Last week, Breaking Bad’s fourth season kicked into dread-soaked overdrive in its fourth episode, “Bullet Points.” Walt (Bryan Cranston) started to feel the walls around him tighten even more with the knowledge that Hank (Dean Norris), his sidelined DEA agent brother-in-law, is in possession of the slain Gale’s (David Costabile) incriminating “Lab Notes,” which detail how he, Walt, and Jesse (Aaron Paul) go about their crystal meth cooking.
Jesse, meanwhile, saw the abrupt end of his all day/all night, druggie house party. Reckless, constantly under the influence, and becoming more of a liability by the second, Jesse has been sinking into an emotionally deteriorating rut, which hasn’t pleased Mike (Jonathan Banks), the silent but deadly righthand man under their ruthless boss, Gus (Giancarlo Espositio). In a sitdown with Gus, Mike warned the bossman that Jesse’s erratic behavior could ultimately endanger their operation; the next time we saw Jesse after that, he was riding shotgun alongside a stern-as-usual looking Mike, on an empty highway in the center of an isolated desert. The perfect setting to whack an unruly employee.
“Bullet Points” was entirely dark, a stellar Breaking Bad episode that exemplified what makes the show so unique on the TV landscape: No other show, currently on the air or that existed before it, has so consistently generated a sense of suffocating paranoia. And, considering that creator Vince Gilligan has proven time and time again that Breaking Bad isn’t afraid to fire shells into a viewer’s expectations, a tense round of Breaking Bad is all the more paralyzing because anything can happen.
With such an intense episode last week, it’s not a huge surprise that last night’s installment, “Shotgun,” was much lighter, and, dare we say, much more optimistic. In turn, it was also inferior to the season’s previous episodes. But it certainly started off strong.
The Particularly Cold Open: Jesse’s New Bromance
Like many morbidly thinking viewers, Walt expects the worse from Jesse’s sudden disappearance. As “Shotgun” begins, Walt’s darting through traffic at a ludicrous speed, inside his Aztek. He’s frantically pleading with lawyer/sleazy confidante Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to make sure that Skyler (Anna Gunn) and their kids get all of his money if he doesn’t come back from his Saving Pusher Jesse mission—the gun in his car signifies his readiness for possible death, as does the look of unbridled panic on his face.
Walt pulls into Los Pollos Hermanos, the fried chicken joint owned by Gus, to have a three-way chat: Walt, Gus, and Walt’s loaded pistol. He turns down the cashier’s suggestion of a disgusting-sounding breakfast chimichanga and demands that she get Gus’ attention, but, according to the stone-faced employee, Gus isn’t there. Walt thinks otherwise, a feeling of doubt aided by the two surveillance cameras watching him, similar to the ones Gus installed in their meth lab after Walt pitched the idea of killing Gus to Mike. Walt, tired of waiting, storms into Gus’ back office, but, alas, he’s not there.
At this point, “Shotgun” is as taut as “Bullet Points,” with Mike’s phone call to Walt not exactly placating the situation. Mike puts Jesse on the phone, but Jesse doesn’t have a clue where he is, or where Mike is taking him. Mike informs Walt that he needs to get to the lab and start cooking alone. Permanently alone? As it turns out, not quite. Mike pulls off the open road, parks in the middle of nowhere, and grabs a shovel from the car’s trunk. Jesse, clutching a set of keys into makeshift brass knuckles, is ready for Mike to strike. Instead of digging a grave, though, Mike unearths a bag full of money, the first of seven total “dead drops” that he and Jesse are about to take.
Jesse is safe—Mike’s “abduction” is nothing more than on-the-field training for Jesse’s new side hustle, that of a watchman on all of Mike’s pick-up runs. The first five runs bored the fuck out of Jesse, though; fed up with the dullness, he tries shit-talking Mike into an explanation, calling himself “the guy.” Mike, who reveals to Jesse that he’s the young screw-up’s road partner under Gus’ orders, not his own volition, bluntly tells Jesse, “You are not the guy.” The old enforcer isn’t impressed; he’s looking like a pissed-off father forced into taking his annoying son to work for the day.
Why wouldn’t Gus have Jesse killed? Our guess: He knows how valuable Jesse is to their meth-cooking operation. By making him Mike’s new pick-up colleague, Gus is giving Jesse a new sense of self-worth, which, theoretically, should have the young, repentant murderer feeling better about himself. As we see later in “Shotgun,” Gus wants Jesse to feel like a real hero.
The Mid-High Point: Intercourse Of Action
Across the board, “Shotgun” affords all of Breaking Bad’s key players a positive respite from the season’s hovering dark cloud. In Hank’s case, knowing that Gale, who Hank thinks is the elusive druglord Heisenberg (which, of course, is actually Walt), has been killed fills him with a sense of “closure.” He can sleep better at night now since the byproduct of “Scarface [having] sex with Mr. Rogers,” and the long-stinging thorn piercing through his DEA coat, is a corpse. As a result, Hank announces that he’s no longer interested in aiding his former colleague Tim’s investigation into Gale’s homicide.
Things are even peachier for Walt and Skyler, who officially sign the papers for their new joint venture, the car wash that will serve as a cover-up of sorts for Walt’s enormous, meth-generated bank account. Skyler’s about to pour the two of them some drinks when she notices that there’s a message on her voicemail; it’s Walt, telling her that he’s thinking about she and the kids, and that he loves him.
As the message begins, Walt’s face looks as panicked as ever—he left the message in a state of distress, at the same time that he called Saul on his way to Los Pollos Hermanos. Fortunately for Walt, there’s no need to explain why his voice sounds so frantic, since Skyler misinterprets his anxiety as powerful emotion.
Thus, they bang. And Skyler suggests that Walt moves back home, which he does. For the first time all season, Walt’s life takes a reassuring turn.
The Even Colder Close: Intelligence Questioned
In a less obvious way, “Shotgun” also provides a couple of satisfying developments for Gus. His plan to empower the crumbling Jesse works like a charm; on their last pick-up of the day, with Mike inside a building and nowhere in sight, a dude holding a shotgun creeps up behind the car in which Jesse’s idly seated. Jesse sees the gunman through the rearview mirror, throws the whip into reverse, plows into the gunman’s own vehicle, and takes off. Later picking Mike up on the side of the road, Jesse brags about how he thwarted the plan of two guys who wanted to “rip” them off. What Jesse doesn’t know, however, is that the attackers were sent there by Gus, in order to make Jesse feel heroic.
Back in the lab, Walt proves highly ineffective with a forklift, a failed attempt that prompts him to yell at a surveillance camera and declare that meth-cooking is a “two-man job,” and that he refuses to continue working without Jesse, who’s their usual forklift operator. Another person who can handle a forklift is Gus’ new goon, Tyrus, who shows up and assists Walt with the lift. Is Gus positioning Tyrus to be Walt’s new in-lab cohort? It certainly seems so, especially since Jesse later tells Walt that his runs with Mike aren’t about to stop.
Jesse looks positively enriched by his newfound second job; Walt, however, isn’t as enthused, being that he’s, A, in danger of losing influence over the impressionable Jesse, and, B, already convinced that Gus would kill both he and Jesse without hesitation. The more Jesse begins to trust Gus, the more difficult it will be for Walt to protect him.
Even worse, Gus’ whole operation is about to gain unwanted attention. At a family dinner with Hank and Marie (Betsy Brandt), Walt, stressing over his reunion with Skyler and, more importantly, life in general, pounds several glasses of red wine. Back at the table, Hank tells the whole fam that he’s done with his Gale investigation, but he also admits that he thinks Gale’s a “genius.” Walt, proudly resenting the notion that his protégé is receiving all of the credit, challenges Hank’s compliment by calling the deceased Gale’s intelligence “rote copying” of another man’s brilliance; i.e., his. Through this, Walt heavily implies that Hank still hasn’t properly identified Heisenberg. “Maybe he’s still out there,” Walt calmly says over another glass of wine.
As “Shotgun” ends, Hank, back on the job, flips through Gale’s files. He’s aware that Gale was a vegan, so the sight of a Los Pollos Hermanos flyer begs the question, “Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?” It’s only a matter of time before Hank directs that question towards Gus.
Many people have criticized Breaking Bad’s fourth season for being too slow-paced and too invested in beefing up the storylines of Skyler and Marie (whose kleptomaniac tendencies dominated the third episode, “Open House”). The problem stems from the episode’s opening scene; usually, Breaking Bad’s cold opens abstractly fill in narrative blanks and set-up a key plot point that’s later revealed in a subtle manner.
Last week, at the beginning of the superior “Bullet Points,” Mike defended one of Gus’ trucks in a flurry of gunfire, even losing half of an ear in the process; in addition to playing like a standout scene from an awesome thriller movie, the sequence cemented the fact that Mike, presented mostly as a powerless bystander in previous Season Four episodes, is still capable of brutal murder and cold-hearted authority.
Mike’s defiant stand fell in line with the show’s history of unconventional, non-linear, and cleverly oblique opening scenes; the opener of “Shotgun,” on the other hand, promised a payoff the episode never delivered. A straightforward continuation of Mike’s ominous drive with Jesse that concluded “Bullet Points,” Walt’s high-speed commute to Gus’ chicken spot replaced the usual opening complexities with clear-cut narrative. Ultimately, though, the suspense dissipates into pleasantries. Jesse’s alive, Walt’s on the verge of makeup sex, and Mike’s got himself a new lackey to boss around.
It’s a bait-and-switch tactic that’s not typical of Breaking Bad. In “Shotgun,” Season Four’s most likely overarching theme—Gus’ inevitable fall from the throne—plodded along. The dinner table chat between Walt and Hank, about Gale being nothing more than a pawn in a bigger enterprise, could have taken place during their discussions over Gale’s notes in “Bullet Points.” Using an entire episode to set-up Walt’s trivialization of Gale was a waste of time.
Better energy would’ve been spent watching Hank meticulously unravel Gus’ business, simultaneously inching closer to nailing Jesse and learning about his brother-in-law’s secret life as Heisenberg, which should all happen by season’s end—at least one would think. Even though “Shotgun” underwhelmed, we’re still more than happy to go along for the ride.