Director: Scott Winant
Writers: George Mastras, Sam Catlin
Walter White's best lines of dialogue are all cocksure. "I am the danger." "I'm the one who knocks." "Say my name." And, in response to whether or not he's the enigmatic Heisenberg, "You're goddamn right." He's great at playing the supreme badass—or at least trying to play that role as well as he can, even though we, the viewers, have always known that, deep down, he's a meek schoolteacher. To acknowledge series creator Vince Gilligan's original Breaking Bad character arc pitch, Walt's really Mr. Chips, not Scarface.
How do we know as much? Because we've seen him at his absolute lowest point. We've seen him in a state of terror that'd be foreign to Tony Montana. We've seen Walt deathly scared, his back against the wall, on the verge of certain fatality, and helpless against the cruel ironies and sick jokes delivered to him by fate. That moment occurs in "Crawl Space," the Breaking Bad episode where Walter White is figuratively lowered into a cold, lonely coffin.
Standing above that coffin is Gus Fring, the drug kingpin who, at this point in Breaking Bad's superlative fourth season, is the king piece to Walt's rook. Through a series of dangerous tests and strategic mind games, Gus has instilled in Jesse enough confidence to make him think that maybe, just maybe, he's capable of running Gus' lab on his own. Still, Jesse doesn't want to see Mr. White die, and he's willing to declare that he won't cook if Walt's harmed. "Don't kill him," Jesse pleads with his boss, eliciting Fring's response of, "That won't work." In "Crawl Space," even more so than in his previous episodes, Gus is unflinchingly heartless. There's not a chance in hell that he's going to spare Walt.
And, boy, does Walt know it. "Crawl Space" finds Emmy-winning actor Bryan Cranston at his most vulnerable. Not a scene goes by where Cranston's portrayal of Walt is anything less than frantically terrified. In his stakeouts with his handicapped DEA agent brother-in-law Hank, Walt's constantly asking the same questions in regards to Hank's investigation into Gus Fring's meth operation: "Anything suspicious?" "Any cartel news these days?" "Should we go home?" His paranoia boils over once Hank informs him that the investigation is now focusing on an "industrial laundry" facility owned by a company named Madrigal, the same company that owns Gus Fring's Los Pollos Hermanos chicken chain. You can see the panic washing over Walt's rapidly aging face. It's front and center when he purposely drives right past the launderette's entrance, and it's heightened as he lets an oncoming car smash into his vehicle. The result: Hank is laid up with another injury, making him look like one of those dogs who's not allowed "to lick its own balls." Desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures.
Walt's scaredy pants get even tighter once he's back in the meth lab, where he notices that his materials have been used. "Someone cooked here?" he asks Gus' silent, no-fucks-given henchman Victor. He knows the clock is ticking. He's been made expendable. That realization prompts a visit to Jesse, leading to one of the Breaking Bad's best Aaron Paul/Bryan Cranston acting throw-downs.
"He's going to use you to replace me," Walt says to Jesse, his body language all but screaming for someone to save his life. "He's going to kill me!" But finally, after three seasons' worth of willingly letting Walt get over on him, Jesse stands up for himself: "Last time I asked for your help, you said, 'I hope you end up buried in a barrel in a Mexican desert.'" With a defiant push to Walt's chest, Jesse leaves him alone on the front lawn to process the fact that now even Jesse abandoned his corner. Before any more tears can flow down his weathered cheeks, though, there's Tyrus (Ray Campbell), jabbing a stun-gun into Walt's ribs, knocking him out.
What happens next is a scene that, if it'd played out like it very easily could have, would have one-upped the Ned Stark beheading on HBO's Game of Thrones in the holy-shit-I-can't-believe-that-just-happened department.
Walt comes to in a vast desert, on his knees, a black bag over his head, his arms tied behind his back. Out of a nearby car steps Gus Fring. "You are done. Fired.... Stay away from Pinkman," he says. Walt gives his confidence one last jolt by telling Gus that he's afraid to kill him because he knows that'd make Jesse refuse to cook. And just as Walt starts talking, the episode's director, Scott Winant, switches to an extreme long shot of the men in the desert—the hot, radiant sun is covered by a cloud, darkening the location for the short duration of Walt's last-ditch effort to save himself. As the light returns, so does Gus' upper hand. Unconvinced by what Walt's just said, Gus is going to "deal with" Hank, and if Walt tries to stop him, he's going to kill the entire White family, including "your infant daughter."
With his family's safety in jeopardy, there's only one thing for Walt to do: Better call Saul. Well, technically, he doesn't pick up a phone—rather, he bumrushes the sleazy lawyer's office as Saul's chastising his "A-team" of paid assassins for bungling a job. A job which infuses the overall oppressively bleak "Crawl Space" with a much-needed moment of hilarious dark comedy. Saul's "A-team"—talkative hitman Kudy (Bill Burr) and his silent, rotund colleague, Huell (Lavell Crawford)—show up at Skyler White's in-debt side-piece Ted Beneke's (Christopher Cousins) house, on Skyler's dime, to make him write out a $617,226.31 check to the IRS in order to pay off his debt and prevent any potential audits. After he signs the check, that poor son-of-a-bitch Ted tries to make a run for it, but trips over a rug's raised lip and smashes headfirst into a dresser. Lights out. Cue the uncomfortable laughs from the viewers at home.
Laughing at Ted's misfortune is highly advised—the closing 10 minutes of "Crawl Space" bring Breaking Bad full-throttle into the depths of traumatizing psychological horror.
Walt begs Saul to call the guy who can "disappear" he and his family, even if it costs half-a-million dollars in cash. "You're a high-risk client," says Saul. "You're gonna need the deluxe service!" As far as Walt's concerned, money doesn't matter—keeping his family does. He rushes back home to collect that $500,000 from the stashes of bills kept in his basement, accessible through, that's right, a crawl space. The sequence's soundtrack, composed by Dave Porter, ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels—the tribal heartbeat-like bass gets the pulse raising, right before the sweeping, early-'80s-John-Carpenter-on-speed score turns equal parts mesmerizing and chilling. The viewer's face no doubt mirrors that of Skyler, whose reaction to what's about to happen to Walt makes a deer in headlights resemble a horse approaching a haystack.
"Crawl Space" ends with Bryan Cranston playing the creepiest looney-tune imaginable. He's just learned that the bulk of his meth earnings have been given to Ted Beneke, courtesy of Skyler. Meaning, yes, he's screwed. Saul's "disappear" man is now unaffordable. Mr. Fate is happy. And all Walt can do is run the gamut of scared-shitless emotions in a matter of seconds. First, the loud, primal scream. Next, the sobbing. Lastly, and most incredibly, a fit of maniacal, batshit-crazy laughter that sounds like a mental patient's reaction to the world's most demented "knock, knock" joke.
"Crawl Space" director Scott Winant ends the episode on just that: Walt's uncontrollable laughter, a surge of mirth so powerful that his face turns bright red, as if it's one blood vessel away from popping. The camera slowly pans upward and away from the crawl space, framing Walt inside an already tiny box that only grows smaller as the camera moves further away—just as the hole Walt's dug for himself and his family members keeps getting deeper and deeper.
It's a mean-spirited but totally justifiable visual punchline. One that—as delivered by Scott Winant, episode writers George Mastras and Sam Catlin, and Breaking Bad mastermind Vince Gilligan—brilliantly concludes the altogether nerve-shaking "Crawl Space." Mr. Fate would approve. —Matt Barone