These questions regard last night’s episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Please answer the prompts with specific examples from LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE, though supplementary material will be accepted as a secondary source. Please write legibly. No. 2 pencils only. You have an hour to finish this test. See below for questions and sample responses.
1. This episode is full of images of fathers and children, from the increased presence of Walter Jr. to the supposed hitman in the plaza actually just being a dad waiting for his kid. And after a heartfelt conversation with his real son, Walt immediately calls Jesse to try to set up a meeting to explain himself. Clearly Walt still sees himself (until the episode’s end) as a father figure to Jesse. But Jesse’s not willing to fill that role anymore. Is Jesse’s new partnership with Hank a new kind of father-son relationship? Is it better or worse than the original? (Things to consider: Hank puts on Jesse’s seatbelt, gives him a place to stay, doesn’t give a shit if Walt kills him.)
Hey, no dad is perfect right? Jesse’s own father, ironically, was the only adult male figure in his life that the meth-head could ever stand up to (or rather, buy a house out from under) … and that was only after he had replaced him with W.W. And as Jimmy Stewart as Walt plays it around Jr., he’s always had this faux joviality of a dad who you know is doing something really bad and hurting mom. It’s taken him years to finally confront his own father, but when Walt tries to lie about the gasoline, Walt Jr. sees right through him.
I’d quote Tolstoy here, but I don’t think there IS such a thing as a happy family, especially with these characters. What’s so heartbreaking is when they show love and mercy—Hank letting Jesse crash at his house, Walt pleading with Jesse to talk to him and getting even more upset (if we thought that was possible) over the idea of “Old Yeller’in” his mentee. Because ultimately we know where Jesse’s true safety lies, and it’s not with Hank, who doesn’t give two shits about his life. He might hate him, he might want to kill him, but Walter White is the closest thing Jesse has to a real dad.
And I think Jesse knows it. You can say he got skittish, but Jesse saved Walt by threatening him on the phone from half a block away instead of letting him “explain himself.” And if Walt really wanted him dead, he’d go to Saul, not Todd’s family. I think he wants to scare Jesse off, not kill him. No surrogate meth-making cancer-stricken dictator of a father figure would ever be so cruel.
2. In the last episode we saw Walt at his most monstrous. But in this one, he is primarily seen being clumsy and vulnerable—bumbling with the gas can, stripping to his tighty-whities, making up a ridiculous story, desperately calling Jesse to explain himself. Meanwhile, everyone else seems to become more ruthless in this episode: Skyler basically orders Walt to murder Jesse, Hank is coldly two-faced, and even Marie changes in a week from being upset about new parking rules at work to researching untraceable poisons and enjoying having a junkie invade her purple palace if it means taking down Walt. Does this contrast serve to make Walt seem slightly less evil in comparison, or do we just see Walt’s evil starting to infect everyone around him?
Have you actually read Under the Dome? I mean, I know this is probably just on my mind because of the whole Dean Norris thing, but (spoiler alert) in the book it takes something like four days for Chester’s Mill to go from loving neighbors to full-scale rioting and cold-blooded killings. And what’s great is how people start to rationalize these acts to themselves: “Well, I got my family to protect”; “Well, someone else threw the rock first”; “He’s a threat, and we have to get rid of the threats.” Walt is the sick monkey, but it’s how people somewhat removed from his direct sphere of influence (uh, not Jesse) react to his time-bomb that shows you that, at least in Vince Gilligan’s mind, people, if given the chance, will break bad before they break good.
I think what Walt has instigated is like that Flaming Lips song, “Yeah Yeah Yeah”: “If you could make everyone poor just so you could be rich, would you do it? If you could watch everyone work while you lay on your back, would you do it? If you could take all the love without giving any back, would you do it?”
“Because we cannot know ourselves, or what we’d really do with all that power. With all that power. With all that power … what would you do.”
3. What is the purpose of the unique structure of the first half of the episode, in which we are shown what happened from Walt’s perspective and then we go back in time and see it again from Jesse’s? Compare the episode to one of the many movies that uses such a structure (e.g. Rashomon, The Killing, Pulp Fiction, Go). Is the technique used for similar reasons here?
Oh no you don’t. Don’t get me started on Rashomon as a comparison for different ways to tell a story, because I do that a lot, and I recently realized … I’ve never seen Rashomon. It’s just become shorthand for “There are as many truths as there are people” or something. In some cases these kinds of “flashbacks” fill in plot holes to people’s character: why they acted a certain way (um, how much did you love it when you found out Sawyer named himself after the guy who basically destroyed his family??), or how some plot development that seemed random was set in motion by a Rube Goldberg-ian chain of events.
Here, what is interesting is NOT what changed the characters’ motivations—Jesse still wants to kill Walter, Hank still thinks Jesse is scum and would love to see Walt burn (but can’t before he’s able to catch him and redeem his career), and Walt still refuses to let others suggest knocking off Jesse until his actual family is threatened … these are the things we know, or would at least be able to guess, about the emotions behind the events. What’s great is the randomness of it all. Walt thinks Jesse had a change of heart and wants to reunite, when in actuality Hank just threatened to shoot him. Jesse MIGHT have gone and gotten the confession from Walter, had he not been scared by the lug. It’s so delicious, the way these accidents keep steering the characters off their inevitable course; much like Jesse’s interpretation of Walter White as the devil, fate—or whatever—seems determined to make the outcome of any situation in Breaking Bad the exact opposite of what its characters (and viewers) saw coming.
4. Jesse seems awfully sure of himself in his final scene. His eyes suddenly focus and he stops stuttering as he tells Walt that he’s going to hit him “where you really live.” But does Jesse know where Walt really lives? Do we?
Oh please. Like Walt hasn’t been saying “Family first” for … well, I guess it’s only been a year in Breaking Bad time, but still. A whole YEAR of hearing “family first” every day? He knows Walt doesn’t care about the money, or dying, except in relation to his family. Jesse knows where Walt’s heart lies, but he isn’t amoral enough to actually hurt his children. So it’s either kill Hank (possible!) or find the money and burn it all out in the desert, forcing Walter White back to square one: a man with cancer who finds himself “forced” to put his family at risk so they can survive after he’s gone. That would be great revenge, no?
5. The title of the episode is yet another example of Walt’s near-constant appropriation of others’ words. He makes fun of Saul’s Old Yeller metaphor and then turns around and spits it at Skyler barely minutes later. Earlier he does the same thing with the words of the carpet cleaner: “This is as good as it gets.” If Walt is really as smart as everyone seems to believe, why does he so readily fall back on phrases and ideas he grabs from others?
Apparently, you have never dated a pundit. The whole idea is that very smart people can listen to you and then tie you up by slinging your own words back at you, or appropriating the language of “the bad guys” in order to make a point with their own audience. Hence, Old Yeller starts as a vague generality, much like Mike going to
Brazil Belize, but when Walt turns it around, it’s this vicious story of how people have no respect for LIFE. Which is a little ironic, considering he had 10 guys stabbed in prison like what? Two months ago?