to the cleaning company that serves as the lab’s front and bribes some of the Central American women working there into coming down to help him. There’s absolutely no way that this will end well for these ladies.

[6] This is yet another example of the intelligence of the show. Obviously, the audience knows that the ambush was faked but it would stand to reason that someone as intelligent as Walt would question the convenience of such an incident. Breaking Bad never assumes that its audience is comprised of morons and that’s one of the many factors that adds to the show’s greatness.

Act Three
“Tucker! Tucker!”
Skyler is driving off into the distance in her car with Holly, eventually pulling into The Four Corners where she flips a coin to see which state the coin will land on and, assumedly, which state she will then live in. The coin lands on Colorado twice before she moves it with her foot back onto New Mexico. I admit, I’m a bit confused by this sequence. Are we, as the audience, to take this as Skyler being accepting of Walt’s new life and her role in it or is she returning to stand up to him in a more adversarial sense? Time will tell, I suppose. Moving on, Mike and Jesse are out on a Gus-sanctioned errand, watching a house that they believe may contain the stolen container of product from the beginning of the episode. It’s a contrast in approaches: Mike prefers to stake out the house and wait for the perfect opportunity (“What you may not know about meth heads – maybe you do – they’re kinda unpredictable. I don’t care for unpredictable, so we wait.”), whereas Jesse wants to use his knowledge of the typical meth user to take action. Ultimately, Jesse’s impetuousness wins out and he decides to call upon his own experiences and pose as a buyer to draw the house’s occupants out. After striking out initially [7], Jesse fetches a shovel from the trunk and begins digging [8] in the front yard of the house. This draws one of the meth heads out to investigate and Jesse plays on the man’s inherent paranoia and delusion. Once the man is occupied by digging himself (heretofore referred to as Shovel Guy), Jesse enters the house and finds another meth casualty brandishing a shotgun [9] (heretofore referred to as Shotgun Guy) who looks even worse off than Shovel Guy [10]. Outside, unaware of what’s going on inside the house, Mike is visibly impressed and I continue to enjoy this pairing of characters and where this relationship seems to be heading. It’s so unexpected which is what makes it so enjoyable to watch. Jesse is getting nowhere with Shotgun Guy and instead is digging himself a deeper hole, until Mike enters and manages to distract Shotgun Guy enough that Jesse is able to knock him out with a bong sitting on a nearby table. After Mike confirms that the meth was in fact stolen from Gus, he notices that someone has scrawled a message for Gus on the fry batter container lid.

[7] And leading to a little bit of gloating from Mike – “Guess we’ll go with Plan A, then.”
[8] Via some very cool POV shots by episode director and normal DP Michael Slovis.
[9] Hey! It’s Dewey (Damon Herriman) from Justified.
[10] The makeup on both meth heads and set design of the house is a great anti-drug advertisement. It’s very disconcerting and, as my wife remarked, “Why would anyone want to do that to themselves?” Indeed.

Act Four
“But you know what, Walt? Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
The expected repercussions indeed come to pass at the lab when Tyrus shows up to take the cleaning women away. When Walt asks what’s going to happen to them, Tyrus replies that they will be sent away to Honduras much to Walt’s dismay. He wants to shoulder the responsibility, saying, “You tell Gus to blame me, not them,” to which Tyrus responds ominously, “He does.” Walt has built up so much bad will with Gus in such a short time, that as I surmised in the open, Walt has a massive, massive consequence coming his way. It’s just a matter of when. Following their ordeal at the meth house, Mike and Jesse are back at the nameless diner although this time Jesse actually has a meal of his own. Soon after, Gus enters and Mike asks Jesse to step out. Mike and Gus begin to discuss how to handle the message from the meth house with Mike favoring loading up and hitting the cartel hard, but Gus wants to set up a meeting and keep the war “cold for now.” The calm manner in which Giancarlo Esposito portrays Gus is a marvel to watch and makes his badass visage even stronger, however here his face belies more than a little concern, maybe for the first time since the character was introduced. Gus then asks how Jesse has been doing and, in a nice touch, the camera cuts outside to Jesse’s perspective before we hear Mike’s answer. Jesse does have a brief exchange with Gus as Gus is leaving, however, and after asking why he was chosen to play his current role within the organization, Gus responds, “I like to think I see things in people.” “Cornered” closes with Skyler returning home to see the new car surprisingly sitting in the driveway. Not so surprisingly, Jr. is desperate to keep the car and pleads his case to Skyler. After first seeming amenable to the idea while Jr. is around, she changes her opinion as soon as he’s out the door and is alone with Walt. Walt still wants his chance to explain himself by Skyler is not interested at all. Saying that he may have “overstated” things in the earlier conversation in the bedroom, he tries to impress upon her that everyone in the family is safe. “Everything that I do – everything – is to protect this family.” Skyler responds that buying the car isn’t really a safe thing as it calls more attention to them and their tenuous gambling lie but Walt is having none of it, saying that he wanted to be able to do something nice for his son. When Skyler demands that it goes back in the morning, Walt turns the knife by saying, “I just worry that he’ll blame you for this.” Skyler’s response is one of the strongest moments for her character [11] and is a great way to close the episode: “Oh, he will. Once again he’ll blame his bitch mother for taking away what his loving father has given him so, thanks for that. But you know what, Walt? Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.” And with that, she walks away, leaving Walt looking as dumbfounded as she did earlier.

[11] I’m seriously coming close to doing a 180 on her character, which speaks to the brilliance of the show’s writing. Walt’s increasingly dangerous ego coupled with her willingness to stand up to him is doing wonders for my opinion of her.

Overall Thoughts: It appears that the main goal of “Cornered” was to establish even further Walt’s dickishness and Skyler’s choice to fight against it. In that regard, it was a raging success. I don’t think that Vince Gilligan and company want to glamorize anything that Walt does and they’ve done a great job in making the audience see him for the villain that he is this season. Yet, there’s also something that’s so inherently watchable about the character, and that’s a testament to the genius of Bryan Cranston. I feel like I haven’t singled him out too often but I don’t think I need to. Everyone knows how good he is here. It’s a given. To this point in the series, one could argue that Walt was doing everything for the benefit of his family, but the “I’m the one who knocks” sequence clarified once and for all that he gets off on the power that his station provides. “Cornered” conveyed that perfectly and seems to set up Skyler as his main adversary. It also deepened the working relationship between Jesse and Mike and, as I’ve mentioned, I’m really enjoying the chemistry that Aaron Paul and Jonathan Banks have in this storyline. Overall, another top-notch episode in a season that’s shaping up to be every bit as good as the breakthrough third season was.

Rating: 89/100


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