Breaking Bad Review: How Jesse Got His Groove Back
Breaking Bad’s fifth episode this season, the aptly titled “Shotgun,” starts off with a bang as Walt careens down the streets of Albuquerque, desperately trying to maintain control of an increasingly out-of-control situation. Reeling from the news that Mike has taken Jesse for an impromptu road trip, Walt takes off like a bat out of hell in his Aztec, attempting to prioritize his affairs while breaking every traffic law in the book. He barks frantic orders to an unheard Saul over the phone, insisting that Skyler get all of his drug money should he disappear in the next 24 hours. As Walt hightails it to the nearest Los Pollos Hermanos and reaches for the off-the-books “Thirty-eight Snub” he bought a couple of weeks ago, it becomes clear his escalating delusions of grandeur are masking his usually-reliable perception of logic.
The core of Breaking Bad has always been centered on Walter White’s descent into the dark side, but with the stakes now higher than ever, Walt’s loosening grip on his understanding of the difference between himself and Heisenberg is only resulting in sloppy, egomaniacal attempts to assert his authority in the places it’s most unwelcome. Walt struts toward the front counter of Los Pollos Hermanos and demands to see Gus, snarling to the unimpressed cashier that “he’ll know what it’s about” if she tells him “Walter White is here.” Between revealing his actual name and driving like a live-action video game while an illegal gun rests idly under his seat, Walt’s determination to keep his job and his life suddenly reeks of the clumsy inexperience one would perhaps expect from Jesse.
In a twist unforeseen even last week, Jesse proves himself the unlikely face of grace under pressure as his emotional and psychological journey throughout the episode sees his character evolve at depths most have taken years to achieve. While Breaking Bad’s fourth season has primarily chronicled his spiral from apathetic delinquent to grief-stricken nihilist, Jesse’s sudden about-face ultimately positions him to maneuver Walt’s fate in ways neither of them could have predicted.
As Walt sits in a Los Pollos Hermanos booth, leery of the security camera’s watchful eye, neither he nor the audience is surprised when Mike gives him a call to ask what, exactly, he thinks he’s doing by trying to ambush Gus, who has predictably fled the scene. As Walt attempts to wring answers from Mike regarding his intentions with Jesse, the coyly dismissive responses from both men equally irritate and confuse Walt, who had been convinced moments earlier neither he nor Jesse would live until the next cook. “I’m crossing my heart, Walter,” Mike deadpans, promising he isn’t intending to kill his passenger. Can Jesse tell where they’re headed? “I dunno. North,” he snorts, rolling his eyes. I rushed over here to kill Gus in broad daylight for THIS? Walt’s dumfounded face seems to say.
Despite his ambivalence over the phone, Jesse shows the first sign of his rebirth when sparks of fear begin to ignite his sparse conversation with Mike as they cruise down the desert highway and Jesse flat-out asks if he’s going to be killed. Mike makes a sudden turn down an ominous dusty road and stops to take a shovel out of the trunk. Uh-oh. Jesse, fisting his keys like a makeshift Freddy Kruger glove, tells Mike, “you’d better shoot straight, old man, or I’ll slice off your other ear.” This sudden surge of self-defense marks Jesse’s first sign of any emotional response to his surroundings all season, and an important turning point in his personal narrative. Mike offers little more than a steely-eyed smirk before digging out a bundle of cash from beneath the ground and informing Jesse with his trademark gruff that they “have six more of these stops to make with lots of miles in between.” Oh, and Mike would like to get home before dark if that’s okay.
The bulk of Mike and Jesse’s day together is depicted in a fantastic time-lapse sequence set to Ana Tijoux’s “1977,” interloped with a peek at Walt’s bungled attempt to work by himself in the lab. As Jesse begins to assimilate himself to a new angle of the operation, Walt makes the defining realization that he’s used to Jesse riding shotgun with him. Although the montage of Jesse finding new ways to annoy Mike throughout their series of errands is certainly amusing (“You’re trying to bore me to death!” Jesse exclaims, after his collection of slack-jawed faces and air-drum solos wear tired. “Well, mission accomplished.”), Jesse makes sure to establish his role in this unlikely pairing. After suggesting he guard their loot while Mike makes each pickup, Mike insists with stern intensity that Jesse is not, nor ever will be, “The Guy” he’s itching to be. While Walt is fumbling with the forklift back at work, meanwhile, Jesse gets a chance to prove Mike wrong when a shadowy figure with a, yup, shotgun approaches the car during a stop. Jesse leaps into the driver’s seat and floors the gas pedal in reverse, smashing the gunman’s vehicle before taking off in a panicked frenzy not unlike Walt’s joy ride that morning.
However, when Jesse eventually finds Mike and explains that a couple of shady characters were looking to “rip us off, yo,” and he was merely acting on behalf of the operation, it’s clear Jesse’s attempt to assert his authority actually accomplished something, whereas Walt only succeeded in dropping the barrel, so to speak. Mike even lets Jesse smoke a celebratory cigarette in light of his unexpected bravado, and the two head back to Albuquerque having formed a curious bond. When Walt finally confronts Jesse about his trip the next day at the lab, Jesse reveals his new responsibilities with a terse, “I guess I have two jobs now.” It’s only when Mike and Gus meet to discuss the previous day’s activities when the real intentions behind Jesse’s increased work load come to light. Gus staged the robbery attempt for the sole purpose to snap Jesse out of his doldrums and hopefully instigate an alliance with Mike that will perhaps create a rift between him and Walt. “Just like you wanted,” Mike quips to an ever-stoic Gus. “The kid’s a hero.”
Despite Jesse’s return to civilization being entirely orchestrated with ulterior motives, it helps bookend Walt’s own decline into self-aggrandizing bombast when he feels the need to validate his self-worth at dinner with his family, even at the possible expense of the entire façade he’s fought so hard to protect. After his tantrum at the lab only led to a heaping slice of humble pie and his intimate reconciliation with Skyler was promptly punctuated with a reminder of her affair, Walt’s decision to crawl inside a bottle of red wine upon the news that Jesse is working alongside Mike proves disastrous when Hank begins talking about “the case of the crazy singing guy.” Although Hank told his colleague he felt Gale’s death gave him “closure” on his obsession with Heisenberg, his admission of respect for Gale’s obvious intellect gives him reason to take another look at the case as Walt brazenly suggests that Gale isn’t a “genius” but merely a lower-rung copycat. “Maybe,” Walt boldly slurs, “your genius is still out there.”
Skyler’s horrified death glare notwithstanding, Hank’s puzzled astonishment finds him perusing the evidence files the next morning, and the newfound motivation has him even being civil to Marie. The unmistakable grunt of discovery leads to a shocking final image of Hank gazing at an image of a Los Pollos Hermanos napkin. Knowing Gale was a health food nut, Hank is prompted to utter the staggering final line of the episode. “Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?”
“Shotgun” fired a full round of development for both the plot and characters of Breaking Bad this week, as the growing chasm separating Walt and Jesse proves to be more than just professional. As Jesse’s focus is suddenly springing into gear, Walt can’t seem to maintain clout over any aspect of his life. When Hank indirectly challenges Walt’s pride by giving Gale credit for his work, Walt’s desperate need for affirmation causes him to jeopardize everything he’s risked his life to protect. With Jesse possibly leaving the nest, Walt will need to learn to let his ego ride shotgun.
Do you think Hank suspects Walt yet? Will Walt get a new cooking partner? Will Jesse find out he’s merely a pawn? Do you still think this season is boring? Really?
Season 4, Episode 5: Shotgun (originally aired August 14, 2011)
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Photographs courtesy of AMC/Ursula Coyote.