Jesse assumes that he is responsible for Jane’s death and has a breakdown, allowing Walter to step in and put his partner in a rehab clinic. Meanwhile, Skyler sees through her husband’s lies and decides to throw Walt out of the house.
This is an episode of highs and lows. On the one hand, we have some of the best acting ever seen in Breaking Bad, providing the audience with intense personal drama and a truly wonderful moment of catharsis for Skyler. On the other, we have a concluding metaphor so blunt and so pretentious that it overshadows everything good that came before it. I don’t hate this episode, but it is hard to love it either.
For now, let’s focus on the positives. We open on Jesse desperately trying to resuscitate Jane, a sequence in which Aaron Paul gives the performance of a lifetime.1 Paul convincingly portrays a man reduced to a child-like state of helplessness – unable to stand up straight, on the verge of tears, full of indecision. Under these circumstances, Walter can step in and act as a protective father-figure. I like how the show handles the tone of these scenes – Walt genuinely cares about Jesse, rescuing him from a drug den at the risk of getting attacked or arrested, but we aren’t allowed to forget that Walt killed Jane. Jesse would have been spared all this misery, if only his partner had not left Jane to die.
I also absolutely love the final confrontation between Walt and Skyler. One of the long-term arcs of Breaking Bad is Walter becoming more assertive and this also applies to his marriage – he is portrayed as hen-pecked and passive in the Pilot but those days are over. However, Walt did not accomplish this change through better boundaries but by freezing out, gaslighting and even assaulting Skyler in order to feel in control. This scene, where Skyler stands up to Walt and throws him out of the house, allows her to reclaim some much-needed agency. It feels like a detective dénouement as she unpicks and disproves all of her husband’s lies and it has the same triumphant tone. Skyler earned this victory, no matter how brief it may be.
Alas, we can’t avoid discussing it any longer – let’s talk about the plane crash that takes place directly over Walter’s house.
This absurd scene is the result of combining a terrible idea with a half-decent one. The writers wanted to demonstrate how Walt’s decision to cook crystal meth was not just harming those around him but also hundreds of anonymous people he would never meet. They wanted to make a statement on how humans can hurt one another when we don’t think about the consequences of our actions, something Gilligan compared to the “butterfly effect”. For every Jane, there are ten other people overdosing or struggling with addiction because of the drugs Walt created.
The problem is that the writers decided to abandon all subtlety in order to make this point. By their own admission, they wanted to end the season with “a giant moment of showmanship”, which is an understandable impulse considering how they didn’t get to write a proper finale for the last season.2 However, there is no way you can convince me that Walt is responsible for something as spectacular as a plane crash – that is not a realistic consequence of a man deciding to become a drug dealer.
Worst of all, the writers are so smug about this ridiculous and ill-fitting climax. Back in 2009, Gilligan defended the sequence as “surprising”, with the wreckage falling on the house representing “the judgement of God … a cosmic indictment of Walt’s life choices of late”. Symbolism has always been a part of the show’s repetoire, but it shouldn’t be the focus. Breaking Bad works best when it concentrates on the little details. A grieving Donald looking for a dress in which to bury his daughter is more upsetting and a better way to illustrate the harm Walt has done to his community than two planes colliding with one another.
Odds and Ends
- This episode serves as our introduction to Mike.3 Initially, it was Saul who was supposed to come to Jesse’s house, but Odenkirk was filming for How I Met Your Mother. I think we can all agree that Mike works better here, being able to bring a gruff and intimidating presence to the scene that Saul could not.
- There are a lot of thematically significant clothing choices in this story. Jesse wears a green robe in the rehab clinic – this colour is usually associated with Walter and shows us the influence he now has over Jesse. Walt also wears a hideous jumper in the final scene which is the same colour as the mutilated teddy bear that falls into the pool – just in case you didn’t pick up on all the symbolism…
- This is the first episode in which Walter has a goatee. It was Cranston’s idea for his character to start the show with an “impotent” moustache, so this change in facial hair reflects our protagonist’s new-found sense of self-confidence.
- This video has some minor spoilers for Season 3, but it elegantly explains how Breaking Bad uses framing and character beats to make the audience care about Jesse and Jane’s relationship, despite the fact they only share about fifty minutes of screentime: