Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Let’s just get the necessary yet boring subplot out of the way here, upfront: Skyler (Anna Gunn) hired Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to play up a ruse about a dead great-aunt of Ted Beneke’s (Christopher Cousins) who’d left him a massive sum of cash in her will, when, in fact, Skyler’s the one who coughed up the $620,000 to help Ted pay off his back taxes. But instead of clearing his debts with the IRS, good old Ted buys himself a fresh Mercedes and elects to dump money back into his business. Skyler’s pissed, and goes to coyly ask Ted how he’s doing, interrogate him about the new car, and, ultimately reveal that she’s his financial supplier after he dismisses her and her seemingly invasive opinions.

If Ted makes it out of Breaking Bad’s now-stellar fourth season alive, it’ll be quite the surprise, but also a major letdown, since, frankly, the whole storyline between he and Skyler screeches episodes to halts whenever they’re on screen. And in last night’s great episode, “Salud,” the momentum-killing was especially homicidal; “Salud” hinged on three plots, and the other two were excellently acted, tightly paced, and altogether strong. We get why Skyler’s playing a larger role in recent episodes: Bad past decisions haunt every character on Breaking Bad, and Skyler’s past money-lending to Ted is creeping back into her life right at a time when her new business venture with Walt (Bryan Cranston) is making bank. When Walt finds out, and you know he’s going to soon enough, that Skyler is spending considerable amounts of Walt’s drug money on Ted’s loser ass, especially after lecturing him about big, conspicuous spending, he’s going to flip.

So now it’s her turn to combat against that bitch named Karma, in a way that also affects Walt, even though he’s got much bigger issues to handle these days.

It seems all but certain that Ted will flat-line by season’s end, no? Perhaps at Skyler’s bloody hands. But that’s the least of our concerns at this point. “Salud” progressed the conflicts of Breaking Bad’s two main protagonists—Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul)—so damn well that the Skyler plot felt like a time-filler, providing moments to breathe after the intensity of everything else on display, which we’ll break down in two chunks.

"I made a mistake. It’s all my fault."

As “Bug” wrapped up last week, Walt and Jesse had an impromptu cage match inside Jesse’s house, after he learned that Walt had bugged his car and knew that Jesse went to Gus’ (Giancarlo Esposito) home and still hadn’t killed their cold-hearted employer. During the fight, Walt got his ass kicked, with Jesse sitting on top of him and connecting a good three or four solid right hooks to Walt’s face. And, as we’re told by the man himself in “Salud,” once Walt got home that night, he downed a bunch of painkillers and chased the pills down with cold beers.

Giancarlo Esposito’s acting this season leaves no mystery as to who currently holds the show’s MVP title.

So when Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) shows up at daddy’s doorstep on his birthday, wondering why his pops missed his party and didn’t see him driving his new pre-owned PT Cruiser (a lame car that Junior’s not exactly thrilled about), he sees that Walt is in shambles. He’s also in just a raggedy white tee and tighty-whiteys when he opens the garage door to let Junior in for a father/son chat. Lying through his probably cracked teeth, Walt tells his son that he got into a gambling-related scrap, furthering the betting addiction cover-up that hides his actual crystal-meth-cooking hustle. Walt slurs his words and can hardly keep his eyes open, feeling the druggy effects of pills-and-booze; breaking down, he starts crying and telling Junior that he “made a mistake,” and the tears continue to pour as Junior escorts dad to his room and tucks him into bed. Walt asks Junior about his birthday gift (the PT Cruiser), and when Junior says that he likes it, Walt replies, “That’s great, Jesse," a name-slip that’s not lost upon Junior’s emotionally hurt face.

The next morning, a clear-headed Walt tells his son a story about the one memory he has of his own father, who died when Walt was six. Junior’s grandfather suffered from Huntington’s disease, and Walt’s only recollection is his father dying in a hospital bed, breathing with the sounds of someone “shaking an empty hairspray can.” He doesn’t want Junior to think of him in a similar, pathetic way, but, in Junior’s eyes, he’d rather see Walt in a vulnerable state than in the closed-in, perpetually unhappy, and edgier Walt he (and we, the viewers) have seen over the last year. ”At least last night,” says Junior, "you were, you know real.”

It’s common knowledge that Bryan Cranston’s acting on Breaking Bad is brilliant, and his two somber, sorrowful monologues in “Salud” were speeches that could be used in his future Emmy nominee reel, which we can only hope he’s bestowed for the 2012 Emmy Awards. But in those scenes, the real surprise was RJ Mitte, a good performer who’s never given more to do on Breaking Bad than eat breakfast in Skyler’s kitchen and dinner at Uncle Hank’s (Dean Norris) crib. Other than Saul, Junior is the show’s most underused character, so it was nice to see Mitte receive some legitimate scenes with Cranston, and he delivered all-around.

Now that Walt’s relationship with Jesse is on the rocks, it’s clear that Walt feels as if he’s lost a son; hearing him call Junior “Jesse” is all the sign we need that Walt cares deeply for Jesse, even if their interactions are hardly ever warm. They’ve worked so closely together as meth cooks that Jesse has taken precedence over Junior in Walt’s life; it’s good to see the team behind Breaking Bad devoting time to that fatherly disconnect. But don’t be surprised if Junior’s back to eating breakfast the next time we see him. And don’t think it’s not a clever wink-wink to those who question Mitte’s limited role on the show that Junior’s choice for a birthday meal is, that’s right, breakfast over lunch.

"Stop whining like a little bitch and do what I say."

Walt better spend more time with his real son, because Jesse’s loyalty now seems to officially be on Gus’ and Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) sides. Together, the three of them hop into a helicopter en route to Mexico, where Jesse is expected to cook Walt’s blue meth recipe without Mr. White’s input. It appears to be a peace-keeping tactic on Gus’ part, teaching the Mexican cartel’s own chemists how to cook the blue product in order to alleviate all tensions and give all a chance to pocket enormous funds.

And, once there, Jesse takes charge, ordering the cartel’s “bitch” chemist to whip up some phenylacetic acid. The Mexicans comply, Jesse attempts to cook the meth on his own, and the triumphant result is a batch that’s 96.2%. Gus and Mike are visibly pleased with how Jesse handles himself in the Mexican lab, as are the cartel’s present reps, one of whom informs Jesse that he now “belongs” to them. Meaning, he’s not going back to Albuquerque.

Jesse, understandably, isn’t thrilled by the news, but Mike reassures him that, “Either we’re all going home or none of us are.” He says this on the side of cartel head Don Eladio’s (Steven Bauer, of Scarface fame) lavish pool, the same location where, in 1989, Eladio’s boys executed Gus’ then-partner, Max Arciniega (James Martinez) seen in the wicked flashback at the end of “Hermanos.” Staring at the pool, Gus is back where his close friend was shot dead; watching Gus eye down the water even as Eladio sends thong-wearing hotties to entertain his houseguests, including Jesse and Eladio’s capos, it’s obvious that his smiles and friendliness toward Eladio aren’t genuine.

Neither is the gift he gives the don, a bottle of pristine Zafiro Añejo tequila that Eladio distributes to all his party guests, as well as Gus, who, minutes prior to gulping the hard liquor, downed a pill. Eladio pours a shot for Jesse, but Gus informs their host that Jesse’s an addict and “needs to be sober” in order to cook. That’s not the real reason why Gus prevents Jesse from sipping, though; as Gus heads to the shitter and forces himself to vomit, Eladio and all of his men drop dead—their drinks were poisoned by Gus, in yet another incredibly badass move for Mr. Gustavo Fring. Just like that, Gus wipes out his competition's top men and gets his revenge for Max's slaughter, but the poison’s effects weren’t totally cleaned out in the bathroom, and Gus begins to stumble similar to how Eladio did before his lifeless body toppled over into the pool.

With Gus dying in their arms, Jesse and Mike lug him to the driveway and dump him their car’s back seat. And then Mike takes a bullet to the chest from a rogue cartel gunman, whom Jesse lights up like he did the Rage video game baddies at the beginning of “Problem Dog.” It’s a cliffhanger worthy of a season finale’s closing moments: Jesse speeding off in a car as both Gus and Mike slowly inch towards death in the passenger- and back-seats.

And, yes, there are still three episodes left this season. It’s looking more and more like Gus’ final stand, though we’ll be sad to see the man go—seeing him casually walk into Don Eladio’s bathroom, calmly take off his blazer, fold it and place it gently on the sink, lay out a towel to kneel on, and methodically stick his finger down his throat, we see TV’s most refined sociopath at work. There’s been fine acting on all fronts throughout Breaking Bad’s increasingly superb fourth season, but Giancarlo Esposito’s work leaves no mystery as to who currently holds the show’s MVP title.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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